54. The craft of poetry and the way of learning it.



This discipline is one of the disciplines connected with Arab speech. (The Arabs) call it "poetry" (shi'r). It exists in all the other languages. Here, however, we speak only about Arabic poetry. It is possible that the speakers of other languages, too, find in (poetry) the things they desire to express in their speech. 1438 However, each language has its own particular laws concerning eloquence. 1439

(Poetry) in the Arabic language is remarkable in (its) manner and powerful in (its) way. It is speech that is divided into cola having the same meter and held together by the last letter of each colon. Each of those cola is called a "verse." The last letter, which all the verses (of a poem) have in common, is called the "rhyme letter." The whole complex is called a "poem" (qasidah or kalimah). Each verse, with its combinations of words, is by itself a meaningful unit. In a way, it is a statement by itself, and independent of what precedes and what follows. By itself it makes perfect sense, either as a laudatory or an erotic (statement), or as an elegy. It is the intention of the poet to give each verse an independent meaning. Then, in the next verse, he starts anew, in the same way, with some other (matter). He changes over from one (poetical) type to another, and from one topic to another, by preparing the first topic and the ideas expressing it in such a way that it becomes related to the next topic. Sharp contrasts are kept out of the poem. The poet thus continuously changes over from the erotic to the laudatory (verses). From a description of the desert and the traces of abandoned camps, he changes over to a description of camels on the march, or horses, or apparitions (of the beloved in a dream). From a description of the person to be praised, he changes over to a description of his people and his army. From (an expression of) grief and condolence in elegies, he changes over to praise of the deceased, and so on. Attention is paid to retaining the same meter throughout the whole poem, in order to avoid one's natural inclination to pass from one meter to another, similar one. Since (the meters) are similar (to each other), many people do not notice (the need to retain the same meter).

The meters are governed by certain conditions and rules. They are the subject of the science of prosody. Not every meter that may occur in nature was used by the Arabs in poetry. The (meters used) are special ones called meters (buhur) by the prosodists, who restricted their number to fifteen, indicating that they did not find the Arabs using other natural meters in poetry.

It should be known that the Arabs thought highly of poetry as a form of speech. Therefore, they made it the archive of their sciences and their history,1440 the evidence for what they considered right and wrong, and the principle basis of reference for most of their sciences and wisdom. The poetical habit was firmly established in them, like all their other habits. The (Arabic) linguistic habits can be acquired only through technical (skill) and (constant) practice of (Arab) speech. Eventually, some sign 1441 of the (poetical) habit may be obtained.

Of the forms of speech, poetry is a difficult thing for modem people to learn, if they want to acquire the habit of it through (study of it as) a technique. Each verse is an inde­pendent statement of meaning suitable for (quotation) by itself. It requires a kind of refinement of the (poetical) habit, for the (poet) to be able to pour poetical speech into molds suitable to this tendency of Arabic poetry (to have verses that are units by themselves). A poet must produce (a verse that) stands alone, and then make another verse in the same way, and again another, and thus go through all the different topics suitable to the thing he wants to express. Then, he establishes harmony among the verses as they follow upon each other in accordance with the different topics occurring in the poem.

(Poetry) is difficult in its tendency and strange in its subject matter. Therefore, it constitutes a severe test of a person's natural talent, if he wants to have a good knowledge of (poetical) methods.1442 (The desire) to press speech into the molds of (poetry) sharpens the mind. (Possession of) the Arabic linguistic habit in general does not suffice. In particular, a certain refinement is needed, as well as the exercise of a certain skill in observing the special poetic methods which the Arabs used.

Let us mention the significance of (the word) "method" (uslub) as used by (poets), and what they mean by it. 1443

It should be known that they use it to express the loom on which word combinations are woven, or the mold into which they are packed. 1444 It is not used to express the basis (upon which) the meaning (of a statement rests). That is the task of the vowel endings. It also is not used for perfect ex­pression of the idea resulting from the particular word combination used. That is the task of eloquence and style (bayan).1445 It also is not used in the sense of meter, as employed by the Arabs in (connection with poetry. That is the task of prosody. These three sciences fall outside the craft of poetry.

(Poetical method) is used to refer to a mental form for metrical word combinations which is universal in the sense of conforming with any 1446 particular word combination. This form is abstracted by the mind from the most prominent individual word combinations and given a place in the imagination comparable to a mold or loom. Word combinations that the Arabs consider sound, in the sense of having the (correct) vowel endings and the (proper) style, are then selected and packed by (the mind) into (that form), just as the builder does with the mold, or the weaver with the loom. Eventually, the mold is sufficiently widened to admit the word combinations that fully express what one wants to express. It takes on the form that is sound in the sense (that it corresponds to) the Arabic linguistic habit.

Each branch of (poetical) speech has methods peculiar to it and existing in it in different ways. Thus, in poetry the subject of inquiring after the traces of abandoned camps is treated in the form of direct address. For instance:

O house of Mayyah on the height, and the cliff. 1447

Or, it is treated in the form of inviting one's (traveling) companions to stop and inquire. For instance:

Stop you two, and let us inquire about the house whose inhabitants left so suddenly.1448

Or, it is treated in the form of asking one's (traveling) companions to weep for the abandoned camp. For instance:

Stop you two, and let us weep in remembrance of a beloved and an encampment.1449

Or, it is treated in the form of asking about the answer given to an unspecified addressee. For instance:

Did you not ask, and the traces informed you? 1450

Or, for instance, the traces of abandoned camps are greeted by commanding an unspecified addressee to greet them. For instance:

Greet the houses near al-'Azl.1451

Or, (they are greeted) in the form of praying for rain for them. For instance:

Let a pouring rain water the traces of their abandoned camps,

And let them be covered by luxuriant verdure. 1452

Or, (they are greeted) in the form of asking the lightning to give them rain. For instance:

O lightning, look out over an encampment in al-Abraq

And drive the clouds there, just as she-camels are driven. 1453

Or, for instance, in an elegy grief is expressed in the form of asking (people) to weep. For instance:

So be it. Let the matter be described and treated as an odious one.

There is no excuse for an eye whose tears are not shed. 1454

Or, (it is expressed) in the form of stressing the im­portance of the happening. For instance:

Did you see whom they carried by on wooden boards?

Did you see how the light of the (tribal) council went out? 1455

Or, (it is expressed) in the form of stating that (all) cre­ated things are destined to misfortune because of the loss (of the mourned person). For instance:

Verdant pastures! (You have) no protector and guardian.

Death took away the (warrior) with the long lance and the great power. 1456

Or, (it is expressed) in the form of expressing disapproval of the lifeless objects that show no grief, as in the verse of the Kharijite (poetess):

O trees of the Khabur! What is the matter with you that you are green,

As if you were feeling no grief for Ibn Tarif 1457

Or, (it is expressed) in the form of congratulating the adversary of (the deceased), that he can now rest from the force of (the deceased's) onslaught. For instance:

Rabi'ah b. Nizar, lay down (your) lances.

Death took away your adversary, who was always going on raids. 1458

There are many similar things in all branches and ways of (poetical) speech.

Word combinations in (poetry) may or may not be sentences. They may be commands or statements, nominal sentences or verbal sentences, followed by appositions or not followed by appositions, separate or connected, as is the case with the word combinations of Arabic speech and 1459 the position of individual words in respect to each other. This teaches a person the universal mold which he can learn through (constant) practice in Arabic poetry. (This universal mold) is an abstraction in the mind derived from specific word combinations, to all of which the (universal) mold conforms. The 1460 author of a spoken utterance is like a builder or weaver. The proper mental form is like the mold used in building, or the loom used in weaving. The builder who abandons his mold, or the weaver who abandons his loom, is unsuccessful.

It should not be said that knowledge of the rules of eloquence suffices in this respect. We say: They are merely basic scientific rules which are the result of analogical rea­soning and which indicate by means of analogical reasoning that the word combinations may be used in their particular forms. We have here scientific analogical reasoning that is sound and coherent, as is the analogical reasoning that establishes the rules concerning the vowel endings. (But) the (poetical) methods which we try to establish here have nothing to do with analogical reasoning. They are a form that is firmly rooted in the soul. It is the result of the continuity of word combinations in Arabic poetry when the tongue uses them. Eventually, the form of (those word combinations) becomes firmly established. It teaches (the poet) the use of similar (word combinations). (It teaches him) to imitate them for each word combination (that he may use) in the poetry (he produces), just as we have mentioned before in connection with speech in general.1461

The scientific rules that govern the word endings or 1462 syntax and style (bayan) do not teach (poetry). Not everything that is correct according to analogical reasoning, as used in connection with Arabic speech and the scientific (grammatical) rules, is used by (poets). They use certain ways (of expressing themselves) which are known and studied by those who have expert knowledge of (poetical) speech and the forms of which fall (automatically) under those analogical rules. If Arabic poetry is to be studied under this aspect and under the aspect of the methods in the mind that are like molds (for poetical expression), it means studying word combinations as they are used by the (Arabs). It does not mean studying the things required by analogical reasoning.

Therefore, we have stated that the molds in the mind are the result of expert knowledge of Arab poetry and speech. Such molds exist not only for poetry but also for prose. The Arabs used their speech for both (poetry and prose), and they used certain types of divisions for both kinds of speech. In poetry, these are metrical cola, fixed rhymes, and the fact that each colon constitutes a statement by itself. In prose, as a rule, (the Arabs) observed symmetry and parallelism between the cola. Sometimes, they used prose rhymes, and sometimes straight prose. 1463 The molds for each kind of (expression) are well known in Arabic.

The author of a spoken utterance builds his utterance in (the molds) used by (the Arabs). They are known only to those who have expert knowledge of (Arabic) speech, such that in their minds they have an absolute universal mold, which is the result of abstraction from specific individual molds. They use (that universal mold) as their model in composing utterances, just as builders use the mold as their model, and weavers the loom. The discipline of speech composition, therefore, differs from the studies of the grammarian, the stylist (literary critic), and the prosodist. It is true, though, that observance of the rules of those sciences is obligatory for and indispensable to (the poet).

When all these qualities together are found to apply to a spoken utterance, it is distinguished by a subtle kind of insight into those molds which are called "methods." Only expert knowledge of both Arab poetry and Arab prose gives (that insight).

Now that the meaning of "method" is clear, let us give a definition or description of poetry that will make its real meaning clear to us.1464 This is a difficult task, for, as far as we can see, there is no such definition by any older (scholar). The definition of the prosodists, according to whom (poetry) is metrical rhymed speech, 1465 is no definition or description of the kind of poetry we have in mind. Prosody considers poetry only 1466 under the aspect of the agreement of the verses (of a poem), with respect to the number of successive syllables with and without vowels, 1467 as well as with respect to the similarity of the last foot of the first hemistich of the verses of a poem to the last foot of the second hemistich. This concerns meter alone and has nothing to do with the words and their meaning. (The definition of the prosodists mentioned) can serve as a definition (of poetry) for them. But as we look at poetry, as including vowel endings, eloquence, meter, and special molds (of expression peculiar to poetry), there can be no doubt that the definition of (the prosodists) is not a valid (definition of poetry) for us. We must have a definition that will give us the real meaning of poetry in our sense.

We say: Poetry is eloquent speech built upon metaphoric usage and descriptions; divided into cola agreeing in meter and rhyme letter, each colon being independent in purpose and meaning from what comes before and after it; and using the methods of the Arabs peculiar to it.

The phrase "eloquent speech" in our definition takes the place of genus. (The phrase) "built upon metaphoric usage and descriptions" differentiates (poetry) from (eloquent speech), which does not have that (and which must be differentiated) because it is mostly not poetry. The phrase "divided into cola agreeing in meter and rhyme letter" differentiates (poetry) from the (kind of) prose speech that nobody would consider poetry. The phrase "each colon being independent in purpose and meaning from what comes before and after it" explains the real character of (poetry), because the verses of poetry can be only this way. This does not differentiate (poetry) from other things. 1468 The phrase "using the methods . . . peculiar to it" differentiates (poetry) from (speech) that does not use the well-known methods of poetry.1469 Without them, it would not be poetry but merely poetical speech, because poetry has special methods which prose does not have. Likewise, prose has methods which do not apply to poetry. Rhymed speech that does not use those methods is not poetry. It was in this sense that most of the professors of literature whom we have met were of the opinion that the rhymes of al-Mutanabbi' and al-Ma'arri are by no means poetry, because these (two men) did not follow Arab poetical methods. 1470

The phrase in (our) definition, "using the methods of the Arabs . . ." differentiates it from the poetry of non-Arab, nations. (This is) for those who are of the opinion that poetry exists both among Arabs and among other (people).1471 (On the other hand,) those who are of the opinion that poetry exists only among the Arabs would not need the phrase. They might say instead: "using the methods peculiar to it" (omitting the words "of the Arabs").

Having finished with the discussion of the real character of poetry, we shall now return to the discussion of how poetry is produced. We say: It should be known that the production of poetry and the laws governing the (poetical) craft are subject to a number of conditions. The first condition is to have an expert knowledge of its genus-that is, the genus of Arabic poetry. (This is the thing) that eventually creates a habit in the soul upon which, as on a loom, (the poet is able) to weave. The material for memorizing should be selected from the most genuine and purest and most varied (poetry), 1472 The selection, at the least, should comprise the poetry of outstanding Muslim poets such as Ibn Abi Rabi'ah, 1473 Kuthayyir, 1474 Dhu r-Rummah, 1475 Jarir, 1476 Abu Nuwas, 1477 Habib (Abu Tammam), 1478 al-Buhturi,1479 ar­Radi,1480 and Abu Firas.1481 Most of the material would come from the Kitab al-Aghani, because it is a collection of all Muslim poetry and the choicest pre-Islamic poetry.1482

The poetry of poets who have no expert knowledge of (the old poetical material) is inferior and bad. Brilliance and sweetness is given to poetry only with the help of memorized knowledge of much (old poetical material). Those who know little or nothing of it cannot (produce) any (real) poetry: They merely produce bad rhymes. They would do better to keep away from poetry.

After the poet is saturated with memorized (poetical material) and has sharpened his talent, in order to be able to follow the great examples, 1483 he proceeds to make rhymes himself. Through more and more (practice), the habit of (rhyme making) becomes firmly established and rooted (in him).

It is often said that one of the conditions governing (poetical production) is to forget the memorized material, so that its external literal forms will be wiped out (of the memory), since they prevent the real use of (the poetical habit). 1484 After the soul has been conditioned by them, and they are forgotten, the method (of poetry) is engraved upon the (soul), as though it were a loom upon which similar such words can be woven as a matter of course.

The poet, then, needs solitude. The place he looks at should be a beautiful one with water and flowers. He like­wise needs music. He must stir up 1485 his talent by refreshing it 1486 and stimulate it through pleasurable joy.1487

In addition to the (afore-mentioned) conditions, there is another. The (poet) must be rested and energetic. This makes him more collected and is better for his talent, so that he is able to create a loom similar to that which is in his memory. It has been said: "The best time for it is in the morning right after waking up, when the stomach is empty and the mind energetic, and in the atmosphere of the bath." 1488 It has (also) often been said: "Stimuli to poetry are love and drunk­enness." This was mentioned by Ibn Rashiq in the Kitab al-' Umdah.1489 The 'Umdah is especially devoted to poetry and has given it its due. No work on poetry like it 1490 has been written either before or since. (Then too,) it has been said: "If (the poet) finds it difficult (to make a poem) after all that, he should leave it for another time. He should not force himself to do it."

(The poet) should have the rhyme (in mind), when the verse is first given shape and form. He should set it down and build (his) speech on it all the way through to the end, be­cause, if the poet neglects to have the rhyme (in mind) when he makes a verse, it may be difficult for him to get the rhyme into its proper place, for it often is loose and unstable. If a verse is satisfactory but does not fit in its context, (the poet) should save it for a place more fitting to it. Every verse is an independent unit, and all that is to be done is to fit (the verse into the context of the poem). Therefore, (the poet) may choose to do in this respect whatever he wishes.

After a poem is finished, (the poet) should revise it carefully and critically. He should not hesitate to throw it away, if it is not good enough. Every man is fond of his own poetry, since it is a product of his mind and a creation of his talent.

(The poet) should use only the most correct word com­binations and a language free from all (poetic) license, since 1491 the (use of it) is a defect as far as the linguistic habit is concerned. He should avoid it, because it might deprive (his) speech of eloquence. The leading authorities forbade the later-born (poets) 1492 to use (poetic) license, since by avoiding it they might be able to obtain the most exemplary (linguistic) habit. (The poet) should also keep away, as much as he can, from involved word combinations. He should try to use only those whose meaning can be understood more quickly than the (individual) words they contain. 1493 The same applies to putting too many ideas into one verse, which make it somewhat complicated to understand. The choicest (verse) is the one whose words conform to the ideas (it contains) or are more copious (than the ideas). If there are many ideas, the verse becomes crowded. The mind examines the (ideas) and is distracted. As a result, (the listener's literary) taste is prevented from fully understanding, as it should, the elo­quence (of the verse). 1494 A poem is easy only when its ideas are more quickly grasped by the mind than its words. Thus, our shaykhs used to criticize the poetry of the poet of eastern Spain, [Abu Bakr] b. Khafajah, 1495 for crowding too many ideas into one verse. They used also to criticize the poetry of al-Mutanabbi' and al-Ma'arri, because it does not follow the methods of the Arabs, as was mentioned before. 1496 Thus, the poetry of the (two men) was rhymed speech inferior to poetry. The judge in such matters is (one's) taste. 1497

The poet should also keep away from farfetched and pre­tentious words.1498 (He should) also (keep away) from vulgar words that become hackneyed through usage. (The use of such words) deprives the poem of eloquence. (He 1499 should) also (keep away) from ideas that have become hackneyed by being generally known. (Their use,) too, deprives the speech of eloquence. It becomes hackneyed and almost meaningless. For instance, such phrases as "The fire is hot" and "The heaven above us" (belong in this category). The closer a poem gets to being 'meaningless, the less can it claim to be eloquent, since (meaninglessness and eloquence) are (opposing) extremes. For this reason, poetry on mystical 1500 and prophetical subjects is not, as a rule, very good. Only the best poets are good in it, and (even they) only in small (portions of such poetry) and with great difficulty, because the ideas with which such poetry deals are generally known to the great mass and, thus, have become hackneyed.

If a person, after (observing) all (these conditions), (still) finds it impossible to produce poetry, he should (try and) practice it again and again, since talent is like an udder, giving milk only when it is milked, drying up and giving little milk 1501 when it is left alone and neglected.

In general, (the subject of) poetry and how to learn it is exhaustively treated in the Kitab al-'Umdah by Ibn Rashiq. We have mentioned (such information) on poetry available to us, as far as we were able. Those who would like to study the subject exhaustively must turn to the ('Umdah). It contains all one could wish. (Our remarks) should suffice to give an idea. God gives support.

People have written poems dealing with poetry and its requirements. The following poem, which, I believe, is by Ibn Rashiq, is among the best statements made on the subject: 1502

God curse poetry! How many

Kinds of stupid poets have we met!

They prefer strange (expressions) to what

Would be easy and clear to the listener.

They consider the absurd a sound idea,

And vile speech something precious.

They ignore what is right in (poetry).

On account of (their) ignorance, they do not know that they are ignorant.

Not we, but others, blame them.

We, in fact, find them excusable.

Poetry is that which is harmonious in its rhymes,

Even if in (its) descriptions, it is varied.

Each part of it has the same form as the other parts.

Front and back have come to be alike in it.

Every idea in a (poem) comes to you as you

Wish it would be, if it were not. It has attained such great beauty of style that

Its beauty comes close to being clear to those who look (at it).

Its words are like faces,

And the ideas contained in it are (their) eyes.

It fulfills all the wishes one might have.

Those who recite it are adorned 1503 with its beauty.

When you praise a noble free man in a poem,

You should set out to be as profuse as anyone.

You should make the nasib easy and to the point.

You should make the laudatory (part) truthful and clear.

You should avoid whatever might not be nice to hear,

Even if it is properly put metrically.

When you satirize him,

You should consider the ways of those who use gross language blameworthy. 1504

You should consider frank statement in (satire) medicine.

Recourse to allusions you should consider a hidden illness.

Whenever in (a poem) you lament those who will one day soon

Depart, and the women who are carried away (in their litters),

You should suppress (your) grief, You should subdue

The tears that are stored up in (your) eyes. 1504a

And when you express censure (of a friend), you should mingle promises

With threats, and harshness with gentleness.

Thus you will leave the person whom you censure

Wary as well as assured, strong as well as weak.

The soundest poetry is that which is outstanding in 1505 poetical

(Form), clear and transparent.

When recited, it must make everyone desirous (of producing something similar),

And when one wishes to make a (poem like it), this must be found impossible.

The same subject is also dealt with in the following verses of a poet an-Nashi: 1506

Poetry is (a thing) the crookedness of whose front you have straightened out,

And the belt of whose back you have tightened through careful revision,

The cracks in which you have repaired 1507 through profuseness,

And whose half-blind eyes you have opened through conciseness,

The near and remote parts of which you have gathered together,

And whose stagnant (well water) and spring water you have united,

And in which you have provided, wherever required, l508

(Like with) like, and counterpart with counterpart.

If you praise in a (poem) a noble, generous person,

And repay with gratitude all the debts due him,

You should present him with what is (most) precious and grave (in poetry)

And distinguish him with what is important and valuable (in it).

Thus, (poetry) should be generous in the use of its various types,

And easy (to understand) in the (general) agreement of its various branches.

If in (a poem) you lament dwelling places and the people who lived there,

You should make the grieved person to shed the water of the sutures of his skull.1509

If you want to hint at something dubious,

You should leave the matter midway between clear and cryptic.

Thus you make the person who hears it mingle his doubts

With clarity, and his conjectures with certainty.

If you censure a friend because of a slip,

You should cover the severity of censure with gentleness.

Thus, you will leave him civilized by mildness,

Reassured in the face of 1510 his sadness and grievances.

(But) if you want to attack the (girl) you love,

When she breaks with you, with seductive (poetry),1511

You should (try to) enslave her with fine and subtle (verses)

And inflame her with (their) concealed and hidden (meanings).

If you would apologize for a mistake you (yourself) have made,

You should go at it (with verses somewhere) between fanciful and clear.

Thus, your sin will turn out in the eyes of him who is affected by (your poetry),

To be a censure of himself obliging him to swear (that he did nothing wrong).1512