Adonis

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Pseudonym for Ali Ahmad Said Isbir
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May 20, 2003
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 Adonis
Adonis © William Strauch

Article

Arab poet and cosmopolitan

The Syrian Adonis - an innovative poet and excellent reciter

Born in 1930, the Syrian Adonis is said to be one of the founders of modern Arab poetry, of which he has been one of the leading exponents since the 60s. In his poetry and essays he has tried to create a specifically Arab and Islamic kind of modernism. His transformation of Islamic values recalls Nietzsche’s of Christian values but is due to no western influence but to Islamic heresy. His poems can be appreciated by Arab and western readers alike, and he is also excellent at recitation.
Poets have always been good and sometimes cheeky at inventing pen-names, and this is certainly true of Ali Ahmad Said, who was born in 1930 in a village in northern Syria as the son of a farmer. At the age of 17 he chose as his pen-name Adonis. The newspapers and magazines to which he had been sending poems under his own name had shown no interest, but as soon as he sent poems under his spectacular pen-name, they were accepted. Since then, Ali Ahmad Said has been known as Adonis.

But the choice of this name was more than an exercise in public relations: it also had a programmatic aspect, since in antique mythology Adonis was a god of fruitfulness, and Ali Ahmad Said wanted the dry remains of Arab culture to blossom and bear fruit again. Indeed he has succeeded in reviving them more than has any other Arab poet.

In Beirut at the end of the 50s, together with other young poets, Adonis founded the avant-garde literary magazine Poetry, which offered a forum to all poets wishing to escape the formal strictures and monotony of classical Arab versification. These poets made lasting use of the achievements of modern western poets like Rimbaud, Saint-John Perse and T. S. Eliot. Even today, these poets occur to a reader wishing to place Adonis in a tradition. But the fascination of Adonis’ poetry lies in his unique ability to blend western influences with the Arab tradition to create a personal lyrical style.

Adonis managed to for the first time in the collection entitled "The Songs of Mihyâr, the Damascan" (Beirut, 1961). Its poems are as moving as they are strange. On the one hand, they have the traditional themes of love, death, god and nature, but on the other hand, verse after verse, they draw the reader into a restless search for the place and orientation of the individual in the confusing modern world.

On having written more than 30 books, of which a dozen have been translated into French alone, Adonis has tirelessly continued on his poetic quest since "The Songs of Mihyâr, the Damascan." He now lives part of the time in Beirut and part in Paris, save when he accepts an invitation to lecture at a renowned university like Princeton. But wherever this cosmopolitan is, his poetry is still rooted in the Orient, as is known to whoever has been lucky enough to hear him reading it out. Hardly any other modern Arab poet has mastered the old art of recitation to the same extent, and it can be appreciated even without a knowledge of Arabic, since Adonis’ reading is so mellifluous that he immediately enchants his hearers. No one with a chance to hear him should ever neglect the opportunity.


Author: Stefan Weidner  

Bio

Adonis (arab. ’Adunis’) was born on 01.01.1930 as ‘Ali Ahmad Sa’id Isbir in Qassabin, a village in the Syrian Alavite mountains near the port Lattakia. At first he did not go to school, but his father, a farmer and an imam (cantor) of the village, gave him a traditional Arab Islamic education. Thanks to fortunate circumstances he was able to go to the École de la Mission Laïque Française in Tartus in 1944, then from 1947 to 1949 to a grammar school in Lattakia.

His first poems appeared in magazines in 1947 under the pen-name Adonis. In 1950 he began studying philosophy in Damascus and to support the Partie Populaire Syrien (PPS). The first thing published by him personally was the poem Dalila. In 1954 he completed his course of study with the Licence ès-lettre. From 1954 to 1956 he served in the army, including 11 months in jail for political activity. In 1956 he wed Halida Salih, who, as a literary academic, has since kept a critical eye on his production.

After his army service, Adonis went to Beirut in 1956 and worked as a teacher and a journalist. At the end of this year he joined the circle of writers associated with the avant-garde literary magazine Si‘r (Poetry), founded by Yusuf al-Hal and first published in the spring of 1957. From 1960 to 61 he spent a year in Paris with a grant from the French government. His literary breakthrough came in 1961 with the poetry collection ’Agani Mihyar ad-dimasqi (The Songs of Mihyâr, the Damascan).

In 1962 Adonis acquired the Lebanese nationality. After the last publication of Si’r in 1964, Adonis, who was not involved in its republication in 1968, founded the magazine Mavaqif (Standpoint). In 1971 he spent several weeks in the USA. In 1973 he took his doctorate at Beirut University with a study of the history of ideas: ,at-Tabit wal-mutahawwal (The Static and the Dynamic). He was then engaged as a lecturer at Beirut State University and at the Université de Saint-Joseph.

Despite the Lebanese civil war, which broke out in 1975, Adonis stayed mostly in Beirut till 1986. In 1980-81 he taught as a visiting lecturer at the university Censier Paris III, and in 1984 held four lectures on Arab poetry at the Collège de France. In 1986 he moved to Paris, where he is still living, and worked as a cultural advisor for the Arab delegation at UNESCO. From 1990 to 1993 he taught as visiting professor at the University in Geneva.

Works

Adonis: Selected Poems

Published Written,
2010
Yale University Press

Mihyar of Damascus: His Songs

Published Written,
2008
BOA Editions Ltd. Translated by Adnan Haydar, Michael Beard

Sufism and Surrealism

Published Written,
2005
Tanslated by Judith Cumberbatch. Saqi Books: London 2005

A time between ashes & roses

Published Written,
2004
Poems. Syracuse University Press: Syracuse, New York 2004

If only the sea could sleep : love poems

Published Written,
2003
Poems. London 2003

The Pages of Day and Night

Published Written,
1994
Essays.The Marlboro Press, Marlboro (trans. Samuel Hazo): not stated 1994

al-Sufiyah wa al-Suriyaliyah

Published Written,
1992
Not stated, London 1992

An Introduction to Arab Poetics (as-Si‘riyat al-‘arabiya)

Published Written,
1990
University of Texas Press, Austin (trans. Catherine Cobham)

Victims of a Map: A Bilingual Anthology of Arabic Poetry

Published Written,
1984
Poetry. Drama & Criticism. Al Saqi Books: London 1984

Transformations of the Lover

Published Written,
1982
Translated by S. Hazo. Ohio University Press: Ohio 1982

Mirrors

Published Written,
1976
TR Press: London (trans. Abdullah Al-Udhari) 1976

The Blood of Adonis

Published Written,
1971
Poems. University of Pittsburg Press: Pittsburg (trans. Samuel Hazo) 1971

Merits

1971 International Poetry Forum Award
1986 Grand Prix des Biennales Internationales de la Poésie
1991 Prix de Poèsie Jean Malrieu Étranger
1994 Prix de la Méditerranée
Nazim Hikmet Prize

Projects

This artist took part in the following project(s) organized/funded by the culturebase.net partner institutions.

Rethinking Europe

Debates, lectures, concerts, readings

(26 March 98 - 24 January 99)

Confess, writers from the Orient are greater!

(25 April 90 - 29 April 90)