Placing the Poet: Badr Shakir Al-Sayyab and Postcolonial Iraq

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Placing the Poet: Badr Shakir al-Sayyab and Postcolonial Iraq, by Terri DeYoung. New York: State University of New York Press, 1998. x + 264 pages. Notes to p. 314. Bibl. to p. 325. Index to p. 333. $24.95.

Reviewed by Wail Hassan

That much Arabic literature of the l9th and 20th centuries is written in direct response to European civilization hardly needs proof-from Rifa'a alTahtawi's Takhlis al-ibriz fi talkhis Paris (1834) to the anti-colonial "poetry of occasion" by Ahmad Shawqi, Hafiz Ibrahim, Muhammad Mahdi al-Jawahiri and others, to the fiction of Tawfiq al-Hakim, Taha Husayn, Yahya Haqqi, Suhayl Idris, and Tayeb Salih. Terri DeYoung's study of the major Iraqi poet, Badr Shakir al-Sayyab demonstrates the extent to which anti-colonial struggle informs the practice of scores of poets, even the formation of the various "movements" in modern Arabic poetry-those that revived the classical aesthetic, those that rebelled against it (poets associated with the Diwan and Apollo groups and other Arab romantics), and those "modernists" who have revolutionized the timehonored conventions of prosody. DeYoung not only situates Sayyab's poetry in the colonial context to which it properly belongs, but also rereads and reassesses, from comparative and post-colonial perspectives, the poetic tradition in which Sayyab occupies a central "place." This important book is the most thorough analysis of Sayyab's poetry in English; that alone would be a valuable contribution to the study of Arabic literature in the West. Yet the book is also the first sustained attempt to bring the insights of postcolonial studies in Anglo-American universities to bear upon the development of modern Arabic poetry.

The book is exemplary for the range of comparative analysis necessary to understand a poet like Sayyab: an avid reader and translator of European poetry, and an English major whose intimate knowledge of Milton, Wordsworth and Eliot-in addition to Homer, Dante, Lamartine, and others-played a major part in shaping his own poetry. While earlier critics have usually limited themselves to pointing out the presumably straightforward "influence" of Wordsworth on Sayyab's romantic phase and T.S. Eliot on his modernist poetry-a tendency that characterizes critical evaluation of other Arab poets tooDeYoung goes beyond such ultimately reductive readings which have tended to presuppose (and have, therefore, only succeeded in demonstrating) unproblematic "imitation" of European canonical poets. Instead, DeYoung inquires into the nature of influence and its anxieties not only for "belated" poets (in Harold Bloom's terms), but more importantly for anti-colonial poets for whom the antecedent European models represent the culture and values of the colonizers they actively resist. In Sayyab and other Arab and Third World writers, influence often manifests itself in what Mikhail Bakhtin calls "double-voiced" or dialogic intertextuality, which undermines the authority of the original models (European "master" narratives, forms and values), rather than being simple (or simple-minded) imitations thereof. …