The Modernists of Al Andalus

One of the consequences of adult caretakers trespassing you in boarding school is that you’re unlikely to trust the way anyone wants to teach you. So, when I discovered R.P. Blackmur all by myself in a bookstore, it felt like an act of rebellion. Fortunately I had happened on The Double Agent, his 1935 book of essays that introduced what came to be called the New Criticism. I understood none of this. I just liked what Blackmur had to say, which was that we should pay closer attention to the way things are said.

Just as haphazardly I later discovered I. A. Richards and then, much later, Blackmur’s disciple, A. Alvarez, whom I regard as sainted for the stringency with which he publishes his own poems. Years later I discovered Max Picard’s The World of Silence. With Blackmur, Richards, Alvarez and Picard, who needs the noisy Old Testament?

I was well on my way to being the kind of autodidact who can’t remember where he read anything but can’t forget having read it. Clearly not Ph.D. material. It’s hellish having a synergistic, alchemical streak imprisoned in an unannotatable mind, but everyone must endure a curse or two.

Blackmur comes to mind as I read Poems of Arab Andalusia, translated by Cola Franzen, and The Banners of the Champions. Blackmurian analysis draws me to conclude that just as the Arabs and Jews of Al Andalus gave voice and prosodic means to the troubadours, personified by William IX of Aquitaine they gave voice to such modernists as William Butler Yeats and William Carlos Williams.

Look at this:

Although you present perfect
musical soirees to entertain us
let’s get this straight:
the singers are flies,
the flute players mosquitoes
and the dancers fleas.

That’s the poem “Satire,” by Ibn Sharaf (d. 1068).

Now consider this, more than eight hundred years later:

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

It’s the famous “The Red Wheelbarrow,” 1962, by William Carlos Williams.

But his poetic demeanor in “The Red Wheelbarrow” is still redolent of Edwardian speech. Robert Lax is closer to modern speech:

the angel came to him & said
I’m sorry, mac, but
we talked it over
in heaven
& you’re going
to have to live
a thousand years

Very little punctuation, as in the Williams poem, lots of attention to placement, but also some street savvy. And get the use of those ampersands, which we’ve seen pervasively on shop signs and lawyers’ doors.

Some poetry translates into certain languages better than others. C. P. Cavafy (1863-1933), for example, has had a profound influence on English language poets even though he wrote in demotic Greek. Introducing Rae Dalven’s celebrated translation of Cavafy’s work in 1976, W. H. Auden remarked that Cavafy’s eschewal of metaphor and simile made his poems relatively easy to bring into modern English. For all his scholarly interests, this Greco-Alexandrian poet, with family ties to the Greek community in Istanbul, showed us how a poet who knew his history could write in an unadorned and conversational style. Cavafy showed us much more. His prosody has a classical purity that continually reminds us he was a Greek. And this purity of language and structure arrives in English in ways that have been exciting poets like Auden since they first encountered it. He was a humble civil servant who never published a book of poems in his lifetime. Instead, he circulated poems among a small circle of friends, preferring to reserve his energies for his poems.

Modernism isn’t just language, it’s sensibility, and the distance between the medieval poets of Al Andalus and Robert Lax is closed in an instant once you savor the directitude of those Andalusian poets. You see that, much as they loved the Quadalquiver Valley and the caliph’s garden at Al Zahra, they would have made themselves at home in Marin County or the Hudson Valley.

A great deal of fancy language was spoken and written in the centuries between medieval Al Andalus and William Butler Yeats, but modernism always depends on what needs to be modernized. Modernist poetry doesn’t happen in a vacuum. The Andalusians were opening new periods in medicine, mathematics, horticulture, translation, finance and many other disciplines. Like their lancers before them in Provence, they were moving fast. And the modernists of the 20th Century were leaping forward in science, psychology, medicine, weaponology and other fields.

In both periods the poetry expresses a mercurial terseness, an economy of line and intellect, demotic speech and a sure handedness. But parallels will mislead if drawn too persuasively. The Andalusians were accustomed to bloodshed within and along their frontiers, but it was nothing like the carnage of the 20th Century. Yeats, with whom English language modernism may be said to have begun, witnessed the breathtaking nihilism of World War I and lived long enough to be certain worse was yet to come. (I think it needs to be said that modernist poetry was stirring in France even earlier, and the British, if not the North Americans, were certainly aware of it.)

We know that the Arabs who crossed the Strait of Gibraltar, named for one of their generals, Tariq, spoke much the same language as the Arabs who had burst out of Arabia less than a century earlier under the spell of the heavenly language of the Qur’an.

We know our language is studded with Arabic words—perhaps half the stars in the heavens have Arabic names. And we know that poetry was so meaningful to them that it’s impossible to imagine any of their achievements in militarism, in medicine, chemistry, science or mathematics without poetry. Their approach to poetry was identical to their approach to chemistry. They made no distinction between poetry and everyday life. They saw no conflict between hermeticism and scientific progress, the way we in the West do today. Their constructs were more fluid and elegant than ours, and we have no basis for believing their synergistic approach impeded them.

In spite of C.P. Cavafy’s strophic inclinations, I see clear Andalusian traces in his work. The simplicity of speech, the use of vernacular, the quickness of sensibility—all Andalusian traits. And in Yeats, in spite of the Gaelic overtones, there is the voice of the troubadour, the impulse to speak of simple things, ordinary things, which is so much the modernist signature.

The Arabs—also called Moors and Saracens—who invaded Iberia and fashioned first a magical caliphate at Cordoba and later memorable taifas (kingdoms) throughout Al Andalus—were known for their advanced steel weapons, light mail, light cavalry, long lances and speed, and all these aspects of their presence show up in their poetry.

But there is something else—flashing briefly here in Ibn Sharaf and William Carlos Williams—a sense of wonderment. These Arabs profoundly appreciated their Al Andalus, their garden, as Williams humbly appreciated his red wheelbarrow.

Perhaps even more interesting, while Al Andalus nurtured this modernist respect for small and ordinary things—a sunlit stream compared to a white hand loosening a green robe, for example—this civilization also savored and developed the most cosmic of ideas: higher mathematics, astronomy, alchemy, physics, for example.

It was the Normans among all the Europeans who most appreciated the great heritage that the Arabs would leave Europe. Roger of Palermo wrote to his cousin, Henri Plantagenet, that Arab mathematicians from Iberia could probably help him design a banking system: thus the British exchequer. The Normans, who had been demonized themselves, knew better than to demonize the Saracens. Instead they used them and their advances for their own purposes.

The Franks, to whom the troubadour tradition passed intact and who vastly enhanced it, did not learn from the Saracens as readily. At Tours they celebrated a great victory over the Saracens, a tidal victory, if we are to believe the Christian historians, failing to note that the Saracens did not have the logical wherewithal or even the human resources to occupy and rule the Frankish lands. They were doing what they did best with such limited resources: they raided and looted. But the Franks regarded them as a demonic tsunami, and this demonization prevented them from deriving benefits from their contacts with the Saracens. This failure of vision was soon to be redressed by Charlemagne, renowned for his correspondence with Haroun al Rashid, the caliph in Baghdad.

An intriguing historic aside to this is that at the time there was an Umayyad caliph in Cordoba presiding over a civilization that was just as grand and memorable as Haroun’s—and much closer to Charlemagne. But the Abbasid Haroun and the Umayyads of Iberia were on very bad terms, and the Umayyads were a much greater threat to the Franks than Haroun.

Cola Franzen in 1989 translated into English the Spanish versions of the Arab poems by Emilio Garcia Gomez, a Spanish Arabist who had acquired a large body of Arab Andalusian poetry while in Egypt in 1927. There are undoubtedly African, Jewish and Berber poets in her City Lights book, Poems of Arab Andalusia, but they were all writing in Arabic, just as today many African and Berber writers work in French and English. Her book was published fourteen years after Juan Carlos I succeeded General Francisco Franco in Spain. This is significant, because one of Juan Carlos’ first official acts was to apologize to world Jewry for—and rescind—the brutal 1492 order of Isabella and Ferdinand that expelled Muslims and Jews from Spain. But he has assiduously avoided opportunities to make similar amends to Muslims in whose hospitable realm a Jewish renaissance flowered. This half-baked ecumenism is redolent of Christian triumphalism and has not gone unnoticed by Muslims or by Spaniards who respect their Moorish past.

The Internet search engines yield many references to Juan Carlos’s gesture, but there are few mentions of his breathtaking failure to redress wrongs done to the Muslims. The rationale for the king’s intellectually insupportable position is, predictably, that the Muslims were invaders. So were the Visigoths and the Romans and Carthaginians before them. Moreover, the Jews probably welcomed the Muslims. It is dishonorable to ask the Muslim world to ignore this tortured intolerance, particularly as it dismisses a famously tolerant Muslim era.

Franco had worked hard to separate the Spanish from their Moorish heritage, much to the detriment of Spanish culture and hence to Western culture. Franco’s thought police bedeviled the poets of the Generation of 27, who were trying to recover the suppressed glories of the Convivencia in Arab Spain, when Jews, Christians and Muslims coexisted in harmony and prosperity, instituted by Abdar Rahman ibn Mu’awiya I during his thirty-year reign beginning in 756. But under Juan Carlos the outlines of the Convivencia under Arab rule began to reappear, and Spain recognized that Al Andalus belonged to it and it would forever belong to Al Andalus.

Today in the New World, even in the American Southwest and California, Arab Andalusian architecture and landscaping is manifest if unrecognized. It was appropriate that a California publisher, City Lights, should remind the New World how indebted it is to Arab Andalusia.

In 1989, the same year of Franzen’s little volume, also appeared The Banners of the Champions: An Anthology of Medieval Arabic Poetry From Andalusia and Beyond. This hard-to-find and important book by Ibn Said al Maghribi, translated by James A. Bellamy and Patricia Owen Steiner, connects the Arab east and west. There was a tradition among Arab tribes of painting poems on tribal banners and conducting festive competitions of banners. Poetry competitions—not bone-crushing football or mendacious parliaments, tricky diplomatic missions, slippery language—what a magnificent model. Here is probably the true origin of the troubadour tradition.

The Arab poetry of Al Andalus reflects the elegance and confidence of overlords, for that is what the Arabs were. It will always remain difficult to sort out from Arab poetry that written by Berbers and Africans. Not so the Jews. Under Arab rule they achieved a renaissance that allowed them to equal the language of what Christians call the Old Testament. Moses de Leon wrote the Zohar, the crown jewel of the Qaballah, and the Qaballah itself emerged under the aegis of Arab Sufism.

Today pundits who speak all too knowingly of the ancient enmity between Arab and Jew conveniently or ignorantly overlook the Convivencia, during which Muslim, Jew and Christian lived in peace and startling creativity. Nothing is as it seems. Certainly both Sufis and the Qaballists would say so. Nothing is as it seems, especially history: another reason to celebrate the genius of King Juan Carlos.

Jewish poetry in the medieval Arab world—remember, if you will, there was nothing medieval about it to the Arabs, who live by a different clock—exhibits the plain speech and grittiness of a tolerated people who are nevertheless not overlords. Like Arab poetry it assumes that language doesn’t need to be dressed up. This poetry shares a common ground with today’s rap in America, with the rai of North Africa and immigrant Europe and with Arab ideas of horticulture and architecture, but it has less in common with Arab decorative art.

The Jewish poetry of Arab Spain, especially when it is not Qaballistic, is bold, in your face, sometimes raunchy, and determined to speak plainly, testifying not only testament to the tolerance of the times but also to the confidence of medieval Spanish Jewry in their ability to create a society to rival King David’s. They understood their times in a way the Christians did not. They understood they were living in the artistic and intellectual powerhouse of the era, but as a colonized people, they saw the clouds of the Reconquista gathering. They felt a darkness descending. They were to be expelled from a garden once more, a second Eden, this time along with their tolerant masters.

It’s no accident that we are rediscovering Al Andalus and the Convivencia of the Umayyad caliphate. When the respected medievalist Maria Rosa Menocal published The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain (Little, Brown and Company, 2002) the United States—and the world—was still reeling from the 9/11 attacks. People were searching for reasons why the world seemed to have been thrown back to the medieval confrontation between Islam and Christendom. We are still seeking reasons. Menocal’s description of the glories of the Convivencia were as disconcerting as they were enlightening because we realized—once more—that we don’t know nearly as much as we think we know. By “we” I mean all of us, Christians, Muslims, Jews and all the other inhabitants of the earth.

Menocal’s book challenged us at many levels. It invited us to reflect that if fundamentalism in the Muslim world, in Israel and among Jews and Christians in the United States is replicating the attitudes that drove the world into the Crusades, fundamentalism is also what brought down the Convivencia.

A worthy successor to The Banners of the Champions and Poems of Arab Andalusia is The Dream of the Poem: Hebrew Poetry from Muslim and Christian Spain, 950-1492. It isn’t my intention to review any of these books, but merely to point out not only a heartening revival of interest in Arab Spain but its startling connection across the disciplines to our own age. Poetry is only one of these disciplines, worth singling out, I think, because it would be useful for modern poets to savor their indebtedness to the Arabs of Iberia.


Filed under: Poetics, Prose