The Literary Legacy of Classical Arabic Poetry

Suzanne Pinckney Stetkevych is fascinated by the functional aspects of poetry. While the notion of functional poetry may seem contradictory to many of us, for Stetkevych, the Ruth N. Halls Associate Professor of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures, it has been a continuing topic of critical analysis. Bringing to bear insights from contemporary literary theory, anthropology, art history, and comparative religion, Stetkevych explores the venues in which classical Arabic poems, for many centuries, functioned as lyrical commodities in multifaceted ritual exchanges. Her subject is the Islamic ode, or qasida (ka-see-da), a verse form that persisted as the dominant Arabo-Islamic poetic form from 500 A.D. to the first half of our own century. The question of why such a restrictive poetic form retained preeminence for fifteen hundred years lies at the heart of Stetkevych's research. "This is the question I am trying to answer," says Stetkevych. "It's almost like studying evolutionary biology. Why does one species survive and everything else die off? The qasida seems to have this staying power. Scores of Islamic states have come and gone, but the qasida is still here."

The classical qasida, which has survived centuries of poetic phylogenesis, presents standardized images within a strictly determined poetic structure--a structure that directs the verse from personal to public concerns. Stetkevych explains that the most traditional Islamic odes open with an elegiac section that describes feelings associated with an abandoned campsite, a lost mistress, or the passing of youth. The middle section, sometimes omitted, recounts a journey made on camelback to the patron or the tribal lord. The third and final section offers lyrical praise to the prince, caliph, or sultan who is the poet's patron. This last panegyric section takes the form of oaths of allegiance in which the poet speaks for all of the ruler's subjects.

Stetkevych points out that the ritual function poetry served in premodern societies "is a role fundamentally at odds with our Romantic and post-Romantic notions of poetry, poetics, and aesthetics." While her larger body of research and publications focuses on various poetic interpretations of pre-Islamic and Islamic rites of passage and rituals of sacrifice, Stetkevych's latest idea involves analysis of the political dimension of classical Arabic poetry. Her investigation of the anecdotes and historical settings surrounding the poems reveals that rather than being art produced for art's sake, the qasida was an obligatory presentation made in court ceremonies by poets kept on staff to produce lyrical praise for their patrons at certain holidays and ceremonial occasions. Because presentation of the poem was an act of allegiance, withholding of the poem constituted an act of sedition--of denying a ruler his just due. Stetkevych's research also reveals that the order in which dignitaries were praised and the hierarchy in which poets were allowed to present at particular feast day ceremonies amounted to a declaration of who was who in the court--who had fallen from or gained favor. "It's sort of like the days before China was opened up," says Stetkevych, "when we would look at official pictures to determine who was still part of Mao's entourage."

Stetkevych observes that her work has become progressively more interdisciplinary. In her first book, Abu Tammám and the Poetics of the Abbasid Age (Brill, 1991), she formulates a poetics that can be applied within an historical framework and explores the political dimension of literary production and reception. Her second book, The Mute Immortals Speak: Pre-Islamic Poetry and the Poetics of Ritual (Cornell University Press, 1993), explores the oldest Arabic poems in light of the work of anthropologists, historians of religion, and classical scholars on ritual and sacrificial patterns in literature. Her more recent work constructs comparisons between classical Arabic panegyric odes and Western visual art. While she does not consider herself entirely a comparatist, Stetkevych says she writes for comparatists. She sees this evolution in her own work as part of an endeavor Middle Eastern literature scholars of her generation have undertaken in an attempt to bring classical Arabic poetry into a larger cultural sphere. In her edited volume, Reorientations: Arabic and Persian Poetry (Indiana University Press, 1994), Stetkevych and her contemporaries argue that classical Arabic and Persian literature can contribute new insights to current literary critical discourse-- particularly to debates concerning the ritual and sacrificial aspects of literature, the transition from orality to literacy, the iconographical and mythical dimensions of philology, and imitation as a form of creation. Expanding further on this line of thought, she notes, "Traditionally, Oriental studies have been something of a private club. We wrote for ourselves about issues that were to a large extent of interest to no one but ourselves. We did not address the issues that the modern literary critical world is interested in . . . . Arabic poetry is extremely beautiful poetry. Frankly, if it were not, I wouldn't waste my time on it. But it is a closed garden--beautiful, but not immediately accessible to a larger audience. Mere translations don't do the trick in this case. We need the formal expectations that would allow us to appreciate this poetry. Comparative fields seem to be a good way to get a grasp on this."

Stetkevych, who did her undergraduate work in art history, finds comparisons between the qasida and Renaissance and Baroque painting particularly productive because these two artistic genres served similar court functions. She points, for instance, to Renaissance altar paintings of Jesus and Mary flanked by patron saints that also typically included a portrait of the earthly patron who had supported the creation of the painting. "All of these images reinforce a kind of political and social and religious hierarchy," says Stetkevych. "I think the qasida performs a similar function." In classical Arabic poetry and European painting of these periods, the content, imagery, and artistic structure are, to a large extent, iconographically determined. The originality has to come from someplace else. Stetkevych observes that we are much more accustomed to examining brush stroke as an indication of a visual artist's technique in order to discover originality; "we are still very tied into this idea of originality for writers that is a kind of surface originality--having a new topic or angle. We know how to discuss this in terms of Renaissance and Baroque painting, but we haven't fully addressed this issue with poetry."

Stetkevych extends this operative analogy between Renaissance painting and the classical quasidas beyond comparisons of their function and structure to also encompass assessments of artistic genius. She notes that while a whole stable of court painters may have honored their patron with images of the Virgin and Child, only a painter of genuine genius and vision succeeded in producing a represention of that traditional subject that endured--and in so doing, immortalized the patron who commissioned it. Similarly, the only way for a poet to immortalize the patron he wrote in praise of was to produce a poem so striking that it would be memorized, written down, and preserved. If it were just like every other poem produced for a given ceremony, no one would remember it. Innovative subject matter was not an option for expression of originality. Stetkevych points out that in one Andalusian ceremony she is currently investigating more than twenty court poets presented their verse: "It was a contest in which the second-rate poems were like party decorations that were put away and forgotten the next day."

Most recently, Stetkevych has looked to three-dimensional art for illustrative comparisons with the Arabic ode. She says funds provided by her Ruth N. Halls appointment enabled her to stay in London after attending a conference in Exeter so that she could do some work with the Elgin Marbles and Assyrian reliefs. The Halls endowment's funding has also had direct benefits for her students. Stetkevych was able to hire a research assistant, a very promising graduate student who, she notes, was going to have to leave the program because of lack of funding. She sees this as "the next-best thing to having a thirty-six-hour day."

When asked if her teaching interfaces with her research, Stetkevych offers an unequivocal reply: "I do not, nor does my department, recognize the distinction between teaching and research. Year after year, our best research scholars are our best teachers. People who are involved in research, who are excited about what they are doing, who have live academic minds, make much better teachers than the ones who simply have stopped generating ideas. The main reason for this is that we are no longer called upon to convey mere rote learning. All of our directives from the dean say, teach them how to think; teach students how to be creative; teach them how to be analytical. If you are not a scholar, how do you teach other people to be creative scholars? If you can't collect, process, and analyze material, how do you teach students to do it?"

Stetkevych feels that committed teachers/researchers have the unique ability to make even the "nitty gritty" learning more meaningful for students. Pointing to Arabic characters chalked on a freestanding blackboard in her Goodbody Hall office where she holds small classes, Stetkevych observes that even students who are stuck memorizing conjugations can be inspired by a teacher who helps them connect their own work to significant research issues and debates. She imagines her students thinking, "If I can memorize this grammar, if I can master this morphology, I, too, can read one of those qasidas she is always going on about."

Stetkevych regularly teaches third-year Arabic (a class composed of half graduate and half undergraduate students), a course called Research in Classical Arabic Texts, and a graduate poetry seminar. With the benefit of her Ruth N. Halls fellowship, she hopes to devise a course in classical Arabic literature in translation and to put together a collection of striking translations and critical essays on Arabic poetry. Up until now teaching in English has posed difficulties, for there are very few good English translations of this body of literature. Moreover, not a single assignable critical essay is available about even the most famous of these poets. She credits the standard translations currently available with being so dull as to bear responsibility for expanding enrollment in Japanese, Chinese, and Sanskrit language courses: "Students who are looking for something exotic take one look at these and just move farther to the East." Stetkevych says she and her colleagues see this as a pioneering field and recognize the need for translations that will convince students of the beauty of this poetry. "We can only make the field grow if we can reach out to a wider audience," she says. "You have to have something really accessible to convince people that this literary legacy is worth their attention." Stetkevych's translations and explorations of the rituals of redemption, sacrifice, and allegiance that are immortalized in classical Arabic poetry illuminate the insights this rich literary legacy can contribute to contemporary literary critical and cultural discourse.

--Susan Moke