Poetry is a complex whole in which a man’s entire experience and the entirety of a language simultaneously intervene. One must express at the same time feelings, sensations, ideas if needs be, and, equally, bring out the full brilliance of words, even and especially if such words are amongst the simplest, which often is the case with my own poetry. Personally, you may perhaps have noticed, I most frequently have recourse to words that designate permanencies: sky, earth, love, desire, tree, grass, star, sand, death, etc. Perhaps some two thousand words recur in my writing, rather in the manner of the play of an arabesque. There has, moreover, been a thesis on my work on the theme of my ‘aesthetics of the arabesque’. Remark that such words that, as I have said, express permanencies, I use, within the framework of my own vision of life and death, in function of my own experience, my traversal of appearances, and that they are coloured in my own colours, they formulate my most particular itinerary, and that is probably the function of a poet’s words: the expression of self as a particular being whose words are communicable to others within an experience capable of being shareable and shared. Finally, as far as I am concerned, all poetry that matters is shared language.
Of course, my work has changed, for the experience of writing is that of exploration, a forward movement, and so, necessarily, involves transformation and metamorphosis. On the one hand, there is the elucidation of a certain number of questions which, initially, seem obscure, indecipherable, and which, via writing through them, become somewhat clearer or, at least, acquire a certain inner coherency which is not of the order of logic, but rather that of some echoing resonance, the repercussion of one word upon another, one image upon and within another, one feeling upon another, just as in music, for example. Alongside that, such clarifications via the mediation of harmony, there are, in the evolution of a man, a writer, a poet, other areas of his life or his sensitivity to the world that become more obscure, more opaque, as one advances in life. In my poetry I have often used the image of the lamp. I am like a man moving forward in a cave – not Plato’s, but that long, tenebrous corridor in which we all grope our way –, like a lamp-bearer. The regions my lamp reaches into via its luminous radiation emerge from the night in which they are plunged for the time they are lit up by this radiance; the regions behind me return to the darkness which was theirs and, though integrated into writing, one senses they have returned to the mystery of their origin, while the regions before me light up according to the same process: they take up their place in the light of language, which they illuminate from within, even though these same regions will equally plunge back into the great night that is their subtance. I gave, a moment or two ago, a rough definition of poetry. Poetry is not formulatable the way a mathematical theorem is; it is that which engages with all that is physical et all that is metaphysical in a man, with all visibleness and invisibleness of the things, concrete as well as abstract, that make up our environment, surround us and, in their own way, share our destiny. Let me give you another definition: ‘Mystery in full daylight’, Barrès writes.
I shall add to what I have just said that, alongside my work as a poet, I have greatly reflected, too, upon the nature of poetry. It is the subject of some twenty or so essays in which I attempt to define my poetry directly, or understand the poetry of others.
I am a writer astride two conceptions of the world and sensibilities not foreign to one another, but rather and most often complementary beyond their divergencies: East-West, Europe-Arab world, Islam-non-Islam, Arabic originally, French language ultimately, etc. All that I have had to face up to and manage in my work and, also, in my imagination. I have practised, whenever I could, modulations and interferences, I have thrown down bridges, opened up passageways. I have at times been defined as a ‘ferryman’. Do we have the right to quote ourselves? In my little book L’Interdit, published in 1993, I would write the following: ‘How, yes, how, with words, nothing but words, can we manage to say, furiously, that words are yet substance and what proof can we advance whereby substance may be finally proven, confirmed and proven, by words alone? Furiously, I maintain that poetry need supply, of itself, of its essential truth, of its substantial radiating power, only that improble radiance, only the simple and so ever simple light of its vulnerable nakedness. Whereby, perhaps, it thus appears linked to the most feminine part of our being, which, too, is content with nothing but the radiance of its appeased lamp. Beyond or else on this side of all the whirlwinds of life and love, there are, mysteriously tied together, better, mingled one with the other, the two communicating peaces of woman and lamp, which, at a precise point of themselves, woman and lamp, are conjoined. Just as at that place in Upper Egypt, at Abou-Simbel to be precise, converge – beneath the fecund and enriching confluence of the faces of Ramses II and his wife Nefertari finding themselves notionally at the determined point via the encounter of their eternally fixed gazes – the White Nile and the Blue Nile. A dialogue of the liquid element forever transformable, changing, and a figurative absolute, insistant but refusing to dominate: the most vulnerable and, in a sense, the most imperfect part of human truth has to be grasped: it bears the most naked and the most moving part of what we are. Beneath the terrible shower of light, and thus mysteriously, at a point of their pure reciprocity, the two peaces of lamp and woman are but one. Beyond and on this side of all whirlwinds, so is it that, through language, the depth of peace is borne upon us. The most tormented poetry is, without our understanding of either the how or the why of this impossible conversion, a space enflessly extending into the dimensions of its peacefulness. The feeling of peace that settles and prolongs the poem is probably the most inexplicable thing it has to say to us, and we simply have to accept that we shall never be in a position to know more of what it is’.
With respect to this peacefulness that comes to us from poetry, and the mystery residing in this peacefulness, which is as obvious as it is incomprehensible, I should like to appeal to the testimony of another poet, Jalal-ad-Din Rumi, a twelfth-century mystic, the founder of the Order of the Dancing Dervishes, one of my principal referents, a ‘substantial ally’, as Char called them, if ever there was one. He jots down in his Maktubat, his ‘Writings’, under the title of ‘The Shadow of the unknown tree’, this lovely, simple tale: ‘One day, a man stopped under a tree. He saw leaves, branches, strange fruit. Of everyone he asked what such a tree and such fruit were. No gardener could answer; no one knew their name or their origin. The man said to himself: ‘I do not know this tree, nor do I understand it; and yet I know that from the moment I caught sight of it, my heart and my soul became fresh and green. Let us then go beneath it shade’. We have there, we realise, the language of alliance with the world, indicative of a form of cosmic tenderness.
Yes, the tenderness of poetry’s language. Antonin Artaud, for example, the most absolute of negators, – even he remains, whether he wants to or not, one through whom the poor heart of men formulates, with, as we know, such lost bewilderment, its long, long dirge. Before the universe with its many fangs and hang-ups, Artaud’s terrible cry ends up in a whisper. Artaud weeps half-inaudibly, weeping in his evocation of Van Gogh, ‘society’s suicide’. Listen, yes, listen, beneath the crying out, to the whispering: then only are you dwelling, lodged, in poetry: then only do you justify Hölderlin’s claim that it is poetically that man lives. Then do you render justice to the Arab language where, forever, verse is called bayt: ‘house’, ‘home’. It is poetically, Hölderlin tells us, that man ‘inhabits the earth’, thus giving just weight to the substance of living which, inevitably, is of the here and now, just weight to the poor, glorious things of the here and now issued from such substance – black but solar –, things that, all around us, around our hearts, spin their spider webs, poor things finding refuge in our words and getting caught in the nets of our poem, which, alone, in proving who we are, proves what they are. Beneath the whispering, the cry, beneath the cry, the whispering: another episode of the living ambiguousness that stretches the poem’s bow via the attentiveness and the temptation of the arrow – whereby no one any longer knows, as the arrow leaves the bow, to whom the bow belongs nor whose is the arrow: ‘If your friend is suffering from an arrow wound – a zen aphorism states – don’t wait to stretch the bow, shoot the arrow’. Ambiguity, then, and paradox, in the striking contraction of time-space, which makes the poem a true ontological datum.
And so, for me, poetry is fundamentally peace, ontological peacefulness, salam. It is ideology that is war. One of my compatriots, the poet Nadia Tueni, has put it admirably, and terribly, when Lebanon was still fire and blood: ‘People shoot at an idea – she writes – and kill a man’. Poetry, contrary to ideology, is what refuses to kill and which, humbly, marvellously, helps life to be, to be better, helps it to be lived in plenitude. ‘Great events – Nietzsche writes – come upon us like doves’. And poetry, colombe aquiline, ‘the eagle dove’, as I have had occasion to call it – poetry is a great event.
I shall have finished once I have told you of my testament. It is short, and merely a post-scriptum to my life. In effect, the equation Life equals Poetry has always been mine. That is, I do not wish to oppose life to poetry, the former seeming to me to offer a nest to the latter, poetry then giving wings to life. Wings, ie a space, that is, a direction (all directions at the same time), that is, a meaning (all possible meanings). But, and it is perhaps the main argument in favour of poetry, it, poetry, manages to gather all directions into one, all meanings deployed to the only worthwhile meaning. It is a matter of going, via the totality of offerings life hands us, some happy, others grievous or unhappy – a matter of going to the place where language lights a lamp and, all about this lamp that pulls us away from universal confusion, a matter of seeing, for the little time we dwell in it, a bending of the power of our violent cosmic chamber. A poet is he or she who sees double: who sees things and, simultaneously, sees their limpid shadow in the darkest of paradoxical mirrors. I have written somewhere (: you will forgive me for once again quoting myself): ‘For lack of obscurity, a good deal of what is written lacks language, much of what is written lacks the darkness of night’. It is at the place where language and such benightedness meet that the poem takes root. And there, probably, in such an isthmus, that life, to manage its passage, becomes the most intense, the most delicate, the strongest and the most vulnerable. ‘A rose in its own fatiguedness’, I have also written.
No, I am not for the reclusive life in poetry. I am for the opening of doors and windows, so that the thousands of presences of the world may attack language. I am even for the burning down of the house, for what remains when fire and flame have not devoured it entirely and reduced it to the state of ashes. ‘Poetry is the conflagration of appearances’, it has been said.
… And now the poet has grown old. Did he speak of lamps? ‘The end of life brings with it its own lamp’, Joubert writes.