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Adonis offers his poetic view

The 82-year-old Syrian poet, a pioneer of modern Arabic poetry, is the talk of London literary circles right now.

The poet Adonis at The Mosaic Rooms in London. Stephen Lock for The National
The poet Adonis at The Mosaic Rooms in London. Stephen Lock for The National

"A Tribute to Adonis" is emblazoned on the front of The Mosaic Rooms, the London gallery devoted to Middle Eastern culture. Inside, in huge letters on explanatory panels, the Syrian poet is celebrated as the "man who led the modernist movement in Arabic literature and brought Arabic poetry the international recognition it deserved".

And such accolades are deserved. It's surely only a matter of time before the man born Ali Ahmad Said Esber in 1930, who had no formal education for most of his childhood and was forced to leave his homeland after being imprisoned for his political beliefs, wins the Nobel Prize in Literature. But will Adonis, 82 last month, wallow in such "tributes"? Not a bit of it.

"I prefer to look to the next thing," he says with a smile.

Which, in a way, sums him up. Since his first collection was published in 1957, Adonis has rarely stood still. His early work, notes his translator Khaled Mattawa, concentrated on the poetry itself rather than the classical, ode-like qassida of most traditional Arabic forms. By the time of his 1965 volume Migrations and Transformations in the Regions of Night and Day, he was basing epic poems around the life of the eighth-century Andalusian ruler Abdulrahman Al Dakhil, but giving them contemporary Arab relevance.

In 2001 he was trying to make sense of September 11 - but this was a relatively rare excursion into literal territory from a poet who prefers to deal with less obvious matters. "What is essential and profound is often what is hidden," he says.

And, just when some might think they've got a handle on Adonis - the English translations by Mattawa gathered together in the peerless Adonis: Selected Poems have just won the Saif Ghobash-Banipal Prize for Arabic translation - he confounds again with an exhibition of his artwork at The Mosaic Rooms. Often, when notable poets or writers turn their hands to art, the results smack of a vanity project, but not here. These collage works, where scraps of fabric, parchment, rusty tin and even coloured coffee grains sit on top of teasingly incomplete fragments of his poetry, are like another window into a worldview that is often mystical, humanist and dreamlike.

"I felt when I started these artworks that words were not able to fulfil my expressive needs," he says - just before a huge crowd of people gather at the gallery to listen to one of the most expressive men in Arabic writing. "That might sound strange for a poet. But I believe that words can't fully express and embrace everything in our human nature. If they could, surely we would have exhausted them. There would be no need for any further literature."

"Take ancient Arabic poetry," he says, warming to his theory. "A half-empty glass, a half-full glass, an empty glass and a full glass all have a different name. So you see, one word could never express the glass."

Maybe his realisation that there were some things words cannot do was behind his famous decision to retire from poetry - a state of affairs he's now happy to say was just a period of "testing myself". But the art does fit within the reason Mattawa gives for the continued interest in Adonis: his "tireless innovation and experimentation". And yet Selected Poems isn't full of the kind of work that is easy to admire but difficult to love. Adonis is without question a modernist. In fact, his work is often called revolutionary, but it's often also anchored to a sense of history and tradition; Al Kitab (The Book) is a 2,000-page epic transversing Arab history and society.

"A modern poet will revolt against the conservative spirit, but we cannot be truly modern unless we master the knowledge of tradition," he says. "All the great innovators were deeply rooted in that idea - you have to know everything, but to make your own work you have to forget it all too."

It's an idea Adonis shares with the western writer with whom he's most often compared: TS Eliot.

"Among contemporary Arab writers and poets there is definitely this sense that behind our work there is this obligation almost, to change the world, to cause change to happen. For me, I believe that when you talk about poetry, it's not just about the words on the page. It's part of an intellectual revolution, because if you see the world in a cultural sense, in an artistic sense, that makes you think about it more deeply. That's why I think there's a unity between poetry, thought and change."

And there can be no greater change in recent years than, of course, the events that comprised the Arab Spring. Because of his status as an intellectual, cultural commentator and advocate of a peaceful revolution, Adonis is often asked for his opinions - and sometimes they are not appreciated. You sense he quite enjoys being such a polemicist; this was the man who once said Arab culture was extinct. But it's a measure of how deeply he thinks about such issues that he cannot untangle the political and the cultural.

"This is a very lively and positive time for Arab culture and more broadly the Arab world," he says. "For the first time I feel that, primarily because of youth, we have not imitated anyone else, especially not the West. On the contrary, we have broken the sense of fear and silence, which is very important. But what worries me is that the traditions and the political language have not changed. We can't just change one dictatorship for another."

As for Adonis, he will continue to express himself through his art - in whatever form it might take. I try one last time to get him to commit, surrounded by an exhibition that is a reflection on a career and life well-lived, to one piece of work of which he's most proud.

"Oh no, I couldn't do that," he says, smiling. "I still feel that the best work I'm going to write will be the one I write tomorrow."

Which, 70 years after his first poem, is perhaps the greatest clue to Adonis's longevity.

artslife@thenational.ae

  • A Tribute to Adonis is at The Mosaic Rooms, London, until March 30. www.mosaicrooms.org. Adonis: Selected Poems by Khaled Mattawa (Yale University Press) is out now

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