A translated version of this piece is Available in: العربية (Arabic)
Amid the exceptional circumstances facing the country, Abdul Aziz al-Maqaleh’s name appears as a symbol of the intellectuals role, and raises the question of the purpose of culture. Al-Maqaleh is a poet whose name has remained attached to his homeland throughout his life. The totality of what he has accomplished is a cultural discourse in its own right, worthy of close reading and in-depth analysis. It is crucial to understand the nature of his oeuvre, its development and its objectives. No matter how individual it seems, it reveals the dimensions of an important era of our cultural and social history.
Al-Maqaleh is a presence who is never absent from anything that has happened and is happening to Yemen. He describes this state as being in a Sufi union with Yemen, and illustrates this in one of his poems.
In my tongue lies Yemen,
In my conscience lies Yemen,
Under my skin Yemen lives,
Behind my eyelids Yemen sleeps and awakens,
I can no longer tell the difference between us ..
My country, which one of us is Yemen?!
Photo Courtesy of Yasser Sharaf & Dhiaa al-Adeemi
Although today he stands 80 years into his dream, he maintains a high level of recognition. He overcame his personal pain at the condition of the country, which does not leave his heart, or his poetry:
I am a poet
who perceives his world through his spirit,
who hates touch,
whose eyes are closed shut,
and his pain has no limits, in dimension
and in terrain
Wars hate me,
because in my sorrow and fear, I have burdened them
and succeeded in instigating all the flowers,
and all the birds,
to hate war,
to refuse death which brings along a season of dire harvest,
But the war, Sir, extinguished me,
and erased the luminous paintings from the horizon,
It expelled heavenly light from earth,
and seized the kingdom of hell.
In the presence of a poet
Born to be a poet, al-Maqaleh lived as one and never paid heed to anything else. He maintained a simple life, protective of the poet within him, and therefore lived to safeguard himself from the seas of raging words and blind slogans. Gripped with a desire for Yemen to return to its cultural role and occupy a distinguished position on the map of world culture, he found nothing in his hands but a pen and an inkwell as deep as the hope that filled his heart. Since then, he has embarked on writing as an enlightening project, merging with Yemen, its land and its people.
Al-Maqaleh is one of the pioneers of trochee poetry in the Arab world. Along with the poet Abdu Othman, he paved the road for the genre, deepening its course and bringing it recognition. His poems carry a prevailing simplicity in lexicon and symbolism. A contemplative tone permeates his poetry in general, and most of his poems begin from an idea that he condenses into a subject, a relationship or a position. Later, he carefully weaves his refined lexicon into a poem that resists falling into the shadows of interpretation, and remains both clear and multi-layered, beyond its meaning at first sight.
Al-Maqaleh is a unique symbol and has an exceptional role in cultural activity in Yemen. He is the critical poet and writer who remained close to the struggles of his society and nation. He is the university professor who never stopped contributing through his research and teaching, as well as his work as president of the University of Sana’a for nearly twenty years, as president of the Center for Studies and Research in Yemen, and being a member of a number of Arabic linguistic communities.
Though a difficult task, al-Maqaleh managed to maintain a fair distance between his commitment to public service and his cultural production. His cultural work is committed to knowledge and is distant from political power, but not from his society and homeland, nor from the struggles of his people. Commenting on the role of the intellectual, al-Maqaleh referred to his own role in a past interview, saying, “I have tried from afar to find ways to disengage the political from the cultural, and to minimize political control over culture and prevent it from being recruited in its service”.
Today al-Maqaleh is an active presence in the Arab world, and his poetry is still the subject of close study, reading and circulation. His work belongs to a unique school of his own that is influenced by the symbols, literary convictions and legends of Yemen’s cultural heritage. The titles of his poetry collections reveal these influences, including Sana’a By All Means (1971), Marib Speaks (1972), A Letter to Saif bin Yazin (1973), The Return of Waddah Yemen (1976), Writing with the Sword of the Revolutionary Ali bin Al Fadl (1978), Exit from the Circles of the Hour of Sulaiman (1981), Leaves of a Body Returning from Death (1986), Alphabet of the Soul (1998), The Book of Sana’a (1999), The Village Book (2000), The Book of Friends (2002) and The Book of Cities (2005).
Countless Masters’ theses and doctoral dissertations were written about his work, both in Yemen and beyond, including Morocco, Iraq and Egypt. In literary circles, many prominent critics, such as Ismail Ismail, Jaber Asfour, Yemeni al-Eid, Abdul Malek Mortadh, have written about his work.
Much of his poetry has been translated into a number of languages nd has received numerous awards, honors and decorations in arts and literature from Yemen and abroad, such as The Knight of the Order of Arts and Letters, the Lotus Award and The Sultan Al Owais Cultural Award.
Photo Courtesy of Yasser Sharaf & Dhiaa al-Adeemi
In the space of poetry
Al-Maqaleh is the author of more than fifteen poetry collections. During his literary career, his work underwent a number of transformations. Beginning with vertical poetry, evident in his first collection, Sana’a By All Means, he later applied the trochaic form throughout his poetry. Today he is established as one of the most prominent writers of the genre in the Arab world.
At a later stage, al-Maqaleh published a series of poetry collections – The Book of Friends, The Book of Sana’a, The Book of Cities, The Book of Mothers and The Book of Love – where he brought prose and poetry together. Here, poetry is understood as the genre that marks the series and prose as a technique that infiltrates it; altogether creating a new expressive relationship. The Book of Friends received critical acclaim as a form of poetic writing that lies both between an anthology and a translation, and the art of writing about writing. It rises above the relationship of the poet’s self to his archives and readings, through an objective plot twist that takes the concept of friendship – beyond the conventional – as an introduction to reading, interaction and commentary, between aesthetic vision and intellectual position. In addition, the juxtaposition of poetry and prose in writing caused a literary controversy that challenged the desire to protect traditional forms.
This period of al-Maqaleh’s poetry was preceded by The Alphabet of the Soul, which placed his poetry in the realm of Sufism. In this collection he reveals the dialectic of the self and the subject, without masks, symbols or legends, bringing the sense of contemplation in his poetry out in the open.
For the land of my spirit
I write the water of my poetry
and for God who in his skies
and majesty occupies my soul
For the children,
for every traveler on the street of faith
accused of denying heaven;
In God’s glory the sky celebrates him
For every traveler in the street of faith
whom in the mirrors of his heart shine
secrets of others from water
* * *
For them I intend redemption
and draw the shadow of my sorrows
Once more, there is another layer to al-Maqaleh’s poetry, an extension of his patriotism, that emerges in music. His lyrics resonate in Yemeni music in many songs, the most famous ones include Sanaaniya, Dhabi Al Yemen, An Yahremona and Lamaa Al Barq Al Yamani.
Al-Maqaleh often writes literary criticism and carries a particular vision, which he elaborates on in one of his interviews: “I do not use the scalpel to tear down promising attempts at their beginnings, and this is still my critical position. It is based on a love for text, not an aversion to it.”
On his relationship to criticism, as a poet becoming a critic, al-Maqaleh responded:
“A poet who is critical or a critic who deals with poetry can separate these two states: the state of poetic writing and the state of critical writing. If a critic has the possibility to apply his poetic intuition to his criticism, it is his duty to forget that he is a critic while discussing poetry, because a poem stems from spontaneity, impulse and an awe towards the emergence of a beautiful object, and an ability to enjoy its presence and its splendor.”
Photo Courtesy of Yasser Sharaf & Dhiaa al-Adeemi
Regarding the status of criticism, he continued, “Applied criticism derives its position from the status of the text; if it is strong then the criticism corresponds to its strength, and if weak then weakness ensues. Critical texts necessitate critical criticism, and vice versa… In the end criticism is the objective outcome of the development of literary creativity.”
In the course of his critical accomplishments, al-Maqaleh discussed a number of issues and concepts, especially those that were controversial in the battle for poetic renewal, including the relationship between form and content. On this matter, he states his position towards rigidity: “Content creates shape, and form finds its content.” In the end, “True creativity does not settle in a single fixed form, there are basic rules that give one form or another a sense creativity, whether it is poetry or prose.”
Regarding the relationship of criticism to methodology, he points out that “the methodology and scientific objectivity that we aspire to in criticism is preoccupied with a concern for stability and a rejection of preset judgements. It seeks good reasoning and to avoid comments that derive from self-observation. Once our critical writing displays those characteristics, it will reach closer to methodological writing, and we would achieve a certain appreciation and respect from the scientific community.”
Al-Maqaleh is credited with the terms ‘newer poem’ or ‘newer writing’. These terms were used to distinguish the prose poem from what was known as the ‘new poem’, and was intended to inject new terminology into the field while presenting a critical response. It was in this context that he published The Crisis of the Arabic Poem, and later tackled similar concerns in his book, From the Stanza to the Poem: A Study of Yemen’s New Poetry.
As an extension of his cultural commitment and patriotism, al-Maqaleh wrote introductions to numerous poetry, short story and critical essay collections, as well as novels and plays. These works were published by writers who felt in al-Maqaleh’s pen a validation and endorsement of their literary work.
Al-Maqaleh draws attention to the fact that Yemen, unlike other countries in the Arab world, is either neglected or only in the limelight for negative reasons. This neglect was a position that compelled him to introduce the talent of his fellow writers, as put in his own words: “In view of this almost complete disregard, I have vowed to introduce, follow, analyze and historicize – if one could use the term – this emerging movement.”
Al-Maqaleh produced many works of literature and literary criticism, including The Objective and Literary Dimensions of Contemporary Poetry in Yemen, Colloquial Poetry in Yemen, A Reading of Yemenite Contemporary Literature, Voices of a New Time, Al Zubairi: The Inner National and Cultural Voice of Yemen, Yemenite Diaries in Literature and Art, The Crisis of the Arabic Poem – A Project of Contemplation, A Reading of Zaidi and Mu’tazila Books, The Convergence of Parties: A Preliminary Reading of Literature from the Maghreb, Al Hawrash: The Pedagogue Martyr, Giants at the Beginning of the Century, The Lost Face, Studies on Literature and Arab Children, Inscriptions of Marib, The Southern Beginnings, Trilogy of Literary Criticism, White Writing, Mirrors of Palms and Deserts, From Whimpers to Revolution, Writings on the Arab Winter of Literature, Poetry: Between Vision and Form, The Fundamentals of Literary Criticism in Yemen, Theatre Beginnings in Yemen, From the Depth of the Hidden to the Outskirts of Transfiguration, The Shock of Stones, A Study on Intifada Poems, Studies on the Novel and Short Story in Yemen and From the Stanza to the Poem: A Study of Yemen’s New Poetry.
Finally, in the presence of al-Maqaleh, the poet and soul who enriches the collective sentiment, and in keeping with his ways of grappling with intimate meaning, we end with his poem Supplications:
A lifetime has passed but little remains,
My feet did not tread away from the first fence of the house of beings,
My heart did not witness the secret of beauty distributed on earth,
My soul did not write the first alphabet of the hidden language,
In the light,
Words are still composing their journey to a cloud,
Not leaning close
To a woman named Poem in the book,
The pages of life are still pure and without evil
Only the murmurs of mirrors,
And fumes rising from the liver of doubt,
Can the languages that will die with me
And the poems,
Surpass the silent awe?