[Note: This is the seventh in a series of translations of selected letters of the noted Iraqi poet Badr Shakir al-Sayyab. For information on the poet, click here.]

Letter #8 3/4/1958

Baghdad

Dear Brother, Yusuf (al-Khal),

“I have a million things to do.” These are your words that I now repeat constantly. The truth is that I feel embarrassed in front of you and my dear friend Adunis due to this silence on my part. But… if you were in my place, you would both forgive me. From early morning until long after midnight, I work constantly to earn a few dirhams…I also have a personal commitment to read and write poetry.

I have read what transpired during the Thursday gathering of Shi’r Magazine. I have also read your “exaggerations.” The colloquial language – as Adunis said – is incapable of sustaining the causes that the Modern Arab Poet writes about. Only the Communists insist that the poet should write in a language and a style that the general public understands. The general public lacks cultural awareness. If we wanted to conform to the general public, then we would need to lag behind culturally and intellectually. We would have to relinquish our depth and give up art and many other things. Poetry – like all sublime arts in our present age- is not meant to be for everyone or to be a political instrument. It is neither a movie nor a newspaper article.

Did you read what T. S. Eliot wrote in reference to individual talent and heritage and their relationship to poetry? There must remain a thread that ties the old and the new together. Some of the features of the old must remain in what we call new. Our poetry should not be a Western freak dressed in Arabic or semi-Arabic clothes. We must benefit from what is best in our poetic heritage while at the same time profiting from what westerners have achieved – especially English speakers- in the realm of poetry.
Admitting Ahmad abu Saad, Fuoud al-Khashin and others to the “Shi’r” clan was a good move. You realize that this journal is accused of being the journal of the Syrian Nationalists… this is why it was prevented from entering Syria, for example, and this is what caused many of the poets to refrain from publishing in it. What is important is that this journal and this poetic movement remain distant from any political character, and this will not be achieved until the percentage of poets belonging to it, who hold specific political tendencies, has become very minimal. The primary goal that this movement should strive for- in my opinion- is to save poetry from partisanship and from politics for “it is incumbent on the poet not to scatter his efforts in causes that distance him from the cause of poetry,” according to Nathir al-Athma.

In any case, I welcome the opportunity to participate (in al-Khamis) as a correspondent,” but not at the present time. First, I have to see hat the journal, “Shi’r” has purely embraced the cause of poetry without assuming any political or partisan character… not because I am like the others who accuse the journal of a certain political affiliation, but because, coincidentally, some glorious poets such as Adunis, al-‘Athma, Yusuf al-Khal and others are among the supporters of the Syrian National Party and they are the ones who manage the journal, and a certain “ spirit” is demonstrated in the writings of some of them. Achieving distance from politics is for the general good of the journal as well as for the good of the movement of the New Poetry. … I am willing to cooperate with you in all that supports modern Arabic poetry.

My regards to all our friends, particularly Adunis and Khalida (Sa’id),

Badr

[From the book, al-Sayyab’s Letters, by Majid al-Samurra’i, (Beirut: Al-Mu’assasa al-‘Arabiya li-al-dirasat wa-al-Nashr, Second Edition, 1994, p. 130) Translated from the original Arabic and with an introduction by George Nicolas El-Hage, Ph.D., Columbia University.]