Abdulaziz Jassim on the symbiotic relationship between poetry and prose

In an interview with Al Majalla, the acclaimed Emirati poet talks about the universality of poetry and tells aspiring poets to be their unique selves

Emirati poet Abdulaziz Jasim
Emirati poet Abdulaziz Jasim

Abdulaziz Jassim on the symbiotic relationship between poetry and prose

Emirati poet Abdulaziz Jasim's landmark 1995 poetry collection, No Need for Me, is among the acclaimed bodies of work in Arabic poetry. It introduced deep intellectual curiosity and philosophical questions into the art form.

Born in 1961 in Ras Al Khaimah, Jasim's collection of poetry includes masterpieces like Without Direction, the Heart Self-Implodes, and Reflections on the Transformations of the World, which was published in two parts: Newton's Inferno and The Effect of Words and Calling.

Al Majalla interviewed the acclaimed poet, who discussed the relationship between philosophy and poetry and his views on today's poetry scene. Below are excerpts from the interview.

Your first poetry collection, No Need for Me, opened with a quote from German thinker Walter Benjamin: “At the very least, no one controls a dead man.” Why did you choose this quote?

I believe the answer lies within the folds of the collection. Walter Benjamin’s phrase specifically points to the character Albert Camus discussed in his book, The Rebel. This character experiences the absurdity of existence, the deceit of life, its tragedies, its void, and its weariness. Sometimes, the intensity of this suffering brings Camus to a state of the living dead. Despite all this suffering, he still refuses and rebels against everything. Poets should never compromise their freedom and dignity. This collection reflects this rebellious spirit and is evidenced in the title itself.

In your two-part book Reflections on the Transformations of the World, you explore questions about culture and its socially accepted confines, as well as global changes and turmoil. Does this take us back to the statement by an Arab poet that says, “Inside every poet, there is a thinker”?

Culture and philosophy are inherently intertwined, so yes, every poet is inherently a thinker. But what kind of thinker? This is where different opinions and perspectives come into play. A poet is necessarily a thinker through their engagement with the world. I firmly believe poetry to be a philosophy of existence and life and that poets are philosophers who transcend narrow academic classifications.

This is especially evident in the postmodern philosophers in France who have philosophised poetry. For their part, Arabs have always explored philosophical questions, dating back to the thinkers of the Abbasid and Andalusian eras and continuing through the modern Renaissance era—at least from its early days onwards.

Poets should never compromise their freedom and dignity. No Need for Me reflects this rebellious spirit and is evidenced in the title itself.

Emirati poet Abdulaziz Jasim

On the relationship between poetry and philosophers: How do you deconstruct the overlap? How do you delineate the boundaries between them, and where does imagination become the discipline of thought itself?

It's important to understand that philosophy and poetry have always been intertwined since the beginning of history. The famous Greek philosopher Aristotle is a key example of this. And according to historian Giambattista Vico, poetry preceded prose.

When the first humans musicalised language, they created myth, followed by prose—reason and wisdom—representing the second stage of human thought development. However, the two art forms have been complementary from the start, and many have combined philosophy and poetry, writing philosophy in the language and spirit of poetry and poetry with the depth of philosophy.

There are many Arab poet-philosophers like Al-Ma'arri, Ibn Arabi, and some Sufis, among others. In Western culture, examples include Nietzsche and Heidegger—the former poeticised philosophy and the latter philosophised poetry.

Philosophy is an argumentative, knowledge-based logic, whereas poetry is irrational and has its own unique logic formed through experiences and meanings of existence. When a poet writes a poem, they do not create an argumentative theory. Poetry is concerned with the essence of life and the anthropology of existence, and when this turns into poetry, it enters the alchemy of language and verse. Thus, there is a poetry of life, marking the difference between the logic and proof of philosophy and the imagination and linguistic ontology of poetry.

In your view, can Arabic poetry be universally appreciated by all Arabs, or do language, structure, and aesthetics impact how it is received in different countries?

One of my poems was recently translated into 39 languages as part of the Ithaca Global Poetry Project, including languages from countries that one might never consider. This means that poetry has the ability to transcend identities, cultures, and affiliations. Poetry is universal; it is the voice of the world and its echo, and thus, its boundaries are the boundaries of the world.

Culture and philosophy are inherently intertwined. Every poet is inherently a thinker.

Emirati poet Abdulaziz Jasim

Do you think poetry today has become monotonous? Do we need a new poetic masterpiece to restore its shine?

I agree to a certain extent. On the one hand, we can see a lot of orthodoxy in Arabic poetry—like relics in a museum. These projects get a lot of financial support and media exposure, which has had a negative influence on today's aspiring poets. These orthodoxies drag us backwards and refuse to acknowledge the leaps and achievements of modern Arabic poetry in terms of language and poetic thought. Not all poetic prose makes for prose poetry, and vice versa. 

However, today's Arabic poetry scene is not as bleak as many would paint it.  There are different poetic levels—especially in prose poetry—but creativity is boundless. It's not just about using rare words from dictionaries. True poets are greater than dictionaries, having absorbed language and its multiple meanings.

The surprise element here lies in using unexpected combinations and juxtapositions, skillfully and spontaneously bringing together disparate elements and harmonising differences. The greater the distance between the elements of a metaphor or image, the greater the impact.

In his introduction to my collection, poet and critic Kazem Jihad discusses this. He says that simplicity is not the opposite of depth, and fluidity does not negate the strength and majesty of the phrase. Skilful symbolism can be achieved with closely related words that are understood without ambiguity or difficulty. What is the point of a poem that cannot be understood by the reader? 

Prose poetry is simple in form yet profound and resistant to pseudo-poets in terms of substance. This rich simplicity presents a difficult challenge to non-poets. True poeticism is about the relationship a poet establishes between meanings. It's about mastering language and chemistry. The poet not only should be able to manipulate language, but the poet is the language. In this sense, a poet can be compared to an archaeologist searching for a hidden lost treasure.

The essence of poetry relies on the poet's strength and ability to create and delve into the poem itself. Prose poetry is an ongoing development, not bound by predetermined or rigid criteria. It emerges through the poet's experience. For example, the poetic narrative should adhere to the requirements of the poem itself, not the other way around.

Combining prose and poetry requires skill, experience, abundant talents, and genuine poetic ability. Prose relies on orality, while poetry depends on the poem's conditions—its structure, architecture, and rhythm. The difference between them is subtle, and if the poet errs in this distinction, the poem collapses.

How do you view the new generation of poets? What do you hope for them? What advice would you give them?

I would first ask them why they write poetry. What is poetry to them? They need to understand the difference between poetic prose and constructing a poem as a piece and the importance of poetry in highlighting the world's beauty or tragedy. In short, they should be their unique poetic selves, and leave their mark on the poetry scene by writing something away from the mainstream.

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