Brief Chronology of Some of the Characteristic Periods
and “Schools” Arabic Poetry
a) The Pre-Islamic Era (prior to 622 AD)
b) The Abbasid-Era Moderns (8th-10th cen. AD)
c) Medieval Era (Ottoman Era through the mid-19th century)
d) Neo-Classical Poetry, the “Renaissance” (nahda): mid 19th
century to early 20th century
e) Romantic Era (late 19th century through the first half of
20th century)
f) Modern Era, pre-1967 (“Tammuzi School”, Symbolism)
g) Modern Era, post-1967
Pre-Islamic Era (before 622 AD)
Formal qasida structure (rhyme, meter, hemistichs)
Formulaic thematic structure
Oral composition and transmission
Poet articulates a collective identity
Poems address specific event or occasion, already known to
• Poetry serves a vital function: praise, boast, invective, mourning,
• Repository of Arabs’ knowledge (history, geography, society, etc.)
The Abbasid-Era Moderns (8th-10th cen. AD)
Maintains formal requirements of traditional qasida
Clear, lucid diction
Thoughtful interaction of form, language and meaning
News ideas expressed, some of which subvert conventional
themes and topics of Arabic poetry
• Both sentimental and “occasional” (ie, event based), yet
always thought provoking.
• Abu Nuwas, Abu Tammam, al-Ma’arri, etc.
“Conventional” Classical/Medieval Poetry, (Ottoman Era
to mid-19th century – “The Era of Literary Decadence”)
• Strict maintenance of formal requirements
• Complicated word-play, verbal virtuosity, obscure vocabulary
• Poetry written for and by the cultural elite; “an exercise of
wit” (Jayysui, p. 1)
• Conventional topics (primarily praise poems) or detailed –
nearly microscopic – descriptive poems
• “[neglect] for the existential dimensions of the human
condition” (Jayyusi, p. 1)
Neo-Classical Poetry, the “Renaissance” (nahda): mid
19th century to early 20th century
• Inspired, somewhat, by perceived gap between Western political, military,
technological, and cultural progress and Arab cultural, political, etc.
• Awakened interest in Arab poetic heritage; reinvigorate traditional poetics
• Maintenance of classical-era, formal requirements (rhyme, meter,
• Rejection of obscure and overwrought lexical and metaphoric diction
• Address topics pertinent to the lived existence of modern (19th-early 20th
century) Arabs
• Political content; at times critical of authorities (political and religious), yet
never “revolutionary”; renewal, not rejection, of indigenous social and
political systems
• Balance between form and function, beauty and clarity, emotion and
reason; strong, clear, and direct oratorical style
• Ahmad Shawqi, “Prince of the Poets”
Romantic Era (late 19th century through the first half of 20th century)
Took root amongst Arab poets living abroad (in the US/NYC and South America) – the
mahjar (“ex-pat community”)
Inspired from Western romantic-era poetry and American transcendentalism (Walt
Whitman, for instance), and adapted themes and ideas from non-Arab sources
Dissatisfaction with conventional formal requirements of Arabic poetry (uniform
meter, uniform rhyme, hemistich line structure); rejection of “sterile” and
“moribund” conventions
Emphasis on emotional world of the poet, rejection of material, Earthly matters –
poetry a reflection of the poet’s soul, not his corporeal state
Deeply sentimental, dealt with existential matters (often in a heavy-handed manner);
unremittingly sincere and earnest
Imbued with spiritualism and contemplation, “Eastern spiritualism” vs. “Western
materialism”; a yearning for spiritual transcendence, often expressed through the
metaphoric language of the lover and beloved.
Diction that is “modern, elegant, and original”; “imagery that was evocative and
imbued with a healthy measure of emotion (Jayyusi, p. 5).
Revolutionary in its confrontation of social taboos; not, however, overtly political.
Strong advocacy for women’s rights.
Khalil Gibran, Mikha’il Nu’ayma, Amin al-Rihani (all based in NYC, originally from
Modern Era, pre-1967 (“Tammuzi School”, Symbolism)
Outright rejection of formal strictures of the qasida: no more unifying rhyme, no more
unifying meter, no more hemistich lines (The Free Verse Movement – Nazik Mala’ika)
Addresses present through Islamic and Near Eastern mythological motifs (inspired by
Frazier’s The Golden Bough to look for primordial themes that undergird all human
Consciously experimental; “The directness, rationality, and traditionalism of the
neoclassical school were transcended, as were the dilution, flabbiness, sentimentality and
spleen of Romanticism” (Jayyusi, p. 7)
In dialogue with Western literary theory and poetic models (T.S. Eliot, Yeats, etc.); happily
draws from a broader human poetic culture – East and West.
“Conjured meaning through the musicality of words” (Jayyusi, p. 6), i.e., language
integration (see Culler, p. 29); “”calm pace, gemlike selection of words, harmonious
compositions, and gentle rhythms” (Jayyusi, p. 11); clarity of language (even if references
to mythology or western literary figures remained beyond the ken of casual readers).
Topically and thematically fragmented; deliberate opacity evokes sense of disorientation
and confusion of Arab world; however, atmosphere of gloom leavened by potential for
rebirth and renewal; inspired by the successes of Arab nationalist movements in the face
of foreign colonization; “a deep faith in the in the possibility of human struggle to bring
about the final triumph of freedom and justice” (Jayyusi, p. 21)
Abd al-Wahhab al-Bayati, Adonis, Badr Shakir al-Sayyab
Modern Era, post-1967
Disillusionment with political condition after failure of the Arab nationalist project under
Gamal Abd al-Nasser, continued foreign intervention and local repression; commitment to
present affairs; expression of life as lived by all Arabs, not merely privileged classes
Thematically grim, a reflection of general pessimism in Arab political affairs after 1948 and
1967: “an atmosphere haunted by feelings of sorrow, disgust, shame, anger, frustration,
apathy, and alienation” (Jayyusi, p. 16)
Like earlier Modern poetry, text, narrative and narrator are fragmented, and contradictory –
a reflection of pervasive “existential malaise”; unlike earlier poets, very little hope for
political and social renewal. Ambiguity and irregularity of modern life reflected in poetic
lexicon, sentence structure and metaphor (Jayyusi, p. 28)
Very few poets maintain formal strictures of the traditional qasida
“Poetry…abandoned the songs of weddings and festivals, the prayers of lovers, and the
private longings of the soul, in favor of a more communal expression rife with anger and
frustration” (Jayyusi, p. 16) – the poet resumes his communal role from the pre-Islamic era?
Paradox of social commitment, even as “Arab poetry has delved deeper and deeper into new
realms of obliquity and metaphorical adventure” (Jayyusi, p. 16)
The Arabic poetic heritage questioned and attacked; indeed, all dogmas and doctrine
(including those of language and the poetic traditions itself) become subjects of critique.
Nizar al-Qabbani, Mahmoud Darwish, Saleh al-Sabur
Modernism in a nut shell
“The major attainments of modernist Arabic poetry have
been toward complexity and coherence, esthetic
sophistication and originality, together with a deep
commitment to the cause of human justice and freedom.
This has always been poetry’s greatest aspiration, its most
arduous task. The success of some major experiments
must be seen as phenomenal in view of the fact that it
comes on two levels which are not mutually compatible:
esthetic complexity and social commitment” (Jayyusi, p.
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