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Badr Shakir al-Sayyab: Fifty Years On

[Youth washing Sayyab's statue in Basra, image from] [Youth washing Sayyab's statue in Basra, image from]

The great Iraqi poet Badr Shakir al-Sayyab died fifty years ago today, on December 24, 1964. During his short life, Sayyab changed the language and form of Arabic poetry for good: in part, by breaking centuries' old meters and remaking the rhythms of verse; in part, by engaging intensely with a number of traditions and world literatures at the same time; and always, by engaging with the political, cultural and social dynamics of the moment he lived in. During his early years, Sayyab carried on a lively conversation with a long line of Arab poets that had come before him. During the 1950s, he grappled with the form of modern English poetry and translated it into an idiom that was personal but also resonated with the demands of his critics and poet peers. Similarly, Sayyab was probably T. S. Eliot's most profound interlocutor in any language.

Sayyab's life was never easy and his voice was always independent, albeit sometimes quite frustrated. As a member of the Iraqi Communist Party, he was imprisoned during the late 1940s. His subsequent career as a teacher suffered because of this youthful activism. Later, during the early post-independence republic, he came into conflict with officials on account of his pan-Arab and staunch anti-socialist views. Again, his career in Iraq suffered. Fortunately, he found an audience in the poetic circles of Beirut and beyond. During the last years of his life, his work began to find recognition across the Arab world, even as he waged a painful, futile battle against ALS (Lou Gehrig's Disease). The experience of despair and loss pervades his later poems and letters. In elegy to him, we present them to you here together. 

Terri DeYoung translates letters from Sayyab to Suhayl Idris, Yusuf al-Khal and Adunis, and one of Sayyab's last major poems, "The Balcony of the Nobleman's Daughter."

Levi Thompson translates "The Poem and the Phoenix."

Sinan Antoon translates "The River and Death" and "The Book of Job" (1)

And finally, two translations of Sayyab's last poem, "Crutch in Hell."

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