[Sayyab`s correspondence contains some of his most profound statements on poetry, modernity and contemporary politics of the era. Here, we present to you three letters, addressed to Suhayl Idris, Yusuf al-Khal, and Adonis, respectively.]
To My Brother Dr. Suhayl Idris:
Greetings! The letter that you just sent to me has left an indelible impression on my soul. It is yet another witness to the nobility of your soul, the greatness of your heart and the sincerity of your personal pledge to serve all Arabs and lead their current literary endeavors toward the light. I read it to a considerate audience, a select few of the local literati, all lovers of literature, so that they would be well informed of the partisan clamor a group of “evangelists” has been raising. [...]
I have an interesting piece of news I would like to tell you. You no doubt remember the article that Nihad Takarli published in Al-Adib under the title “‘Abd al-Wahhab al-Bayyati, Evangelist of Modern Poetry,” alluding to the fact that it was the Introduction to the collection Abariq muhashshama [Broken Pitchers], which would be published soon. Know, then, that the Iraqi House of Modern Culture has taken on the task of publishing this collection. But it has stipulated the omission of the introduction Nihad Takarli wrote containing critical values and a philosophy that completely contradicted those of the publisher—and, indeed, every true concept of literature, the literature of engagement. Words—in Takarli’s opinion—are ends in themselves. . .words! This is true even for sentences and ideas that the words express when they are combined. Thus Bayyati has been compelled—he who had defended the correctness of the ideas this introduction contained until recently, despite his pleas for Communism and for Democracy, etc.—to disavow it. As for our author Nihad, he still considers his introduction to be the best thing any writer has ever written about poetic criticism and he considers its omission to be a personal affront. The upshot of this has been that there is notable coldness between the poet and the critic. It is probable that this rift will widen.
I have enclosed with this letter a poem of mine entitled “Hymn of the Rain.” I hope that you will find it satisfactory and that it will be worthy of publication in Al-Adab. I am very much concerned that this poem of mine will take up space that would have been better devoted to something better and newer than mine. But what can be done when the most salient characteristic of my poems is their length? Perhaps this is one of the reasons that has made me hesitate to send it to you since my return from Kuwait a few months ago.
In conclusion, I would like you to convey my greetings to Prof. ‘Abd Allah al-Da’im who writings I like so much. I promise you to be always careful of your good opinion and to cooperate with you as much as I can in our shared Arab interests. It is my pleasure that you want there to be ties of love between us and be assured, my brother, that I hope the same from the bottom of my heart. Always the sincere one who will be for you a believer in love, admiration and esteem.
Badr Shakir al-Sayyab
Baghdad, May 1958
To My Brother Yusuf al-Khal:
“I have a million things to do.” These words of yours are something I repeat all the time now. The truth is that I am embarrassed in front of you and dear Adunis because of this [long] silence on my part. But if you had been in my place you would forgive me [completely]. From early morning until after midnight, work is continual so that some dirhams can be put together. . . but I still demand—between me and my soul—that I read and write poetry.
I have read what was circulated on the pages devoted to the Thursdays in Majallat Shi‘r (Poetry Magazine). I read your exaggerations. The colloquial language—as Adunis said—cannot bear the burden of the issues that the contemporary Arab poet must deal with. The Communists alone insist that the poet write in a language and style the masses will understand. As for us, the opposite is true. We write—indeed, we must write—about things above the level of the masses, who are different culturally. If we wish to walk along with them, then we would have to hold ourselves back intellectually and culturally, to hold ourselves back from the depths, from art, from many things. Poetry—like all the fine arts in these times of ours—cannot be limited to being for the collective. Nor can it be a political tool, or even a political film or an article in the newspaper.
Have you read what T.S. Eliot said about the individual talent and the cultural heritage, and their connection to poetry? A thread must continue forever to be there between the old and the new. Some elements of the old must continue forever to be there in what we call the new. Our poetry must not be some kind of Western monstrosity in Arab or semi-Arab garb. We must make use of the best there is in our poetic heritage at the same time we make use of what the Westerners have perfected—especially by those who speak English—in the world of poetry.
Your incorporation of Ahmad Abu Sa‘d and Fu’ad al-Khashin into the family of Shi‘r was a valuable step. You know that Shi‘r has been accused of being a magazine of the Syrian nationalists. This is what keeps it from entering Syria, for example, and what makes many poets wary of publishing in it. The important thing is that this magazine and this poetic movement keep away from any political stamp. This will not occur unless the group of poets involved in it steer clear of political ties. The foremost goal that this movement must strive for—in my opinion—is too keep poetry untouched by any party affiliation or politics. So, “the poet must not squander his efforts in areas far from the concern of poetry,” as Nadhir al-‘Azma has said.
At any rate, …. I would welcome the opportunity to participate in the Thursdays as a correspondent, but not now. I first need to see Shi‘r having embraced the question of poetry sincerely without any hint of party affiliation or politics. Not because I—like so many others—would accuse the magazine of having a particular political platform, but because it so happens that excellent poets, like Adunis, al-‘Azmah and Yusuf al-Khal , etc., are members of the SSNP and that they are the ones who run the magazine. Even though there appears a certain “spirit” in some of their work. Instead the achievement of this distance from politics would be in the interests of Shi‘r and the movement of modern poetry. I will cooperate with you in every way that will support modern Arabic poetry.
My greetings to all our friends, and especially Adunis and Khalidah Sa‘id.
Basra 9/17/1964 [Possibly Sayyab`s last letter]
My brother Adunis (the dearest of beloveds, along with Muhyi al-Din Muhammad):
Fate has dealt me an unexpected blow, most treasured friend.
How are you? Correspondence between us has ceased for about nine months. Evil fortune and muscle disease are the twin causes of it. My general health isn’t bad, but my legs are paralyzed and I can no longer move them. My soul, however, is inundated with poetry, but it comes from a well-spring of great pain and despair, not joy. Just yesterday I wrote a poem without any sadness or misery or pain because Brother ‘Ali al-Sabti met my loved ones in Lebanon and told me some very delightful news about them, promising that they would write me a letter very soon. You are the only friend of mine in Lebanon who I haven’t told about this passion because I’ve never met you without my wife being with me! So how could I say anything?
That love has been responsible for curing me, not the medicine of that vile German female doctor without a B.A. or any other degree. Her love has cured me, just as the love of the poet Robert Browning cured the English lady poet Elizabeth Barrett of paralysis after she had been suffering from it for twenty years. The period when we met was only twenty days or less. Then my spouse drove me away like a shepherd drives the sheep before him toward the airplane stairs, then to Iraq.
Give my regards to ‘Ali al-Sabti. Give my regards to sister Khalida. My kisses to Arwad. I haven’t heard whether you have a son? What have you named him?
[Texts are from Majid al-Samarra’i, Rasa’il al-Sayyab (Beirut: al-Mu’assasa al-‘Arabiyya li-l-Dirasat wa-l-Nashr, 1994)].