Introduction - University of Notre Dame

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In his Meditations on Hunting, the Spanish philosopher
and litterateur José Ortega y Gasset (1883–1955) intimates in his unerring but nevertheless paradoxical way
the impulse and dynamic behind the physical act of the
hunt: “One does not hunt in order to kill: on the contrary, one kills in order to have hunted.”1 With a true
“hunter’s” uncanny accuracy, he also tacitly posits the
rarely voiced tension between the exuberant heroic hunt
and the lyrical, self-indulgent courtly hunt—precisely
the distinction we will be making here between the hunt
scene of the early Arabic Bedouin Ode and the formally
freestanding Arabic poem of the hunt, the ṭardiyyah. Ortega y Gasset’s paradox of hunt and hunting allows us,
indeed invites us, to meditate with him as we introduce
our own “meditations on hunting” in Arabic poetry.
We begin with the Arabic poet as a princely Bedouin knight, rushing on his blood-splashed, peerless
hunting steed into herds of oryx in panicked flight. The
closure of such a hunt, with its overabundance of slaughtered quarry, followed by the roasting, boiling, and storing, is a feast of blood and meat—but above all, it is a
ritual banquet. Here, at least one particular hunter, Imru<
al-Qays, “killed in order to have hunted.” To ascertain
this, we might, of course, benefit from a knowledge of
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the broader context of the early Arabic, knightly-heroic qaṣīdah-ode.
However, the Bedouin Arabic poetic meditation of the hunt extends
as well to the representation of a hunt’s failure and even its illegality,
where the hunter agonizes as would an unsuccessful poacher. This agony,
but also the pathos in the psyche of the failed hunter, in its abstracted
concreteness, is no less than the hunter’s counter-feeling or counterexperience, the very opposite of the heroic feeling and experience of the
hunt of the great Bedouin Ode. On questions such as these it is necessary to (critically) meditate.
The Arabic hunt poem—the ṭardiyyah —is distinct from the Ode
in its shorter length, as well as in its perceptible leaning toward a new,
one might say “anti-Ode,” intensity of lyricism. It lays its own claim to
our meditative understanding of a poetic but also a technical depiction
of hunt and hunting. It introduces itself through a heightened formconsciousness, with a renewed, almost modern sensibility of courtliness;
and it never loses its self-justifying need to revalidate itself in terms of
Arabic poetry’s long-engrained passion for the hunt. In light of the separate but confluent poetic themes, forms, and structures of the archaic
Ode and the ṭardiyyah and their combined, almost contrapuntal grace,
it is thus necessary that we read them together, to relive not merely vicarious vestiges of the passion of hunting but also the poetry which that
passion and form engendered.
In the present study, I have laid special weight on approaching Arabic hunt poetry in a personal way and on interpreting it not so much
out of a passion for the hunt, as out of a passion for the qualitative distinctness of Arabic hunt poetry. My passion is mainly for what poetry
did or is capable of doing for and with hunting. For it is through its poetry that the hunt and act of hunting become fixed in time, credible in
it, and, taken out of their suspended, particular moment of realness, capable of preserving figments of a very specific passion.
A technical and thereby also an aesthetic misstep in approaching
hunt poetry takes out of the hunt, as it does out of its poetry, that paradoxically powerful yet fragile moment of imaginatively relived credibility. Therefore, our present concern with Arabic poetic texts of the
hunt as poetized form and of hunting as poetized act will be always very
selective, in full awareness of the proposition that from the moment
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of its selection for critical consideration, the meaning of a quoted poem
should be dictated not by the one who selected but by the selected poem
itself. At the moment of selection, the poem will stand on its own and
by itself. It will control and validate. It will be both betraying and unforgiving. If the selection was compromised by extra-poetic decisions, for
example, those of mere social history—if the reason was to fill in an
extra-literary vacuum of cold information, based not on the poem but
on its circumstance—then that reason for selection ought not to remain
hidden away from poetry’s “existential” reality (something that Ortega y
Gasset would well understand). It should stand out starkly, not provided
with a fig leaf of coy obdurateness.
Whether ancient or modern, the examples of the poetic texts presented here must not submit to an acceptability based on force of habit.
Often enough, even foundational, classicism-claiming poetry may have
to be taken off its pedestal and examined as though for the first time
ever. Even some wonderful poets have demanded this of themselves and
for others—although without much echo or response. Friedrich Schiller, for example, felt that especially Goethe, the poetic giant of his age,
would fare better if he were first dethroned, humbled like a broken
statue—or worse.2
My choices of Arabic poetic hunts and hunters, therefore, are also
attempts at uncovering them “from within.” Knowing as little as we do
about poets of the oldest periods of Arabic literature, our access to the
“within” of that poetry’s hunt and hunting will have to be preeminently
through poems and their frequently difficult-to-penetrate poetics, rather
than through the poets to whom those poems are attributed. This approach also harmonizes with the overall manner, or call it method, in
which I have set out to explore the historically later, more richly chronicled and detailed Arabic time of the literary hunt, the formally true-toitself “time of the ṭardiyyah.”
Precisely here, however, in this new genre-poem of the hunt, the
need increases—not just for scholarship but for criticism—to be more
alert and analytically more sharply incisive, in order to arrive at a sense
of identification of form through structure—a topic that ṭardiyyah
criticism so far has barely dared to touch. Within this need for formal
and structural clarity loom questions of the ṭardiyyah genre as a “lyrical
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genre”: Where does lyricism in it start? How does it evolve? Where does
it end? Why is its formal tenure so fragile? Even great poets like Abū
Nuwās have no answer to these questions. And when answers do come,
they are not critically noticed.
No ṭardiyyah poet’s head wears an unassailable crown, and no pedestal should provide forgiveness, even when singular poetic strokes of
genius by the same poets remain unstainable. In an academic and critical reading, however, there must be a readiness to bare deficits, or even
admit to deeply engrained hesitancies when speaking of poets and
poems that have long ago been consecrated, especially when that past
itself bristled with consecration. In such cases, the supine voice behind
a time-tested stasis of scholarship is best let free to clash with the other,
equally proven, critical tool, that is, kinesis. We should not, however, expect the encounter between these two agents to be harmonious.
It is a melancholy sight to observe a lyrical genre such as the ṭardiyyah agonize and die as joy in the courtly hunt itself died. The death
of the hunt poem came in two strokes, with the uncanny precision of a
tired, historically agonizing moment of confusion between chivalry and
societal servility. This death agony played out metaphorically in the
form-exorbitance and form-indifference, respectively, of the two otherwise formidable poetic contemporaries Abū Firās al-Ḥamdānī and alMutanabbī.
In our critical engagement with lyricism in the Arabic poetry of
hunt and hunting, we discover that the ṭardiyyah always ranks as a highly
joyous manifestation. Its loss or exhaustion as genre, therefore, reaches
deeper than the loss of a mere poetic form, for it had touched the pith
of unencumbered joy, when joy was young in some of the best of Arabic
lyrical poetry. But when the time seemed to have arrived for the ṭardiyyah to gasp for life again, its awakening was hardly a return to a world of
the hunt’s joy or even pathos. The passion in it was no longer even a figment of memory. Now it was only a nostalgia for a memory that was
too difficult to grasp, at best populated by someone else’s arcane choice
of referential symbols and escapist dream-stories. The lyrically generated hunters of the past had now become alien to themselves, and their
hunts had turned into the darkest, very personal escapes and losses.
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In effect, the courtliness and joy of the hunt no longer inhabit the
hunting grounds of contemporary Arabic poetry—as perhaps they
should not. For the modern Arab poet, as a huntsman in his estranged,
new time, his quarry exists not to be killed but to be preserved, to live
on in this new time, only now with its own burden as the meta-quarry of
a meta-hunt, all in a meta-poem that is out of control. Such is Arabic poetry’s trajectory of the post-courtly—but entirely modern—ṭardiyyah.
Arabic poetry may be unique among the world’s major literary traditions in that the theme of the hunt runs in a continuous, if uneven, current from the earliest period of recorded Arabic poetry—that is, the preIslamic “Age of Ignorance,” or Jāhiliyyah, an oral tradition whose oldest
preserved poems date as far back as the fifth century CE—through the
coming of Islam in the seventh century and the great Arabic courtly tradition of the Umayyad and >Abbāsid caliphates, and ultimately as a classical substrate for the radical Modernism of the twentieth century and
its metapoetic stance. This striking continuity of theme and motif,
however, is subject to dramatic transformations of poetic genre, structure, and sensibility throughout the arc of Arab cultural history. This
study aims not to rehearse the literary history of the hunt theme, but
rather to identify and explore the transformational moments of the
Arabic hunt, from heroic to lyric to Modernist-metapoetic.
Part One is entitled “The Heroic and the Anti-Heroic in the Early
Arabic Ode: The Qaṣīdah.” The majestic qaṣīdah, or ode, particularly in
its full-fledged tripartite form, constitutes the matrix of the classical Arabic poetic tradition. The qaṣīdah’s time-honored themes are distributed
over three structural sections: the nasīb (lyric-elegiac prelude), the raḥīl
(desert journey), and the fakhr (self-exaltation) or madīḥ (encomium),
which are very clearly circumscribed and defined as components of an
architectural construct. These sections determine not only the kind of
themes they accept but, even more importantly, the moods that will
rule over the repertory of poetic themes. Furthermore, it is in this form
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of the qaṣīdah that Arabic poetry produces its true canon-setting classicism between the pre-Islamic and the mid-Umayyad periods, that is, up
to ca. 700 CE. It speaks of the totality of experience each time a poet
speaks through it.
Chapter 1, “The Hunt in the Pre-Islamic Ode,” demonstrates that in
the pre-Islamic qaṣīdah, the hunt poem occurs not as a freestanding
genre but in the form of structurally determined thematic segments
of the grand qaṣīdah-scheme. In the qaṣīdah’s full articulation, however, the subject of the hunt is divided with the utmost formal rigor between the second and third sections, the raḥīl and the fakhr or madīḥ.
This structural differentiation has explicit thematic consequences, for the
Bedouin poet speaks of two very different types of hunt: the wretched
hunt on foot in the animal panels of the desert journey section, and the
chivalrous hunt on horseback of the final celebratory section. It is the
chivalrous hunt, termed ṭard, that generates the independent genre of
the Arabic hunt poem, called ṭardiyyah, which appears in the late Umayyad to early >Abbāsid periods (mid-eighth century CE), keyed in by the
image of the pre-Islamic chivalrous hunter’s unfaltering, and unforgettable, “setting out at daybreak” (wa qad aghtadī).
Having established in chapter 1 the structure-determined typology
of the hunt, in chapter 2, “The Hunt in the Ode at the Close of the Archaic Period,” I uncover the allegorical dimensions of both the wretched
hunter theme of the raḥīl (desert journey) section and the chivalrous
hunt of the fakhr (self-exaltation) and madīḥ (encomium) sections in
the pre-Islamic and early Islamic ode. In the rahīl section the protagonist
is not the hunter but the hunted animal, usually an oryx bull or cow, a
wild ass, or, more rarely, an ostrich; and from its encounter with the
hunter (or with the inclement environment, as is the case of the ostrich)
it must emerge victorious, unless the poem in which this type of hunting scene figures is an elegy. The hunter, in contrast, personifies despondency, failure, and social destitution. His fate is to be unlucky; and there
is almost an air of wrong to his very pursuit of his quarry. He is, as it
were, a poacher, with no right to intrude in the animal world.
As for the hunt that takes place in the third section of the classical
qaṣīdah, that is, the fakhr (self-exaltation) or madīḥ (encomium), there
must as a rule be no further reference to the she-camel or to the animal
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panels; for the liminal journey is now over, and the poet is no longer
traveling alone in a danger-filled desert. Instead he finds himself again
in his tribal community or at a patron’s court. There he must engage in
and practice certain given and firmly established customs and social,
or communal, rituals. These communal acts are then either celebratory,
such as banquets, homages, and the like, or expressly and iconically
heroic, such as the gallant hunt.
Toward the end of the Umayyad period, the ternary qaṣīdah ceases
to be operative in its fullest, archaic-Bedouin, manner, that is, in the
liminality of the raḥīl and in the heroic purpose of its chivalrous chase,
and the dialectical tension between the two types of hunt begins to break
down. The qaṣīdah then becomes either the formalistic-rhetorical vehicle of court panegyric, still ternary, as described by the classical critic
Ibn Qutaybah, or else it ceases to be ternary altogether, losing the liminal
raḥīl section with the wretched hunt and, with it, its allegorizing effect
upon the subsequent chivalrous chase. In the process of these changes,
the qaṣīdah furthermore releases, or expels, the subject of the hunt from
its tradition-dictated frame. In so doing, it gives it the freedom to move
outside the confines of traditional qaṣīdah-structure, thereby freeing it,
in a future no longer Bedouin, to pursue an independent poetic existence as a specific, freestanding poetic form and, ultimately, as its own
genre, the ṭardiyyah.
Chapter 3, “Sacrifice and Redemption: The Transformation of
an Archaic Theme in al-Ḥuṭay<ah,” comes to terms with the “Wretched
Hunter” poem by the Mukhaḍram poet Jarwal Ibn Aws al-Ḥuṭay<ah
(d. 650– 668 CE). The poem presents a scene of intended human sacrifice and redemption. Beginning with the overarching subject of the
Arab Bedouin law of hospitality and generosity, the analysis of this poem
in its fuller cultural contexts entails a comparison with the Qur<ānic
and biblical versions of the Abraham and Isaac/Ishmael story and with
the Christian myth and symbolism of the Eucharist.
Part Two is entitled “The Hunt Poem as Lyric Genre in Classical
Arabic Poetry: The Ṭardiyyah.” As shown in chapter 4, “The Discreet
Pleasures of the Courtly Hunt: Abū Nuwās and the >Abbāsid Ṭardiyyah,”
the freestanding ṭardiyyah, a short lyrical poem of the hunt, appears in
its precocious maturity with the early >Abbāsid poet Abū Nuwās (d. 814
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or 815). We no longer find the undisguised, pathos-laden wretched
hunter of the pre-Islamic raḥīl or the chivalrous heroic hunter of the
fakhr section of the pre-Islamic qaṣīdah, but rather a hunter who is
courtly, discreet, and, as a persona, almost invisible. In the extensive
corpus of hunt poems attributed to Abū Nuwās, two basic types are
identifiable. The first exhibits a subjective perspective in which the poet
is the agent of the hunt. This type typically opens with the Imru< alQays – derived formula wa qad aghtadī (“I would set out at the break
of day”) and can be characterized as waṣf (subjectively involved description). Typologically and terminologically distinct from this is the
second type, the hunt poem of objectively distanced description (na>t),
which characteristically opens with the formula an>atu (“I shall describe”). Through selected examples, this chapter analyzes the thematic
and stylistic differences between these two types as well as their overlap
in intermediate subjective-objective hunt poems.
The hunt poem takes an imagist turn as shown in chapter 5, “From
Description to Imagism: >Alī Ibn al-Jahm’s ‘We Walked over Saffron
Meadows.’” The >Abbāsid poet >Alī Ibn al-Jahm (d. 863) opens his ṭardiyyah with saffron meadows underfoot but with the poetic vision directed high in the sky. After a hunting scene that has the mood of an interlude, the poem in its closure reverts to the opening image of a purely
aerial vision of hawks and falcons circling above the hunters. The air
through which the falcons circle silently remains as soft and balmy as
the saffron meadows under the hunters’ feet when they entered the enchanted realm of their hunt. >Alī Ibn al-Jahm’s singular ṭardiyyah, with
its equally singular occurrence in classical Arabic poetry of the motif of
riyāḍu z-za>farān (the saffron meadows), is thus essentially different from
the ṭardiyyahs of innovative wit laid upon traditional, archaizing motival dependencies of his great predecessor, Abū Nuwās. The essence of
lyricism in >Alī Ibn al-Jahm lies in his poetic ability to sustain an image.
After Abū Nuwās, the genre of the ṭardiyyah reaches its second apogee, or rather its maturity, in the hands of the >Abbāsid poet and critic
Ibn al-Mu>tazz (d. 908), the subject of chapter 6, “Breakthrough into
Lyricism: The Ṭardiyyahs of Ibn al-Mu>tazz.” By overcoming the limitations of the formulaism in the ṭardiyyah genre of his predecessors, Ibn
al-Mu>tazz realizes the full lyrical potential of the Arabic hunt poem
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and moves beyond mere objective description to lyrical affect. Thereby he
reinvigorates the genre. The full expanse of lyricism in Ibn al-Mu>tazz’s
“setting-out” ṭardiyyahs is nowhere better displayed than in his nineteenverse poem no. 92. It illustrates his distinct preference for the “subjective” ṭardiyyah-stance of wa qad aghtadī (“perhaps I will set out with the
break of day”) over the self-distancing, objectivizing stance in his other,
“descriptive” ṭardiyyahs.
Another >Abbāsid experiment is the narrative hunt poem dealt
with in chapter 7, “From Lyric to Narrative: The Ṭardiyyah of Abū Firās
al-Ḥamdānī.” We witness a radical transformation of the Arabic hunt
poem in the work of the later >Abbāsid poet Abū Firās al-Ḥamdānī
(d. 968), who abandons the short lyric monorhyme for the sprawling,
narrative rhymed couplets (urjūzah muzdawijah). His 136-line poem
almost breaks with the ṭardiyyah genre-tradition to become a curious
formal hybrid, which is never repeated. It was then, and still remains, an
unexplained genre-historical phenomenon and, as such, a temptation
and a challenge to scholarship and criticism. In this chapter, I deal with
some of this poem’s most jarring narrative, acoustic, and aesthetic problems and conclude that Abū Firās’s formal experiment ultimately fails
to integrate the lyric and narrative elements into a fully satisfying poem
of the hunt.
Part Three bears the title “Modernism and Metapoeisis: The Pursuit of the Poem.” After several centuries of neglect, the hunt poem as
poetic concept was revived by Modernist poets. Chapter 8, “The Modernist Hunt in >Abd al-Wahhāb al-Bayātī and Aḥmad >Abd al-Mu>ṭī
Ḥijāzī,” examines two poems, both entitled Ṭardiyyah, by two pioneering Arab free-verse poets, the Iraqi >Abd al-Wahhāb al-Bayātī (d. 1999)
and the Egyptian Aḥmad >Abd al-Mu>ṭī Ḥijāzī (1935–). In naming their
poems Ṭardiyyah, both poets invoke the classical Arabic poetic genre of
that name, together with its literary constraints and formal and thematic
expectations. In his Ṭardiyyah (1966), al-Bayātī transforms the genreand form-bound, rhymed and metered lyric of the classical tradition
into a formally free exploration of the dramatic and tragic image of the
hunted hare as a metaphor for the political and cultural predicament of
modern man. The chapter then turns to Ḥijāzī’s Ṭardiyyah, composed in
1979 during his self-imposed exile in Paris. I demonstrate that through
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the dream-metaphor of the hunt, the poet transforms the poignant lyricism of the traditional hunt poem into an expression of the poet’s personal experience of political exile and poetic restlessness and frustration.
In the closing chapter, we discover the ultimate Modernist hunt
poem. Chapter 9, “The Metapoetic Hunt of Muḥammad >Afīfī Maṭar,”
comprises the interpretation and full translation of a single poem by the
contemporary Arabic Egyptian poet Muḥammad >Afīfī Maṭar (d. 2010),
his Ṭardiyyah (1992). The poet’s Modernist poem, no longer courtly, is
hermeneutically connected to the old genre, as is revealed in his modern
mythopoetic use of the archaic motif of “the morning of the hunter.” In
this chapter I also raise the problem of the notorious difficulty and obscurity (ṣu>ūbah and ghumūḍ) of >Afīfī Maṭar’s poetic language in the
context of the general search of modern Arab poets, among them Adūnīs
(>Alī Aḥmad Sa>īd), for a new poetic language. The chapter then turns
to establishing >Afīfī Maṭar’s place among the European and American
poets of radical Modernism, especially with regard to the mythopoetic
stance of Wallace Stevens. Finally, I argue that >Afīfī Maṭar’s Ṭardiyyah
with its very personal mythopoesis is a total achievement in the presentation of a Modernist Arabic poem—an achievement analogous to
Wallace Stevens’s “central poem,” “A Primitive Like an Orb.”