A New Divan – review

A New Divan celebrates the two hundredth anniversary of Goethe’s great West-Eastern Divan in which the poet expresses both a personal sense of creative renewal and his love of Middle Eastern poetry, particularly that by the fourteenth century Persian poet Hafiz.

In A New Divan, twelve major poets from the ‘East’ and twelve from the ‘West’ were each commissioned to write on one of twelve themes in Goethe’s collection. Only Khaled Mattawa and Don Paterson wrote in English. Other poems appear in both English and their language of composition. The English versions are by poets, usually working from someone else’s literal translation. There are six essays relating to Goethe’s approach to Middle Eastern poetry and addressing general questions about translation and relations between Middle Eastern and Western poetic traditions. The subtitle is perhaps misleading. What we have – much more interestingly than a dialogue – is a polyphony of voices from various traditions and situations within both ‘East’ and ‘West’, a polyphony reflecting both differences and the cross-fertilisations that have already taken place.

We begin with Adonis’s powerful ‘Letter to Goethe’ translated by Khaled Mattawa (who is also the author of the following poem). Adonis’s ‘Letter’ is an agonized response to Goethe’s hopes for a happy fusion of traditions, perhaps partly reflecting the dark history of so much of the Middle East in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. In its elevated language, its use of metaphors and symbols that are both lurid and literary, and its abstract presentation of its subject, his poem is very far from the literal, concrete and explicit leanings of most modern British poetry. In this way, it powerfully widens the British reader’s sense of what poetry can do. Admittedly, this isn’t simply a matter of confronting Western habits of mind with Eastern ones. Adonis is an eighty-nine year old Syrian poet who has lived in Paris since the mid-eighties and the French poet Mallarmé is apparently one of the major influences on his writing. Those who know Arabic poetry, or know Mallarmé better than I do, may be able to sort out how much each has contributed to Adonis’s style:


The West is behind you, but the East is not before me.
……….They are two banks of one river.
……….One has become more than an abyss,
……….more than a rock;
……….Sisyphus is its voice screaming:
Sinbad wanders the sea of his Islam,
Gilgamesh is dead, and Ulysses is lost among his waves.


In Adonis’s hands and transmitted with the momentum and sensitive adjustments of Mattawa’s rhythms, such a style has extraordinary power. I felt I was throwing myself into the sea of a kind of poetry that seems more like a passage from one of Blake’s prophetic books than more recent English poetry, and as with those poems the elliptical and sometimes enigmatic nature of the images means that they remain haunting and fresh through repeated readings.

In total contrast to the bardic style of ‘Letter to Goethe’, though also originally written in Arabic, there’s Mourid Barghouti’s ‘The Obedience of Water’, the first of two poems on ‘The Tyrant’. Here, in George Szirtes’ elegant translation, simple language and almost childlike syntax are set against a polished, sophisticated musicality. Lethal satire is tuned to artistic delight and the misery of oppression is sublimated in wit and the hope that all tyranny must eventually collapse, though of course while the tyranny lasts such sublimation can only provide temporary relief. Something I found quite dazzling was the sudden imaginative expansion at the end of these lines:


When he takes his seat he doesn’t descend from heaven
on a cloud, no, he climbs up on our shoulders, yours and mine
and sits in the saddle of time dangling his legs


‘He climbs up on our shoulders’ expresses a clear, single idea simply but the following line explodes into a series of brilliantly ambiguous, bitterly comic images and suggestions, ranging from complacently controlling horseman to child on a rocking horse, while the wonderful phrase “the saddle of time” both suggests the tyrant’s domination of his historical moment and hints at the transience and precariousness of his power. Regardless of whether it fits into a specifically East / West dialogue, there’s a joy to the contrast between this poem and Jaan Kaplinski’s ‘The Great Axe’, also describing a tyrant. Here, at the start of Sasha Dugdale’s expressive translation from the Russian, hard, clear phonemes and heavily stressed rhythms act out the strokes of the axe that the tyrant is said to have dreamed of becoming, before suddenly giving way to faltering, hesitant cadences that allow the reader aloud to act out the tyrant’s fears and inner weakness. Barghouti’s poem works superbly by its ironic distance from what it describes, Kaplinski’s by stylistic embodiment. Juxtaposition throws their contrasting artistic qualities and different ways of thinking about tyranny into vivid relief.

Admittedly, I found the style of one or two of the ‘Eastern’ poems too alien to appeal. Nujoom Algahanem’s ‘The Crimson Shades’ is a dialogue between Hafiz and his lover Suleika. What seems to be an Eastern love of ornament fills it with periphrases like “You voyaged following Helios’s Psalms’ for ‘you travelled West’, and I struggled with mixed metaphors like ‘I wept until the gashes of absence charred my heart’. Perhaps an Arab reader would go more directly to the idea behind the metaphors and not be thrown by the transition from gashes to charring. On the other hand, the meaning of ‘Western’ has expanded so much since Goethe’s time that the style of the Mexican poet Homero Aridjis struck me as radically and inspiringly unlike what I’m used to within my own corner of Western poetic practice. I can’t read it in Spanish but as recreated in English by Kathleen Jamie it’s a wonderful work, flying swiftly and lightly to its conclusion through a series of brief, arrestingly vivid visualisations of animals. Starting


Across an empty darkness,
across unmoving sky,
flashed scarlet macaw


it flashes past various beautiful, sometimes frightening creatures – caiman and jaguar as well as the comical ‘skinny spider monkey / his privates dangling’ – to reach a visionary conclusion that some people and moods may find sentimental, but that seems to be in tune with the idealism in Goethe’s own Divan. After describing the creation of man and woman, who can see themselves and name the animals, the poem ends


Heart of the Sky, Heart of the Sea
Heart of the Earth beat as one,
and all the winged creatures, creatures
of the waters and the land
could be, breathe, love and cast shade.
And life is re-created every day.


Equally absorbing in completely different styles are Clara Janès’ ‘The Song of the One Who Pours the Wine’ (English version by Lavinia Greenlaw) or Gonca Özmen’s ‘Knowingly Willingly’ translated by Jo Shapcott, or indeed various others, but what I really want to say is how exhilarating and enjoyable it is to read a book that combines such strikingly different kinds of artistic excellence and such diverse perspectives with the underlying coherence that comes from the shared reference to Goethe’s original cycle.

A New Divan: A lyrical dialogue between East and West, edited by Barbara Schwepcke and Bill Swainson. Gingko, 4 Molasses Row, Plantation Wharf, London SW11 3UX. Royal Hardback, 208pp.; £20.

I would like to thank Patricia Oxley for permission to post this review, which appeared in Acumen 96.

Leave a Reply