Adonis, born Ali Ahmad Said in 1930, was a Lebanese poet whose work reflected a radical vision of Arab history and culture, as well as a hunger for change and modernity.
Adonis is the pen name of Ali Ahmad Said, one of the most prominent Arab writers in the post-World War II period. Born in January of 1930 in Qassabin, a small mountain village in western Syria close to the Mediterranean, he studied at Damascus University, receiving his Licence es-Lettres, Philosophy in 1954. After a six-month spell of imprisonment in Syria in 1955 because of his political activities and membership in the Syrian National Socialist Party, he escaped to Lebanon to settle there in 1956, becoming a Lebanese national.
In 1960-1961, at a crucial stage in his intellectual development, he received a scholarship which enabled him to study in Paris. Adonis wrote extensively during this time. His poetry represented an attempt to create a fusion of his early influences, as he tried also to give poetic expression to his political and social beliefs. These urgings included the quest for national identity and the powerful drive to achieve the "great leap forward" of Arab society.
In 1957, at a significant point in the development of what was called the New Poetry, he joined another poet, Yusuf al-Khal, in founding the avant-garde journal Shi'r (Poetry), which was destined to play a major role in the development of Arabic poetry. In 1968 he established the equally influential, but more culturally and politically oriented journal Mawaqif (Situations), which became the avant-garde literary magazine in the Arab world.
From 1970 to 1985 Adonis was a professor of Arabic literature at the Lebanese University. He was deeply affected by the 10 years of horror during the Lebanese civil war, as reflected in his writings. In 1973, he obtained his Doctorat d'Etat at St. Joseph University in Beirut. In 1976 he held a visiting professorship at Damascus University, and in 1980-1981 he was a professor of Arabic at the Sorbonne in Paris. In 1985 he taught for a semester at Georgetown University in the United States. He also taught at the prestigious academic institution College de France, where he lectured on Arabic poetics. He later held a professorship at the University of Geneva, where he lectured on Arabic poetry.
Adonis's youthful years coincided with the years of upheaval, revolutionary fever, struggle against colonialism, and search for modernization and revival throughout the Arab world. The achievements of such figures as Kahlil Gibran (author of The Prophet) had contributed significantly to the burgeoning of a new sensibility, a fresh poetic language, and new imagery and rhythmic structures. Adonis's formative years had been strongly influenced by this new trend, as well as by his readings in European poetry. Yet he had also been educated in the classical traditions of Arabic poetry by his father, a man well steeped in classical culture and Islamic theology.
In this intense atmosphere of search, lust for change, and political upheavals (particularly after the struggle for Palestine and the foundation of Israel in 1948), the New Poetry began to explode, taking the form first of a rebellion against the prosodic and rhythmic system of organization which had dominated Arabic poetry from its earliest days. What became known as al-shi'r al-hurr (roughly, free verse) came into being, and Adonis's role in the evolution of this mode of writing was crucial.
The turning point in Adonis's work came with The Songs of Mihyar the Damascene, published in 1961, in which he seemed to discover the secrets of creating a balance between the social-political role assigned to poetry and the demands of a subtle, esthetically appealing, and symbolic language of absence. Adonis's poetry became richer, more dramatic, multi-voiced, more complex, and far more experimental, especially on the level of language and structure. But in the view of many, it never managed to surpass the songs of the magical Mihyar.
The most complex of his works, his 400-page Mufrad bi-Sighat al-Jam ' (Singular in the Plural Form; 1977), is a dazzling piece of writing, but one which has remained a closed, esoteric world to the majority of readers.
Adonis is both a poet and a theorist on poetry, as well as a thinker with a radical vision of Arab history and culture. This philosophy is embodied at its most provocative stage in his major work, al-Thabit wa al-Mutahawwil (The Static and the Changing), a study of conventionalism and innovation in Arabic culture. Adonis has exerted a powerful influence on thinking about poetry, creativity, change, and modernism among both his contemporaries and the younger generations of Arab poets.
His name has become synonymous with rebellion, rejection, radical writing, and modernism (expressed in Arabic by the word hadatha), which he, more than any other figure, has labored to define, preach, and provide with a powerful poetic embodiment. Such books as his Zaman al-Shi'r (The Time of Poetry) and Sadmat al-Hadatha (The Shock of Modernity) are landmarks in the history of critical contemplation in the Arab world.
Well acquainted with the Western literary traditions, especially in poetry, Adonis produced some fine and influential translations of European, and especially French, poetry. Of particular importance are his translations—or more accurately, perhaps, his Arabic renderings—of the complete poetical works of St. John Perse and the dramatic works of the French poet of Lebanese origin Georges Schehadeh.
Some of Adonis's later poetry lost much of the abstractness and cerebrality of the works he produced in the 1970s. It also lost much of the lyricism and tone of yearning of his poetry in the 1960s. He displayed a new fondness for what may be called the poetry of place, in contrast to the poetry of time that had dominated his previous work.
In 1985, Adonis wrote a provocative book of literary criticism, Al Shi riyya Al-Arabiyya (Arabic Poetics), which was published in Beirut. Adonis focused on the "dual siege" of the Arab writer, who is caught between Western thought and Islamic traditions. In 1990, Adonis wrote Introduction to Arab Poetics, published by the University of Texas.
In 1994, his book The Pages of Day and Night (translated by Samuel Hazo) was released, and it received wide-spread acclaim. Many of the poems had a distinct aura of mystical timelessness to them. The works included lyrical, fantastical, and revelatory writings.
In Adonis's long writing career, he has twice been nominated for a Nobel Prize, and has published more than 20 books.
Additional information on Adonis can be found in Adonis, Ali Ahmad Sa'id (1983), which also includes a small selection of Adonis's poems; Abdulla al-Udhari (editor), Victims of a Map (London: 1985); Issa Boullata (editor), Modern Arab Poets 1950-1975 (1976); Salma al-Khadra al-Jayyusi (editor), Modern Arabic Poetry: An Anthology (1988); and Kamal Abu-Deeb, "The Perplexity of the All-Knowing," in Mundus Artium (1977).
Adonis' writings in English translation include The Blood of Adonis, selected and translated by Samuel Hazo (1971); Mirrors, translated by Abdullah al-Udhari (London: 1976); Transformations of the Lover, translated by Samuel Hazo (1983); Orbits of Quest and Desire, selected and translated by Kamal Abu-Deeb (1992); and An Introduction to Arab Poetics, translated by Catherine Cobham (1990). A number of translations into other European languages, especially French, are also available. □