Khalil Hawi: Lebanon’s Tragic Poet

Hawi wrote poems with an organic unity and avoided digression and narration.

By: Hussein Bin Hamza

Published Thursday, September 20, 2012

When the name Khalil Hawi is mentioned, we are instantly reminded of the poet’s melancholy, even apocalyptic, voice. Hawi (1919-1982) was one of the most eminent pioneers of modern Arabic poetry. Everyone agrees that his work was unique, but their opinions differ on the significance of his poetry which became an intellectual search for the Arab nation’s salvation. Hawi was a member of the Syrian National Social Party and this remained the backdrop for his work. He even used ancient Syrian symbols at the behest of Antoun Saadeh, the party’s founder, in his well-known book, The Intellectual Conflict in Syrian Literature.

His poetry was distinguished by an intuitive and tragic lexicon, good craftsmanship and reassessment. Perhaps this is what explains the paucity of his output. Hawi only produced five slim volumes of poetry. For him, annotation and deletion were intrinsic to writing. He believed that the poet should be the “better craftsman,” a term coined by TS Eliot when referring to Ezra Pound. Eliot himself and the ambiance of The Waste Land can be detected in Hawi’s poetry. Hawi also possessed a remarkable critical instinct, seen clearly in his writings and lectures, edited by the critic, Rita Awad, and published after his death in Khalil Hawi: the Philosophy of Poetry and Civilization.

The poet was preoccupied with the idea of existence and the rebirth of civilization. Hawi worked on “the symbol as a basis of poetic construction,” because using symbolism allows poetry to avoid the “curse of reporting and narrating,” he said in an interview. Symbolism evokes myth, but Hawi restricted his poetry to local myths, while other poets, such as al-Sayyab, Adonis and Jabra opened themselves up to world mythology. The disparity between the ash and the river in Hawi’s first work sums up his vision of his people’s decline and his call for them to rise up and redeem themselves. This can be clearly seen in his poem The Bridge, in which he calls on the nation to rise from its sterile existence: “They cross the bridge in the morning, light of foot/ my limbs spread before them, a solid bridge/ from the caves of the East/ from the swamps of the East/ to a new Orient.”

The poet dreamed of a rebirth, but in The Cave he seems to have abandoned that dream: “The hands of the clock do not move/ My God, how the minutes are making them look longer/ look frozen/ impossible for ages.” The linguistic and existential contrast continues in his later works, titled: The Threshing Floors of Hunger, The Nai and the Wind, The Wounded Thunder and From the Inferno of Comedy. The tense and violent language in the titles filters into the poems. In Sindbad’s Eighth Voyage, violent words such as “blood, poison, rattling, terror, curse, fever ...” appear one after the other. In other poems, such as Sodom, Lazarus and al-Khader, Hawi uses symbols of catastrophe and miracles.

His suicide in protest against the Israeli invasion of Lebanon was perhaps his greatest metaphor, completing the circle of his life and his poetry. It is as if his end was the direct translation of the symbols of rebirth that he so often used in his poetry. His symbols had failed him, just like his nation had done. He was forced to become a symbol himself “to die for himself and everyone,” in the words of the Syrian critic, Muhammad Jamal Barout.

Hawi wrote poems with an organic unity and avoided digression and narration. Hawi wanted his poetry to be able to raise the wings of poetry and thought together, but burdening the poem with religious and mythical baggage intensified the level of theory and thoughts in his work. It is as if the poet who sought to revive the nation with his poetry, fell short of providing an eternal life for that poetry.

This shortcoming is not unique to Hawi. Meter poetry in Arabic receded into the shadows when most of its prominent advocates died and hardly anyone from the new generation took it up. It may be that Hawi’s poetry paid the price for the death of meter or prosodic poetry, and the price for his elitist prosody, which could not compete with the flexible prosody practiced by other poets whose poems live on and are still read today. Perhaps it is this detached uniqueness that drove Mahmoud Darwish to place Hawi’s name on the list of poets he never read again.

Most young poets look upon Hawi (and his contemporaries) as a feature of the past, while they eagerly write prose. Perhaps some of them do read his works, but his style does not influence their texts, which seem to be weary of intuitive language and comprehensive themes, and celebrate the marginal details.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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