Monday, July 24, 2006

 

While I was in California back on July 10, the Wall Street Journal ran a piece on Afghan poetry in the U.S. on its front page. The article by Masood Farivar, which has been reprinted by a few other newspapers in places such as Pittsburgh and Birmingham, Alabama, is worth reading in its entirety – when was the last time you saw a cogent piece on the sociology of poetry on the front page of a newspaper? Me neither. The headline in the Journal was “For Afghan Cabbies, A Poetry Tradition Spurs War of Words.” Most of the other papers, however, realized that this wasn’t about taxi drivers, giving it the plainer, but more accurate heading of something like the Post-Gazette’s “D.C. Afghan poetry groups fight war of words.”

The gist of the article concerns two reading series that take place in the same Masonic Lodge in Springfield, VA, on different Friday nights each month. One, “An Evening with the Dervishes,” in the words of Farivar, “

prefers what it calls the serious, scholarly pursuit of poetry. The group views itself as a literary clique focusing on masters such as Abdul Qadir Bedil, a 17th century poet and Islamic mystic, or Sufi. Its gatherings feature top scholars and poets.

The other, older series, “An Evening of Sufism,”

brings all forms of Afghan poetry to large audiences. It also treats attendees to free refreshments and pop-music performances.

The article makes a point of noting that a reader in the latter series recently “informed the audience that she’d just finished her poem in the parking lot.”

The differences between the two groups echo the division within American poetries between the School of Quietude, that ensemble of aesthetic tendencies that tends to stress the conventionality of poetry and its continuity with English literary traditions (and tensions) & the broad range of post-avant alternatives that emerged with the New American Poets of the 1950s, but which can be traced back to Whitman & Poe a century earlier. Farivar characterizes the dispute:

Mostly they adhere to Afghan social norms, treating each other with civility and even deference. Occasionally, they drop by each other's gatherings. But at times, their rivalries have burst into the open.

Members of "An Evening of Sufism" accuse the Dervishes of tearing down their flyers from Afghan stores, and have dubbed them "hash-heads," which in Afghanistan is a term associated with the uneducated.

In fact, the Dervishes seem closer to the group’s origins in a series of evenings when the poets would seriously debate the nuances of classic Afghan texts, pooling their money to call M.I. Negargar, a former Kabul University professor now living in exile in England, to tease out the full potential of the works they were discussing.

If one steps back from the specifics of the current tempest – who tore down whose flyers or who is trying to get whom kicked out of the Masonic Lodge – one sees two distinct approaches to literature emerging, one focused on the historic canon of Afghan poetry and emphasizing continuity with traditional Afghan culture – there is a move among the Dervishes, for example, to ban all forms of musical accompaniment at their readings – the other focused more on the present, which includes contemporary writing and concerns that may affect Afghan exiles in the U.S., but which would be of little import from the perspective of traditional culture in Afghanistan. Finishing a poem in the parking lot just before the start of a reading may not be the best way to present polished writing, but it certainly is one way of foregrounding the value on the present that the other group has.

The article made me wonder just how much these same divisions may underscore roughly parallel, and far older, chasms within American poetry. For example, just how much of the School of Quietude/post-avant debate can still be traced back to this nation’s origins as a gathering of exiles, one group concerned with accentuating its continuity with European cultures, especially British culture, the other hoping to foreground that which is somehow uniquely American about American poetry?¹ How does this compare with the same sort of division, say, back in the U.K., where the distinction seems instead to reflect class divisions as much as anything else (a cleavage that goes back to Shakespeare’s day, at the least, when the Bard initiated the post-avant impulse by composing his own sonnet series to demonstrate that an uneducated writer of popular entertainments from the boonies could perform at least as well as a “University wit” like Ben Jonson).

The U.S. Afghan exile literary scene dates, according to this article, back to the 1980s when the first wave of exiles began to write. The article implies, without seeming to realize that this is what it is suggesting, that the scene in Springfield, VA, represents literary processes that may be larger than just Afghan or U.S. verse, and represents an opportunity to observe an evolution in the social history of poetry not unlike the way a cyclotron enables a scientist to recreate conditions near, if not at, the Big Bang from which all current tendencies necessarily follow. Regardless of where you might fit into these broader literary traditions, the rise of Afghan poetry in the U.S. should be worth watching.

 

¹One could argue that between a colonial imperialism lurking within one tradition & an unexamined nationalism lurking in the other, that both tendencies offer ample territory for critique. This division isn’t so much about who might be “right” as it is about the values being propagated by each tendency’s agenda.

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