Splitting halves into 'fives' with poetic license

May 18, 2004 12:00 AM

Arab Culture and Identity

Critics spill a lot of ink discussing the relation between form and content; I have always found it difficult to see the difference between the two concepts.

The classical Arabic poem is made of lines of equal feet, all lines end in the same rhyme, and each line is divided into two symmetrical halves. The first half of the line is usually an incomplete sentence, the completion of which comes in the second half. There is no rhyming scheme for the first halves, though in terms of meter, they are identical to the second halves.

The first halves are called Al-Sodour, or the fronts, and the second halves are called Al-A'jaz, the backs. In a previous article I discussed the meaning of such a structure - the fact that the fronts have no meaning by themselves, but still are musically identical to the backs, allows them to act as reminders; once a person knows the first half of the line, the second half easily comes to mind.

This was the standard form of any Arabic poem up to the 11th century. That was the time of cultural flourishing, but political disintegration, of the great Islamic empires. By the end of that era, the fact that kings and princes were more Turks and Persians than Arabs deprived a lot of poets from the luxurious lives they enjoyed, but also blessed poetry with a necessary distance from authority. Poets were now free to improvise and experiment without the continuous standardizing scrutiny of the academics and critics in the courts of princes.

It was around that time that the art of "fiving" came into existence. Instead of having a unit made of two halves, poets started writing poems made of five "halves" with identical metric structures. The first four "halves" rhymed together, and the fifth rhymed with all the other fifth "halves" in the rest of the poem. In other words, while the rhyming scheme of the classical poem was: a, b, c, b, d, b, f, b ... etc., the rhyming scheme of the "fived" poem became: a, a, a, a, b, c, c, c, c, b, d, d, d, d, b ... etc.

At first glance this might seem to be an insignificant change in form. Yet, like everything in this tradition, there is more to the desert than sand and more to the sea than water. Poets were now able to quote an entire poem, written 200  years before their time, in their own poems. A poet from the 11th century would take a poem written in the eighth century, and, to every "halved" line of the old poem, he would add three more "halves" that rhymed with the first half of the line in the original poem.

The result would be a poem within a poem, written by two poets over 200 years, yet owned entirely by the latter. The poet would have then "fived" the ancient poem, turning the meaning of the old poem on its head in the process. 

Like any form of artistic innovation, "fiving" holds the fingerprints of its historical context. By the 11th, 12th and 13th centuries, the future seemed darker than the past. Arab society was looking up to figures that had died hundreds of years before; an infinite requiem for the glory of the past was being played in the ears of men and women every day from dawn to dusk.

Even among scholars and jurists, an understanding of history as a linear decline from the time of the Prophet Mohammed to the day of judgment ruled their theories of ethics and politics. Because social and moral disintegration was at its worst, every day was a potential day of judgment. Everything seemed to be losing its meaning. And, in times when meanings are lost, an obsession with form prevails. Religion was reduced to a system of rituals, oratory and rhetoric to word plays, and poetry to experimentation with rhymes and meters.

Nevertheless, for every period's true artists, even confusion and disintegration could generate great art. "Fiving" was an attempt by poets, whether consciously or subconsciously, to summarize and, sometimes, bitterly criticize the scene.

"Fived" poems were baskets of contradictions - on the one hand conforming to the general fashion of glorifying the past, after all, the latter poet was accepting, as poets rarely do, to take second place behind the old poet. But on the other hand, the very form of "fived" poems was a rebellion against the trepidation of old poetry.

In terms of meaning, by adding three more "halves" to the halved line of the old poem, the latter poet could entirely change the meaning - everything from bitter sarcasm to infinite glorification became possible.

In a sense, the poet, who at first glance seems to have accepted sitting in the back seat, is actually in full control of where the poem goes. Lastly, and though I doubt any of the "fiving" poets had that in mind, "fived" poems were a comment on the real balances of power in the societies that produced them. While a wave of full recognition of the old and ancient swept Cairo, Damascus and Baghdad, the Turkish and Mamlouk societies were bashing and destroying all the values of that old world they so much glorified.

Many poets and writers compare the socio-cultural circumstances in today's Arab world to that of the Mamlouk and Turkish eras. The fall of Baghdad only underlines the similarities. Today, we know that the strategies we followed 800 years ago did not work, and that it is up to us to find new ones that will.

Read more: http://www.dailystar.com.lb/Culture/Art/2004/May-18/92578-splitting-halves-into-fives-with-poetic-license.ashx#ixzz2wGDGD7nh 
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