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Tawfiq Sayigh was born December 14, 1923, in a village in Southern Syria where his father served as a Presbyterian minister. He became a prominent poet of the modern Arab world, and died on January 3, 1971, in Berkeley, California.
In 1925 the family moved to Palestine. Sayigh studied at a British school in Jerusalem and then left to study at the American University of Beirut (AUB) from 1941 to 1945, where he gained a degree in English literature. He briefly taught in Jerusalem (1945-1946) and soon returned to AUB to study for a master’s degree in Arabic literature while also working as an instructor (1946-1947). In 1948, in the aftermath of the fall of Palestine, he became a librarian at the American Cultural Center in Beirut (1948-1951). He then travelled to Harvard and studied poetry, criticism and drama (1952-1953) after which he studied poetry, criticism and American literature at Oxford (1953-1954). For the following five years, Sayigh was first a lecturer in Arabic at Cambridge, then a lecturer at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London (1959-1962).
Back in Beirut, from 1962 to 1967 Sayigh edited the Arabic cultural magazine Hiwar (Dialogue), designed originally as a publication to promote modern Arabic poetry. The financial support for the magazine came from the Paris-based Congress for Cultural Freedom. In April 1966, the New York Times uncovered the fact that this Congress was financed by the US Central Intelligence Agency. Angered and resentful, Sayigh closed down Hiwar and went to the US as a guest professor lecturing at Princeton, Chicago, and John Hopkins, before being appointed as lecturer in Near Eastern and Comparative Literature at the University of California at Berkeley (1968-1971).
In his three collections of poetry, Thirty Poems (1954), The Poem K (1960) and The Ode of Tawfiq Sayigh (1963), the themes of alienation, loss of country, and disappointment of love dominate his verse. He experimented in form and content and was influenced by Eliot’s The Waste Land, which he translated as early as 1953. Papers found after his death revealed that Sayigh was an innovator in the free verse movement in modern Arabic poetry. He was also an avant-garde translator whose rendering into Arabic of R. Spiller’s The Cycle of American Literature (1959), Fifty Poems from Contemporary American Poetry (1963) and Eliot’s Four Quartets (1970) show his mastery of both languages.
Sayigh was a refined poet with bohemian tendencies who fell under the influence of both eastern and western cultures, and spent his life devouring books. He was a lover whose poetry is saturated with passion and repentance. He wrote of the loss of Palestine, of separation from love, of eternal exile. He identified with the myth of the unicorn.
Adrienne Rich, a major American poet of the second half of the 20th century, met Tawfiq Sayigh during the summer of 1952. Both were living then in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Sayigh interviewed her for the Beirut-based literary magazine, which he used to edit when he was living in Beirut and before joining Harvard in 1953. In a letter dated July 5, 1952, sent from Bloomington, Indiana, where he was attending The School of Letters, Sayigh informs Rich of his joy in listening to lectures given by Ransom, Jarrell, Fiedler, R. Fitzgerald, Burke, Blackmur, F. Fergusson and Leavis. Sayigh kept the letters Rich wrote back to his parent’s house in Beirut (published later in Beirut: The Original Letters of Adrienne Rich to Tawfiq Sayigh, Dar Nelson, 2011).
These letters come to an end during the spring of 1954. Rich married, Sayigh become a professor at Cambridge, and the relationship come to a standstill. Their letters to each other suggest a mutual admiration that becomes a sort of love in 1953.
In his younger years, Sayigh also corresponded with Randall Jarrell, May Sarton, Marianne Moore, and Henry Miller. However, his epistolary exchanges with Adrienne Rich shine the brightest. These letters suggest an intense sympathy of literary sensibility. They also offer lucid descriptions of the literary scene in the US at the time of their friendship.
During the academic year 1953-1954 at Oxford, Sayigh studied religious poetry with Stevens, practical criticism with Hough, Aristotle’s Poetics with Lukas, critical methods with Daiches, critical approaches to prose with Leavis, Yeats with Rossiter, history of criticism with Tillyard, modern American literature with Jones, 20th century poetry with Honig, drama with Harbage, comparative literature and the art of poetry with Morrison.
A shrewd literary critic, Sayigh demonstrated how he had learned from these masters and had developed his own literary voice in a series of articles and reviews. Between 1944 and 1945, he collected together eight of his essays into a hand-written volume entitled The Bible as Literature. In the same years, he reviewed Barbara Young’s book on Khalil Gibran, This Man from Lebanon. In 1946 he wrote Literatures in Palestine. In 1951 he wrote two articles on the genesis of myths. His interview with May Sarton appeared in July 1952. His poem “The Sermon on the Mount” appeared in The Harvard Advocate in April 1951. His articles on modern English poetry and “The Partitioned Love in the Poetry of Umar Abu Risha” appeared in Al Adab (January and September 1955 respectively). In a long preface “Across the Waste Land”, he introduced Jabra’s collection of short stories (1956). Sayigh crowned his literary career in publishing in Arabic New Lights in Gibran (1966), a psycho-analytic study of Gibran based on his love letters to Mary Haskell. To Sayigh is attributed the foresight of publishing Tayib Saleh’s Season of Migration to the North (1966) and The Wedding of Zein (1967) at his own publishing house.
On January 3, 1971, late at night, Sayigh died in an elevator taking him to his flat in Berkeley, California, from a severe heart attack. He was buried on January 8 at Suiset Cemetery in El Cerrito, overlooking the Atlantic.
This portrait of Tawfiq Sayigh was written by Mahmoud Chreih especially for the Banipal Summer issue, 2022: No 74 – Celebrating Khalida Said and Modern Arabic Poetry. Mahmoud Chreih has written extensively in Arabic on Tawfiq Sayigh, including Tawfiq Sayigh: A Biography of a Poet (Riad el-Rayyes, London, 1989).