Mahmoud Darwish
Mahmoud Darwish (1941-2008)
There is no meaning to my life outside poetry

Mahmoud Darwish talks to Hasouna Mosbahi about his recent serious illness, his ideas on ‘homeland and exile’ and about his latest volume of poetry, The Stranger’s Bed.

Hasouna Mosbahi: Over the last few months you have suffered a severe health crisis. You are used to facing traumas, but how did you deal with this one?

Mahmoud Darwish: I don’t like to discuss personal problems, but I believe that the severe health crisis I faced recently was perhaps the most significant existential crisis of my life. What happened was that I landed on the diaphanous cleft between life and death. I had suffered another heart attack before during which I experienced clinical death but I believe it was not as severe as this one. The previous one was easy, since the experience consisted of a kind of sleep on white clouds, as if I was flying. Then I suddenly felt pain and suffering, and that meant I had come back to life. Life begins in pain, and ends in pain, the pain of death.
This time, however, it was completely different. I didn’t have a vision of anything at all: I had a skirmish with death, and it appears that struggling with death is more difficult and painful than death itself. During this bitter experience, and as I was gradually regaining consciousness, I came up against the absurdity of existence and life.

Something else was also strange. At the height of the crisis I continued to write. What I wrote was a kind of delirious commentary on the well-known Old Testament Book of Ecclesiastes, which begins “Vanity of vanities; all is vanity” . It seemed to me I had written a commentary on this text. I felt certain I had produced a text, but as I gradually regained my awareness, I realised what I had written was in the domain of the metaphysical.

In general, it was a very painful experience, which pointed to a truth we all know but don’t feel so intensely except in situations like this, namely, that we come from nothingness and return to nothingness. That’s why we have to enjoy every moment of life, because life is so short. Very short indeed, and we are not mere travellers on a journey between two blanks. Frankly, after this most recent ordeal, parts of which I have described for you here, I had a feeling of frustration.  And that’s only natural, given that the sickness from which I have suffered leaves deep scars in the soul and unparalleled feelings of futility and bitterness. Even now, when I approach its space I am overcome with terror and I can say that the experience is growing and taking root in an obscure region in my psyche. Maybe it will find clear expression some day.

HM: You indicated that poetry was always somehow with you in your struggle with death.

MD: Yes. Poetry was always there. The first thing I tried to do when I came to from the artificial coma into which the doctors had put me – and which lasted an entire week – was to speak but I couldn’t find my speech or my tongue. I then gestured to them to bring me pencil and paper. At that time I became afraid that I was losing my language forever, then I realised it was the equipment they had placed in my mouth that was preventing me from speaking. With pencil and paper I conducted my dialogue with doctors, nurses and visitors.

My greatest worry during this period was that I would lose my ability to write poetry. I can truly say that poetry was present with me the whole time, in spite of the aches and pains that were lacerating my spirit and body. Therefore it would seem the essence of my life is poetry, and nothing else but poetry.

HM: Poetry was your destiny from the beginning, and it was a Noah’s Ark that saved you from the deluge which almost annihilated your people .

MD: If you want a philosophical answer to your observation, I will say that there is no meaning to my life outside poetry. And that is an extremely dangerous thing because the day will come in which I may have to find reasons for my existence other than poetry. And that is not necessarily a winning bet.

When I returned to my normal or almost normal life after the bitter experience I had just undergone, I suffered severe depression, brought on not only by the nature of the illness but also my fear of losing the ability to write poetry. I had not been able to write a single line of poetry for several months. This fear pursued me for many weeks, and it is still with me now, especially since I was absolutely forbidden from keeping old habits, like smoking, which had been a part of my daily life for so long I had begun to feel that writing and smoking always went together and couldn’t be separated.

I must therefore train myself to have other resources than poetry so as to be able to face life in the future. Poetry is one of the manifestations of life, and maybe it’s a delusion to believe it is the source of life.

HM: We can then say that the ordeal you’ve just come through, like previous ones, had as much to do with life as with poetry.

MD: It’s difficult to set up boundaries in the contest between one’s life experience and one’s poetic experience. I am one of those poets who measures the beauty of life by the extent to which it can be turned into poetry because I believe that what is not useful for writing has nothing at all to do with life.

HM: Wasn’t your return to your homeland after a long absence and the consequent feelings of agitation part of what caused this most recent crisis in your health?

MD: I’m not confident with such an analysis because it’s wrong. That’s because the most dangerous thing in my opinion is to define homeland too narrowly, such as to say, for example, that homeland is the opposite of exile. I don’t believe that homeland is the opposite of exile. The relation between homeland and exile is much more complex than we imagine.

One of the worst things we can do is to reduce the experience of the poet or the creative writer to an experience of exile followed by a return to a motherland. If that were the case, then the circle would be complete and nothing would be left for the poet except to resign or keep quiet, granting that his poetic journey, and his life as well, have run their course. I’m not one to think a homeland is a basic necessity for a poet. I confess I’m unable to free myself from seeing exile as something positive.

As far as I’m concerned exile is not all black or grey, because I matured in this exile, and wrote my most important works in it. And if we were to go deeper into the subject, we can say that exile is the laboratory of experience. It is also a poet’s destiny in his ongoing dialogue with the Other, and between the inner and the outer .
The only thing we must guard against is that exile should not become a habit, but rather a way of looking at human existence and the isolation of beings in this existence. Therefore no homeland can cancel exile, and no exile can cancel the homeland.

HM: You have lived in exile in different places, including Tunis, but it would appear that Beirut has had a special place in your life and your poetry. How do you explain that?

MD: Well, I lived in Tunis for only one year, though I’ve been back many times, but I never really lived there in the sense of accumulating experience that I could use in poetry. Cairo also: I didn’t live there very long. Cairo was my first encounter with the Arab world after I left the occupied land towards the end of the Sixties. Egypt at that time was still suffering the aftermath of the ‘67 war and the political situation was unsettled. Therefore, my stay there didn’t have enough impact to call it either a life or a poetic experience.

But in Beirut I lived for many years, most of them during the Civil War. I can therefore say that my experience there was more difficult and at the same time more crystalline than in Cairo or Tunis. You can say that during the period of my stay there, Beirut was like a platform and a workshop for dialogue. It was a city that exported books to all parts of the Arab world, and a open space for numerous and different kinds of human relationships. All that took place in a very small space. We used to sit by the sea and carry on our discussions. More often than not, the noise of these discussions was louder than the content – and that of course is normal for platforms.

Yet, when I now contemplate my own poetic situation, having identified the positive aspects of my Beirut experience, that is, my encounter with different experiments in poetry and Arabic literature in general, I can say that the Beirut phase was not a decisive transition. For one simple reason: because all that tumult, all that blood and all that noise did not leave the poet much time to contemplate the conditions of poetry.

Therefore, when I look at the poetry I wrote in Beirut, I can say that much of it can be crossed out. Beirut was a transitional phase. Poetic maturity, or something resembling it, came after Beirut, specifically in Paris, where I crossed the divide between me and myself, and many other things as well. This divide was necessary for me to go deeper into my poetic project in order to develop further my expressive tools.

HM: In Paris you wrote two of your best volumes of poetry, Eleven Planets and Why Have You Left the Horse All Alone? They are completely different, yet they embody a view of Palestinian history. How do you see these two volumes?

MD: As I said, the transformation really began in Paris. And before the two volumes you mention, I had published a number of others, like Enough Roses, It’s A Song and I See What I Want to See, in which one can observe some of the elements of this transformation.

In Eleven Planets I put our case in the context of history. You might be surprised to know that I consider Why Have You Left the Horse All Alone? to be one of the most sublime kinds of aesthetic resistance. In this collection I had to defend a forgotten history; or to put it more clearly, I’d say I had to defend the land of the past and the past of the land, the land of language and the language of the land. And thus I saw fit to isolate myself in one place and write the book of my genesis, or my poetic autobiography. I believe that the unwavering commitment to resistance and defence is not some sort of nostalgia, but the saturation of the present and the future with the past, without which neither present nor future will come to be. For that reason, I feel that the past is subject to plunder, and have always said that it should be the arbiter of the conflict. The past is more ambiguous than the future.

I was preoccupied with intellectual, human and cultural concerns like these when I wrote Why Have You Left the Horse All Alone?, as well as Eleven Planets, which is also a crafty collective autobiography. And in these two volumes, I defend my narrative and my history as I see them myself, and not as they would be imposed on me.
The same holds true for the new work, The Stranger’s Bed, which has just come out. In this new volume, in spite of the frustration which I feel, I express my ability to love and also my ability to speak of love. This too is a form of resistance. It is a new kind of resistance in which I make it know that it is not possible for a being to be strong unless he or she can also be weak.

That in effect means I have introduced some changes in the concepts of resistance and resistance poetry. The essence of these changes is that resistance doe not mean direct confrontation with anything, but rather the defence of values and emotions like love and forgotten beauty. Lastly, I want to say that the poet, even when he is defending a particular cause, in the final analysis is like all other beings; he loves and falls sick and dreams and suffers defeat and enjoys victory and dies.

HM: Briefly, can you tell us something about the new volume, The Stranger’s Bed?

MD:  You know that love was always present in my poetry, but this is the first time I have devoted a whole volume to love and love only. This book includes dialogues between a man and a woman who are strangers to each other. I think that the feeling of being an outsider constitutes the principle theme of these dialogues. As the relation between the strangers becomes more intense, it also becomes more ambiguous, for there must always be perpetual ambiguity and there must always be a deep relationship in order to see through that which is. The love theme in this work is not new, but it is the subject of all the poems – from the beginning to the end.

HM: You mentioned that in evaluating your Beirut phase, you could cross out some of your poetry. What kinds of poems are likely to suffer this fate?

MD: Frankly, if you want me to be absolutely truthful, I’m not pleased with any of my work of that time. I’ve always been very strict with myself and my ability for self-criticism is exceptional. This latest volume, I mean The Stranger’s Bed, includes only a quarter of what I had written. I’ve always been a heavy user of the eraser, and the work which I take exception to is not that of the early period as a whole, but rather the poetry of direct statement, which came into the limelight under the rubric “resistance poetry”.
During that phase, no one could respond fully to what was demanded of us. Yet during that period I also wrote poems about my mother and my father and many other personal things, poems which I can safely call “poems of the first innocence”. These poems are always there for me and I consider them to be at the heart of my poetic endeavour. They will withstand the test of time better than the poems of political statement.

HM: Yet you are aware that the Arab people, and the Palestinians in particular, are still attached to the poems of direct statement, such as “Put this in your record: I’m Arab”, and they love your poetry on account of it.

MD: Yes, that’s true. It’s what I would call a problematic friendship. Yet I believe that the people are more intelligent than we imagine. They have a right to be attached to certain poems by a poet whom they like; yet it is also the right of the poet to prove he can evolve without losing his audience. In the end, it’s the audience who gives life to the text or kills it. We know there have been thousands of poets in Arab history, but only those whom the general taste has favoured have survived.

HM: Pasternak said that the true poem is one that you could write in prose. In your work prose and poetry are equals. Anyone who has read Memory for Forgetfulness would have to agree with this. As a poet, how do you see your relationship to prose?

DM: Poetry is the legitimate father of all the other expressive arts. There is an ongoing dialogue between poetry and the other verbal arts, especially prose. Prose always keeps an eye on poetry, and when that happens poetry achieves sublimity. And poetry achieves greatness when it keeps an eye on prose, specifically on its simplicity, challenging or leaving behind the inflexible rules regulating it. Therefore there is a mutual esteem between poetry and prose, and each benefits from this in one way or another.
I think the line drawn between prose and poetry is extremely tenuous and the distinction between them arbitrary. The important thing in the final analysis is the word and its role, in poetry or in prose. I think that great poetry is that which has the aristocratic freedom of prose, because prose is the aristocratic art par excellence.

As for me, I think my recent poetry is a dialogue with prose. That was the case with T. S. Eliot, who is everyone’s master in this regard. I don’t think poetry can evolve outside a dialogue with prose, and vice versa, whether this dialogue is positive or negative, exactly as in a relationship between a man and a woman. In this relationship I think poetry is the woman and prose the man.

HM: You have asked why poets were afraid to be marginal, and didn’t they know they’re marginal by nature? Can you explain your question?

MD: There has always been a lot of talk about the diminishing role of poetry but we have known, from the very beginning, that poetry has always been an elite concern. Poetry has weathered many crises throughout the ages, and the crisis which it is passing through now is not new. Our talking about a crisis in poetry is one of the conditions for poetry’s evolution. The crisis is precisely what will help poetry modify its tools, its modes of expression, its forms, and its relationship with its audience. What we have to stop complaining about is the place of the poet in society.

I welcome any retreat in the position of poetry at least in the Arab world, because that would mean we have begun the transition way from a pastoral and agrarian society. Poetry has always had a dominant position. We must therefore look with favour upon the evolution taking place in the other arts, like theatre, film, or the novel. When all the arts flourish, that can only be beneficial to society. In any case I don’t believe poetry has always been dominant, as one may conclude from the famous saying, “Poetry is the art of the Arabs par excellence”. I don’t imagine that the Arabs in pre-Islamic times had Imru’ al-Qays’ way with words.

What’s new in all this is that we should be liberating ourselves from the supremacy of poetry, its preachy impulses, and its elevated rhetoric. We must also stop thinking of poetry as if it were a magical solution to all our problems and crises. A different kind of poetry, which we can call “informational poetry”, came into being towards the end of the last century, and during this one as well, when poetry realised it had no monopoly on artistic expression. It then became more modest while at the same time more capable of weaving itself into the fabric of social life. It no longer looked down upon society and history, but rather became part of them by bringing its own myth down from the lofty heights and giving it the stamp of the modern and the quotidian.

HM: You once said that no other century has had its share of great poets like the twentieth century.

DM: Yes, I did say that. And I repeat that this century, despite its violence, its wars, and its numerous bloody conflicts, despite the rise and fall of one of the largest empires history has ever known, and the tragedy of Palestine – one of the most horrifying tragedies of the century – and despite its racism and fascism, this century has brought together a great number of poets. We need only mention the following: Saint Jean Perse, Aragon and Elouard in France; Montalli and Ungeretti in Italy; Auden, Pound, Yeats and Eliot in English and American poetry; Lorca and the generation of 1927 (?) in Spain; Mayakovsky, Yosenin, Pasternak and Akhmatova in Russia; and the four great poets of Greece – Cavafy, Ritsos, Elitis and Seferis; as well as Rilke and Gottfried Behn in Germany. These names prove what I said. There was a huge leap in Arabic poetry as well. This century has been the century of savage wars, destruction, tragedies and tears; and at the same time it is the poets’ century par excellence. Therefore, we cannot damn this century.

HM: You acknowledge that Arabic poetry has made a leap. What is the nature of this leap?

MD: The most significant leap Arabic poetry has made has been the acceptance by the Arab reader of a poetry no longer bound by the rigid rules of the past. This has revolutionised the taste of the public and introduced new worlds which had not been part of the Arab imagination before.

Readers have accepted poetic abstraction, and as a result a new Arab taste in poetry has been founded on acceptance of developments in poetry which dismantled the rigid classical rules of composition. As for the second qualitative leap, this was made during the last two decades of this century an consists in the emergence of the prose poem and the transformation of the paradigm on which meaning was based. With the new poetry, meaning is not already realised but realises itself in its search for forms as it comes into being.

There is something else which Arabic poetry has accomplished: it is no longer liable to being put on trial as it was at the end of the Forties and in the early Fifties. Arabic poetry was then subject to the accusation that it had no connection with reality, but time has proved that Arabic poetry is able to develop a relationship to reality. As a result of this we can say that Arabic poetry has demonstrated its legitimacy. Of course, now there is chaos, yet chaos is a feature that comes with all new movements. There is also the absence of criticism and the lack of knowledge of hundreds of new poets and their ignorance of the basic tools of poetry. Yet all this will not stand in the way of the progress and evolution of poetry. I say that now we must move away from experimentation for its own sake to a phase of genuine maturity.

HM: Going back to the relationship between prose and poetry, I note that you are a voracious reader of novels. In your captivating work, Memory for Forgetfulness, we see a narrative talent of very high quality. How do you explain this leaning towards the novel?

MD: I believe it’s not sufficient for a poet to be satisfied with reading only poetry. If poetry was all he could read he would become formal and rigid. For that reason I always try to vary my reading. In the novel one can, find history and psychological analysis, and poetry as well.
In fact, we can say that all the great novels are poetic epics. In any case, I don’t like comparisons. I say that there is no life for poetry without other art forms like the novel, and that these forms in turn would have no life without poetry. As I said earlier, poetry is the legitimate father of all the arts.

Translated by Ibrahim Muhawi, 1998, for Banipal 4, Spring 1999, pages 5-11, as part of a feature on Mahmoud Darwish and his work, with poems, this interview and a number of articles. For more information about the issue, click here.

Published in Arabic in al-Majella magazine, No 2, June 1998 and published in Banipal  with their kind permission.