American Muslim Statement of Poetics
Daniel Abdal-Hayy Moore
Perhaps there is a body of literature, of a resounding and resonant poetry and prose by Muslims in America, which benefits from the great strengths of the contemporary American writing all around us, with its diversity and versatility, as well as international poetry with all its styles and sophistications, while at the same time being stunningly truthful and skillful in its expression of the totality of our lives as Muslims in America. I see a poetry in the American idiom, multiple as that is, capable of epic rhapsody, lyric, simple observation, here at the end of the twentieth century, geographical as well as placeless, embodying the heart of our Islam and the winds of change and the soul’s transformation.
The Prophet () said: “In poetry there is wisdom.” And he also said: “He who remembers his Lord and he who does not are like the living and the dead.” (Bukhari) Perhaps, and it may be in its embryonic stage, a vigorous, risk-taking and contemplative poetry is already being written, and its practitioners are shyly holding onto it, or it has only to come out from behind a kind of puritanical embarrassment in order to be revealed.
We have to overcome our own qualms about creativity, the critical and supercilious browbeatings from Muslims who fear it and misinterpret hadith and Qur’an to quell it. The history of Islamic literature is full of poetry by known poets, just as the museums are full of Islamic art that is highly developed and beautiful and not merely decorative. A poetry that is imaginatively inventive and vivid, from the heart tempered by an aware intellect, surreal with real substance, spiritual in the deepest sense, radical while avoiding the polemical and dogmatic, not preachy, but not afraid of the heights nor scornful of the depths, and which is not affected by a superiority complex by virtue of simply being Muslim (Allah’s final deen), while at the same time maintaining a standard of knowledgeable excellence. I am not defining formalism, nor the merely colloquial. Pick up the many anthologies of modem American poetry, poetry of now, to see what I mean!
It is a poetry by poets who take their art seriously, who have read and continue reading the poetry of the past and of the present, for whom it may also be a mode of remembrance of their Lord, a dhikr, true contemplation having a high rank in Islam, a form of prayer. The heart moves the pen, the hand obeys, and the schooled intellect maintains the rhythms and measures, observes the limits and how to go past them and provides the critical traction for wisdom to take to the air. I’m trying to define both true poetry by anyone of any belief, and a poetry for and by Muslims we can be proud of—angry, sweet, celestial, terrestrial, the trials and defeats as well as the struggles and victories of our lives, the whole enchilada, a living expression that is both familiar and challenging, that both defines us in all our textures, and takes us beyond what we know. An alchemical vocation with language!
Without making any claims for myself, I call on poets to study and to compose, to” read and then forget reading, to sharpen the sword of their pens with love and dedication. We want to publish good poetry here in these pages, wherever space allows. Not “filler” poetry, and not occasional doggerel, but solid soaring, solid enumerations, transparent arguments for Allah’s greatness and our submission, past the grave.
In America we have seen over the last thirty years how Buddhist thought has enriched the poetry of poets like Gary Snyder, A1len Ginsberg, Anne Waldman, through their deft, elegiac rants, their careful observations, their great dimension and their respectful silences. When Islam takes hold in a culture that culture’s arts flourish with a flood of wonders. I would hope that perhaps we can have the same among us, natural to our soil and our natures, a passionate and precisely imagined poetry of our Islam.
Octavio Paz, the Nobel Prize Mexican poet, said:
“Poetry is knowledge, salvation, power, abandonment. An operation capable of changing the world, poetic activity is revolutionary by nature; a spiritual exercise, it is a means of interior liberation. Poetry reveals this world; it creates another…the poem is a mask that hides the void—a beautiful proof of the superfluous grandeur of every human work!”
Originally published in the Winter 1994 issue ofThe American Muslim
Update: Please visit Abdal-Hayy Moore’s site at http://www.danielmoorepoetry.com/