On the Arabic Saj’ as a Vehicle for English-Language Poetry

Al-Saj’ is an ancient Arabic literary form whose origins lie in the pre-Islamic, or Jāhilīyya period. Originally, it was employed by sorcerers in their incantations for casting spells, summoning djinn, or inducing trance-states. In the age ofIslam, several suras of al-Qur’an were transmitted or at least recorded in a type of saj’, which elevated its literary status, but also meant its pagan, occult usage became unlawful, even blasphemous. Nonetheless, it was often the preferred form for khutba, or sermons due to its elevated style.1 Later, in the Islamic Golden Age, littérateurs used it for court pronouncements, to show off their rhetorical skill, and to explicate points of grammar. The famous 8th century (C.E.) Arab poet and grammarian Hamadhânī demonstrated its usefulness in a wide range of literary purposes, thus ‘popularizing’ it.

In modern times it exists in all these forms: muezzins chant al-Qur’an in the mosques, grammarians and poets still employ it as a literary technique, and groups such as the Heddaoua of Morocco, “’storytellers’ of an errant religioussect…recit[e] poems, maxims and proverbs in a strange, allusive and magical language…with a particular style of rhythmic diction.2 (Note that the latterpreserves its ancient roots as an improvised, oral tradition.)In English terms saj’ can best be described as a kind of ‘rhymed prose.’ “It is a species of diction to which the Arabic language, because of its structure, the mathematical precision of its manifold formations and the essential assonance of numerous derivatives from the same root supplying the connection between the sound and signification of words, peculiarly lends itself.”3

It is not subject to the exacting metric and rhyming conventions of qasīda4, the most important poetic form in Arabic literature from al-Jahiliyya down to the present day. A qasīda strictly followed a given meter all the way through, with each line broken into two hemistiches, similar to Anglo-Saxon poetry. In addition, each qasīda used only one end-rhyme throughout; its rhyme-scheme ran A-A-A-A etc. By contrast, there seems to be no particular rules that saj’ was required to follow at all; it was not officially considered ‘poetry,’ and prose as such hardly existed as a literary genre until well into the Islamic era.

It followed a cadence, a flow, rather than a meter, and its rhymes employed no set pattern. Arab rhetoricians favored saj’ for legal and official pronouncements because of the elegant yet forceful dignity it lent to spoken Arabic. While writing these poems, I found that in using the form in an English-language idiom it also lends itself well to sing-songy, floating rhythms, liable to shift in cadence and tone at any time, like the interplay between the spell-caster’s breath and a stream of incense smoke. The form tugged at my imagination; I perceived it as a possible way to access and express a mode of consciousness that Western literature approaches (but only remotely) in the free verse of Walt Whitman and Allen Ginsberg.

Saj’ seems to inhabit a very different world, a quantum reality where change occurs instantaneously and according to a different species of logic: a world of synchronicities. I saw how, as a magical tool, it can express a primal, (some might say incoherent) understanding of the workings of the world, where man communicates directly with the spirits he shares the world with. I wondered what the djinnie of the form, any of the djinn that had ever been summoned by saj’ recitation, had to teach about the nature of our current reality. For it seems these days that great tides are shifting, that the curtains of the new Temple are rending. Are they really, or are we only dreaming it? In the end, they amount to the same, so I figured why not work it?

Consciousness, and by extension language, is like a myth-making, hence a reality-making, technology—facts happen, and all our various interpretations become, as in my poem Thorn-in-the-Heart Girl, “accretions of pearl around the razor grain of sand.” To use language is to affect the perceptions and consciousness of another—to open them towards clarity, freedom, sensitivity, love, beauty, to promote understanding and reconciliation—or to close down their senses, cloud their thoughts, to turn them to the shadows, disoriented, enslave them to a sorcerer’s agenda. In this sense, the ad-man, the politician, the financial advisor, the preacher, the professor, even the rock star, all work a kind of magic for good and/or ill.

I thought, if the stars have really shifted and the time is ripe for change or transformation, why not throw the dice and see what other dreams await a sympathetic dreamer to bring them down to earth? This moment we live in now may, if rumors hold even half-truths, be leading us to complete atomization, ‘every man for himself,’ and alienation…or it may lead to a liberated and cooperative society. It could be the moment of either-way, the moment of all-ways, or even no-way. Perhaps it all depends on which spellcaster we each decide to listen to, or better yet, if we decide to each cast our own spells.

1 The Maqámát of Badí‘ al-Zamán al-Hamadhání, tr. W.J. Prendergast [1915] at sacred-texts.com
2 Songs and Rhythms of Morocco. Liner notes; Lyrichord Discs Inc. LYRCD 7336.
3 Sacred-texts.com.
4 The nearest European analogue to al-qasida is the ode, with its mood of longing and remembrance. Arabic poetry never developed the epic form, at least as we conceive it in the Homeric or Anglo-Saxon traditions, perhaps due to limitations of the Arabic language. As a result, the Classical Islamic scholars who re-discovered Greek literature showed little interest in Homer.

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