For my father, the poet Babatunde Ogunnaike
There is magic in eloquence and wisdom in poetry.
What is poetry? The song of the bird of the intellect.
What is poetry? The similitude of the world of eternity.
Since your love was kindled in my heart
Apart from your love, all that I have has burned
My heart put reason and study and books on the shelf
And was taught poetry and ghazals and quatrains
— Rūmī, Dīvān-i Shams, Ghazal 6161
When I speak of poetry I am not thinking of it as a genre. Poetry is an awareness of the world, a particular way of relating to reality. So poetry becomes a philosophy to guide a man throughout his life.
— Andrei Tarkovsky
What the Islamic tradition calls the “licit magic” (siĥr ĥalāl) of poetry seems to be almost universally recognized throughout human history around the world. The power of poetry—language shaped and patterned by rhythm, music, beauty—to produce profound effects both within human beings and without is prominent in all cultures with which I have some familiarity, save perhaps certain sad segments of modernized cultures, which (for reasons we will explore later) have tried to push poetry into obscurity. To give but one contemporary example, when asked to define poetry, a contemporary South Asian poet retorted, “That’s like a fish trying to describe the sea”;2 the questioner later noted that “the rhythmic word is widely regarded as ruh ki giza or food for the soul in Muslim South Asia.”3 Moreover, poets and writers as disparate as Aimé Césaire and Amīr Khusrau, Jāmī and Jacques Maritain, Shelley and Bullhe Shah, Audre Lorde and Aquinas, Liu Xie and Lal Ded, Bashō and Aĥmadu Bambā have advanced the idea of a distinct mode of poetic knowledge that animates and undergirds poetry and much more. Indeed, the biologist Edward O. Wilson called Homo sapiens “the poetic species” because our cognition depends so much on language, analogy, and association.4 Communications theorist Eric McLuhan expanded upon this insight, noting that “words are modes of experience, and are themselves experiences; a language is an organ of perception (poetic knowledge).”5 As the great Welsh poet Dylan Thomas said, “A good poem helps to change the shape and significance of the universe, helps to extend everyone’s knowledge of himself and the world around him.”6 That is, poetry is not mere sing-song rhymes and pretty words but of the greatest intellectual significance. Little wonder, then, that poetry has been at the heart of Islamic and other traditional educational and cultural formations—for most of human history, poetry (whether oral, written, or both) has been central to the ways in which we define and understand ourselves and our world.
As the poet Charles Upton explains, “Poetry… is not entertainment. It is not self-expression. It is not propaganda…. Poetry is a way of knowing based on the cultivation of symbolic, or anagogic, consciousness, expressed through the medium of human language. The games it plays are not sporting events but serious hunting expeditions carried out in the face of collective mass starvation.”7 Or in the words of Audre Lorde, “Poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence. Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought.… Poetry is not only dream and vision; it is the skeleton architecture of our lives.”8 But what is this poetic knowledge behind the meters and rhymes? Why is it so important? Why is it that so many of the best poets of most languages are so-called mystics? And what does it mean that some of us have lost touch with this poetic knowledge?
Although the Qur’an explicitly declares itself not to be poetry, it is exceptionally poetic, as are most sacred texts and orature. If the Qur’an seems to take a dim view of poets and poetry in certain passages, it is precisely because of the remarkable power of poetry and poets in pre-Islamic Arabia, a power that could either compete with or support the new dispensation, which needed to differentiate itself from this poetic context. As in neighboring cultures, Arab poets were believed to be inspired by spirits, or jinn,9 and their poetry was considered oracular—defining, embodying, and reproducing cultural ideals and structures—thereby making and breaking reputations and fortunes. Like the staff of Moses that swallowed those of the Pharaoh’s magicians, the Qur’an had to “clear the ground” and differentiate its divine revelation through the Holy Spirit/archangel from the poetic inspiration of the jinn.10 Parts of Plato’s infamous attack on poetry in the Republic can be understood in a similar way, as an attempt to carve out space for a distinct worldview and conception of humanity, in a cultural context dominated by powerful poetic traditions whose relationship to the truth and virtue could be precarious.
In its critique of poetry, the Qur’an proclaims, “Shall I inform you upon whom the satans descend? They descend upon every sinful liar, they listen eagerly, but most of them are liars. And as for the poets, the errant follow them. Have you not seen that they wander in every valley and that they say what they do not do? Except those who believe and perform righteous deeds and remember God much, and help one another after having been wronged” (26:221–227). The Qur’an castigates the Arab poets for being “all over the place,” for listening to lying spirits, for not living up to their speech, for not “being as good as their words”—for abusing the power of poetry. Instead of their craft bringing together truth, action, goodness, and people, their words separate them. But the last verse defines good poets inversely, as those who bring together11 truth, action, people, and good speech, implicitly connecting poetry to invocation (dhikr), another spiritually efficacious use of rhythmic speech. Dhikr also names the recitation of the Qur’an, which Seyyed Hossein Nasr insightfully describes as “the spiritual force behind the poetry and music of all Islamic peoples.”12
In these Islamic contexts,13 the art of poetry is often referred to by the Qur’anic term “the language of the birds” (manţiq al-ţayr) from verse 27:16, in which Solomon says, “O people, we have been taught the language of the birds, and we have been given of all things. Truly, this is the clear (mubīn) bounty!” As Muslim scholars and poets throughout the ages have noted, the word manţiq in this verse, commonly translated as “speech” or “language,”14 also means “logic,” expressing the close relationship between logic and poetry,15 while the second half of the verse conveys the all-encompassing nature of the latter as a bounty of clarifying exposition (another meaning of the term mubīn) and wisdom, uniting all things. As sura Śād describes the poetry of the Psalms of David: “We compelled the mountains to hymn with him at nightfall and sunrise, and the birds gathered, each oft-turning to Him. And We strengthened his kingdom and gave him wisdom and decisive speech” (38:18–20). Here, the fixed and the earthly (the mountains, the pillars of the macrocosm) and the flying and heavenly (the birds, symbolizing the angelic pillars of the metacosm) are united in the poetic act of the khalīfa (38:26), the vicegerent David (the microcosm), at the liminal times of nightfall and sunrise, uniting the day (manifestation) and the night (the unseen). This triad of meta-macro-microcosm, or heaven-earth-human, plays an important role in framing the understanding of poetry and poetic knowledge in many contexts.