Syrian poet Ali Ahmad Said Esber, better known by the name Adonis, will present a poetry reading at DePauw University on September 30, and the next day will take part in a question-and-answer session with the title “Poetry and Freedom: A Conversation with Adonis.” The session will be led by Joseph Heithaus poet and professor of English at DePauw.

I hope we can talk about how poetry responds or exists with world events,” Heithaus says.  “Given the situation in Syria and Europe’s shifting response on the refugee issue, the perspective of a Syrian/Lebanese poet who has lived for many years in France will be quite interesting.This is a rare and amazing opportunity for our campus and community to interface with one of the world’s great writers and thinkers.”

Adonis’ evolving responses to “the situation in Syria” has of course been a subject of contention for some time, as he has been accused of failing to condemn the Assad regime, and even of condemning those against the regime. In 2012, Adonis clarified that he is on the side of the revolutionaries though not speaking “the same language“: “I’m with them, but I don’t speak the same language. They’re like school teachers telling you how to speak, and to repeat the same words.”  In another interview, he affirmed his support for the revolution in stronger terms.

However, doubts linger, to the extent that the awarding of the Goethe medal in 2011 to Adonis was criticised as “bad timing” and more recently, the decision to award him a “German peace prize named after the pacifist writer Erich Maria Remarque” has come under fire.

Earlier this year, in connection with Adonis’ exhibition of visual art,  an interviewer asked about whether or not poetry should be “apolitical” – Adonis responded, it depends:

The politics that I mean is that related to an ideology, an ideological conflict. This is one definition and I am against this definition. I feel that all poets that have tried to impose this vision of politics on their poetry have not produced any interesting work, from the Socialist Realists to others.

Should we think of Adonis as anti-activist or as someone who insists on separating art and activism? The difficulty of separating the political and the poetic is reflected in his own story, all the way back to the poem he wrote as a boy to the president, celebrating Syria’s independence, that got him into school:

In the interview below, Gisele Khoury begins with the “controversy” surrounding Adonis, and the poet responds that anyone who engages in difficult issues will have enemies – to be well-loved by everyone means that the person is interested in nothing. Adonis also speaks about his time in prison, which taught him that “the human in the Arab world, beginning with Syria, has no value.”  As always, Adonis speaks movingly about the lack of freedom in Arab societies.

Yesterday there was a profile of Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi on NPR which described him as a “loudspeaker” for “Arab artists with something to say.”  What struck me most though was these lines, where Al Qassemi describes how he chooses the works he buys, prioritising the political over the “merely aesthetically beautiful”: “I don’t buy artworks that I think are pretty and aesthetically appealing,” he says. “But I buy art that is politically meaningful.”

While no one can deny that Adonis’ work is both aesthetically and politically meaningful, his insistence that change begins in society continues to draw condemnation. In one particularly sharp article, Adonis’ approach is described as utopian:

With considerable relish, he continues to rehash a Utopian notion that “revolution ought to start with the self, and changing society is a precondition to changing politics,” a claim meant not to create meaningful debate, but rather to provoke his critics and satisfy his vanities. I say this because Adonis has been repeating this same thesis for more than half of a century.

It remains to be seen whether Adonis will return to or develop his views on where change begins in his conversation at DePauw. In the meantime:

Only poetry knows how to pair itself to this space.
No road to this house, a siege,
and his house is graveyard.
               From a distance, above his house
               a perplexed moon dangles
               from threads of dust.
I said: this is the way home, he said: No
               you can’t pass, and aimed his bullet at me.

Adonis: ‘Land of absence’ from Poetry International on Vimeo.

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