by Susannah Tarbush, London
The study Philip Larkin, An Outsider Poet: Transcending Solitude, Sex and the Ordinary by the Iraqi poet, translator and journalist Fadhil Assultani may be the only work on Larkin by an Arab author written and published in recent years in English. Assultani has lived since 1994 in London, where he is head of the cultural department of a leading pan-Arab newspaper, Asharq al-Awsat. He was editor-in-chief of the cultural quarterly Aqwas from 2009–2011, and contributes poems to the independent Iraqi daily Al-Mada "to reach Iraqi readers after so many years of discontinuity with them".
Assultani wrote his Larkin study as the dissertation for an MA in Modern and Contemporary Literature at Birkbeck College, London University. Mira Publishing House of Leeds has published the dissertation as an 84-page book. In addition to writing about Larkin, Assultani is one of the few translators of his poems into Arabic. His translations of the poems 'Wants', 'The Literary World', 'New eyes each year' and 'How to Sleep' appear in his compendious anthology Khamsoun Ama min Al-Shi'ir al-Britani 1950–2000 (Fifty Years of British Poetry 1950–2000) published in Damascus in 2008. The anthology contains the work of 56 British poets in Arabic translation. Assultani edited and researched the book, and carried out all the translations. He worked on the anthology on and off for 10 years.
Khamsoun Ama min Al-Shi'ir al-Britani 1950–2000 (Fifty Years of British Poetry 1950–2000)
Assultani is a key figure on the lively Arab-British cultural scene. His own poetry has appeared in English translation in publications including Banipal magazine of modern Arab literature, Open Democracy, and Modern Poetry in Translation's March 2003 Iraqi Poetry Today issue, which was the first collection of modern Iraqi poetry to appear in the West. His poems have also been translated into Dutch, Spanish, Kurdish and Persian.
Assultani was born near the city of Hillah, capital of Babylon province, in 1948. That year also marked the birth in Iraq of the modern Arab free verse poetry movement, which Assultani describes as 'the biggest revolution in Arabic poetry for more than 1,000 years'. From Iraq the new poetry movement spread to Lebanon, Egypt and other Arab countries. In classical Arabic poetry, verse is written according to the rules of al-'amud, meaning pillars or columns. 'There is a rhythm in free verse, and rhyme as well, but with different units, not just one unit as in classical Arab poetry,' Assultani says.
There were three major Iraqi pioneers of the free verse movement: Badr Shakir al-Sayyab, Abd al-Wahhab Al-Bayati, and the woman poet Nazik al-Malaika. British and other English-language poets – including T S Eliot, W H Auden, Ezra Pound and Edith Sitwell – were a major influence on the Iraqi poetry movement. Sitwell famously had a profound effect on the poetry of al-Sayyab. Her poem 'Still Falls the Rain' influenced his 1960 poem 'Song of Rain'.
Assultani came of age as a poet in this atmosphere of experimentation with form. He wrote his first poem at the age of 11: 'It was of course about love'. His poetry was first published, in a newspaper literary supplement, when he was 17. He was eager to read the new poetry, and would borrow money to buy the latest issue of Al-Adab literary magazine founded in Beirut in 1953. He was particularly influenced by al-Sayyab, whom he regards as the greatest Arab poet of the 20th century.
Assultani studied English literature at Baghdad University's College of Arts. 'We studied prose and poetry, we studied Eliot, we studied Dylan Thomas, we studied Graham Greene, we studied Henry James and many many more.' After graduation in 1971, he became a journalist on the daily culture page of the Iraqi Communist Party newspaper Tariq al-Shaab (The Way of the People). The editor of the culture page was Saadi Youssef, who turned 80 this year and is regarded as the most famous living Iraqi poet. When Youssef left the newspaper, he recommended that Assultani be appointed in his place.
In 1977 Assultani left Iraq, disillusioned with the Iraqi Communist Party and its policy of joining with the Baath Party in the National Progressive Front. Saddam Hussein was becoming the most powerful man in Iraq and beginning his brutal dictatorship. In 1978, Assultani recalls, 'about 500 Iraqi intellectuals left Iraq – poets, novelists, architects and so on'. Many more left during Iraq's subsequent wars, sanctions and waves of internal repression.
Assultani became an English teacher, first in Morocco and then in Algeria. His poetry was published in Al-Hurriya (Freedom), published in Damascus. Its literary editor was a leading Palestinian poet, Ghassan Zaqtan. Assultani's first poetry collection, entitled simply Poems, was published in 1982 by East and West Publishing House, set up in London by an Iraqi journalist. In 1985 he moved to live in Damascus, where his second collection, Incomplete Anthem, was published. His third collection Burnt by Water was published in Beirut in 2000. His most recent collection is The Various Colours of the Lady.
The distinguished Iraqi-American author, university teacher and translator Saadi Simawe, who edited the Modern Poetry in Translation Iraqi Poetry Today issue, and has translated some of Assultani's poetry, sees Assultani as part of a new trend in Iraq literature: 'a kind of complex imagination in which existentialism is mixed with humor alongside an unusual compassion for all humans'.
The Iranian author Amir Taheri, a columnist on Asharq al-Awsat, wrote a preface to Assultani's study entitled 'Larkin and Assultani: several points in common'. He writes that Assultani's dissertation 'came to me as a treat', for two reasons: 'First because I have been a fan of Larkin since, as a student in London, I discovered him in the 1960s.' And secondly, 'in the 1990s I had the pleasure of making Fadhil Assultani's friendship which, in turn, gave me the privilege of being among the first readers of his poems as he committed them to paper.'
Taheri says that although they 'hail from different horizons', Larkin and Assultani have several points in common. Both are the product of cultures in which poetry is still of great importance. Taheri recalls that he was surprised in his first encounter with Britain to find that compared to other European countries he knew, including France and Germany, poetry attracted large audiences. And 'one might even claim it was in Iraq, the ancient Mesopotamia, where the epic of Gilgamesh marked the birth of literature as deeply felt human response to the mysteries of existence.' Taheri adds that 'from the start, I saw Larkin's work as a poetical version of chamber music. He is the poet of small touches, fleeting moments, and flashes of insight, the poet of enduring transience as formulated in "Modesties", one of his shortest poems.' For his part, Assultani 'especially in his poems written in the past decade or so, has distanced himself from the epic ambitions of many Arab poets of his generation and moved closer to what René Char called "the small music of life".'
In the introduction to his study, Assultani refers to Colin Wilson's 1956 book The Outsider, which was translated into Arabic soon after its appearance in English, and was received with enthusiasm by Arab readers and writers. Assultani notes that the cultural climate in mid-twentieth century England was not receptive to the techniques of surrealism, nor to the concept of an outsider. Regarding the first, David Gascoyne was something of an exception, and lived for some time in France. Wilson's The Outsider 'tellingly focused on foreign writers, with the exception of T E Lawrence and H G Wells.'
For this reason, perhaps, 'Larkin was not viewed as an outsider, apart from some references to his life as a solitary and a bachelor which has nothing to do with the concept of being an outsider in its philosophical interpretation'. But Larkin was not just a loner or reclusive person: from the beginning, he 'held his own existentialist views on life, art, society, sex, solitude, selfhood and otherness, belonging, uncertainty, self-realization, anxiety and undecidedness'.
Assultani writes: 'For me, Larkin, both as a person and as a poet, is an outsider, in the existentialist sense of the word, and he is in harmony with himself. There aren't two distinct Larkins, or two sides of him, as many of his critics suggest. By making a comparison of his poetry, prose and his personal letters, we can discern coherent views and visions that govern his seemingly contradictory attitudes.' From this perspective, Larkin's work 'forms one protracted poem, in which he meditates on these big issues occupying humanity in the twentieth century'. Larkin's whole persona, 'similar to existentialist outsider characters in modern literature, confronts the issues preoccupying his age, such as consciousness, freedom of choice, human knowledge, and selfhood and otherness in modern societies. Confronting these issues, Larkin's approach is neither nihilistic nor pessimistic.'
Assultani's Arabic translation of Philip Larkin's poem 'Wants'
Assultani argues that by analysing his early poems, even as far back as the 1930s, and comparing them with his later poems 'we will see that there are coherent existential issues penetrating the poetry from the very beginning'. A sense of alienation from the outside world characterised much of his poetry. In his first published poem 'Winter Nocturne' which appeared in his school magazine the Coventrian in 1938 when he was 16, we find: 'A web of drifting mist o'er wood and wold, / as quiet as death.' And the final line 'Dark night creeps in, and leaves the world alone.' In the 1954 poem 'Places, Loved Ones', published in The Less Deceived (1955), Larkin writes: 'No, I have never found / the place where I could say / This is my proper ground / Here shall I stay.' In his 1979 interview with the Observer he said: 'I do not really notice where I live'. The 1974 poem, 'The Life with a Hole in It', with its 'three-handed struggle has the same theme as 'Wants', written in 1950 and published in The Less Deceived. 'Mr Bleaney' (1955, and published in The Whitsun Weddings) is 'perhaps the most existential poem Larkin ever wrote'.
As regards Larkin's fiction, the protagonists of Larkin's two published novels Jill and A Girl in Winter – John Kemp and Katherine Lind – are outsiders haunted by alienation.
Assultani notes that Terry Whalen wrote in his 1986 book Philip Larkin and English Poetry that Larkin is close to poets such as Ted Hughes, Thom Gunn and R S Thomas, sharing with them 'not only the depth and integrity, but also profound doubts, tensions and existential anxieties and, and exploration which are everywhere attentive to bleaker truth and realities of our day'.
Assultani argues that Larkin is closest to R S Thomas. 'It might even be claimed that Larkin shares more themes with Thomas than with any other British poet in the second half of the twentieth century, though their approaches and style have differences.' He adds that 'waiting, absences, death, failure, suffering, echo, shadows, and death are very common vocabularies in their poetic discourse. It seems that both poets echo ideas of Kierkegaard, perhaps unconsciously in the case of Larkin, and consciously with Thomas who read Kierkegaard and dedicated a poem to him.'
They are preoccupied with almost the same existential themes. 'Unlike the secular Larkin, Thomas's approaches to his themes are arguably theological, but his main concern, like Larkin's, is the human condition.' He compares Larkin's 'Church Going' with Thomas's 'In Church'. Assultani's enthusiasm for Larkin and his work suggests that, far from being an insular poet, Larkin transcends boundaries of nationality and language. His poetry has a universal appeal.