Sunday, March 20, 2005


... The subordination of man to man and of one people to another has been the common and formative human experience throughout the ages, but the tribes of the Hejaz had never experienced either conquest or oppression; they had never been obliged to say "Sir" to any man. In this they must have been almost unique; the only possible comparisons might be with the Mongols of the Siberian steppes and the Indians of North America before the coming of the white man.

Poverty was their protection, but it is doubtful whether they felt poor. To feel poor one must envy the rich, and they envied no one. Their wealth was their freedom, in their honour, in their noble ancestry and in their incomparable language, the pliant instrument of the only art they knew, the art of poetry. All that we would now call "culture" was concentrated in this one medium, which required no heavy baggage such as would have encumbered them on their journeying. Language was something they could shape and model to glorify courage and freedom, to praise the friend and mock the enemy, to extol the bravery of the men of the tribe and the beauty of its women, in poems chanted at the fireside or in the vastness of the desert under the vast bowl of the sky, bearing witness to the grandeur of this little human creature forever travelling across the barren spaces of the earth.

For the Bedouin the word was as powerful as the sword. When hostile tribes met for trial in battle it was usual for each side to put up its finest poet to praise the courage and nobility of his own people and heap contempt upon the ignoble foe. It is said that there were occasions when a poet's tongue was so eloquent and his words so compelling that the opposing tribe would slink away, defeated before a blow had been struck.

-- Gai Eaton, writing about the 7th Century tribes of the Hejaz (now Saudi Arabia), in Islam and the Destiny of Man, pp. 97-8

Now, there's different role for you poets! Imagine, using your gifts as a high-level, inter-tribal WAR WEAPON!!! Risking your neck -- and those of your fellows -- with your verse! For those who advocate poetic risk-taking, how about this? (On some levels, though, it is clear that Theodore Roethke took greater risks...)

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