Arabic professor brings al-Maʿarrī’s poetry into the spotlight with new musical composition.
The Arabic masterworks of al-Maʿarrī provide hope to a troubled world but have gone unnoticed by the Western world for as long as they have existed. To give al-Maʿarrī’s stunning poetry a wider audience, BYU assistant professor Kevin Blankinship (Arabic Language and Literature) helped create a choir concerto based on al-Maʿarrī’s book of poetry Self-Imposed Necessity.
If you want to understand why this poetry deserves a wider audience, you must first understand its value. al-Maʿarrī’s poetry embraces the challenging, sometimes devastating, circumstances common to the human experience, but it does so with a sense of hope and sometimes even triumph. al-Maʿarrī’s own tragedies certainly influenced his poetry; he was blinded at age four by smallpox but worked to become a prominent poet, rejecting worldly gain to live a hermit’s life. His poetry often includes “rationalistic jabs at religion and morose complaints about the world,” Blankinship explains—noting that it is “[brimming] with memento mori in keeping with the Arabic genre of zuhd (renouncing the world), reminding readers that ‘once you are born, you start to die,’” or that life should be seized while we have it.
Consider the way the following excerpt is both hopeful and realistic.
Fate stalked us for so long
it’s like the stars are grey bits
on the black hair
Who chases the world
and the night flees
although it covers him.
Excerpt of “Heedlessly Souls Fought” from Self-Imposed Necessity by al-Maʿarrī. Translated by Kevin Blankinship.
While the poem focuses on how fate stalks us, it also describes how the quiet night can protect us. This and other works from al-Maʿarrī display rhetorical prowess equal to the great English writers. So Blankinship has long felt frustrated that al-Maʿarrī’s work lies in obscurity. “Dante and Kafka and Elena Ferrante are great. But how much airtime do they need, while not a single non-Arabist scholar I know has heard of al-Maʿarrī and others who are canonized authors in world literature—on a par with Shakespeare, Milton, and Frost in English?”
Blankinship’s earlier work to put al-Maʿarrī on the public’s radar led to Seattle-based composer and musician William C. White contacting him about the poet. White said, “I experienced an immediate and visceral connection with his [al-Maʿarrī’s] work. So much so that I've become rather obsessed with the idea of setting some of his poems to music.”
Blankinship saw that music could be a great way to introduce the world to al-Maʿarrī’s work, and the two began collaborating in October 2020 to translate al-Maʿarrī’s work into English.
Since the project began, Blankinship has translated dozens of poems from Self-Imposed Necessity that he and White evaluated as they determined which poems to include and how to translate them to retain their deeply resonant nature. The heavier topics that al-Maʿarrī’s poetry deals with prompted White to comment that “I’m greatly enjoying writing in shades of black but trying to give the whole thing enough ‘air’ so that it's still palatable.” The entire book of poetry became inspiration for White as he composed the musical score, but only seven poems, incorporated into seven movements, were included in the final composition.
Recently White flew to London to work with a professional choir to record the composition. Meanwhile, Blankinship intends to keep working until he is able to publish a complete translation of Self-Imposed Necessity in a few years, but for now we will soon be able to enjoy a musical rendition of these poems and gain our own understanding of the value of Arabic literature.
Below is a sample of their composition. You can also follow White’s compositional work at https://www.willcwhite.com or through his podcast The Classical Gabfest. You can keep up with Blankinship’s translation work by following him at https://kblankinship.com or on Twitter.