Return to the poem

Translator's Note: To a Young Poet


Most people would think of Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet as soon as they stumble on the title of this posthumously published Darwish poem. However, one difference is quickly evident. This is not sanctimonious advice. For one thing, it is written by a master poet at the height of his art, which also happens to be near the time of his recognition that his mortality had been staring him in the face, too close for comfort. Another thing about this “advice” is its reliance on paradox and contradiction. There is also the disinterest in emulation from a poet who has already left his mark on his language and on the language of poetry at large: “What doesn’t resemble me is more beautiful.” If there is a return, it should be to the “errs” and not the “airs” of previous writers; a humble hope for originality whose “only guardian” for the young poet “is a neglected future,” and not a preoccupation with an industry’s “hidden cameras.”

There are many wonderful phrases in this poem that can be easily plucked for quotes, but it is the “cool non-lyric” of maturity that strikes me first, if only because Darwish is an intense master lyricist, even when conversational. This poem in Arabic, for example, has an irregular monorhyme (at stanza’s and not line’s end) that switches after a few stanzas to a new monorhyme for a few more stanzas, and so on. And while it is nearly impossible to sustain this irregular monorhyme pattern for the ends of stanzas without distorting the natural speech of the poem, I sought several scattered rhymes to shadow the sense.
Technicalities aside, it is the poetic vision here that matters most and that, indeed, is the principal definition of any poetry: what a moral is, or what a poem in difficult times becomes; what echo and butterflies, love and dream, mean to the poem and to the boundaries of the self. Mahmoud Darwish was always in search of the pure poem; not La Poésie pure, but the unattainable, the impossible, that which is de-historicized. It was this persistent search that always promised (and delivered) him constant renewal of his art.


This poem originally appeared in the March 2010 issue of Poetry magazine

March 2010

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

This poem has learning resources.

This poem is good for children.

This poem has related video.

This poem has related audio.