‘Al-Baseet Diary’ – Teaching Myself Metered Arabic

At the start of 2021, I gave myself the goal of writing metered Arabic poetry. One year on, I have not managed to do that to any degree of satisfaction, however I have come a long way. I’ve read more Arabic poetry than any previous year, studied Arabic prosody, written a lot in Arabic, and the culmination of it all was perhaps my poem What The Date Palm Said to the Sea which you can watch me perform at the Liverpool Arab Arts Festival (1 hour 26 minutes in here).

As I reviewed my journal notes during the holidays I rediscovered a short diary I kept in April. Part of my journey through Arabic was reading Huda Fakhreddine’s The Arabic Prose Poem, a book I reviewed on my blog – this was part of my journey through Arabic, and I’m gratified that Huda’s work is some of the most readable, well-researched and applicable work I’ve read on Arabic poetry (in English, it must be said – I am sure there is a world of prosody waiting for me in Arabic).

After reading that book, I decided that I had to commit myself to learning to write metered Arabic poetry. Thankfully, I kept a short journal of how I went about it, and share it with you all now:

Al-Baseet Diary

  1. I focused on a single bahr or meter. There are many meters to choose from, and sub-meters within them. On a friend’s suggestion, I focused on bahr al-baseet.
  2. First, I learnt its code and key:
    • code: mustaf’ilun fa’ilun mustaf’ilun fa’ilun
    • key: in al-baseeta ladayhu yabsat al-amalu
  3. I learned the rhythm for this. I had three aids: a voicenote from a friend, and two videos I found by searching for “إيقاع بحر البسيط” on Youtube: 1 and 2.
    • I listened to this constantly, repeating along with the videos, until I could recall the meter’s key and repeat it on its musical rhythm with ease. Before reading any poem written in al-baseet, I sing the code and key to get the rhythm, then read the poem. This helps make sure I’m reading the poem right; it means I know where the long and short vowels are, and where the sukoons are.
  4. I collected poem ‘clippings’ in a notebook. I found poems from three locations:
    • a friend. He suggested a famous Al-Mutanabbi poem in al-baseet. He offered to find other poems, but this one clicked with me.
    • aldiwan.net. This website has thousands of Arabic poems dating back to the pre-Islamic era, and you can filter to search for poems in the meter.
    • my own books. Once I’d studied al-baseet long enough, I knew what to look for and found I could easily recognise it. Lines written in al-baseet always end with three short vowels; looking for that first, then taking in the full line to see if it fits.
  5. I learned poems off by heart and repeated them daily, like an anthem. At one point, the key was stuck in my head like an earworm, and I even had the Tetris Effect, experiencing auditory hallucinations of al-baseet.
  6. After a few weeks of this, I found myself thinking in al-baseet. For example, on a day where I went for a walk through the city, into a forest for a walk in nature, I wrote the following lines:
    • كنيْسةٌ حمْراءٌ تعْطي الناسَ البَرَكَ
    • مسْتشفى امامي تركيزهُ الصَّحَةَ
    • النهر الغريقُ تسبح فيه السمك
    • تفجر الغابة من أوسط الحضري
    • الشِعر والشاي والتمر يفرحني
  7. The quality of the above lines is beside the point; thinking in the metre is the important thing. Getting a hang of what units of thought can be expressed within that rhythmic metre, what level of complexity, etc.

This is where my experiments in al-baseet ended, but not my journeys in meter. My poem Prophecy and Prayers, published in Bahr Magazine, has a few lines written in the local Bahrani metre of Al-Fa’izi, something I’ve written about here.

I moved away from al-baseet because I found it wasn’t for me so much. I’ve since worked my way through other meters – learning al-taweel and al-mutaqarrab in particular.

I’ve discovered now that when I read Arabic poetry, regardless of the meter, I am able to catch the metrical rhythm very easily. This is true even if I cannot always identify the meter, or if it is one that I haven’t studied. I can sense the musicality of the words and derive a greater enjoyment of it.

There’s another side-effect, which is the aid in understanding. Since metered poetry has to follow patterns of long and short vowels, it means that poets have to order their word choices to match. I don’t know formal grammar well enough to express this idea very effectively, but basically, metrical limitations also narrow the grammatical formations ideas can be expressed in, this makes it easier to understand meaning once you can recognise the grammatical patterns. Figuring out the meaning of one line of poetry written in al-baseet helped unlock the meaning of other lines which used similar grammar to express wholly different ideas. Patterns somehow help language acquisition, and the patterns of Arabic poetry enhance that when you understand what those patterns are.

Self-studying Arabic prosody has been one of the delights of 2021. It’s made me have to reconsider everything I understand of both Arabic and English poetry, and of my role as a translation, poet and writer. There are a thousand things to unpack from that, but I hope that my little seven-steps in learning Arabic prosody will aid others on a similar journey.

About alialjamri

Young journalist, blogger, trying to make sense of the world we live in.
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