A robust defense of a poetic genius
Abu Tammam (d. 231 or 232/845 or 846) is one of the most celebrated poets in the Arabic language. Born in Syria to Greek Christian parents, he converted to Islam and quickly made his name as one of the premier Arabic poets in the caliphal court of Baghdad, promoting a new style of poetry that merged abstract and complex imagery with archaic Bedouin language. Both highly controversial and extremely popular, this sophisticated verse influenced all subsequent poetry in Arabic and epitomized the “modern style” (badi'), an avant-garde aesthetic that was very much in step with the intellectual, artistic, and cultural vibrancy of the Abbasid dynasty.
In The Life and Times of Abu Tammam, translated into English for the first time, the courtier and scholar Abu Bakr Muhammad ibn Yahya al-Suli (d. 335 or 336/946 or 947) mounts a robust defense of “modern” poetry and of Abu Tammam’s significance as a poet against his detractors, while painting a lively picture of literary life in Baghdad and Samarra. Born into an illustrious family of Turkish origin, al-Suli was a courtier, companion, and tutor to the Abbasid caliphs. He wrote extensively on caliphal history and poetry and, as a scholar of “modern” poets, made a lasting contribution to the field of Arabic literary history. Like the poet it promotes, al-Suli’s text is groundbreaking: it represents a major step in the development of Arabic poetics, and inaugurates a long line of treatises on innovation in poetry.