Caught in the Middle: On Edward Said’s “Songs of an Eastern Humanist”

By Manan KapoorApril 18, 2024

Caught in the Middle: On Edward Said’s “Songs of an Eastern Humanist”

Songs of an Eastern Humanist: Collected Poems by Edward Said

IN OUT OF PLACE: A Memoir (1999), Edward Said recalls that after graduating from Princeton in June 1957, he was torn by “differing impulses”: he could pursue a fellowship from Harvard for graduate study or return to Cairo to work at his father’s stationery company. Eventually, Said deferred Harvard for a year and returned to “sample the Cairo life.” Said claimed that he had no interest in his father’s business, and in the memoir, he recalls how he spent his afternoons in his father’s office: “I would either read—I remember I spent a week reading all through Auden, another leafing through the Pléiade edition of Alain […]—or I would write poetry (some of which I published in Beirut), music criticism, or letters to various friends.” Two decades after Said’s death, we finally have access to 19 of these poems, written between 1956 and 1968, which have been compiled and edited by his biographer, Timothy Brennan, as Songs of an Eastern Humanist (2024).

In the introduction to the collection, Brennan notes that Said’s heroes were “essayists, satirists, and novelists, just as his favorite critics were theorists of the novel,” and that “[t]hinking of his comments on poetry, most would draw a blank.” However, despite his well-known criticism of novelists such as Joseph Conrad, Rudyard Kipling, Herman Melville, and Jane Austen, Said returns to and draws from several poets, including W. B. Yeats, Mahmoud Darwish, Wallace Stevens, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and Faiz Ahmad Faiz.

Said’s 1988 essay Yeats and Decolonization focuses on how the titular poet “articulates the experiences, the aspirations, and the vision of a people suffering under the dominion of an off-shore power.” In “Reflections on Exile” (1984), drawing from Wallace Stevens’s “The Snow Man,” he equates the state of being an exile to “a mind of winter,” a life “led outside habitual order.” And Said’s After the Last Sky: Palestinian Lives (1986)—“a searing portrait of Palestinian life and identity”—borrows its title from Mahmoud Darwish’s “The Earth Is Closing on Us”: “Where should we go after the last frontiers? / Where should the birds fly after the last sky?” Elsewhere, Brennan notes that Said would “incessantly” recite Hopkins’s poetry to his second wife, revealing an intimate connection to poetry: “I think he aspired to poetry. That was the secret self. It was a self that was gushier and more vulnerable than the self he would allow other people to see.”

Even in the late 1950s, however, the period when Said wrote most of these poems, Brennan reveals that Said had “doubts about poetry’s social effects.” In a 1959 essay, “The Still Music of Meditative Poetry,” he questioned the purpose of poetry and what poems offered beyond “a vague kind of solace.” Said concluded that poetry “is a concrete expression of a personal desire for permanent, beautiful satisfaction … The politics of poetry are the politics of the heart, for better or for worse.” Given their posthumous publication, however, several questions arise when we first encounter these poems. Said once remarked to the poet David Lehman, his student at Columbia, that poetry requires “not only rhetorical skill and great intelligence” but also “genuine sensibility,” which “was something you either had or you hadn’t.” Was it the lack of a genuine sensibility, we’re led to ask, that led him away from writing poetry? Though Said published some poems in Al-Kulliyah (the American University of Beirut’s alumni journal) in 1957–58, he didn’t return to these poems until later in life. Further, Brennan notes that the poems “exist in more than one form, with subtle variants between the different versions”—he picked those that “appeared to be latest, most complete, or best-expressed.” Given the existence of various undated and incomplete versions, how do we read these poems and their peculiarities? Take, for instance, this untitled poem:

The finest hour of my life
Was, it was, there is no doubt
Upon that creaky seat
In Music Hall.
On it I heard the flutist blow
One blast and off they all went
Some blew, some pulled, some didn’t
But I was caught in the middle

Though the final conjunction effects a spectral presence of something left unsaid, we’re led to wonder whether Said simply abandoned the poem. As is the case with most posthumous publications—from the poems of Emily Dickinson to The Complete Poems of Philip Larkin (2012), which includes poems unpublished in his lifetime—speculation rarely offers clarity. While these poems (or the other versions at Said’s archives at Columbia University) might not provide any answers, they are undoubtedly, as Brennan suggests, “psychologically revealing,” for they offer us a glimpse into Said’s formative experiences: “They chart with startling emotion the doubts of a man torn by a native culture with which he is at times disappointed, projecting onto it a modernity whose sophistication lies in resisting the West while acknowledging its guilty attractions.”

In the poem quoted above, Said’s early inclinations toward classical music come to light. He was a gifted pianist; the author of Musical Elaborations (1991) and Music at the Limits (2007); a music critic for The Nation; and, along with Daniel Barenboim, the founder of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, named after Goethe’s collection of poems. Said’s lexicon, both in these poems and his later works, is charged with terms from music theory—his concept of “contrapuntal reading,” which he develops in Culture and Imperialism (1993), draws from the term “counterpoint,” a style of Western musical technique that involves two or more musical lines. Poems such as “Wistful Music,” “Requiem,” and “A Celebration in Three Movements” contain obvious references to music; in other poems, we encounter words and phrases such as “modal rounds,” “timbrels and harps,” “cacophony of jumbled sounds,” and “humming dawn.” However, whether or not the poems refer to or borrow from music, there is an inherent sonorous texture in Said’s verse—“Musical imagery is everywhere” in these poems, Brennan remarks, “testifying to how much of Said’s mind in an introspective mood was immersed in the sounds, forms, and fables of Western classical music.” In “Hans von Bulow in Cairo,” where Said imagines the German composer’s final days in the city in the late 19th century, repetition and rhyme drive the poem:

Bulow’s wordless, gleaming fury goes along, along, along,
Mounting the hot air and spreads, like a burnished gong,
Across his inner sky, to which the sacred Nile
With only a muddy-veined delta proffered, homages.

The West’s “guilty attractions” manifest as the figure of Bulow, and though it reveals Said’s inquisitiveness about Western classical music, it also foreshadows sections from Orientalism (1978) about Europeans—from Napoleon to Benjamin Disraeli to Gérard de Nerval to Gustave Flaubert—in Cairo. The city is central to the collection: while on one hand the book reveals Said’s observations of the daily life in Cairo, it also brings to light his estrangement from the place.

In his memoir, Said describes how, after the 1948 Palestine War, his family fled to Cairo and lived there like “alien residents.” On the same page, however, he claims that Cairo was only city in which he felt “more or less at home.” He once remarked that he was “an uncomfortably anomalous student” in Cairo: “a Palestinian going to school in Egypt, with an English first name, an American passport and no certain identity at all.” Elsewhere in the same essay, he wrote that—no matter where he was—he always felt he was “standing in the wrong corner, in a place that seemed to be slipping away […] just as [he] tried to define or describe it.” In his elegy “Edward Said: A Contrapuntal Reading,” Darwish crystallizes Said’s complicated relationship with the notion of home. As Darwish writes of Said, in Julie Stoker’s translation, “He says: I come from that place. I come from here, and I am neither here nor there. I have two names that come together but pull apart.” In Said’s poetry, there are moments where his estrangement from Cairo is palpable and his archaic vocabulary, a result of his elite colonial education, accentuates his distance from the landscape he is writing about. In several poems, however, he paints a subtle yet vivid portrait of daily Cairene life in the late 1950s after the 1952 Egyptian Revolution and the 1956 Suez Crisis. In this untitled poem, his shift to plural pronouns is significant:

The early morning gently forges our city’s sounds
Into that attended pitch of gallant diffidence
That, standing away from studious violence
Melts its voices in the wave that surrounds.
The sellers of bread and fruit, of meat and milk
Merchants on bicycles, carts and camels
Jingle the clouds, even the sullen sun’s enamel,
Shakes them to selling, robbing the veil of silk.

This period was significant in Said’s development, and these poems are brimming with an anti-colonial outlook that later solidifies in his literary and cultural criticism. In a 1957 letter to Princeton, Said wrote, “I am more sure than ever what in the long run I would like to do: teach … [T]he troubled politics of the Near East have added a new dimension to my thoughts.” Several poems written during this period—along with “Hans von Bulow in Cairo,” given its focus on a European in Egypt in the 19th century—anticipate the sensibility that pervades his later work and reveal, as Brennan suggests, “Europe’s romance with Oriental escape.” This is perhaps most evident in “Retrospect,” which begins:

The world does not tell its time from the east
Where crashing noises mix with silly bleats
And the sun’s rays imprison as in modal rounds.

In the final lines, he reflects on the legacies of Western colonialism and a fractured world trying to sing “destined rounds, refreshed, louder”:

Ours was not a safe view for we clamored for new harmonies
Carrying in them an opulent new fate, perhaps not ours—
But who was strong enough for second thoughts, and songs.

“Harmonies,” “modal rounds,” “bleats,” “songs”—the poem’s metaphors are rooted in Said’s obsession with music and sound. Beginning with a satirical description of the “east” (as a place where “crashing noises mix with silly bleats,” where “sun’s rays imprison as in modal rounds”), he foreshadows the cultural distortions and misrepresentations that he would go on to challenge in Orientalism.

Said remarked on several occasions that he was “no longer the same person” after the Six-Day War in 1967: “The world as I had understood it ended at that moment.” By the 1980s, he had become one of Palestine’s fiercest advocates in the United States—in 1989, following his support for the Palestinian movement, he was labeled the “Professor of Terror” by Edward Alexander in Commentary. Though Said claimed he was politically disengaged before the Six-Day War, we come across traces of Said’s political engagement in its nascent stages in these poems. In light of Israel’s current military assault, which killed more than 25,000 Palestinian civilians over its first three months according to local authorities, it becomes impossible to read several poems without thinking of the ongoing genocide:

We had cried together in conquered fields
Where no one else had been,
The morning greeted no one,
Site of an ancient temple
Moved our hand linked thoughts,
For we glided away in tremors;
One gaiety begged for a caress
But we heeded not, and
Down we floated on stark receptacles.

After spending the year in Cairo—which would also be his last for 15 years—Said joined Harvard’s English Department, where he read and wrote about Joseph Conrad like a “steady groundbass” given the resonance he felt with the Polish British writer who, according to Said, could “never shake off his sense of alienation.” The feeling of estrangement that saturates these poems distills for us Said’s alienation from all the places he inhabited, including Cairo. While these poems shed new light on his relationship with poetry—and an investment in not only reading but also writing verse—it is difficult to ignore the towering shadow cast by Said’s later works on these poems. The collection, at the end, largely underscores the doubts, inclinations, fears, and disposition of the public intellectual we know, allowing us access to a “more vulnerable” side previously unheard.

LARB Contributor

Manan Kapoor is the author of A Map of Longings: The Life and Works of Agha Shahid Ali (Yale University Press, 2023). His work has appeared in Boston Review, The Caravan, and, among others. He is the book review editor at Harvard Review. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he is a graduate student in English at Harvard University.


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