The Syrian poet Adonis talks about the power of poetry

The iconic Syrian poet Adonis talks about reducing the distance between the East and West, and the power of poetry to move readers to action.

The poet known as Adonis - whose work marked a great transformation in 20th-century Arabic poetry - has just had breakfast. Now, smiling indiscriminately, he settles into a chair in the basement cafe of his central London hotel; I sit opposite him, and between us is the translator who will mediate between his French and my English, so that together we three form a closed, conspiratorial little triangle.

A circuitous route has led me to this meeting. Then again, 80-year-old Adonis rarely grants interviews. It began via an e-mail correspondence with Khaled Mattawa, the Arab-American poet behind a major new English translation collection of Adonis's work. Mattawa passed the interview request on to Adonis's wife, the critic Khalida Said, who replied - from the home they share in Paris - that Adonis agreed to the interview, in principle. A few days later, though, I receive a message from Khalida: Adonis was already in London, and how would I set up the meeting? A call to Adonis's cell phone - even great poets do not remain untouched by the technology revolution - and a frantic search for a French interpreter, and here we are.

Across the past few years, readers of English have become more familiar with Adonis - or, at least, his eye-catching pen-name - thanks to his appearance each October on unofficial lists of contenders for the Nobel Prize. A host of critics endorse the idea that the Nobel would be a fitting high point to a career that spans, now, six decades; one that has seen Adonis's contribution to Arabic poetry compared with that made to English poetry by TS Eliot. Edward Said called Adonis, "today's most provocative and daring Arab poet".

The new book - called, simply, Adonis: Selected Poems - spans his entire career, from the early works produced in his native Syria in the 1950s and amid a post-colonial atmosphere of new Arab national consciousness, through the long, fragmented epics of the 1970s - including the work best-known to English readers Funeral for New York - and on to his most recent, crystalline, short works, tinged with erotic longing. But how important is this book to Adonis; is he much concerned that he is read in English?

"I'm interested in all readers," he says. "The reader is such that what he does is a part of me, and English readers are no different from Arab readers in that regard.

"The reader is the 'other', the person I am trying to reach. And that 'otherness' is also a part of me. I'm interested in the perception of non-Arab readers because they may allow me a clearer perception of myself."

Indeed, it seems that Adonis feels acutely the difficulty of reaching a western readership:

"Unfortunately, western readers continue to see Arab culture as marginal. Arab politics has little weight; this is accepted; but we musn't conflate politics and culture, which unfortunately is what western readers tend to do."

It would be hard to argue with any of that. It's unavoidable, though, that only readers of Arabic can have first-hand knowledge of ways in which Adonis transfigured the Arab poetic tradition in the 20th century. English readers, then, are left with the reports of critics, who tell us that he broke radically from traditional rhyme and meter and evolved an Arabic free verse; that he enlivened a classical poetic vocabulary by using the language of everyday, conversational Arabic; and that he eschewed traditional subject matter and turned, instead, to poems that captured the great changes in thought and self-identity sweeping the Arab world, and fuelling the rise of Pan-Arabism.

Indeed, trouble over his involvement in nationalist politics saw Adonis leave his native Syria for Beirut in 1957, where he founded the influential magazine Shi'r (Poetry), host to much of this experimental work.

In short, Adonis is credited - above any of his contemporaries - with making Arab poetry modern. But his take on all this - indeed, on the very meaning of "modernity" - is more complex:

"Our notion of modernity is really only the latest variation on an idea that has been around for a thousand years," he says. "All the problems concerning the relationship between tradition and the present time have been discussed before. The ancient Arab philosopher al-Farabi, for example, talked about traditional philosophy on the one hand and Greek rationality on the other.

"So, if you like, modernity is an ancient problem."

This cyclical conception of modernity - as a phenomenon that lapses in and out of history, across cultures - is one of the lodestars of Adonis's thought, and is at the heart of his own assessment of his work. Crucially, it's also a challenge to the story of his career as often told by western critics. In their version, the young Adonis of Shi'r took Arabic poetry and looked west, to the modern influence of Rimbaud, Eliot and Pound. But ask him about their influence, and he talks instead about an ancient Arab poet: the Sufi mystic al-Niffari:

"When I discovered al-Niffari in the 1950s, that was a great opening for me," he says. "His work was surrealistic, it was mystical, it was modern. So here was an essential link between a modern Arab past and our experience of modernity at that time.

"I realised that the Arab past wasn't always 'traditional'. We Arabs had a history of modern thought, too."

It wasn't, then, so much about making Arab poetry modern; more about discerning the modernity that had always been a part of it. Isn't it an irritation, though, the way many western critics conflate modernity and the west, so that if Adonis's poetry is modern, it must be western? Adonis laughs: "I've always been caught between two poles of criticism. What you say is true of some western critics. On the other hand, traditionalists in the Arab world say that I have destroyed Arab literary tradition."

The latter antagonism is long-standing, and no surprise given Adonis's uncompromising rejection of reflexive traditionalism in the Arab world.

Textbooks in his native Syria, he's claimed in the past, accuse him of ruining poetry. Do they really?

"Yes," he smiles, "and luckily I keep on ruining it."

That sense of mischief has been, it seems, with Adonis since childhood. A 14-year-old Ali Ahmad Said Asbar, born into a rural family in 1930, set his life on a new course when he insisted on reading a poem to Shukri al-Kuwatli, the president of newly independent Syria. Impressed by the child, al-Kuwatli asked him what he wanted as a reward: "an education". Weeks later, he took up a place at a French-run school in Latakia. As a teenager he chose a daring pen-name when poetry magazines rejected work he'd sent under his own name. A professor of Arabic literature at the University of Lebanon from 1970, he settled in Paris - where he taught at the Sorbonne - in 1980, to escape the Lebanese civil war.

No wonder, then, that Adonis describes himself as a permanent exile, at home neither in the East nor the West. Still, that hasn't stopped him engaging critically with both cultures, particularly in the three long, sprawling, allusive poems he wrote in the 1970s, and which mark the high point of his poetic achievement. One of the three, This Is My Name, captured the aftermath of the Six Day War via its depiction of a never-ending apocalypse. Another, Funeral for New York, summons the ghost of Walt Whitman, and imagines a New York City destroyed by fire. Its epic scale, fractured imagery, and acute sense of the spiritual temperature of the age has been likened to Eliot's The Waste Land, both in its difficulty and its significance.

"I wrote these poems at a troubling time, during a hurricane of events," Adonis remembers. "Instead of engaging in ideology, I wanted to circle those events, to see everything.

"Poetry can talk about anything, including politics. After all, politics is a part of life, like love. But poetry must never become a conduit for politics: if that happens, there is no poetry."

There's no doubt that these long poems are at the centre of Adonis's claim to international significance. But open the covers of Selected Poems, and there's a surprising twist: Funeral for New York is not included. Some readers will naturally wonder: after 9/11, did Adonis worry that a poem that envisions the destruction of New York would sound intolerable to western ears? Adonis says the decision was taken on more prosaic grounds. Indeed, it seems the arguments he made in these crucial, long poems are just as vital to him as ever: "There are already two or three English translations of that poem," he says. "My translator says he tried a new translation and couldn't make it work.

"It's not the destruction of New York that I imagine in the poem. I love New York. It's the destruction of American political power. Instead of transforming the world according to its values, America has turned the world into a military barracks and a marketplace. I think America has betrayed the spirit of its founding humanism."

So does it feel to him, post 9/11, that East and West are moving further apart, in a way he could not have imagined when he wrote Funeral?

"There was a tradition of liberal, humanist thought in the West, and this thought hardly exists any more," he says. "Thought, or what we called thought, has just become a means to explain military strategy.

"On the other hand, you have an Arab world that is still beholden to power. Power is everything, and that runs against openness. So we live in a constant state of siege. But there is always hope."

Can poetry change any of this?

"Poetry doesn't change anything directly. But it can present a new image of the world, and, by this, change readers. Then," and he smiles, just as he did when we sat down an hour before, "it is up to readers to change the world."

Adonis: Selected Poems is published by Yale University Press, Dh109.