Kahlil Gibran Poetry: American Poets Analysis
Interest in Kahlil Gibran’s biography and personality has largely preempted analysis of his writings for their own sake. The difficulties seem to be threefold: His personality and lifestyle were romantic and appealing; literary critics in America have basically deemed his writings beneath notice; and the diverse and unusual forms of his English writings are alien to American scholars.
To start with the last point, in 1957 Jean Lecerf, an expert in Arabic literature, defined the “prose poem” genre. He attributed two main qualities to it: first, parallelism, repetition, and refrain, and second, imitation of the cadence of the sacred texts. Otto cites Lecerf’s 1957 French article in Orient magazine, in which Lecerf places Gibran foremost among the founders of the prose poem genre. This genre, apparently highly influential in Arabic literature, is not as prominent in American literature; hence, Gibran has remained a “man without a genre” and has not received much serious attention by American literary scholars.
Gibran thought of himself as a poet-prophet-philosopher. This combination is a common one in Arabic literature and there is a word for it. No such word exists in the English language, and since Gibran cannot be easily placed in one of the recognized genres, the Western need to classify inhibits analysis. As Claude Bragdon writes, “artist, poet, prophet . . . they should be only one word, but this the English language fails to furnish.”
Although the American tradition does not make it easy to analyze Gibran’s Oriental/Western writing, some assessment can be made. Gibran can be evaluated in terms of theme, predominant images, and style. It is helpful to recognize that these may be inseparable with Gibran, who did not care about such things, and whose editors and publishers did not want to tamper with his words.
The Procession has been praised as Gibran’s highest poetic achievement in Arabic, as containing the essence of the message of his other books. It was issued at Gibran’s own expense in 1919, and George Kheirallah, one of its translators (1958), calls it the “hidden masterpiece of Arabic poetry.” Bragdon describes the sense of the “procession” as a central metaphor of Gibran’s when he writes that Gibran’s works “represent the ’pilgrim’s progress’” sequence. He adds that “each one contains and is the whole.” A look at The Procession may be fruitful in the effort to identify themes, images, and form in Gibran’s work.
That “each one contains the whole” suggests a dominant Arabic quality in Gibran’s writings. As Otto explains it, “To the Oriental, all things suggest all things.” Robert Hillyer’s introduction to the 1974 edition of A Tear and a Smile describes the “Oriental method of personifying institutions and summarizing an entire situation into one symbol.” He adds that Gibran liked to mass general statements “to emphasize concepts” of “ultimate reality.” This ultimate reality, expressed by the forest youth in The Procession, is a complete and utter unity of all living things as they move outward/inward to the fulfillment of their beings. Instead of massing details to create unity as a modern realist would, Gibran piles generalizations on generalizations, untested by harsh reality, with the certainty that they originate from God and thus possess the authority of sacred language.
The Procession is a dialogue or duet between a so-called sage and a youth in the forest. The sage laments the state of various categories of reality, such as religion, justice, and love. The youth denies the very existence of categories. He says categories themselves come from disunity, and he sings of the unity of all things in the forest. The impact is achieved through the accumulation of the sage’s repeated complaints and the youth’s optimistic refrain.
Taking the concept of the procession as a central metaphor, one must see it as at least two-sided. The sage’s words suggest the sorrowful march of humankind to an unknown destination. The youth disdains the notion of horizontal, historical progress and reckons movement to be the “striving upward” equally of “the slender reed and oak tree.” The youth sees glory only in natural things doing what they are naturally suited to do. If that natural “procession” toward self-fulfillment occurs, unity and bliss will follow.
In The Forerunner, Gibran compares the scholar with the serpent who crawls horizontally on the earth and knows the earth’s secrets, and the poet with the songbird who flies upward and sings. These seem to represent two types of procession. The title The Forerunner indicates a procession, someone to follow someone else—in this...
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