War Songs

Pub Date:   |   Archive Date: 25 Oct 2018

Member Reviews

Pre-Islamic warrior poets—they’re just like us! Or to be more precise, the contemporary person that Antarah reminded me of most would Omar Little from The Wire. A cold-blooded killer with a code who was hella sweet when thinking about his significant other, and who had a lot riding on milk-related nourishment. Antarah was the OG, and this is further proven by the fact that his poetry does not seem like it was written 1400+ years ago, in fact, if taken out of context, it could be mistaken for violent rap. Not contemporary, since it isn’t considered in good manners to skewer people and marry cousins in 2019, but perhaps a little more old-school, like, 90s Mobb Deep or DMX. That both humbles me and makes me reassess reality, because it dawns on me how little the world has changed since Antarah’s time, and how impossibly hard it is to say something new for an artist. 
A fantastic collection of poems that endlessly inspires, however, I was a little annoyed with the abundance of explanations, with a couple introductory chapters, and tidbits introducing each poem separately. The latter seemed especially unnecessary, because the beauty of poetry is in the fact that it’s abstract, and this abstraction allows to convey a different meaning to each reader. And as much as I love Peter Cole as a poet, and respect the translators, it seemed like everything in this volume was meant to make the poems less accessible to the general audience, and make Antarah’s badass poems more academic. I was especially baffled by the comment to Antarah’s battlecry, where the succinct piece draws comparisons between a woman’s pubic hair and his own mixed race wiry beard. It’s amazing, yet the comment was extremely puritanical. How about some praise for a man who was not ashamed to say he was fighting in wars for the ability to go down on his beloved? Pure awesomeness by any time’s standards.
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Poems of love & battle by Arabia’s legendary warrior
From the sixth-century highlands of Arabian peninsula, on the eve of the advent of Islam.The black outcast son of an Arab father & an Ethiopian slave mother, 'Antarah ibn Shaddad struggled to win the recognition of his father & tribe. He defied social norms & despite his outcast status, loyally defended his people. 'Antarah captured his tumultuous life in uncompromising poetry that combines flashes of tenderness with blood-curdling violence. His war songs are testaments to his life-long battle to win the recognition of his people and the hand of 'Ablah, the free-born woman he loved but who was denied him by her family. 
War Songs presents the poetry attributed to 'Antarah and includes a selection of poems taken from the later Epic of 'Antar, a popular story-cycle. 🌸What I loved:
💕astonishingly beautiful use of metaphors
💕the poems are very well translated and explained
🌸What could've been better:
💭lots of self boast in the poems at times makes you feel less intrested in the book
💭the biggest trouble reading the book was the fact that the detailed explaination and the poems were separated so you had to go back and forth to understand the poem which became very tedious task & I eventually stopped & went with the poems flow.
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This was an incredibly interesting collection.  A number of the poems within War Songs have come through the ravages of time unscathed and are very beautiful as well as rather profound. Definitely worth the admission alone. 

Of course, there are others in the collection that haven't held up so well, and if they had been written in this day and age this review would have looked rather different.  From a historical perspective I did get something out of them, if not enjoyed the actual poems themselves.  

I found the  commentaries and context of the time in which the poems were written incredibly well researched.  While not an easy read, it was certainly an informative one.

Overall, I was glad to have read it.

This was an ARC in exchange for an honest review.  With thanks to Netgalley and NYU Press.
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I found that this set of poetry to be a collection that is not totally for me. The pieces in this work are really interesting and can be a connection to others. There can be a historical connection as well. There are longer pieces in the collection, so there is that if you are not a huge fan of longer poetry.
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Reading classical poems can always be problematic, because attitudes have changed drastically over time. The poems of 'Antarah ibn Shaddad were written in the sixth century CE (or more than 1400 years ago, in other words). Today, the idea of a warrior (not soldier) who will then turn around and compose poems about his enemies, his allies, his *horse*, is just not something that feels real to a modern reader. Or writing odes about his lost love, while also refering to 'my woman' (ie, a slave who travels with him).

I found the historical lessons in the introduction to the book to be fascinating, and I'm wondering if there are any books about 'Antarah ibn Shaddad, or about the time period.

Beyond all that, the poems were enthralling (although sometimes a very modern term will make me stumble, since I expected something a little more stilted). My only wish is that while each poem is preceeded by notes about the translation, there is a lot of material in the appendixes (such as commentaries from arab writers closer in time to the original), that I would have prefered to have had with those notes instead of having to flip back and forth.
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The years passed
     and the East Wind blew.
          Even the ruins
               fell into ruin -
tired playthings
     of Time
          and the thunder
               and rain.
Clan Hind lived here once.
     You can't visit them now -
          Fate has spun
               their thread.

I mean, COME ON, this is SUCH a gorgeous volume of translated poems. Every single one is a gem of beautiful language and heart-rending imagery and emotion. 

My one criticism is that there was a TON of explanation going on in this book: a Foreword, a very lengthy Introduction, maps, "Notes to the Introduction,"  explanatory paragraphs before each poem, three appendices, another Notes section, and a Glossary. Total overkill, at least for the lay readers. I think an Introduction, the interesting maps, and one appendix would've more than sufficed. Let the poems speak for themselves - they do a wonderful job.
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These may take some time to read and appreciate.  I really have nothing, other translations, to compare them to...I did enjoy the poems I read; very strong, assertive works.  Very much tribal in it's boasting. For anyone who enjoys Middle East poetry. Most like;y will appeal to folks of Middle East descent who no longer speak or read Arabic.  It's an These may take some time to read and appreciate.  I really have nothing, other translations, to compare them to...I did enjoy the poems I read; very strong, assertive works.  Very much tribal in it's boasting. For anyone who enjoys Middle East poetry. Most like;y will appeal to folks of Middle East descent who no longer speak or read Arabic.  It's an interesting and informative book.interesting and informative book.
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War Songs by Antarah Ibn Shaddad and translated James Montgomery is a collection of pre-Islamic poetry. Shaddad known as ʿAntar was a pre-Islamic Arab knight and poet, famous for both his poetry and his adventurous life. Montgomery is Sir Thomas Adams's Professor of Arabic. He studied Arabic and Ancient Greek at Glasgow University, spent two years on an unfinished DPhil at Oxford, where he was a Snell Exhibitioner at Balliol College before taking up a lectureship at Glasgow. Senior Lectureships at Oslo and Leeds preceded his move to Cambridge in 1997.

'Antar plays the role of an Arab Beowulf. He is a warrior who lives for battle and destroying his enemies. He is also a poet that unlike the poetry of WWI turns battle into a romantic act. War and battle became a religion which he participated in with zeal.

nobles like this are fair game
My spear mucked him up.
He did not look so fancy
laying there, a feast for night
predators ripping him from head to wrist.

ʿAntar faces death as a challenge not as fear:

I went face to face with Death
up close, with only a shield and a burnished saber
to keep us apart.

Peter Cole (Yale University) provides a detailed introduction into Arab poetry and translation and discusses the challenges of the translation not only in language but in time bringing the 6th century into modern form. The introduction provides a detailed history of not only 'Antar's life but also a history of the Arabian peninsula.  'Antar is not only famous as a warrior but also as a mixed-race hero.  He is one of the three black ravens in pre-Islamic history -- a poet warrior of a black, Ethiopian, mother who was a slave.  'Antar, himself, was born into slavery but earned his freedom through heroics in battle.  

War Songs will provide the reader with an introduction to early Arabic poetry.  The introduction and forward offers more than adequate information and background for a reader unfamiliar with the history or poetry.  The translation along with the introduction and forward are heavily cited with explanations and source material for those readers looking for more information and further reading.  An excellent collection of poetry, biography, and history.
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