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Hello, and welcome to Poetry Soup! I’m your host, Emma Catherine Hoff. Today, I’m excited to talk about “A Music Sentence,” a poem with an intriguing form by a poet I discovered recently – Mahmoud Darwish.

Mahmoud Darwish was born on March 13, 1941 (he actually happens to share a birthday with me!), in Al-Birwa, Palestine. His family fled their hometown to Lebanon when it was invaded by the Israeli military, but eventually returned. However, Darwish moved multiple times when he got older, and even studied for a year in the Soviet Union. He was greatly interested in Palestinian liberation and joined the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), which led to his exile from Palestine. His ban from coming back to his homeland is a topic that comes up often in his poetry – for example, the poem I’ll be talking about today. Before joining the PLO, Darwish was a member of the Israeli Communist Party.

Darwish published his first book of poetry when he was 19 years old and went on to publish 30 books of poetry and 8 works of prose. Among other awards, he earned the Lannan Cultural Freedom Prize. He edited multiple journals throughout his lifetime and was a very important Palestinian symbol. His poetry represented the resistance of Palestinian people to Israeli occupation. He died on August 9, 2008.

Darwish’s poems were filled with social commentary and drew extreme reactions from many people due to their controversial subject matter. 

His poems vary in length and style, but his Palestinian heritage is very important in many of them. “A Music Sentence” is included in his poetry collection “If I Were Another,” which has many long poems, broken up into shorter parts. The collection was translated by Fady Joudah.

“A Music Sentence” achieves a slightly regretful tone and offers two different perspectives – one from the inside of Palestine, and one from the outside – through its melodious rhythm and repetition.

A poet now, instead of me,

writes a poem

on the willow of distant wind.

So why does a rose in the wall

wear new petals? 


A boy now, instead of us,

sets a dove flying

high toward the cloud ceiling.

So why does the forest shed all

this snow around a smile?


A bird now, instead of us,

carries a letter

from the land of the gazelle to the blue.

So why does the hunter enter the scene

and fling his arrow?


A man now, instead of us,

washes the moon

and walks over the river’s crystal.

So why does color fall on the earth

and we are naked like trees?


A lover now, instead of me,

sweeps his love

into the mire of bottomless springs.

So why does the cypress stand here

like a watchman at the garden gate?


A horseman now, instead of me,

stops his horse

and dozes under the shadow of a holm oak.

So why do the dead flock

to us out of wall and closet?

In his poem, Darwish depicts an ordinary scene of a community continuing its daily activities despite him not being there. Though he’s no longer there, everything is continuing the way it has always continued. It’s like the old people of the land, the people of history, as well as himself, are still represented in the actions and new people in the poem.

Though the poem is not hostile or angry, it also portrays a bit of regret. It shows Darwish’s longing to be back in his home and a sense of loss. Darwish uses the repeated “so why” statements in his poem to convey this – he’s confused by how easily everything stays the same despite him no longer being there. He misses Palestine during his exile, and the knowledge that nothing has changed just because of his absence is saddening.

The structure of this poem also gives it an almost song-like quality (hence, the title, “A Musical Sentence”). Each stanza is two sentences. The first sentence is a statement describing an animal or person that Darwish sees a bit of his own life in Palestine in, that the people of the past can see themselves in, but that are also not the same, that are new. The second sentence is the question I described earlier, building the poem’s tone. But the question in the last stanza also serves another purpose. It references the past, showing how the dead, or the previous inhabitants of the land, are still present in the actions of the new inhabitants, even if they’re not there anymore.

Each single stanza is an image, but all together it paints a picture of an everyday town. When I read the poem, it makes me imagine a place with lots of trees (actually, Al-Birwa happened to have many olive trees). This gives the poem its flow and ensures that the repetition doesn’t end up being stunted or clunky.

Darwish’s images, while being clear and concrete, are also very surreal. He doesn’t directly describe them, but instead does so in a very roundabout way (“a man now, instead of us,/washes the moon/and walks over the river’s crystal”). These metaphors and pictures form snapshots, one per stanza, which fit together like puzzle pieces to create Darwish’s nostalgic remembrance of his homeland.

This poem’s structure can be helpful as a jumping off point to write your own poem! It really shows the power that repetition can have in poetry. I hope you enjoyed this episode of Poetry Soup, and I’ll see you soon with the next one.

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