How Poetry Can Kill…

How Poetry Can Kill You [Chapter on SKIN IN THE GAME]

Ask a polyglot who knows Arabic who he considers the best poet —in any language— and odds are that he would answer Almutanabbi who lived about a thousand years ago; his poetry in the original has a hypnotic effect only rivaled by the grip of Pushkin on Russian speakers. The problem is that Almutanabbi knew it; his name was literally, “he who thinks about himself as a prophet”, on account of his perceived large ego. For a taste of his bombast, one of his poems informs us that his poetry is so potent “that blind people can read it” and “deaf people can listen to it”. Well, Almutanabbi walked the walk —a rare case of a poet with skin in the game, dying for his poetry.
For in the same egotistical poem, Almutanabbi boasts, in a breathtaking display of linguistic magic, that in addition to being the most imaginably potent poet —which I insist he was – he knew “the horse, the night, the desert, the pen, the book” —and thanks to his courage got respect from the lion.
Well, the poem cost him his life. For Almutanabbi had —characteristically— vilified a desert tribe in one of his poems and they were out to get him. They reached him as he was traveling. As he was outnumbered, he started to do the rational thing and run away, without shame, except that one of his companions started reciting “the horse, the night…” back at him. He turned around and confronted the tribe to his certain death. Thus Almutanabbi stays, a thousand years later, as the poet who died simply to avoid the dishonor of running away and when we recite his verses we know they are genuine.

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