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City of Beginnings

Poetic Modernism in Beirut

How poetic modernism shaped Arabic intellectual debates in the twentieth century and beyond

City of Beginnings is an exploration of modernism in Arabic poetry, a movement that emerged in Beirut during the 1950s and became the most influential and controversial Arabic literary development of the twentieth century. Robyn Creswell introduces English-language readers to a poetic movement that will be uncannily familiar—and unsettlingly strange. He also provides an intellectual history of Lebanon during the early Cold War, when Beirut became both a battleground for rival ideologies and the most vital artistic site in the Middle East. Arabic modernism was centered on the legendary magazine Shi‘r (“Poetry”), which sought to put Arabic verse on “the map of world literature.” The Beiruti poets—Adonis, Yusuf al-Khal, and Unsi al-Hajj chief among them—translated modernism into Arabic, redefining the very idea of poetry in that literary tradition. City of Beginnings includes analyses of the Arab modernists’ creative encounters with Ezra Pound, Saint-John Perse, and Antonin Artaud, as well as their adaptations of classical literary forms. The book also reveals how the modernists translated concepts of liberal individualism, autonomy, and political freedom into a radical poetics that has shaped Arabic literary and intellectual debate to this day.

Author Information

Robyn Creswell is assistant professor of comparative literature at Yale University and a former poetry editor at the Paris Review. His writings have appeared in the New Yorker, the New York Review of Books, and Harper’s Magazine, among many other publications. He is the translator of Abdelfattah Kilito’s The Tongue of Adam and Sonallah Ibrahim’s “ That Smell” and “Notes from Prison."


“A masterpiece of comparative reading and a gripping story of Cold War culture, City of Beginnings is a fascinating journey into the intellectual life of postwar Beirut and the best account we have of the modernist poetry movement in Arabic. Robyn Creswell shows how the Arab modernists took inspiration from the deepest portions of their literary heritage while also breaking with that tradition in daring fashion—with consequences that are still with us.” —Elias Khoury, author of Gate of the Sun

"In this marvelously nuanced portrait of Arab literary modernism in Beirut, Robyn Creswell illuminates the still-resonant debates over engagement and freedom, modernity and tradition, nationalism and internationalism. His insights into autonomy, genre, translation, and Adonis are winningly lucid, eloquent, and compelling. Whether you’re interested in poetry, global modernisms, Arabic literature, or all of the above, read this book."—Jahan Ramazani, editor of The Cambridge Companion to Postcolonial Poetry

City of Beginnings is an original and much-needed study of literary modernism in Beirut in the decades between the Second World War and the Lebanese Civil War. Creswell challenges breezy generalizations about modernism as a universal literary mode that are often made based almost entirely on Anglophone materials. A great accomplishment.”—Aamir R. Mufti, University of California, Los Angeles

City of Beginnings is a very important book. Robyn Creswell shows why poetry was at the heart of Arab thought and politics during the Cold War. In prose engaging and clear, he offers exquisite close readings and takes up the key moments of this history with masterful economy and deep erudition. Remarkable.”—Elliott Colla, Georgetown University

"City of Beginnings is a trailblazing work of literary scholarship. With sympathy and erudition that are unique among American critics, Creswell analyzes Arabic modernism in its own terms, while situating it precisely within the dynamics of the cultural Cold War. He excavates a fascinating history and makes it relevant to our own moment."—Iman Mersal, University of Alberta

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