On the Third Most Popular Poet of All Time
Philip Metres Reveals His Family Connections to Khalil Gibran, Poet of 'The Prophet'
The first thing that you learn about Khalil Gibran from an Arab, particularly a Lebanese immigrant in love with the Old Country, is that his name is not Khalil Gibran. Nor is it, as my edition of The Prophet has it, “Kahlil Gibran.”
He was born Gibrān Khalīl Gibrān bin Mikhā’īl bin Sa’ad. It’s typical for an immigrant to the New World to shed some of the flourishes of an Old World name, so its Ellis Island-style reduction is not so surprising. However, the spelling of his first name still mystifies me; in Arabic, the sound that we transliterate as “kh” is an aspirated “h” so the displacement of the “h”—which appears not only on his books, but also on his letterhead—is but one of many “lost in translation” moments of the boy from Bsharri.
A few years ago, in a review of Gibran biographies in The New Yorker, Joan Acocella notes that Gibran’s publishing numbers for his ubiquitous The Prophet (1923) place him third all-time among poets, after Shakespeare and Lao-tzu, selling over nine million copies in the United States. But his pop culture prowess—first blooming in the 1930s and then again with the 1960s counterculture—moves beyond the books:
There are public schools named for Gibran in Brooklyn and Yonkers. “The Prophet” has been recited at countless weddings and funerals. It is quoted in books and articles on training art teachers, determining criminal responsibility, and enduring ectopic pregnancy, sleep disorders, and the news that your son is gay. Its words turn up in advertisements for marriage counsellors, chiropractors, learning-disabilities specialists, and face cream.
If Acocella’s tone is lightly mocking, contemporary poets are relentless in their derision of Gibran, placing his poetry somewhere between Jewel and Jimmy Carter.
But Gibran was a revered name in my household, and in my father’s childhood home in Brooklyn, not only because he was a Lebanese poet who wrote the ubiquitous The Prophet, but also because he hailed from the hometown of my father’s grandmother: Bsharri, Lebanon. He came to stay at their home in Brooklyn Heights (290 Hicks Street) in the 1920s, and according to family legend, wrote some of his Prophet while there.
I can’t confirm that story, though it’s been repeated in guidebooks of Brooklyn. (My uncle sent me a pdf of the page on Brooklyn Heights that mentions that fact, but when we contacted the author, she told him the source: it was someone else from our family.) Still, I love this legend. It’s redolent of the myth-building that I love about my father’s side, who, like all immigrant families, suffered the great reduction of assimilation mostly in silence, pressing their bodies against the warm shared wall of the neighbors because they didn’t have enough money for coal in the winter.
What I do have is a copy of the letter of thanks that Gibran wrote to my great-grandmother for her generosity in having him stay with them. Whatever else you want to say about Gibran, he was a local boy made good. And, in the process of blazing his trail from Bsharri, gave Arab Americans and Arab American poets a figure of their own possible success in translating ineffable Bsharri’s into poetic Brooklyns.“Contemporary poets are relentless in their derision of Gibran, placing his poetry somewhere between Jewel and Jimmy Carter.”
Gibran’s “masterpiece,” such as it is, turns not so much upon poetry as upon the genre of wisdom literature, and its subgenre, the aphorism, which holds a particularly valued place in Arab culture, and is indebted strongly to the first Arab American novel, The Book of Khalid (1911), by Ameen Rihani.
“You really ought to read this book,” my great-uncle Fred wrote to me, in his letter accompanying a pdf-version of The Book of Khalid, in the years before a centenary edition was released by Melville House. Fred was born Farid, the youngest of nine children in the Boulos household, and the one who remembered pressing his body against the warm shared wall of the neighbors. Based on Rihani’s experience of immigration from Lebanon, the story follows Khalid, a muleboy who transforms first into a peddler (of fake Holy Land trinkets), then into a political activist, and finally into revolutionary mystic and martyr. Khalid is an Arab Quixote, daydreaming of love and honor, and therefore constantly suffering indignities from the cruel and the powerful. By the end, he turns from being a lovelorn muleboy into a true visionary, returning to Syria. It’s a brilliant, wise, and comical take on the complexities of immigration, and on the desire to marry East and West.
Gibran was friends with Ameen Rihani, part of Arrabitah, or the Pen League, the first flourishing of Arab American letters during the birth of modernism. Gibran provided original illustrations for The Book of Khalid, and it’s impossible not to hear an ur-version of Gibran’s prophet in Khalid, who would come to coin such aphorisms as “if your hopes are not crucified, you pass into the Paradise of your dreams. If they are crucified… the gates of the said Paradise will be shut against you.”
A decade after The Book of Khalid, Gibran published The Prophet; the frame of the story is flimsier than Rihani’s, less wrought with literary self-irony; in it, the sage Almustafa, who has been living in exile in Orphalese, is called upon by the people to share his wisdom on various questions of life: love, marriage, children, giving, eating and drinking, work, etc. The meat of the book is comprised of the aphoristic prose poems on these themes. Like all good aphorists, Gibran uses language in a way that is both plain and metaphorical; it invites understanding, yet in a way that brushes against the ineffable. On the pain that is part of love, Gibran strikes sharply:
When love beckons to you, follow him,
Though his ways are hard and steep.
And when his wings enfold you yield to him,
Though the sword hidden among his pinions may wound you.
And when he speaks to you believe in him,
Though his voice may shatter your dreams as the north wind lays waste the garden…
But if in your fear you would seek only love’s peace and love’s pleasure,
Then it is better for you that you cover your nakedness and pass out of love’s
Into the seasonless world where you shall laugh, but not all of your laughter,
and weep, but not all of your tears…
Say what you will about the familiarity of the images or the occasionally wooden phrasings, dear reader: what I know of love is in this. How the most intimate relationships can be the cause of our greatest joy and greatest suffering, and yet in the holding-back from such intimacies, some essential salt of life seems absent. If poetry is a tuning-toward the mystery of what it means to be alive, then this is poetry.
There’s no doubt that Gibran’s style occasionally ascends into unintentionally comic elevations—with its anachronistic Victorianisms—and its high and earnest tone seems out of place in the ironies and specificities of American life. And arguably its success is partly related to the self-Orientalizing of its author, whose earnest “Eastern” persona seems right out of Edward Said.
But the spiritual homelessness, the raw longing that resonates past the cliché, describes and embodies what I’ve felt of immigrant life. I think of the liquid melancholy in my grandmother’s eyes shining back at me when I would visit her at 290 Hicks Street, filled with some kind of impossible-to-quench thirst, a look I’ve seen so often when meeting immigrants and refugees and exiles from all directions of the compass. In the eyes of the Nguyen family in San Diego that came to be part of our family, fleeing the Vietnam War. In the eyes of the Russians I know, rousting about in Chicago and Cleveland. In the eyes of my Palestinian friends, flung the four directions, generation after generation.
On houses, for example, the Prophet says:
Your house shall be not an anchor but a mast.
It shall not be a glistening film that covers a wound, but an eyelid that guards the eye.
I love that metaphor; that the house is not a staying-put, but a vehicle for movement by standing still. A place to close the eyes, to dream, and to open them again. An immigrant is just a person who knows home is a verb.
Speaking of houses, here’s the letter Gibran sent to my great-grandmother, Nehia Boulos, thanking her for hosting him at 290 Hicks Street, in rough translation:
51 West 10th St.
New York, City
April 22, 1927
To the Woman of My Country,
I salute you with a thousand salutes. I was very happy receiving your second letter, this is due to missing your first letter between my going to Boston and getting back to New York and could not find your address among my papers, and there are so many of them in this room.
I beg your pardon and forgiveness. You will know that every breeze from our Old Country breezes takes me back to that high mountain and that holy valley, you and your family and all that surround you are from these delightful breezes.
In every season I leave to Boston, leaving all my works behind me. This is because I prefer to be around people who were from where I was born and… they are like me and sincere to this beautiful far country.
I beg you first to best wishes to your kind husband and children (old and young) (God bless them), and second to mention my name with kindness to your dear parents, and to your relatives. They are, like you well are, related to me. The same blood that flows in their veins flows through mine too.
God bless you and protect you, from the sincere son of your country,
The letter has the kind of poetic language which is typical not only of a poet, but also of the Arabic language as well. The poetry of the letter is not explained by Arabic language only, though. In the dedication to my copy of The Prophet, given on my 20th birthday, my father writes, in English: “You are a prophet yourself and a distant cousin of Kahlil. If you could take in complete the pride and love other people have of you, you would be an even happier young man.” Acocella, later in her review, notes “a later mentor declared him a mystic, “a young prophet” before he’d published a word. “And so he began to see himself that way.”
I, too, was baptized into the possibility of self-mythology. It was a gift, I see now, to have the sort of parents willing to see prophecy in a vexatious, self-conscious, over-serious and dreamy child. I would read the book gingerly, as if afraid of its influence. Later, I would come to write poems that my father would claim were the first he ever really understood as poems, because they told the stories of his family. (My mother, by contrast, always loved poetry and liked to quote Wordsworth, Hopkins, and Eliot.) Still later, I would write a book about the Iraq War that would leave both of my parents in varying states of panic and confusion, wondering if the book’s obsession with torture was secretly really about me.
Yet to this day, my father marvels over my lines, wondering aloud who precisely could have written them, and if I did, whether I was indeed his child. As Gibran would have it, via the Prophet’s own words: “Your children are not your children… You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.”
From The Sound of Listening by Philip Metres, courtesy University of Michigan Press. Copyright 2018, by Philip Metres. A version of this essay first appeared in Poetry & Popular Culture blog, 2009.