The Tragedy of Fred Phelps: How Priggishness Poisoned Everything

By A.Z. Foreman
The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interred with their bones;

-Mark Antony in "The Tragedy of Julius Caesar
The responses to Fred Phelps' death have, to say the least, not been forthcoming with much lamentation. Indeed, my own initial - and superficial-  response of "Ding-dong, the Phelps is dead!" could hardly be called much of a dirge. I was not alone in my sentiment, as my Facebook feed amply demonstrated.

Another common reaction, perhaps most riotously exhibited by this Onion article, has been to cast Phelps as an irrelevant pain in the ass who achieved little in his crusade of unmitigated hatred and contempt for the basic humanity of sexual minorities. Moreover, some point out, he was only one among many mouthpieces for such bigotry. Others will take his place in the legion of extraordinary homophobes. He was, at bottom, as powerless to stop the march of progress on LGBT issues as he was generic and interchangeable in his opposition to it.

Others, perhaps more to the point, portray Phelps as a complex man with a prophet-complex, neither fully good nor fully evil.

These responses, indeed all the responses I have so far seen, are sorely lacking in one respect. For Fred Phelps was not bigotry personified. Nor was he merely one of many homophobes. No, he was something much more disturbing.

Lend me your ears, my fellow Americans! 

Anyone who looked up Fred Phelps' life on Wikipedia while he was alive, or perused the legion of pieces now spawning on the cyberscape in the wake of his death (or written just before it), would, if they know only what the man was most known for in recent decades, be shocked.

Who knew the man was a democrat? Hell, who'd have thought this fag-flayer once made a pastime of running for elected office half a dozen times on the democratic party's ticket? And his civil rights record! What are we to think of that? 

This was not a hater like any other. Indeed, he seems to have rather been a hater unlike any other. And I'm sure he liked it that way.

Phelps started his legal career as a civil rights lawyer in the 60s defending black plaintiffs against the legal, cultural and institutional racist horror-show that was the Jim Crow south. And he was good at it. More than that, he was dedicated. Devoted, even - nay, devout. He seems to have been passionate to the point of moral crusader zeal about defending blacks against institutional racism. For some time, he was the only white attorney in the state willing to stick up for black folk. And he endured abuse at the hands of many a racist for it. "Nigger-lover" was a word he and his family were for quite some time on painful, intimate terms with.

Unlike many lawyers who prefer only to take cases they think they have a snowcone's chance on Satan's tongue of winning, Phelps seems to have fought for civil rights in the courtroom on principle, even when he must have known he'd lose. Even when defeat was certain, even when the victim had no chance of actually winning, Phelps seems to have gladly taken up the cause.  If you were a black person in Kansas getting screwed by institutionalized racism, and wanted to seek legal recourse but couldn't find anyone to take your case, the Phelps legal team was your last hope for some semblance of justice.

He won honors for it: the Omaha Mayor's Special Recognition Award,  an award from the Greater Kansas City Chapter of Blacks in Government, and even an award from the NAACP praising him for his "steely determination for justice during his tenure as a civil rights attorney."

Had Phelps died 30 years ago (and, in a universe presided over by more benevolent forces than the caprice of our cosmos, he would have) his obituaries would have glowed with affection. His funeral, if he had one, would have been attended by a large and grateful contingent of black people. Black celebrities would likely have offered up kind words to honor him, and liberals of every stripe would have come out of the news cycle's woodwork to proffer their sincerest condolences to his family and their sadness at the passing of one of black America's most dedicated allies.

But he didn't die 30 years ago, much though I may wish he had. And I come to bury Phelps, not to praise him.

There is the question: Whence came such steely determination? Why did this white homophobe fight so hard on behalf of black people?

Back when Phelps was still alive and squawking, one explanation offered by some was that he must have just been taking civil rights cases to make money, that he must have been insincere about wanting to aid black victims of institutional racism if he could become such a hatemonger later on. As I hope to have shown above, however, this simply does not hold water. To the degree that these questions seem at all puzzling today, it is because the left has gotten far too much mileage out of the Good Ol' Boy stereotype of the homophobic racist misogynist as antistrophe in a chorus preoccupied with the straight white male Other. For the likely answer is simply: he believed it was the right thing to do.

I admit my first reaction, years ago when I first became curious about this curious man, was to wonder what breakdown of sanity occasioned this switcheroo from fighting against the evils of persecution to trumpeting it as a god-mandated imperative.

The truth, though, is that Phelps didn't change one bit. There is ample and obvious evidence that Phelps' animus against sexual "deviance" was not caused by his moral mainspring somehow breaking in the 80s. Rather, it was there all along. In 1951, over a decade before embarking on his frankly heroic campaign against white supremacy in the courtrooms of Kansas, Phelps - then a student at John Muir college - was profiled in Time for his habit of walking up to groups of students on campus and launching into fiery brimstone-rich jeremiads about "pandering to the lusts of the flesh" and sundry crimes of indulgence against sexual propriety which, he was appalled to see, didn't seem to others to be such a big deal. His conviction that disregard for sexual restraint crossed some sort of moral rubicon, the impulse to combat it in the fashion of a latter-day prophet speaking truth at the city gates to the uncomprehending licentious masses - this was always there.
The same authoritarian personality trait probably did black people some good. In the Kansas of the 60s and 70s, seeing all around him the ghastly effects wrought by his society's pathology of race, himself the son of a venomous racist, I cannot for a moment doubt that Phelps must have felt himself to be carrying out a moral mission of similar scope, taking a lonely stand for what he believed to be right and moral in the face of a world gone immorally wrong. The same rebel without a pause, and without fear.

He never changed. America did.

It was only when America began to show considerable signs of sexual emancipation, the very thing which had so troubled his prayers all those years ago as an undergraduate in San Diego, that Phelps turned a different shade of crusader. There was a shift in sexual morality - from his perspective - in the wrong direction. This seems to have brought out the Vader in his Anakin.

Phelps had always been unnecessarily belligerent. Some of the suits he filed showed him to be among the angriest, most capricious, most litigious and most cantankerous attorneys in his state's jurisprudential firmament. One such misadventure was a 6 year lawsuit over a mishap with the delivery of a TV set.

It was, however, his cruel and juvenile bullying of Carolene Brady in 1977 as a hostile witness, accusing her of all manner of things including being "a slut", reducing her to to tears on the witness stand, all as part of a vendetta over a comically minor punctilio of courtroom bureaucracy, which in the end got him disbarred.

Shortly thereafter, Phelps seems to have become ever more paranoid about sexual excess and wantonness. The Gage Park debacle, in which he and his family complained to the authorities that too many gay people were cruising for sex in a park near the Phelps' home and tried put up signs warning of homosexuals in the area when no action was taken - was sparked, according to Phelps' daughter, because his children were being "accosted" by homosexuals, including an incident where a homosexual tried to lead his 5-year-old son off into the bushes.

I do not in truth know whether Phelps' children were actually molested or harassed by someone sexually attracted to children. I'm sure Phelps believed that they were. But given his decades-old habit of making sexually-charged mountains out of relatively innocent molehills (witness his willingness to call Carolene Brady an unreliable slut for being a day late with a transcript), what Phelps perceived as harassment was probably nothing more sinister than a man in tight pants who loves kids smiling at the boy and saying "hey there little guy" as he walked past.

And so began "The Great Gage Park Decency Drive" which inaugurated the Westboro Baptist Church's campaign against fags.

I am not alone in having picked up on the common origin from which sprang both Phelps' civil rights work and anti-gay soapboxathon.

Matthew Rozsa puts it thusly:

...individuals who invest their life's work in larger social causes often do so for psychological as well as ideological reasons. Regardless of the exact beliefs of the movements in question — whether they are religious or political, left-wing or right-wing, intellectual or visceral — people who become "true believers" in those causes frequently do so to fulfill a variety of needs to both their egos and their ability to comprehend the dauntingly complex external world. Indeed, as Hoffer demonstrated, this fanatical personality type could be found behind causes ranging from Communism and Nazism to Christianity and Islam... with "true believers" able to flip from one point-of-view to a seemingly contradictory one precisely because their core psychological needs were still met.

Consequently, instead of viewing Phelps's earlier civil rights activism as an angel to his subsequent raging homophobe's devil, we should see them as different manifestations of a single root drive. We need to recognize that the same fervent conviction and inner belief system that can fuel the cause of justice can also be used to deny justice to others, even though the genesis of both those forces can sincerely hold that each is serving a righteous cause. While none of this excuses Phelps's irrationality or malevolence, it helps us see that everyone — progressives, conservatives, libertarians, centrists, Christians, Jews, Muslims, atheists — is capable of being both a hero and a monster. We all believe what we do as much out of pride and the need to be swept up by a "greater cause" as we do out of detached intellectual and moral analysis.

As America looks back on the scope of Phelps's life, my hope is that it will spark introspection among idealists of all stripes. I say this not as one who claims to be above such impulses — indeed, I have been guilty of knee-jerk idealism before and will almost certainly be guilty of it again — but because liberty is threatened most not by those who care too little, but by those who never scrutizine what they care about and why.

This seems to me to be somewhat disingenuous. 

Sure, Phelps can be typologized as the fanatical true believer into whose mind any movement could be channeled and generate similar kinds of militantly rebellious behavior. Even if you believe that (and I only partly do) not all fanatical true believers become monsters. Some who leave a heroic legacy, like John Brown, probably were lucky enough to die at the right time in a way Phelps didn't. But you can't say that about Hugh Franklin, the man who was willing to starve in the name of women's political enfranchisement, can you? Countless other visionary fanatics and people with highly authoritarian personalities have had a largely positive effect in their lives. Is there a meaningful difference? Something that makes a fanatical mind less prone to hateful harm and more zealous justice?

Yes, there is. To wit - the things they believe.

What is being avoided in discussions of this aspect of Phelps' character on the internet is the fact that, had Phelps had a different set of premises on which to construct the belief-system that so animated him, he would have found different causes to push for. Contrary to what Rozsa intimates, with his reduction of people to stereotype - and contrary to a lot of the mealy-mouthed rhetoric used to answer criticism of religion about how bigoted believers are merely "using" a belief system to articulate a prejudice supposedly extraneous to it - it is only honest to acknowledge that the specific beliefs a person holds regarding morality and justice, especially someone like a Fred Phelps or a Hugh Franklin, will have specific consequences for what causes they pursue.

Fred Phelps' revulsion toward violations of his preferred sexual norms, ultimately regardless of the genders of those involved in the transgression as his campus and courtroom antics demonstrate, may have been transformed into a full-blown obsessive cause by specific factors. But had he not held such beliefs in the first place, he would at the very least have found something else to prophesy about during his college days in San Diego. Yes, he might have been just as unstable, belligerent, fanatical in his pursuit of his cause. But who's to say he wouldn't have been a tireless belligerent, fanatical advocate for gay rights? In the AIDS-petrified America of the 1980s and early 90s, it would have been quite possible for Phelps the straight man to position himself as a lonely prophet, hated and abhored by all around him for standing up for gay people. The man did love being hated, after all.

Fred Phelps' life was a tragedy, a tragedy that speaks not so much to the pervasiveness of religious  sexual bigotry, as to its toxicity, and its ability to turn potentially good and even great people into the most hate-filled specimens of malice. We should join Phelps' son Nathan and grieve “not for the man he was, but for the man he could have been.”

For we will never know that latter man, the one who didn't have the chance to acquire this kind of gross preoccupation with sexual propriety, and pietistic prudery backed by questions of Heaven and Hell. Would he have continued to fight for African-American dignity into the 90s and 2000s, in the courtrooms of West Baltimore, say, or East St. Louis? Who's to say whether he would have continued there his last-righteous-man-standing act by letting the public see him as protecting dealers of street drugs, whilst seeing himself as defending some of the most powerless people in America against the War on Drugs, that racialized terror being inflicted upon the majority-black underclass of urban America?

Counterfactual history is an oxymoron, so I don't know.

I do know that Matthew Shepherd would have been buried with a bit more dignity.

I began this post by quoting from Mark Antony's speech for Caesar, let me finish by doing it once again.
You all did love him once, not without cause.
What cause withholds you then to mourn for him?

A Nuisance from Edward Said

Why do I do this to myself? Every time I re-read "Orientalism" some new deeper layer of ridiculous horseshit leaps from the bowels of the pages to impose itself upon my consciousness with veritably colonial tenacity. Take this bit of dreck:

"None of the Orientalists I write about seems ever to have intended an Oriental as a reader." 
-Edward Said.

And now I find myself writing a cathartic letter to a dead dude over it.

Dear Eddie Said

Screw you and your ethnic stereotyping. Hamilton Gibb, whom you smear superficially over the course of a dozen unforgivable pages, actually wrote articles in Arabic. If you were capable of actually reading literary Arabic nearly as well as you pretended to at the time you wrote the book that was to blight the classes of many an undergraduate, you might have profited from his خواطر في الأدب العربي "Thoughts on Arabic Literature" which, being in Arabic, would have found a tiny audience indeed if it were not intended for "Oriental" readers. And, to take just one other example, E.H. Palmer, whom you skewer with half-truths, wrote not just articles but poetry in Persian, Arabic and Urdu, to the acclaim of native-speakers.

The insular Orientalism you caricature is a far more recent development than you seem to want to believe, Eddie. During the 18th and 19th centuries, several dozen Europeans, (and not all of them men btw) composed not only newspaper articles and scholarly papers, but also original poetry in Arabic, Persian, Turkish and Urdu - some in considerable amounts, and a few with considerable artistic merit.

A read of Ram Babu Saksena's "European and Indo-European Poets of Urdu and Persian" would have done you a world of good. I'm afraid you wouldn't have been able to savor any of the poetry contained therein, since you don't read either Persian or Urdu and translations are not provided. But at least you would have gotten it into your head that some Persian and Urdu poets of the 19th century had names like "Ellen Christiana Gardener" and "George Fanthome" and the like.

May you finally get the reputation you deserve
-A.Z. Foreman

Ahh, I do feel better now I must say

Ghazal For Layla In Wartime

Ghazal For Layla In Wartime
By A.Z. Foreman

We've come back in one piece from love's Afghanistan tonight.
     Let's not try Andalus, but make what peace we can tonight.
Though desert guides cry out "pack up your things now and move on!"

     We have an inn. Why should we join the caravan tonight?
A poet warned of dark nights of the soul like waves of storm.

     Weather the storm with me. Don't trust that weatherman tonight.
Again like you the Westward lightning bursts beyond the window.
     The dawn wind will refresh the life that we began tonight.
Manhattan stands knee-deep in dark that flooded Roanoke
     And shades of Alexander steal on Isfahan tonight.
Ground Zero is a wheel rut in the ruined rock of Crete.

     Now, let us head toward a different Iran tonight.
Let the mere nations battle over godly unbeliefs,

     Love writes us a new Bible and a new Qur'an tonight.
          The grass kneels in the rain and I to you: Forget our names.
          The flawless bed is calling with a sixth ázán* tonight.

*ázán (Arabic āðān) - the muslim call to prayer issued from the minaret five times a day. In culturally Islamic countries, the sound of the azan filling the air is a fact of urban life. I actually find it useful in helping with time-management.

Escape from Farce Province: A Contrafactum of a Ghazal by Hafiz

Escape From Farce Province
A contrafactum of a ghazal by Hafez
A.Z. Foreman

Hafez, let me help scatter flowers and fill the cup with sparkling wine.
   We'll REND the heavens with your powers and try a wholly true design
Though legions of taboo lay siege to your debauchee state, my liege,
   Bid me go forth and I'll translate you safely from their undermine.
One fellow calls you fag, outlawed. Another closets you in God.
   Just bid me be your winebearer. Leave them to glug that pious brine.
When I come sit beside your dust, I'll bring the spirit and the song.
   Pray rise and dance with me, escape the burial prison of your shrine. 
Sweet breeze, convey my skeptic heart forth to the artist and the art
   Where mosque meets synagogue and Man is maker of a whirled divine.
Come, take my pleading heart in hand and steal the rest as contraband
   By force of verse, your universe where nothing that I am is mine.
Come to the pub, or to the church, whose chalice holds a worldly drink
   Turned metaphor, in our Communion, for the sweetness of your line.
      Friend Hafez, Ayatolladom would mute your musicks and play dumb.
      Come, follow dawn's east wind toward a less benighted court to shine.

This attempt at a Persianate ghazal is an English contrafactum of Hafez' ghazal 374 (بيا تا گل برفشانيم.) I use the term "contrafactum" as an equivalent for the Persian (and Arabic) word معارضه. A verse contrafactum is most traditionally described as a poem which deliberately uses the same meter and the same rhyme (sometimes even the exact same rhyme-words) as another poem by another poet. Take Wendy cope's quatrain:

 Here with a Bag of Crisps beneath the Bough,
 A Can of Beer, a Radio - and Thou
 Beside me half asleep in Brockwell Park
 And Brockwell Park is Paradise enow.

This could be described in Perso-Arabic terms as a contrafactum of Fitzgerald's translation of a quatrain by Omar Khayyam:

A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,
 A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread, -- and Thou
 Beside me singing in the Wilderness --
 Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow!

Yet, as is the case with Wendy cope's quatrain, contrafacta very often involve putting a new spin on the ideas contained on the poem being contrafacted from. In Cope's case, as in most examples of the practice in English, the intent is parody. In Persian and Arabic, however, contrafacta can come in a variety of flavors of appropriation. Some do go no farther than reproducing the meter and rhyme-sounds of another poet. Others are parody or satire. Still others may describe a mood, theme or situation in some way analogous to that of the parent-text, or argue against the sentiment it expresses. Obviously, since the traditional metrical systems of Persian and English are as different and incompatible as anything imaginable, I couldn't re-use the same meter. I could, however, try and reproduce the rhythmic feel and flow of the Persian poem using an English metrical grid.

An Anti-shakespearian Anti-sonnet

An Anti-Shakespearian Anti-Sonnet
By A.Z. Foreman

June 27, 1941

What'll I compare her to, this summer day
Of June that shakes the darling buds of May?

This day has given her cheeks and lips a red
Known to no rose. No lipstick and no rouge
Where she lies killed, blood covering her head
With summer dawning on the failed refuge

She begged for at that blue-eyed fellow's door
Who fucked her skull then shot it twice out back
Where fair dark ravens with no nevermore
Now flock and pluck her sockets blank and black.

And this diurnal summer does not fade
Nor cease to shine on many a blond head.
Why would death brag at all about his shade
When in raw daylight she can rot so red?

She can no longer breathe. Though men can see,
Summer can't care, and cannot mean, but be.

The Passion Of Lady Joan

The Passion Of Lady Joan
By A.Z. Foreman

After Yvor Winters

And now the Inquisition. You men speak
explaining me away. What was my wrong
again? Only my labor at not staying weak,
showing myself a different brand of strong.

You ask again: God's spear or Satan's arrow?
Why use such bitchcraft, drink of such desire?
The untold truth: I drew man's sword from sorrow
at peasants screaming under rape and fire.

What is a heretic? A woman skilled
in all ways of contending with a throne
is an insecurity risk when the blood spilled
beneath the moons of steel is not her own.

This truth I may not speak, nor you record,
But still we know it. As the sieges fell
I raised your hearts against you like one sword.
You feared in me much more than France or Hell

But the Timeless that unlaced me from the times.
Your coward times my men were right to scorch
have judged one's being herself the first of crimes.

The Timeless bids her be herself a torch.

If being burned she sheds light on that cage
in which too many a hero has been girled,
she would be knight and daylight, age by age,
the beacon, yearning, for an unslaved world.

Her truth to own herself she can but win.
Her enemy is but a lie of Man.
Yet men her name has torched shall call her kin.
Here is the Woman. Crucify who can.

Reading and Translating Early Arabic Poetry

I have found that Early Arabic poetry is in some ways even more difficult to translate than its Medieval Arabic successor, for totally opposite, yet parallel, reasons. 

In the case of Medieval and Modern Arabic, just like Medieval and (Early) Modern Hebrew, an awareness on the part of the modern scholar (and intended audience) of the literary tradition, with all its weight and complexity, allows a plethora of meanings to be injected into, and extracted from, even the briefest fragments- such that even a single  hydronym like "the (river) ˁAqīq" or a single personal name like "Laylā" in a poem by ˁUmar ibn Al-Fāriḍ can be incredibly suggestive. Similar phenomena, on a much smaller scale, lie behind the phantasmagoria of associations which might suface upon encountering a phrase like "as if on Juliet's balcony", or the reason why we smile upon hearing a phrase like "lead us not into temptation, for we can find it ourselves". For a translation to embody the context of its own allusions is, of course, impossible. Whether it is the poem that fails by requiring the reader to "import" the allusive framework, or the reader who fails for not being able to do so is something of an academic question. In traditions as insular or intertextual as Arabic, Persian or Hebrew, or Classical Chinese for that matter, it is probably a meaningless question anyway. 

In any case, with Ancient Arabic literature (roughly from the late 5th to the late 7th century AD), also paralleling the case of its Ancient (biblical) Hebrew counterpart, the problem is one of deficit, rather than surplus. Here, one is working with the very root of the poetic tradition as it survives, yet not the root of the tradition as such. The tradition itself as we have it did not spring into being suddenly, but is the product of a long process of development whereby formulae, symbols, conventions etc. slowly took shape in a period of time now shrouded in the mists of Arab autochthony. Almost all of that process is sadly lost to us. We therefore may have little idea what a given symbol even meant to its original 6th or 7th century audience, if symbol it even be. Often all we know is what later audiences did with it, and how they developed it. Sometimes we simply have no idea what a given word even really meant. 

For example, when the poet Al-Shanfarā uses the term Umm Qasṭal "mother of (Qasṭal)" as an epithet (presumably) for "War", we have no clue what "qasṭal" means. The word's later meaning of "dust" (and therefore war being "dust's mother", in reference to the dust of war) was apparently derived from its occurrence in Al-Shanfarā's poem, presumably because (or perhaps with the result that) the word's earlier meaning was lost, (along with the original meaning of the name Al-Shanfarā, it would appear.) 

Yet a further complicating factor is that this poetry was transmitted orally for a matter of centuries before being set down in writing, with all the issues oral transmission entails, including the very serious question of whether it even makes sense to speak of an "original" text or of "original" meanings or even of an "original" author at all, let alone embark on a tortuous journey to discover same, anymore than a modern Classicist should go about wondering what the "ur-text" of the Iliad was like (when it never existed) or wonder what it would be like to meet Homer (when neither did he.) 

Suzanne Stetkevych in her study "Pre-Islamic Poetry and the Poetics of Ritual" makes the case that the association of various early poems with various poets' names is thematic or semantic, and not historical. Certainly the biographies of the poets as they have been handed down to us appear to be essentially folkloric material derived from the poems. 

Even so, I would argue that, unlike the Homeric poems, Early Arabic verse displays what might be called "an individual voice". The fact that some poems were composed at a discernible point in time or even for distinct individuals further suggests that the concept of an original author is not entirely meaningless here. In this, Early Arabic poems have more in common with Hesiod than with Homer. The latter is simply a figura around which a body of literature coagulated. The former is the name of an actual historical individual, whose personality and style is discernible through some (though not all) of the works attributed to him- works which, admittedly, underwent much transformation in the process of being handed down over time so that we most likely haven't anything like his ur-text. Particularly the mukhaḍramūn or "co-Islamic" poets who lived during the birth of Islam seem to be real people in real time, even if many of the akhbār or poetic biographies attributed to them are clearly legends, with discernible literary personalities. Note: I use the term "Early Arabic" as a nice catch-all to combine both pre-Islamic (jāhilī) and "co-Islamic" (mukhaḍram) literary and linguistic phenomena. Anyway, in  literate terms, one may speak of Labīd or al-Khansā' as author, and of the oral transmission as collective editor. 

A historical, diachronic perspective is, furthermore, essential to scholarly appreciation (though not the artistic enjoyment) of these poems- and it therefore becomes necessary to situate these poems at something approaching a particular point in time. What did a word mean at the time of a verse's composition? If a line is a late accretion, what were the semantics and pragmatics governing word-use a the time of addition? These questions require answers if one is to understand the world of Early Arabic poetry. The ways in which (pre-literate) Early Arabic differed from later (literary) "Classical" stages of the language, to say nothing of the modern (standard) form of the language which students (including, nowadays, myself) are most familiar with, are considerable. There are a number of early constructions that later changed their meanings or died out e.g. laˁalla meaning "so that" and not "perhaps"; qad with the imperfect meaning "indeed"; lam with the jussive as a present negative; kāna meaning "he is" etc.. Moreover, and perhaps more seriously, there has been a significant change in vocabulary. 

For example, in Labīd's most famous lament for his step-brother, the phrase šaqiyyun bi-l-maˁīšati qāniˁ, when read as if it were modern literary Arabic (the stylistically odd separation of a participle from its noun by a qualifying adverbial phrase notwithstanding) might give a meaning roughly translatable as "a vile wretch who is content to live the way he does." Unless one is familiar with older layers of the language, one would be tempted to read qāniˁu as the present participle of the verb qaniˁa/yaqnaˁu  "to be content" governed by the preposition bi- "with" which modifies maˁīša "livelihood, way of life." But qāniˁ here is more likely the present participle of the (now defunct) verb qanaˁa/yaqnaˁu "to beg, ask for alms" (which has been replaced in modern literary Arabic with the verb šaħaða), with a meaning close to that found in Qur'an 22:36 aṭˁimū l-qāniˁa "feed the beggar". Bi- (alongside li- which survived with this usage in later Arabic) could be used in Early Arabic to introduce a verb's object when the accusative was undesirable for some reason (in this case a metrical one.) Thus a far more likely, and indeed more contextually intelligible meaning of the same phrase is "one who is unlucky and (reduced to) begging for his sustenance." But perhaps bi- is intended to mean "in" here, and thus one could read "one who is unlucky in his livelihood and remains poor."  Which of these is more likely? How can one tell? 

Speaking of which, the verb qaniˁa/yaqnaˁu  "to be content" did also exist in Early Arabic. So is a polysemantic pun intended here, or is only the primary denotative meaning of "begging" relevant? Again the same questions surface: Which is more likely? How can one tell?

The answer to the question "how can one tell" is often simply "we can't." Our sources for early Arabic are limited to the Qur'an on the one hand, and on the other to the early poetry itself. Sometimes we simply lack the information, contextual, lexical, historical or otherwise, to know what exactly was meant. More seriously still, we sometimes simply lack enough evidence, which we do fortunately have in the above case, to figure out what kinds of questions should even be posed. 

Even the classical commentators, to whom many a student such as yours truly might be tempted to turn in their darkest lexical hour, though often goldmines of information, can often turn out to be worse than unhelpful. The commentators are often guessing, or relying upon the educated guesses of lexicographers. The coming of Islam had occasioned a massive shift in vocabulary, as an Arabian society dominated by nomadic (=bedouin) elements and a kaleidoscopic intermix of Jewish, Christian and Polytheistic communities, in which contact with non-native Arabic speakers must have been relatively limited, gave way to the new township-centered colonialism of a vast caliphal empire in which Arabian "Pagans" were either killed off or converted, and where new populations were assimilated wholesale  making native Arabic speakers, for a considerable while, an elite minority in many areas. In such a context, language change, even in the prestigious "literary" register of the language, was inevitable, extensive and swift. 

The numerous anecdotes about the bedouin being consulted on problems of vocabulary shows that the difficulties caused by the shift were formidable and well-recognized and that considerable effort was made to seek out sources that were thought to shed light on the vast and increasingly obscure lexicon covering the minutiae of nomadic life in the desert. The meanings of many words are permanently lost.
For example, when the poet Abu Dhu'ayb refers to a she-donkey as being jadūd, we basically have no idea what the word could possibly mean in that context- the poem's classical commentators appear to have just been guessing based on the word's context. 

I try to deal with Early Arabic poetry in a way that is true to the literate, Islamic tradition (for the urban Islamic milieu is the filter through which all of this literature comes down to us- and many late Early Arabic poets such as Labīd were indeed Muslims) while at the same time keeping in mind that this poetry is aural and oral, and that Islam, even for the 7th century poets who converted to it, was a new phenomenon, one that had yet to inscribe itself in the language. Therefore, it must be translated in a fashion which gives primacy to the mnemonic attributes of the original. This means, of course, "formalism" in some sense, either syntactic, metrical or phonetic. Verse is seldom "free" in pre-literate or (as was the case with the ancient Bedu) proto-literate societies.  In translating Arabic verse, as with the Persian, assonance, rather than full rhyme, seems to provide a convenient and worthy substitute for the latter.

At times times when I come up against a word whose meaning is, for all intents and purposes, lost to us there is often no choice but to use the commentator's best guesses. If the context affords some clue that the commentators seem to have ignored or missed, I firmly believe the translator should feel at liberty to go with that. This uncertainty, however, should serve as a reminder that translations of Early Arabic poetry, more so than translations of poetry from some other languages and periods, are renditions of verse whose milieu and even language are, and at this point in time must be, only partially understood.