Books and Writers




Verse in blue & red

(The poetry by:

 Javed Shaheen, Saadat Saeed and Azra Abbas)


MOST of the prose poetry in Urdu reads as if it were inspired by or derived from indifferent English' translation of Continental, Latin American and African poetry. There are exceptions, of course, but in general the output is imitative.

And what it imitates is already an imitation. Robert Lowell had a sensible idea when he titled his volume at translations as Imitations, then he never pretended that he was translating in an academically sound sense. He only tried to recreate the poems in English, with "One voice running through many personalities contrasts and repetitions." No surprise, therefore, that the translated poems resemble his own work rather than that of Villon, Baudelaire.   Leopardi   or Pasternak.

A great deal of poetry translated from various languages into English, is pedestrian, some is insufferable. However, more poetry is translated into English every year than ever before. It is a healthy curiosity and makes available to the reader a wide spectrum of poetry, which is being written or has been written in various important or less important or even minor languages, of the world. Accessibility on this scale is to everybody's advantage. What's objectionable is that these translations should be regarded as viable models.

Of the three new collections of poetry, which will be examined below, one consists entirely of prose poems and one is a hydrid, a curious combination of ghazals and prose poems. The third has metrical poems only which are so consistently unconventional as to present complications peculiar to themselves.

NAkiyon Say Khali Shehr Virtueless City) is Javed Shaheen's fourth collection. Ghazal is his main strength, although over the years he has written a lot of prose poems. , Some of these poems are interesting but the work in prose is, on the whole, rather statemental and would scarcely prompt a reader to go through It in once. The poems are out communication '' looks diluted. The tone is strictly unvaried and the diction uniformly unadventurous.

One has to turn to his ghazals to acknowledge his virtues as a poet. His city may be devoid of virtues but he, as its hard-bitten spokesman, still has his wits about him and also his integrity.

It is possible to see his first collection, Zakhm-i-Musalsal ki Hari Shakh as his most passionate and authentic: but if in subsequent volumes his tone appears subdued, he makes up for the loss of his initial exuberance by the introduction of an ironic voice. His latest ghazals are deliberately severe so as to enhance the irony. The dominant expression is one of unhappiness or disapproval but there is no bitterness. He is still able to resist despair. As he himself says in his precisely worded introductory note: "A major portion of my poetry springs from social injustice, economic   despotism   and political suffocation. I was born in this pitiless and murky environment and grew up in it. I can't help but live in it, can't help writing about it as a poet. There is no alternative for me.'' He also states that he believes in a bright and peaceful future and rounds off by saying: "Someone within me says: 'All is not lost yet. We may be saved" A nice sentiment. His ghazals are a civilised, responsible reaction to an unwholesome situation.

Vitiating factor

The poems in Azra Abbas's Maiz par Rakhe Hath are all in prose. Does she write in prose because she wants to or is she unable to express herself metrically? If the later is true, then she has no choice and the prose poem itself becomes a grave restraint and may ultimately turn into a vitiating factor. But all this could be a long way off.

It is not easy for a woman to find a poetic voice for herself, even in the West. Men, both the cities and poets, have their own fanciful idea of what a woman's poetry should be like. If a woman poet conforms to the male idea, she is applauded but knows that she is practicing a deception, on herself as well as on others. If she violates the male image of what a woman poet should be like she is revealed and this makes everything so much more tragic for her. The dilemma literally lacerates.

Azra Abbas uses the plainest of diction as if she intended her poems to be' read as snippets of a confessional fiction, arranged randomly.    The    world confessional need not be confused with autobiographical Poetry which professes to be confessional merely seeks out a mode of self-expression. Its linkage with the poet's life may be rather tenuous or perhaps in stray cases quite definite. Maiz par Rakhe Hath is a sad and earnest book, a shade rueful, alert to the despair underlying the narrator's vision and modest. The poems are about the unhappiness of a life in which the rewards are small, the surprises even smaller, and there is a strong sense of frowziness. One feels as if life is not being lived but merely endured. But that is what the underprivileged must feel domesticity as life imprisonment. Azra Abbas is a poet one can trust. How nice it, would be if she were able to diversify her technique.

After the staid and subdued tenor of the books discussed above Saadat Saeed's Kajli Ban has all the configurations of a weird explosion. Obviously he is not a poet who would at any stage of his career, take things for granted. He would preferably rush onwards, all by himself, hacking his way through a jungle of violent images and a baroque diction. It is a maddening search for excellence.

Incidentally, the weakest thing in the book is his expository introduction, full of empty rhetoric and' bizarre claims, none of them justifiable in the light of the contents. In fact, the book can become a little buoyant if freed of the dead weight of this exercise in self-righteousness. A poet who goes to such lengths to defend his work betrays a lack of confidence. But he is more confident in his poems. These are charged with a peculiar urgency. The choppy syntax and jolting rhythm help to build up a situation in which grandeur and depravity are locked together in an orgiastic embrace. The poems show, as if in a distorting mirror and with a befitting rhetorical fury, the malaise within and around us. Saadat's work is ambitious as well as disruptive. The poems can only be described as riotous.

What is wrong here is that the poetry appears to be programmatic. Even the obscurity is deliberate. As poet Saadat Saeed is perhaps too cerebral, too conscious of a role. The critic in him is primarily a torturer. We can only hear the poet scream at times.

Thanks (Pakistan Times Lahore)

                        August 5, 1988.