The appreciation of our poetics oscillates between rhetoric and rhapsody. For some great poets, such as Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib, it can be safely said that he is about rhapsody alone. But for someone such as Allama Muhammad Iqbal, there is a lot of rhetoric, though parts of his work are rhetoric laced with rhapsody.
However, poets such as Iqbal and Josh Malihabadi were followed by several others belonging to the Progressive Writers’ Movement who placed an undue emphasis on rhetoric in their work. They were explicit in their expression and instructive in their tone. This was not new in our tradition, although the ideology forming the basis of the new rhetoric was different. Some highly acclaimed mystic poets in indigenous languages are also rhetorical — subtle but instructive. Among them, Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai is the least rhetorical.
Poetry remains the most celebrated form of art in our culture, perhaps because predominantly Muslim societies such as ours stayed away from painting and sculpture and concentrated more on poetry and calligraphy. The other reason is that we remained an oral, non-literate society for long. Poetry was rhymed and written in forms that could be memorised and sung, making poets popular and their works accessible. For instance, we still find non-literate women and men of the Jut tribe in Sindh who can sing or recite Bhittai’s poetry in its entirety.
In terms of both volume and seriousness, prose could not match our output in verse. When the great Russian novel or the essential English novel was being written, the Russians and the English were also writing fine poetry and developing criticism and non-fiction. But we were only producing high class poetry. Prose writers were few and far between, and none had a comparable stature of poets such as Mir Taqi Mir or Ghalib in Urdu, or Bulleh Shah and Waris Shah in Punjabi, or Sachal Sarmast and Chainrai Sami in Sindhi. There was an absence of serious prose vis-à-vis poetry. Philosophical ideas and political theory were still expressed through poetry in the late 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries. This continues to an extent. Therefore, partly as a consequence of prose being less developed in both our creative and theoretical literature, we may say that several of our important poets became overly rhetorical.
From the middle of the last century, both criticism and the short story have developed. Novelists still remain a minority. But like novels, important works of criticism and scholarship in Urdu are outnumbered by the volumes of verse — many of which have a definite quality to them — even today. Serious prose produced in other languages we speak is even far less than what we produce in Urdu.
Our fascination with rhyme and metre is such that it took some time for even azad nazm [free verse] to gain recognition as a serious genre; ghazal and paaband nazm [rhymed and/or metrical poem] remain the most practised forms still. In azad nazm, rhythmic patterns may well be absent and, of course, there is no refrain. But even if lines are not equal in length, they are not free from metre. Nasri nazm [prose poem] finds it hard to capture people’s imagination; readers in our country who are familiar with literature in other languages appreciate free verse and prose poetry in foreign languages, but prefer traditional forms in their own languages. It is also important to note that while we have produced many notable poets of azad nazm, including such major voices as Meeraji, Noon Meem Rashid and Majeed Amjad, our nasri nazm struggles to find a few who can match Afzal Ahmed Syed.
Prose poetry reminds me of Charles Baudelaire, the great 19th century French poet and essayist who was an outstanding practitioner of this form. He once said that there are three beings worthy of respect: the priest, the warrior and the poet. On a lighter note, it seems our society has taken a clue from Baudelaire, but not totally — we only find priests and warriors worthy of respect.
The writer is a poet and essayist based in Islamabad
Published in Dawn, EOS, January 7th, 2017