09 Feb 2020


Two temptations befall popular culture when it receives a piece of poetry. Both need to be resisted. One of them is to read poetry as the biography of the poet. Yielding to this temptation gives rise to an impairment that has been diagnosed as an “incurable disability” by the veteran critic Shamim Hanafi. So if the poet writes verses that glow with euphoria, that poet must have been jumping with joy when the poem was written. Contrarily, when the verses embody profound pathos, our poet must have been in the throes of melancholy and depression.

The second temptation that needs suppression is to topicalise poetry, to lock it in a specific temporal moment — that is, to read it as an expression arising directly, linearly and causally out of a defined and concrete set of historical circumstances. This is effectively a process of sensationalising poetry, making it descend from the world of imagination to the tangible, corporeal world. So, for example, if the poet invokes the images of chain, cage and locks, he is writing ‘poetry of resistance’ against some real despotic regime throwing its detractors into prison. And if the poet speaks of feeling like a stranger in his own hometown, his neighbours must have rejected him in actual fact.

Indeed, it would be preposterous to say that poetry has nothing to do with real-life experiences, that it is utterly unrelated to our concrete world. Poetry must arise out of the experiential realm — society, politics, economy, culture, all of these form its ground. But then, in high poetry, as in high fiction and in the high art of painting, all of this receives a creative treatment and then it transcends experience — as Iqbal said, Mun-o-tu se paida, mun-o-tu se paak [born out of Thee and Me, and ridding itself of Thee and Me]. There is no linearly causal relationship between the real and the poetic; the relationship is complex.

Faiz Ahmed Faiz has been subject to a double jeopardy — on the one hand, his poetry is read as versified biographical reports of his real life; then, on the other, all of his poems are often a historically topicalised and locked in a certain circumstantial moment. While it is true that, in a large number of cases, Faiz does furnish the date and place of his compositions, to anchor them neatly in a specific event can be highly problematic. Why is it that a young, flourishing, happy British army official wrote — even before the birth of Pakistan, and way before his incarceration and his progressive, socialist conversion — most powerful poems drenched in pathos?

Faiz spoke about prison, chain, lock, fire and scheming political leaders in his very first collection of pre-Pakistan youthful days.

Let us carve this in our historical consciousness: Faiz spoke about prison, chain, lock, fire and scheming political leaders already in his very first collection of pre-Pakistan youthful days. There was no such thing in his real life at that time. Then, the ‘resistance’ poem ‘Bol’ [Speak!] is also to be found in this first collection; the devastatingly forceful and ironic ‘Kuttay’ [Dogs] too is in this very Naqsh-i-Faryadi. What happened to biography and topicality here?

Poetry, in contrast to versification, cannot be read literally, for it is born in an ocean of metaphors, symbolism, poetic conventions and tropes. Amir Minai wrote much erotic verse, but he was a pious practising sufi; then, nearly all classical Urdu and Persian poets invoke wine and intoxication, but the majority of them had not even smelled wine. These are tropes. Faiz is a poet of a high order and cannot be subjected to literalism, trapped in historical accidents.

One of the most popular poems of Faiz, by far the most popular, is the one which begins with Hum dekhain gey [We shall see]. Having much valence for sensationalising, this poem looms large on the horizon once again. Here Faiz brings before our eyes terrifying images of an impending doom, making devastating apocalyptic pronouncement of cosmic redress. This poem, whose title — a Quranic phrase (55:27) unknown to the popular chanters — is steeped in the style and language of the scripture. Its imagery is creatively taken over verbatim from chapters 18, 90, and 101. Dated 1979 by Faiz in his Meray Dil Meray Musafir [My Heart, My Wayfarer], it falls squarely into the time of the dictator Ziaul Haq’s excesses into which it may be anchored.

But before we simplistically freeze this ubiquitous poem into a single and specific historical moment, it is most instructive to note that, long before the Zia times, Faiz had written identical lines. So in ‘Taraana’ [Anthem] appearing in Dast-i-Saba [Hand of the Breeze], published in 1952, he wrote those very words that appear later in the Hum dekhain gey poem:

[That moment of thrones being pulled down, and crowns being flung]

Then, again with the gushing cataclysmic imagery of the same Quranic genre, Faiz made pronouncements of doom in his Sar-i-Wadi-i-Sina [The Edge of Sinai], written just after the Arab-Israel fateful war and dated 1967. Again, the poem makes identical apocalyptic pronouncements. These pronouncements are even more severe than others, for Faiz says that the Doom will arise here and now, not at the end of history but within history; the arena of Reckoning is this very world, not the hereafter beyond time. Finally we have ‘Teen Awaazein’ [Three Voices] that is to be found in the same collection as the Hum dekhain gey poem with an identical apocalyptic thrust, repeating exactly the words of ‘The Edge of Sinai’.

Faiz is poetically rich and historically complex. He cannot be received literally, nor is he ever trapped topically in a single moment of historical contingencies.

February 13 is the 109th birth anniversary of Faiz Ahmed Faiz.

The columnist is Dean of the School of Liberal Arts at the University of Management and Technology, Lahore; Visiting Distinguished Professor at Habib University, Karachi; and visiting scholar at the University of Pennsylvania, USA

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, February 9th, 2020