Writing in October 1942, Faiz Ahmed Faiz complained in a critical essay that new poetry was difficult to understand because the symbolism it used was alien to our poetic tradition, and cited a line from Miraji as an example. The same debate arises again and again whenever traditionalists confront new poetry.
One answer has been offered by British poet and critic Ruth Padel who, in her book 52 Ways of Looking at a Poem, says: “we keep developing our reading skills of a film”, but “most people have not evolved their ways of reading a poem in the same way.”
The result is that we try to, and are able to, understand new films which are far more difficult by the standards of the 20th century, but poetry is not so glamorous. We don’t want to spend too much time on it. So the problem lies with us, not with the new poems. Unless we work out our way to understand the mechanics involved in the construction of a poem, we cannot understand, let alone cherish, it.
Another answer has been offered by Tanveer Anjum with Naee Zubaan Ke Huroof [Alphabets of a New Language], which is a compilation of selected poems from her seven previous collections. In this compilation, we observe Anjum’s journey from obscurity to simplicity, from naivety to maturity, and from trying to find her voice to having her own distinct voice.
Her simpler poems entice you to try to understand the difficult ones, which have the same pathos but with an exalted sense of the mechanics of the Urdu language and a deeper exploration of a metaphor. And then, you can return to the simpler poems and discover that what was simple was just the diction, and some deep thought was hidden there as well.
Here is the experience of a thinking woman living in a man’s world. The male voice has dominated our poetic tradition, and even when some poets used the female voice, they were actually ventriloquising for women. The Rekhti poets of Urdu even made fun of women by such ventriloquism. Meanwhile, the women who wrote ghazals parroted the particular words and thoughts thrust upon them by male poets.
Tanveer Anjum’s latest collection — compiling selected poems from seven previous collections — showcases the poet’s journey from trying to find her voice to having her own distinct voice
It was only after Partition that women started to have their own voice in poetry, starting with Fahmida Riaz. It was essential to put away the shackles of rhyme and metre as well to make space for a new and liberated poetry by women, so we see many women writing in the genre of prose poem. Anjum is one of them, but with a distinct individuality of her own.
The prose poem in Urdu has been a source of liberation in many ways. The ‘regularity’ of rhyme and metre demanded that poets change their words to conform to the metrical scheme. Common speech, on the other hand, had a rhythm as well, but it was ‘irregular’. But there was poetry hidden in the crevices of this irregularity, which the prose poem explored. Now, it was possible to make poems out of trivial and seemingly unpoetic things as well, which, sometimes, had great value for a poet. Now, as Sarwat Hussain put it, “a poem can start from anywhere.”
Anjum goes beyond that, and in one of her best poems — ‘Titliyon Ke Paron Ki Pharr Pharrahatein’ [The Fluttering of the Butterfly Wings] — says that even life starts, restarts and changes direction because of trivial things that have a ‘butterfly effect’.
Within the genre of the prose poem, Anjum has experimented with a multiplicity of forms. Some poems comprise stanzas, others are in dialogue form, and some take the shape of prose paragraphs. I do not know of any other Urdu prose poet who has experimented with so many forms.
The flavour of each of her collections is also different. In her first book, she was trying to get hold of a style from among the many styles prevalent at that time. In her second book, there is a huge influence of Afzal Ahmed Syed, but that was also the time when she set out on the direction on which she was to stay in the following years. In her third collection, Toofaani Baarishon Mein Raqsaan Sitaray [Dancing Stars in the Torrential Rain], she finally identified her voice.
What sort of voice does she have? I think hers is a distinctly female voice that insists on her feminine rights, but with a tone softened by the sense of romance. Her second collection was full of rage and bitterness, but then her increasing sense of romance and beauty softened and mellowed her tone. Even her satire became mellowed and subdued.
Another particular aspect of her style is provided by her ‘story-poems’, where she creates a female character and writes her story with poetic brevity. These poems should be as important as Noon Meem Rashid’s collection of ‘Iranian’ poems in his book Iran Mein Ajnabi [A Stranger in Iran]. Anjum met some of her characters when she was living in the United States for higher education and found some common elements in those characters which, somehow or the other, helped her explore some traits of her own personality.
In some poems, it seems she has tried to create a mirror image of herself, or her doppelganger. Prominent is ‘Main Aur Neelofar’ [Me and Neelofar], where she tells us about a woman whom she had created “when solitude had become horrible and invariable.”
Neelofar, or the lotus flower, has symbolic meaning in Greek mythology and in Buddhist stories. The Greeks believed that the lotus caused forgetfulness but, in Buddhist stories, a blue lotus — a Neelofar — is representative of self-indulgence and self-exploration. “Neelofar” becomes an exalted persona, or a self-image, who can accompany the poet in her loneliness.
Anjum advocates her feminism through these story-poems as well. Some female characters are facing identity crises in a new country. “Kamana Godipati” and “Tenny Leon” have to reconcile themselves with a differently pronounced and spelled name. “Marianna” is sexually exploited and “Myra Arthur” is a lesbian poet. ‘Tilismaati Mahal Mein’ [In a Magic Palace] is a story-poem about a young housemaid who is sexually exploited; ‘Shukrguzaar Aurton Ka Taraana’ [An Anthem for Thankful Women] is a satire on men who seem to give rights to women as charity.
Anjum also challenges some meta-narratives inherent in the patriarchal system and instilled in men when they are quite young, such as a young boy taking offense if you call him gurrya, or doll, but a small girl would not mind if we call her beta, or son. A changed and liberated “Gulbano” of ‘Pehlay Aur Baad Mein’ [Then and Now] experiences the change of patriarchal attitude towards her, but when her husband remarries, society has no issue with him.
‘Aik Trapeze Per’ [On a Trapeze] is about women who struggle while facing (mostly) men as their spectators, who are wishing in their heart of hearts to see them fail and fall. In ‘Sunaao Mujhe Bhi Aik Lateefa’ [Tell Me a Joke Too] she satirises men’s habit of telling jokes about females behind their backs and asks what if she starts joking about men.
Prose-poems originating and written in Karachi are fundamentally autobiographical in nature. They can thus be compared with the ‘confessional poetry’ of Robert Lowell, John Berryman and others in the US after the Second World War. Devoid of the decorative style associated with classical Urdu poetry, confessional poetry’s direct approach helped poets explore their personal experiences.
Some of Anjum’s poems explore the autobiographical element. In ‘Mera Naazuk Moti’ [My Delicate Pearl], she describes the difficulties she faced in presenting her inner self in a man’s world, the “delicate pearl” which is unable to stand the continuous and strenuous eye of the beholder. Another poem is ‘Nancy’, where the main character wants to enjoy her life with her beloved, but she is someone’s wife and someone’s sister and she knows they will be coming after her any time.
Some poems are carved out of games such as Solitaire, Scrabble and chess. Others are about housemaids, street beggars and a young boy working at a hotel. Anjum even writes a poem about school administration politics.
The name of the collection is also very apt, as Anjum challenges the patriarchy of Urdu poetic diction as well. Hers is a postmodernist female voice that can set Urdu feminist poetry in a new direction.
The reviewer is a poet and novelist. His debut novel, Chaar Dervesh Aur Ek Kachhwa, was winner of the UBL Fiction Prize for Urdu in 2020
Naee Zubaan Ke Huroof
By Tanveer Anjum
City Press, Karachi
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, May 23rd, 2021