Faiz Ahmed Faiz is a, if not ‘the’, major poet of modern-day Urdu verse. But to say this is to say something trivial, for this is practically a truism. The point is to explain the high stature of Faiz, and it is this explanation that is precisely the burden of the critic.

Let’s note at the outset that there is much that is singularly unique to this poet; in other words, he does not embody one of those mass produced items spewed by an ontologically fixed mould — items of which we see numerous instances in the free market of literature. It is important to recall here that Faiz is as much a prominent figure in the political and ideological history of Pakistan as he is in the literary history of Urdu.

But what is fascinatingly unique is that he presses political and ideological issues into the service of poetry. This way, he remains primarily a poet, saving himself from degenerating into an ideologue or a radical activist, despite his firm and genuine pro-Moscow doctrinal commitments and his involvement in labour unions.

It might sound abstract, but we must recognise that Faiz is more concerned with metaphor than with concrete reality, for if there is no metaphor, there is no poetry. He is not much interested in the world that is given to him, a world in which he found himself without being offered a choice. Rather, his interest lies in the world that he himself creates. This is the world wherein palpable reality becomes a metaphor or an illusion, transcending itself; it becomes a sign, an aayat.

Already, in one of the earliest ghazals of his very first collection, Naqsh-i-Faryadi [Complaining Image], he expresses a resounding longing: “May every concrete reality turn into a metaphor!” What a longing for someone who is barely in his early 20s!

Then, in his third collection Zindaan Naama [Prison Poetry], we find that superb poem ‘The Window’: “In my barred window is hung many a cross.” Indeed, there is something gloriously intriguing and daring about this poem. Here, the poet does not lament the crucifixion of human beings. Rather, he mourns the killing of metaphors, of poetic symbols.

This is how Faiz softens human suffering, turning chains into silk threads. It is supremely remarkable that here is an activist who does not attempt to break his shackles in desperation, nor does he try violently to cut open the pillory in which he is mercilessly restrained. No, he teaches them the music of the harp and flute.

They are killing the spring cloud, he says, and the radiant moon, and the dancing branch, and the morning breeze:

On one [cross] they make sacrifice of the spring cloud,
On one they murder the bright moon,
On one is torn asunder the trance-filled grove,
On one they put to death the morning breeze.

You deprive the poet of all of this and you deprive him of the prime matter of poetry. This silken metaphorical treatment of blood and cruelty and death is a signature of Faiz. But much else happens in his poetic forge: here, contraries melt into each other, thereby an alchemical touch obliterates their opposition.

So, he is unable to distinguish the fragrance of the breath of his beloved from the “perfume” of the blood. He hears songs in the air — has spring arrived in the garden, or has the torture chamber been repopulated with new inmates? He wonders.

This equivalence of contraries is a wonderful and historic characteristic of Faiz’s universe. As far as I know, “perfume” (mahak) of blood is an unknown concept in Urdu poetry, and placed in the companionship of the fragrance emanating from the lips of the beloved blurs the boundaries of their opposition, so their contrariety is no more; they become indistinguishable.

This is how Faiz softens human suffering, turning chains into silk threads. It is supremely remarkable that here is an activist who does not attempt to break his shackles in desperation, nor does he try violently to cut open the pillory in which he is mercilessly restrained. No, he teaches them the music of the harp and flute:

“Let’s teach all locks and fetters the swelling music of lyre and flute.”

The equivalence of contraries is found throughout Faiz. His beloved comes with the deep hue of henna on the palm of one hand; on the other, there is blood. Then, one of her glances is venomous; the other carries healing potions. Note the aesthetic softness here and the melting of contraries into each other. No violence here, only a gentle magical touch.

The same creative equivalence is found in that ghazal of Faiz which has forever been carved into our cultural consciousness by the singer Mehdi Hasan. In the last sher, Faiz says that when he left the alley of the friend, he went straight to the path that leads to the gallows:

Jo ku-ey yaar se niklay tau su-ey daar chalay.

This juxtaposition — gallows invoked side by side with the friend’s abode — is a rich and profoundly meaningful equivalence. Being pulled on the gallows ends the life of the executed; at the threshold of the beloved, likewise, the lover is consumed, as the moth in the flame of the candle. Then, note the double equivalence here: by skilfully introducing an internal rhyme, ku-ey yaar and su-ey daar, Faiz reinforces semantic equivalence by phonetic equivalence.

All this is unparalleled in the history of Urdu poetry and this partially explains Faiz’s high stature.

*English renderings of Faiz are based on Victor Kiernan’s translations

The columnist is dean of the School of Liberal Arts at the University of Management and Technology, Lahore, and visiting scholar at the University of California, Berkeley

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, October 24th, 2021

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