I have written more than once about a fascinating, deeply meaningful and yet, at first glance, somewhat odd beseeching of a very young Faiz Ahmed Faiz. “Would that all reality turn into a metaphor!” he said in his unmistakable silky voice in a ghazal that appeared in his maiden collection, Naqsh-i-Faryaadi [Complaining Image].

This wish to transcend concrete reality, to raise everyday experience from the domain of the temporal into that of the metaphysical, may be considered the very crux, the very essence of poetry.

All work of high art embodies the process of creating an alternative universe, other than the universe in which we find ourselves. Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib likens himself to a bird singing in a garden that has not even come into being (gulshan-i-na-aafrida), for his melodies are generated by the joyous heat of imagination.

Then we have Saadat Hasan Manto, for instance. While there is a real, geographical, concrete Toba Tek Singh, Manto creates a metaphor out of it; he constructs an alternative Toba Tek Singh — a Toba Tek Singh in which communalities are obliterated for, unlike the real one, there is no Congress here and no Muslim League, no Indian, no Pakistani, but only ordinary human beings, considered insane by the people at large.

Talking about Ghalib, one stands in awe of his clever poetic stratagems, something one may affectionately call his mischiefs, his creative sport. He often sets out on a reverse journey, disentangling a metaphor to recover the concrete from which it arises, and then he surprises us by entangling the concrete with the metaphorical, and creates an even more complex metaphor.

So, for example, glances and visual perceptions (nigaah) are faculties, not physical objects, but they are given physical characteristics by Ghalib. Thus, the glance of the beloved pierces into the heart of the lover (dil ke paar) and when an onlooker desires to behold the beauty in its corporeal manifestation, something metaphorical becomes a physical hindrance (ha’il): the glance itself.

Such stratagems of Ghalib cast their shadows on Faiz Sahib, too. So, for example, the younger poet speaks about the hand of the breeze (Dast-i-Saba), neck of the moon (Gardan-i-Mahtaab), the cheek of the heart (dil ke rukhsaar pe…), mysterious highways of youthful blood (jawan lahu ki pur asraar shahrahron par…) and the beautiful hand of the gracious moonlight (mehrbaan chaandni ka dast-i-jameel).

All of this has priceless aesthetic valence. But what is eminently fascinating is that Faiz also talks about an abject cruelty — the killing, murder, crucifixion of metaphor (the spring cloud, the glowing moon, the dancing branch). He wants to say, it seems, the massacre of poetry itself, for if there is no metaphor there is no poetry.

I find it most intriguing that the poet desires to prevent the transmutation of the corporeal, the real, into what he calls “poetry”.

All of this leads me to a prose poem of Afzal Ahmed Syed, an important contemporary Urdu poet of a recognised high order. As a matter of fact, it is this very poem that has occasioned the rather abstract discourse above. The title of the poem can be translated literally as ‘I am afraid’, expressing dread. Thus, starting from concrete objects nearby, he says:

[I am afraid of
Touching things near me
Lest I turn them into poetry
I touched the bread
And hunger became poetry
My finger got cut by the knife
And blood became poetry
The glass slipped from my grip
And so many poems came to pass
I am afraid …]

Then, he moves to real objects a little farther away: he saw a tree, and the shadow became poetry. He peeped from the roof, and lo! The stairs turned into poetry. He set his glance at the temple, and the divine became poetry. And finally, he talks about a human being who is far from him, referred to by an ambiguous “you”. He says in the finale of the poem:

[I am afraid of thinking about you
Beholding you
Touching you
Lest I turn you into poetry]

As I read it, I find it most intriguing that the poet here desires to prevent the transmutation of the corporeal, the concretely real, into what he calls “poetry”. And once the concrete — held as it must be in space and time — transcends itself to become poetry, it rises to the realm of the metaphor, rehabilitating into the dominion of ideas.

What Afzal Syed has done is a highly daring act, since he is standing against classical Urdu and South Asian Persian poetry’s whole thrust of metaphor-seeking and symbol-generating. The express dread of making the real exist only in imagination, and wishing for reality to abide in its concreteness, is a novel emotion dreading metaphorical transformation.

It is this transformation that Allama Muhammad Iqbal sought to reverse, to bring the metaphor back to its concrete manifestation: “O awaited Reality, manifest Yourself in the cloak of illusion!” But Iqbal is operating in a crucial conceptual opposite since, for him here, like many Sufis, the illusion is this concrete world of ours, not the other way around. The real world is the world beyond. Again, the novel departure of Afzal Ahmed Syed is meaningfully fascinating.

*All translations are by Syed Nomanul Haq

The columnist is dean, Institute of Liberal Arts, University of Management and Technology, Lahore and chairs the Art and Humanities Review Panel at the Pakistan Higher Education Commission

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, May 1st, 2022

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