Desolation asks the forlorn dwelling —

Those who lit your lamp: Where are they?

Who are these people, on this side of mine, and on that?

My loyal friends: Where are they?

The year 2022 completes a whole half-century since the poet Nasir Kazmi died at the relatively young age of 46. I have translated two of his ghazal verses into English. But we must pause here. Here is a poet of our modern times who mysteriously exhausts the possibilities of language, standing in defiance of our attempts to render him in a language other than the one he makes pliable for his poetry and to which he gives hitherto unknown semantic range and emotional valence. As a matter of fact, in general, his poetry even defies a conceptual or cognitive description.

What makes Kazmi unique is the dignity and the ever-so-soft aesthetic embodiment he gives to his pain.

Indeed, it is very difficult to describe Nasir Kazmi’s poetry in standard, formal literary terms. For over and above the rhythm, rhyme, proportion, beat, sweep, harmony of lexical meaning and emotion and balance of feeling and word — over and above all these, there is magic in his verse. And it is for this reason that I spoke of a mystery, the mysterious exhaustion of language possibilities that he accomplishes.

One often stands in awe of the melancholic glow of Nasir Kazmi’s simple words, unable to explain rationally the power and effect that they engender, despite their dazzling simplicity and proximity.

We cannot explicate analytically how this comes about. He usually employs short metres and many of his supreme ghazals often do not have what is called radeef [repeated word(s) that follows the rhyme] — something that is practically standard in classical ghazal.

Prosodically, short metres are recalcitrant, hard to manage because of the paucity of words/ sounds they admit. To maintain their cadence is no easy task, for there is little room for manoeuvring. The two verses I have beaten to yield to an English rendering do not really convey in this language shift the deep pathos of the original and its dignified sadness that is wrapped in a magical cloak.

Desolation, forlorn dwelling, darkness because of the missing lamp that used to be lit in a deserted house, so many people here and so many people there, and yet the lingering search for a loyal friend — this is stuff for deep anguish and pain and it is this very attribute that is the unique hallmark of Nasir Kazmi’s poetry.

Yes, pathos and sadness mark the ecology of Kazmi’s verse. But what makes him unique is the dignity and the ever-so-soft aesthetic embodiment he gives to his pain. He writes poetry, not morbid or sentimental descriptions of personal tragedies. Unlike some woe-oriented Urdu poets, there is no morbidity or misery in Nasir Kazmi’s verse. Among other poetic devices, he achieves this dignity by the relationship he cultivates with the glories of nature.

So he often talks about the rose and its shadow, under which he sits and weeps; he speaks about the sun and the moon, and about the day’s “golden song” and about fire. His imagery holds in its sweep birds and their nests, and also the moon, and the river bank, and winds and blue ponds, and the intersection of day and night. He invokes the image of the flame and the many colours that inhere in it. Such overwhelming beauty is rare in Urdu poetry.

Nasir Kazmi has integrated into his poetic world not only human society and the man-made environment with its cities, buildings and walkways; part of this world is also the natural environment, as I just pointed out.

For him, the edge of the river is just as full of meanings as the cities and walls and windows made by human hands. Speaking about the human environment, he even connects himself to the transcendental, the Divine:

O my busy God!

Look at the world you created …

This plenitude of created beings

Yet in the cities — this eerie silence

Ironically, silence — something that can both enrich our inner self and sadden us — is one of Nasir Kazmi’s core motifs. Sometimes, silence has a sound:

Here I am

It is one o’clock in the morning

The silent walkway speaks…

It is to be ruefully noted that, with the eminent exception of the late scholar Shamsur Rahman Faruqi and a handful of some other rare cases, the thrust of Urdu poetry criticism over the recent decades has been to shun and steer clear of discourses on poetics and to write social and political histories.

Rarely, these days, one finds critical assessments and analyses of the poet’s imagery, metaphors, metrical structure, language, technique or the signature linkage of the concrete with the incorporeal. Rather, one finds biographies, bibliographies, formulaic chronologies, accounts of social relations and the like. The reasons for this are not far to seek.

How sad. A poet as epochal as Nasir Kazmi too is a victim of this exclusive social historical thrust. Even after the 50 years since we lost him, there have hardly been any full-blooded studies of his poetics.

I spoke above of his radeef-free ghazals, but then those ghazals of his which do have a radeef testify to the momentous command he has over the technicalities of metrics, for with the radeef that must appear at its fixed place, the room for word/ sound manoeuvring is further contracted if the metre is short — as is the case typically with him. Features such as these have not been thrown into critical focus.

But then, in the end, we are left with a mystery — the mystery of Nasir Kazmi’s magic — and so we must pass over the rest in silence.

  • All translations are by the columnist

The columnist is dean at the Institute of Liberal Arts at the University of Management and Technology, Lahore (currently on leave) and chairs the Arts and Humanities Scientific Review Committee of the Federal Higher Education Commission

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, September 25th, 2022

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