I feel both privileged and sad to share that I was the buyer of one of the last books sold by London’s famous Al Saqi bookshop. The shop permanently shut down last winter. Luckily, we’re told that their publishing house stays and most of their work will be conducted through online means.

The book I bought was leading Arab poet Adonis’s An Introduction to Arab Poetics. In this slim but amazing book, translated from the Arabic by Catherine Cobham, Adonis educates his reader by tracing the roots of Arab poetics from the days of the pre-Islamic period (Jahiliyya), the function of orality, the influence of the Holy Quran, poetics and thought, and the advent of modernity in Arabic literature.

Methodically discussing the challenges of oscillating between an age-old tradition while dealing with the socio-political and economic inflictions of contemporary times, Adonis concludes thus: “modernity should be a creative vision, or it will be no more than a fashion. Fashion grows old from the moment it is born, while creativity is ageless. Therefore, not all modernity is creativity, but creativity is always modern.” Adonis has articulated a standard that can be applied to all bodies of work in any language.

The Urdu language was born and raised in the Indo-Gangetic plains and the Deccan plateau. It is an offspring of Sanskrit and the Prakrits, but has grafts from Arabic, Persian and Turkish. It owes its dominant prosody, Ilm al Arooz, to Arabic and Persian. Later on, it acquired many forms of expression and categories of analysis from the West, mostly through its interactions with English.

Like parts of the Arab world, we’ve also experienced colonisation and dominance by the West. Therefore, we share a similar challenge of continuous negotiation between our poetics and those we have learned from the West. Like Arabic, we’ve seen many such fads and fashions in Urdu fiction and poetry during the 20th century, in both form and content in the name of ‘creative experimentation’.

Writers and movements appeared with a bang, then either disappeared with a whimper or soon lost their touch. Readers began to lose interest, such as when, in the case of symbolists, ibham-i-lateef [subtle ambiguity] was replaced with ridiculously ambiguous fiction and poetry.

Ironically, we were told that, as readers, the meaning of a story or poem was left totally to our personal interpretation. To a degree, that is true for any piece of art, but enjoying utter meaninglessness was also left to us as readers. Likewise, when literary classics were being challenged under the influence of cognitive literary criticism born out of cognitive revolution, the classics pushed back and regained their stature with more gusto, not just on the literary horizon but on the horizon of knowledge at large.

Muhammad Izharul Haq’s latest collection of Urdu poetry, Aey Aasmaan Neechay Utar [O Sky, Come Join the Earth] meets Adonis’s standards for poetry. In Haq’s verse, modernity comes across as a creative vision, not a fashion. When he smoothly paints over the old canvas of Urdu’s multicultural and embedded poetic tradition, he takes tradition as the canvas and mixes new colours with his brushes and knives on his palette to create his art.

One exquisite love poem — or a series of ghazals, since form here becomes subservient to the voices of the two lovers — is titled ‘Dilshad Nama’. First, the woman, named Dilshad by the poet, speaks through six ghazals and conveys her deep sense of separation and loss. Then the man responds with seven ghazals.

As with masters from Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai to Waris Shah to Mirza Hadi Ruswa, who were men but could effortlessly write in a woman’s voice, the six ghazals by Dilshad exude a distinct feminine poetic prowess. All 13 ghazals together also reminded me of Fahmida Riaz’s classic poem in multiple parts, ‘Aadmi Ki Zindagi’ [Life of a Man], where life is the woman and man is the companion.

To give an example, Dilshad says: “Mein roz-i-azal se jaanti thi/ Tu aaeyga sooratein badal kar” [I knew from the day of beginning/ That you will appear in different forms and shapes]. Or, “Aankhon pe hain jaisay paaon teray/ Kis vehm main parrh gaee teray bin” [I feel your feet on my eyes/ What illusions have engulfed me].

The man tells Dilshad: “Pat-jharrh ne baagh ko ghaira tha/ Titli ka aakhri phaira tha” [The autumn had surrounded the garden/ The butterfly clapped her wings one last time]. He also says: “Pehray per phool banafshay ka/ Wo manzar teray dareechay ka” [Sweet violets stand guard/ Colour the scene of your window].

Other than ‘Dilshad Nama’, there are 52 ghazals, 12 nazms and a few individual couplets in Haq’s latest volume. The images are bright, delicate and restrained. Many metaphors are drawn from nature, but played upon with such freshness that words get a new meaning.

There is a sense of frustration and loss when the poet reflects on politics and social values. But whether it is politics or his devotional poetry, all come through by expanding the ghazal’s frontiers. Haq’s nazms have the distinct stylistic flavour of our times. I somehow found them to be more personal in nature than his ghazals. His heartfelt poem on his son leaving for studies abroad is an ode to both parental love and the experience of fatherhood.

Haq was born in 1948 to a family of literary and Islamic scholars in district Attock (formerly Campbellpur), Punjab, and retired from the civil services of Pakistan. He has earlier published five volumes of poetry — one collected works including his first four volumes — and three books of prose. He also writes columns for leading national dailies.

It is his anguish on the current decadent state of his fellow countrymen and women that makes certain themes in his poetry and prose converge.

The columnist is a poet and essayist. He has recently edited Pakistan Here and Now: Insights into Society, Culture, Identity and Diaspora.

His latest collection of verse is Hairaan Sar-i-Bazaar

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, June 18th, 2023

Opinion

Editorial

China’s concerns
23 Jun, 2024

China’s concerns

Pakistan has no option but to neutralise militant threat to Chinese projects, as well as address its business and political stability concerns.
War drums
23 Jun, 2024

War drums

If it is foolish enough to launch another war in Lebanon, Tel Aviv will be solely responsible for setting the Middle East on fire.
Balochistan budget
23 Jun, 2024

Balochistan budget

BALOCHISTAN’S Rs955.6bn budget for the fiscal year 2024-25 makes many pledges to the poor citizens of Pakistan’s...
Another lynching
Updated 22 Jun, 2024

Another lynching

The chilling alternative to not doing anything — which appears to be the state’s preferred option — is the advent of mob rule.
Tax & representation
22 Jun, 2024

Tax & representation

THE taxation measures outlined in the budget for the incoming fiscal year have triggered a lot of concern among ...
Life of the party?
22 Jun, 2024

Life of the party?

THE launch of Awaam Pakistan, a party led by former prime minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi and former finance minister...