The bard famously wrote: “The lunatic, the lover, and the poet/ Are of imagination all compact/ One sees more devils than vast hell can hold…”

When it comes to the Middle East and Iran, South Asia and Afghanistan, poetry runs in our blood. So does a certain kind of passion, which borders on lunacy coupled with a celebration of deep, selfless love.

From Laila-Majnun and Saiful Malook-Badri Al-Jamal to Shireen-Farhad and Azra-Wamiq to Heer-Ranjha and Sohni-Mahiwal, the list of epic love poems is unending. Most such epics are anchored in stories of human love, but have a much broader spectrum that offer us the complete cultural and social experience of a certain time in a certain part of the world.

Simultaneously, there have been other themes and genres in poetry that have flourished alongside love poems over the past many centuries. From masnavi and marsiya to qaseeda and ghazal, the forms continue to evolve to this day. When our poetry interacted with Western forms of poetry, we experimented and then commanded over newer forms in our languages, such as verse libre and prose poetry. In terms of shorter forms, we had our own bayts, dohas, bolis and trivenis. But haiku came to us from Japan.

Among other languages spoken in our part of the world, Urdu has also seen significant amounts of successful experimentation in terms of expression, form, technique and themes. It is one of those rare languages spoken in the world whose users, including creative writers, substantially outnumber its native speakers.

Many of those who are considered its native speakers today had different tongues spoken in their families just a couple of generations ago, or even to this day. Sometimes, you only find that out when you get to know and interact with Urdu poets and writers.

This variety of habitat and linguistic backgrounds has enriched the Urdu language with a wide vocabulary, different styles, multiple locales and expanded sensibility. The four collections of Urdu poetry that I wish to mention now reflect the range and diversity of what we find in our contemporary poets.

In February 2023, I met Cecil Shiraz Raj after a long time, when he was visiting from Belgium to meet his family and friends in his native city of Lahore. Raj was launching his collection of poetry, titled Arsh Ki Mitti [The Sand of the Sky], in the Dorab Patel Auditorium at the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.

I got a hold of his collection and was immediately mesmerised by the directness of his emotion. Raj is primarily a ghazal poet. His lines are simple, riveting and relatable. There is this hint of acknowledging your own being in the larger world with a mix of nostalgia. The book is a critique of capitalism in verse.

Besides other things, I am bad at translation of poetry, but let me attempt. Raj says: “Raj tum chob-i-sehra se liptay rahey/ Raah takta raha karvaan duur tak [Raj, you embraced the burning wood of the desert/ While the caravan kept looking for your return].

He has also written azaad nazm [free verse] with equal facility and commemorated those he holds in high esteem — from Asma Jahangir and Lata Mangeshkar to Ali Iftikhar Jafffery and Mehdi Hasan.

The next book I wish to mention is Anwer Senroy’s Kuchh Muhabbat Kuchh Baybasi [Some Love, Some Helplessness]. It is Senroy’s collected poetic works. Senroy is a seasoned poet, writer, journalist and broadcaster and reflects the broader northern Subcontinent sensibilities. His important novel Cheekh [Shout], published during a martial law, was my introduction to his vast oeuvre.

He is among the few who are equally conversant in prose and poetry. He has brought out other collections during the past many years. But his collected poetic works help us understand the inner angst he cannot rid himself of and his desire to break boundaries — be they existential, political, psychological or poetic.

There is a definitive tone, without compromising aesthetic appeal, that signifies Senroy’s expression. He is carefree, he is liberated. His prose poems shock you but remain devoid of disbelief. You get drawn to believing what he says: “Hamaray shehr ka aasmaan/ Ghaaib hogaya hai/ Baghair bataaey/ Us ki tankhwaah tau katay gi/ Lekin us ki ghair haazri ka izaala nahin ho sakay ga [The sky of our city/ Has suddenly disappeared/ Without telling anyone/ It will surely have its salary cut/ But nothing can compensate for its absence].”

The third collection of poetry that came out in 2023 and captured my imagination was Sarwat Zehra’s Kitnay Yug Beet Gaey [How Many Eons Have Gone By]. Zehra is a quintessential poet and is currently based in the US. She is conversant across genres and offers her reader an expanse in genres and themes.

The book in question is a collection of 80 poems on diverse subjects, ranging from illusory existential questions that we seek answers for and the crass reality that we live with and try to overcome. Her treatment of subjects related to gender discrimination make her a poet of empowered womanhood as a whole with a historic understanding, not simply through the narrow lens of liberal feminism. Her range is wide — from writing on empty womb syndrome to honour killing.

Last but not least, Sadiq Mari’s collection of nazms titled Karezon Mein Behta Paani [The Water Flowing Underground] feels like a fresh breeze to readers of Urdu poetry, as it brings forward the most recent words and symbols that poetry can afford.

Mari hails from Balochistan and his poems have astounding imagery. He carries no baggage of tradition in terms of metaphors and similes. He creates his own. Mari’s poetry also delves into history and historic figures in a unique way. He takes everything on his own terms.

Ours is a burgeoning poetry scene.

The writer 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 Hairaa’n Sar-i-Bazaar.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, January 14th, 2024

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...