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What is the true theme of poetry?

April 08, 2012


 – File photo courtesy Creative Commons
– File photo courtesy Creative Commons

FAIZ Ahmed Faiz is reported to have once said that “the true subject of poetry is the loss of the beloved”.

Explaining this statement in the preface to her book The true subject: selected poems of Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Naomi Lazard writes that the quotation that says the true subject of poetry is the loss of the beloved is in fact a Sufi tenet, a teaching of Sufism. Then she says that ‘the beloved’ in the phrase may “refer to a person, a home, a country — anything that is beloved, whose meaning is love”. It may seem a bit strange to some that despite referring to Sufism she has conveniently forgotten to mention God, the true beloved of a Sufi. The reason perhaps is that it would not have fit in properly, since the philosophy Faiz believed in did not have much room for metaphysical concepts such as God. But the Sufi tenet may work well both for Sufis and the Marxists — and even for those who believe in other kinds of love — and help understand all kinds of poetry, be it love poetry or metaphysical or progressive, if taken in the broader sense.

But she is right when she says that to Faiz the Sufi teaching came to have many meanings and “loss encompasses many losses — loss of home, family, livelihood, country”, because for Faiz, his country and his people were, of course, among the beloved ones and he suffered a lot while in exile. Later in the preface, Lazard refers to God as well but in a different perspective. She thinks that Faiz used the classical Urdu, Arabic and Persian metaphorical lyrics and songs of yearning for love and yearning for God with a different connotation and “the time-honoured metaphorical yearning for God becomes something new, a vital living poetry that speaks of the struggle to survive against the crushing weight of colonialism, imperial war, against the injustice that strangles our lives every day”.

The book contains the translations of Faiz’s 45 poems along with the original Urdu text. Naomi Lazard, the translator, is an American poet and playwright and she had met Faiz in 1979 at a writers’ conference in Honolulu. Lazard quoted a line from Robert Graves, which he had received in a letter from the Welsh poet Alun Lewis. And the line was, of course, the one quoted above: the true subject of poetry is the loss of the beloved. Faiz laughed and said that he was the one who had given that Sufi teaching to Lewis, with whom he had worked in the British Indian army in Burma during the Second World War. The next day both Faiz and Lazard began work on the English translation of Faiz’s poem. It went on till Faiz’s death.

Now a word about the translation: as Lazard has described in the intro, the method of translating the text into English was very peculiar: First Faiz dictates the literal meanings to her.

Then she asks questions about the words, metaphors and cultural nuances. And then she works on the poem until, as she puts it, “the English version works in the same way that a poem I have written myself works. It must be faithful to the meaning Faiz has given it. It must move in his [sic] own spirit, with the same feeling and tone. It must have the same music, the same direction, and, above all, it must mean the same thing in English that it means in Urdu.” Well, sounds interesting, as it gives the impression that she does not know Urdu. It also reminds one of a saying popular among the academics that poetry cannot be translated. But by it they mean it is very difficult to capture the essence of poetry in translation, that is, even if one knows both the languages very well.

She then adds: “I have learned how crucial it is to find the verb, the active verb to its highest degree, to find the most active verb for the occasion”. But then comes the more interesting part when a few pages later she adds: “In the poetry of Faiz this problem is intensified because his language in Urdu is singularly devoid of active verbs. Images and passives constructions abound”. What worries a student like me is that it is evident that Lazard knows very little Urdu, if at all, yet she is so judgmental about Faiz’s diction.

First published by Princeton University in 1987 under the same title, this edition of The true subject is published by Oxford University Press with a new preface.

One feels that the book can serve as an introduction to Faiz’s poetry and might be helpful to the readers who cannot read, for one reason or another, Faiz’s poetry in the original. For westerners it does open up a new world of themes and expressions, faithfully rendered into English by someone who worked closely with Faiz and is a poet herself. What is important is that Faiz himself dictated the essence of the poems. Some of the shorter poems convey the message emphatically as is evident from the following translation of Faiz’s famous poem Tanhai (solitude):

Someone is coming at last, sad heart! No. I am wrong. / It is a stranger passing on the way to another place. / Night falters; stars are scattered like clouds. / The lamps in the hallway droop; they want to go out./ All roads are asleep after their long work of listening. / Alien dust has come to cover the traces of the footsteps everywhere. / Snuff out the candles, clean away wine, flask, and goblet. / Lock up your sleepless doors, my heart. / No one, no one will ever come here now.