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A Prison Evening -- Faiz Ahmed Faiz

Guest poem sent in by Vikram Doctor .
(Poem #118) A Prison Evening
Each star a rung,
night comes down the spiral
staircase of the evening.
The breeze passes by so very close
as if someone just happened to speak of love.
In the courtyard,
the trees are absorbed refugees
embroidering maps of return on the sky.
On the roof,
the moon - lovingly, generously -
is turning the stars
into a dust of sheen.
From every corner, dark-green shadows,
in ripples, come towards me.
At any moment they may break over me,
like the waves of pain each time I remember
this separation from my lover.

This thought keeps consoling me:
though tyrants may command that lamps be smashed
in rooms where lovers are destined to meet,
they cannot snuff out the moon, so today,
nor tomorrow, no tyranny will succeed,
no poison of torture make me bitter,
if just one evening in prison
can be so strangely sweet,
if just one moment anywhere on this earth.
-- Faiz Ahmed Faiz
    (translated from the Urdu by Agha Shahid Ali)

Urdu poetry fascinates me. It is so packed with emotion. Urdu poets always
seem to feel things with such intensity - love, longing, melancholy. Its all
supercharged to the extent that just a bit more and it would be over the
top. But the best poetry seems to contain it just in time, so it works,
quivering with intensity and drenched in beautiful images.

Of course, language comes in; Urdu seems to allow for the expression of
sentiments that would seem exaggerated translated, but which work within
Urdu (possibly because they sound so sincere they convince even the person
saying it). I suppose the settings in which such poetry is typically
supposed to be heard must help - those poetry gatherings where poets declaim
with much passion and the audience goes "wah, wah. wah!" in appreciation.

The other interesting thing is how this links to the Hindi vernacular. Maybe
I'm just out on a limb or stating something really obvious, but the
emotionalism of Urdu poetry does seem to link with the melodrama of so much
Hindi film dialogue and lyrics, which in turn affects the way we speak - how
often have we caught ourselves using lines, ironically and seriously, that
could come straight from Hindi movies. I suppose its hardly surprising given
the number of Urdu poets or would be poets who have worked in the Hindi film

But all this emotionalism rarely translates well. That's a problem for me
since I don't really understand Urdu - I know Hindi, sort of, which has much
in common, but its not exactly the same. So reading Urdu poetry often is a
bit of a juggling act between one volume which gives the poems in Urdu
script (which I can't read) and a good English translation, and another
volume which gives the poems in Hindi's Devanagiri script (which I can
read), but an awful English translation that I refuse to read.

But I still get some idea of the impact of the sound - like the opening
lines of his famous Don't Ask Me For That Love Again poem: "mujh se pehli se
muhabbat mere mehboob na mang..." - wah, wah. wah!  Through all the juggling
with the books, it still works. I do get some faint, fleeting idea of Urdu
poetry, and that elusive, emotional quality makes it worth reading.

The one problem I do have is that one of the forms they usually use.
Ghazals, are rather an impenetrable form. And sometimes the poetry, in
translation, seems to just meander a muddle of emotion. Which is
why I like Faiz so much. He's one poet who seems to be able to balance
things out: intensely felt emotion, lyrical imagery, simplicity and

There's also the subject matter. The incessant romanticism and obsession
with the Beloved of Urdu sort of gets boring after a while. And Faiz is most
famous for the way he expanded the boundaries of Urdu poetry by including
social and political subjects; for asserting that poetry was not enough,
that one needed to be aware of other things as well. I'm not saying I
necessary share his poltical views - its just that _any_ views come as a
relief from all the romanticism.

And in Agha Shahid Ali Faiz seems to have found a translator of genius. Ali
is also a well known poet and his translations are wonderful giving you some
idea - at least, I think so - of the original. Since it would seem odd to
give Faiz leaving out the poems in which he revolutionised Urdu poetry, I've
typed his famous "Don't Ask Me For That Love Again" below [snipped to be run
at a later date - m.]. But "A Prison Evening" is my favourite.


Faiz Ahmed Faiz (1911-1984)

  The son of a lawyer and wealthy landowner, Faiz Ahmed Faiz was born in
  Sialkot in the Punjab, then a part of India under British rule. He studied
  both English and Arabic literature at the university and in the 1930s
  became involved with the leftist Progressive Movement. During World War II
  he served in the Indian army, but with the 1947 division of the
  subcontinent, he moved to Pakistan, where he served as editor of The
  Pakistan Times. He was also closely involved with the founding of labor
  unions in the country and in 1962 was awarded the Lenin Peace Prize by the
  Soviet Union. But before that he spent some years in solitary confinement,
  under sentence of death, accused of helping to overthrow the government.
  The very government that has imprisoned him came, after his release, to
  praise him, and he was eventually put in charge of the National Council of
  the Arts. By the time of his death in Lahore - after another period of
  exile in Lebanon - his popularity with both the literary elite and the
  masses was enormous. He charged the traditional romantic imagery of Urdu
  poetry with new political tension, so that when his poems speak of the
  "beloved" they may be referring both to a woman or muse and to the idea of

  -- introduction from The Vintage Book Of Contemporary World Poetry

Vikram Doctor

48 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

Sameer Siruguri said...

The torpor of a Friday afternoon.
I bask in the warm sunlight of past poetry postings,
Picking random cookies from a bowl beside me.
Some taste good, some don't.

Each verse comes with a description,
A table of nutritional information pasted on the packet.
I read to see if I have gotten my calories for the day.
5% d.v. of triteness and 12% d.v. of allegory, it says.

Some descriptions make me wonder,
Where does the poem end? And the description begin?
Like cookies with the brand name written on top with cream.
The label's part of the treat.

This cookie's strange. There's a bit in the middle
With a fortune where the filling should have been,
In the musings on Poem 118, "snipped to be run at a later date - m.]"
That was a good cookie. Can we have the one you put away in the jar?

Dinnah Salam said...

This poem reminds me of Saint Rabia, when she was locked in the prison as part of her torture and the guards witnessed and lamp of light hanging above her prostrating body while she prayed. They put live snakes on the ground in front of her and witnessed them turn into flowers as she bowed her head in submission to and praise of her creator. This is the first I've ever heard of this author and I hope to see more of him. I'll now be visiting this sight much more often.
Lover of Peace

ejaz14357 said...

faiz is social poet and he was writing for men and women equally.

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