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.
(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 industry. 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 around.in 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 directness. 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. Biography: 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 revolution. -- introduction from The Vintage Book Of Contemporary World Poetry Vikram Doctor