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The great poet debate

Who is a great poet and what is great poetry is an enigma and poetry itself is the purveyor of that riddle

The great poet debate
Ghalib (L), Faiz Ahmed Faiz (R).

When we look around we find there is no great poet of Urdu in our midst in Pakistan, or even in India. It was not that long ago that one had Muneer Niazi, and Ahmad Faraz and just before them, Nasir Kazmi and Faiz Ahmed Faiz.

A truly outstanding poet also implied that just below him, if this expression can be used in the context of a hierarchical order, were plenty of very good poets. T. S. Eliot distinguished between a great and a good poet. A great poet as compared to a good poet closed all avenues of expression with his greatness while a good poet opened up many possibilities for others to benefit from. He labelled Milton a great poet and Donne a good poet.

In Pakistan, it is usually said the environment does not encourage creativity or rather, the basis of this assumption, the freedom of expression is looked down upon or crushed or scoffed at. The lack of conducive environment impedes the creation of poetry but it can be called only a half truth because great poets have been born in environments which have been far from conducive, actually very hostile to poetry. For many, it does strengthen the argument that the greater the threat and danger, the greater and higher the level of creativity.

But then, as one looks around one finds that the number of great poets is dwindling even in those societies that take great pride in throwing open and exposing their values systems, allowing all kinds of taboos to be challenged, if not merely questioned. Societies that are struggling with all kinds of issues like poverty, want, exploitation and discrimination seem to provide a more fertile ground for creative expression than those settled in their smugness.

Read also: Breaking away from form

Look at the list of those winning the Nobel Prize for Literature and it becomes clear that fiction is taking or has taken precedence over the poets in contemporary times. In our tradition, or in all traditions, e.g., Greek, Persian, Arabic, the poet was much adulated and admired; he was possessed and spoke the language of unadulterated truth. He was the prophet or next to the prophet with his expression, an organic outburst contrary to the meticulously laboured one as in prose, even if it happened to be fiction. The eventual mystery of creation and human relationships, its outpouring could only be contained in poetry.

The instant reception by the listeners of poetry as spoken has been the valued legacy of the oral tradition. In mushairas the listeners doubled up over an instant enlightenment or realisation or intuitive insight — a flash that meant more than could be explained.

As it is said of our times and its openness that there is too much of sex but hardly any love, the exposure to sex comes early and most are engaged or drowned in sex in their teens and twenties with hardly any space for mooning over, pining in rejection or emotionally capitalising on inaccessibility and burning in the kiln of separation.

If poetry were only the expression of lack of fulfillment or the powerlessness of not being able to realise the inherent potential, in contemporary world it is only a realisation that much can be done and achieved but without the backdrop of mystery and the magic so characteristic of human situation.

Poets have looked at revolution as unrequited love affairs and some as endless journeys that have their gains embedded in the process than the finality of a destination.

What goes into the definition of a great poet or great poetry? Well, among the myriad explanations bandied about probably some stick — like the poet should be the collective voice of his age which he should express; what others only want to express but fail to do so due to the missing talent. The second explanation, which may appear to contradict the former, is that poetry that outlives its age and times is great as its perennial relevance is a benchmark. While reading Homer or Hafiz or Shakespeare or Ghalib one instantly knows that the unsaid within has found a voice.

Poetry was an oral expression but with the passage of time poetry got being written and the poets worked on their craft and mediated it hugely.

The instant reception by the listeners of poetry as spoken has been the valued legacy of the oral tradition. In mushairas the listeners doubled up over an instant enlightenment or realisation or intuitive insight — a flash that meant more than could be explained. All poetry is actually more than the sum of its parts. In our expression, we call it “dil main utter jana” or “dil main hona.

They come in all types: those that are instantly lauded because of their instant appeal like Jigar Moradabadi, or those who were not recognised and were read in detachment like Majeed Amjad; some who were ignored and passionately eulogised posthumously like Nazeer Akbarabadi or those whose poetry was placed at par with philosophical system building.

And they have been recluses, and those who took to the streets, those who were favoured by the kings and those who went to prison or sent into exile. Some executed while others lived a life of great luxury and opulence. Ezra Pound who was unsung is known through the acknowledgement of T. S Eliot and Bedil through Ghalib’s droolings.

Who is a great poet and what is great poetry is an enigma and poetry itself is the purveyor of that enigma. It feeds on a dream what it cannot deliver in reality. It probably sketches the outline of the dilemma of human existence and then passes by it without filling it in. It is the echo of what may have been said once.

Sarwat Ali

sarwatali
The author is a culture critic based in Lahore

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