To continue to write poetry in a society where the very concept of reading is minimal is a massive undertaking. We certainly are not the London, Paris, New York or even the Lahore of the 20th century when names such as Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Taufiq Rafat, Iqbal, W.B Yeats, Ezra Pound, Langston Hughes and many more graced the cities’ literary circles. The charm of Pak Tea House has been reduced to food and nostalgia; And there is no Rhymers’ Club to initiate and appreciate the zealous poets of our times.
Poetry or literature is not everyone’s cup of tea. Yet, this does not justify the blanket lack of interest shown towards poetry. After all, writing is not solely done for the purpose of enriching the literary scape, there are “monetary benefits that definitely serve as an incentive for poets and novelists alike,” says Aamir Riaz, the general manger of Readings’ publishing wing.
“People come to bookshops looking for works of fiction and other forms of prose but, never really go to the poetry section. There are not many Pakistani poets of recent times whose work is available at stores across country,” says Aima Khosa, the marketing head of Books n Beans, a Lahore-based book shop that opened in 2015.
But why are so many new poets hesitating to get their work published? “There is no demand for poetry today,” says Mahboob Ahmad, a lecturer and a poet. “Teaching is my profession and poetry my passion”.
Others have similar opinions. “It is better to not go through the hassle of getting published when you know that your little collection would sit untouched in a discrete corner shelf of a bookstore to collect dust forever,” adds Mina Malik-Hussain, a poet. “Writing poetry is a gratifying yet, an immensely difficult task. Poetry is essentially, 10 percent inspiration and 90 percent labour.”
Malik-Hussain’s statement holds incredible weight. In order to write a single poem, ingenious writers have go to tedious lengths. According to Ramsha Ashraf, an emerging poet whose themes range from political to romantic, “As a poet, your work evolves as you move along the path of poetic development. Every time we put verses down on paper, we have to follow a structure which is not only appealing to auditory receptors but to visual ones as well.”
While writing prose, the point of view is crucial. Whether a novel is written with an omniscient narrator or if it is an epistolary work, there is room for lengthy expressions and impressions of and on anything that captivates the novelist’s attention. Similarly, in poetry too, there is room for experimentation. E.E Cummings’ work, with its anti-structuralist nature, is a prime example of this experimentation. However, the poet has to be aware how and why they structure their verses the way they do —- this is because they often have to be succinct and yet extremely emotive. “Not everyone can become a poet. Unfortunately, many assume they already are,” says Hussain.
While, sifting through the collections available at different bookstores one cannot help but notice that works of budding poets are consistently stashed in the lowest racks.
The slim volume by Afshan Shafi, a rising poet, who has worked with PEN Pakistan for her first compilation, Odd Circles, sits idly in the bottom-most rack in the poetry section at Readings. Her work is a personalised monologue of observations and memories.
Interestingly, most young poets have decided to use English as their medium of expression. Albeit, it is not necessarily the only language they write in. For instance, Ahmad stands true to his multilingual heritage. His poems, however, are not accessible to all. He uses Facebook to share his thoughts with readers and if you are not on his friends list, there is little chance you would get to read his Punjabi, Urdu or English poetry.
Whether writing is esoteric or completely realistic, the fact remains that any work of aesthetics is produced as a result of inspiration. “Poetry for me is about precision and discipline. It is a way of testing my intelligence — writing to unite form and emotional depth, and most of all make a strong and simple statement,” says Jurri Heydar, an Islamabad-based poet.
In the current landscape, the novel, as a genre, has become quite popular. The works of Mohsin Hamid and Kamila Shamsie are widely read. Nonetheless, this does not mean that everyone who has a knack for writing aspires to be a novelist, even though they certainly garner more attention compared to poetry.
“In moments of crisis, I always need a script. Poetry provides that. Also, I’ve recently immigrated and I’ve noticed most of my recent poems appear to respond to some aspect of that experience,” says Heydar. Similarly, Hussain and Ashraf note that prose may be the ‘wanted’ genre. However, it is impossible to dictate one’s impulses if they wish to write in a genre whose popularity may have nosedived dramatically in this country.
“There was a time when people would read their work in mushairas without hesitation. They were complete strangers who would gather to sip fragrant tea while reading their recent creations. It was all so surreal,” reminisces Riaz of Readings. But now it seems the country is dying an intellectual death.
When asked why so many poets have begun using online-platforms to share their work, many say it is a convenient means to reaching their audiences. They admit they have also published in literary journals despite being aware that the journal does not have wide readership. Other poets suggested that “Newspapers and magazines used to publish excerpts at some point -— they could do it again to promote the newer lot.”
There seems to be a gigantic gap between the poet and the reader that can bridged through publication, whether online or otherwise. However, the foremost consideration should be that, poetry has to be promoted the same way a novel is. Writing poetry for “family and friends” as Heydar does can perhaps never be enough, despite the fact that it may have allowed them “to create a personal archive of sorts”.
The blame for the decline of the status of poetry in a society like ours is collective. When a poet writes and decides not to publish, or when a publishing house refuses to publish poetry, or when an able minded community decides to disregard literary activity and remains invested in whatever is trending at that instant, something which challenges and stimulates the mind falls from the pedestal of popularity.