The changing norms of poetic expression

Iqra Sarfaraz
April 07, 2020

UNESCO first adopted 21 March as World Poetry Day during its 30th General Conference in Paris in 1999....

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World Poetry Day

In the times of Corona and self quarantining, one could only wonder what to do at home and how to pass time. As one of my past-time activities, I started binge watching live sessions of celebrities, singers and influential people, because why not? After all, it’s entertaining, engaging and you don’t feel lonely in these tough times when you don’t have much to do. In one of Ali Sethi’s Instagram live sessions, I heard him talking about different ghazal forms and his poetic aspirations. He was reminiscing about various Urdu poets and singers who took Urdu poetry and ghazal to another level. Later, he mentioned that it was World Poetry Day as he gave tribute to beautiful poetry used in some of his favourite songs and ghazals.

UNESCO first adopted 21 March as World Poetry Day during its 30th General Conference in Paris in 1999, with the aim of supporting linguistic diversity through poetic expression and increasing the opportunity for endangered languages to be heard. World Poetry Day is the occasion to honour poets, revive oral traditions of poetry recitals, promote the reading, writing and teaching of poetry, foster the convergence between poetry and other arts such as theatre, dance, music and painting, and raise the visibility of poetry in the media. As poetry continues to bring people together across continents, all are invited to join in. Moreover, this day celebrates one of humanity’s most treasured forms of cultural and linguistic expression and identity. Practiced throughout history – in every culture and on every continent – poetry speaks to our common humanity and our shared values, transforming the simplest of poems into a powerful catalyst for dialogue and peace.

Being interested in poetry, I have always been very fond of Urdu and English poets of all times. They not only translated life and pain in effective and impactful words, but also made an everlasting impression with theirverses.While in school, we were taught Mirza Ghalib, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Meer Taqi Meer, Khawaja Meer Dard, Ahmed Faraz, Aqbar Allahabadi and others whose poetic expression changed the face of Urdu poetry. It was always their scintillating Urdu verses which made one curious about the message they have, the feelings they wish to convey and the lover they are addressing to. There are many other modern Urdu poets who not only talk about love or longing for a lover, but also their poetic deliverance appeared to be a critique of society, spirituality and an individual’s grief. Parveen Shakir and Jaun Elia are two phenomenal names of Urdu literature... My two favourites of modern times! But my biases for Jaun sahab are legit true as I have literally grown listening to his poetry.

Since my father loved going to mushairas, he often tagged me and amma along when I was a teenager. I still have a distorted vision of Jaun Elia sitting in front of me. He walked as if the ground underneath his feet is the deck of a storm-tossed boat. Each foot comes to the sidewalk as if the collision of shoe and concrete wasn't entirely anticipated and he lurches, stumbles. It seemed he was immersed in the wine of words that came out of his mouth with all their glory.

Then comes English Literature, in which there is an entire history of English poetry; from Old to Middle English and from Renaissance to Modern English poetry. Being a literature grad, I also read about other forms such as sonnets, epics, odes, lyric etcetera. So, I admit that there is a plethora of poetic forms in English poetry that simultaneously gave me a taste of a foreign language, and perpetuated my interest in poetry. What one notices about the manuscripts of English poetry is that they are diverse and multipurpose. They not only see love as the purest form of human emotion, but also qualify as the mirror to self, society and human nature. In English, poets also discussed war, the effects of it and stream of consciousness.

Today, the essence of reading poetry has been lost in the fast-paced digital era. People are not anymore fans of paperbacks let alone reading poetry. Ironically, poetry was a poet’s personal account which has always been impersonal. It served as a voice referring to a society and its norms. It taught people about their weaknesses in the most eloquent manner. It was democratising in nature. Poetry’s origin in the universal act of song suggests its rhythms never stray too far from the heart, its beat and its passions. However, the facets of poetry have severely changed in today’s digital age. It is more of a meme that connects anyone and everyone. Poetry in today’s digital era is still effective in conveying a person’s feelings and desires. It also offers satire (read: sarcasm) on the society and people in general, but the language is relevant to the current times. Memes may seem to have little to do with song, but these too can be poetic, expressing the ‘dream of a common language’ as suggested by the famous American poet, essayist and feminist Adreinne Rich. The democratising gesture of digital poetry is rooted in traditions as old as poetry itself, which has always drawn from the dialect.

The development of new media forms brings forth new forms of dialect expression, and new modes of poetry along with them. Digital age poetry presents literal images rather than presenting imagery of words. In digital circulation, an image ceases to be a title to an extant object, or a document of a particular event, but becomes an icon, a symbol, an evocation. Images begin to function like language. Any language has a stock of tropes, poetic figures, and common expressions. Regardless of where they originated, what is important is that they are commonly available and can be reused. We do the same in conversation: echoing and emulating one another in the process of sharing ideas. Poetry in the digital age does with images what poets already do with words: use them and shape them through circulation.

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