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May 11, 2019

The poetics of Akhtar Usman


May 11, 2019

If poetry is a form of expression that helps liberate intellect from the baggage of tradition without downplaying its essence of creative potential, it is found only in the genius of Akhtar Usman.

A poet whose poetry pronounces an epistemic rupture with tradition without falling prey to subjective idealism or the absolute materialism of Feuerbach. His poetry provides a subtle expression of the interplay of tradition and modernity, punctuated by the centrality of creative processes and the transformative potential of art. Unlike the traditional poetry of dedicating creativity to the beloved, Akhtar Usman’s poetry takes a cue from the aesthetics of traditions without confining the stream of creativity to some metaphysical love.

As my friend Waqar Sherazi rightly says, ‘Akhtar Usman is the only contemporary poet of Urdu who has mastery over transcending tradition without shunning it. The poetic articulation of traditional sensibilities like technique, musicality and passion finds a strong echo which is intrinsically linked to a dialectical process rather than a nostalgic affinity to the past’

Akhtar Usman embodies Fanon’s spirit to assuage the suffering of the wretched and downtrodden through the soothing effect of his poetic ingenuity. He is, without an iota of doubt, one of the best contemporary Urdu poets in the Subcontinent with his rhythmic expression and musicality of poetics which provide a deep insight into the creative processes and evolution of humanity as the primordial consciousness. His poetry goes beyond the façade of ethnicity, faith and all other layers of superstructure and touches the fundamentals of humanism which transcend all other socially and politically constructed attributes of the being and society.

To Akhtar Usman poetry must contain five fundamental attributes if one has to determine its sagacity, munificence and magnificence sans space and time. The first attribute is the universality of poetry which means that it is not confined by temporal, spatial and lingual limits. Good poetry is all about humanity and its universality, and it ignites the innermost essence of the oneness of all without killing the diversity. It strives to dislodge the intellectual barriers which impede appreciation of this oneness, and it elevates human consciousness towards the larger goals of freedom.

Second, poetry must have lasting relevance, timelessness because the creative process is a continuum unrestrained by time and space. Poetry which is restrained by politically defined spaces of the elite will never be able to attain universal appeal and relevance to humanity.

Third, poetry must sublimate angst as a constructive force and it must elevate tormenting souls into new heights of imagination. Poetry has all the potential to console the humanistic spirit during low moments of life and in a state of alienation and suffering. Tormented and wretched souls must find the transformative undercurrents in poetry to radically alter the conditions of subordination and submissiveness. The poet must have a well-formulated worldview to be able to put forth a transformative agenda through poetry without losing the beauty of linguistics in the expression.

Fourth, poetry must represent the most exalted form of human expression and it must depict the ultimate spirit of human civilization to attain peace and tranquility. The evolutionary processes of human civilization gave birth to new forms of expressive and fine art in historical times through a process of thesis, antithesis and synthesis or through a dialectical process. The new is not necessarily the mechanical continuity of the old because only radical rupture will create a durable new form. The dialectical process, therefore, is not an idealistic creation of intellect; it is a practical necessity of structural transformation through human agency.

Fifth, poetry must be the cause of the genesis of the language of the future rather than promoting nostalgia and preserving an outmoded expression. Good poetry must always be an amalgamation of modern sensibility, transformational spirit and the force to construct alternatives and new narratives of human existence and civilizational journey. The poetry of Akhtar Usman is a true representation of these five attributes and encompasses the process of existential and intellectual evolution of human being in his overarching concept of the 'creative processes' of life and being.

Akhtar Usman has authored six poetry publications so far; and he has more books of poetry and prose which will be published sometime in the near future. In his publications 'Sitara Saz' and 'Tarash', Akhtar Usman has beautifully crafted a set of poetic idiosyncrasies by combining blank verse, ghazal and nazm in a single poem with the continuity of meaning and theme. This is perhaps one of the most important forms of poetic expression in Urdu which can be identified as the signature style of Akhtar Usman. His genius is reflected in the continuity of theme of the creative process of the cosmic spirit and the earthly pursuits of change and transformation through human agency. However, Akhtar Usman is not influenced by Iqbal’s scholastic treatment of cosmic reality which, according to Iqbal, tends to unravel magnanimity of God. For Iqbal, cosmos is in a continuous state of coming into being and its very genesis is linked to a universal soul which transcends all materiality of life.

But for Akhtar Usman, poetry must be transformative and it must promote the spirit of emancipation from worldly sufferings rather than finding recluse in the metaphysics. Iqbal’s idea of cosmos as a continuous state of coming into being is diametrically opposed to the transformational spirit of creativity found in the poetry of Akhtar Usman. All good poetry must contain strong symbolism of egalitarianism and social justice and hope for a better future to humanity rather than sublimating the transformative potential to a divine force.

Akhtar Usman thinks that modernity has expedited the processes of human emancipation which is well reflected in the scientific socialism that provides the universal principles of social transformation in the form of dialectical materialism. He is critical of postmodernism for fragmentizing the creative processes and for diffusing the human potential of transformation. Akhtar Usman thinks that there has never been any serious intellectual debate on socialism as a scientific process of political and economic transformation in recent times. Socialism has been the hope of millions of underprivileged and wretched people across the world and, therefore, it has been under continuous slamming from the powerful people.

Subjective idealism has been used as a political ideology to neutralize the transformative potential of human agency. Subjective idealism which is reflected in the poetry of our own followers of existentialism like Jon Elia does neutralize the human transformative agency to a lonely being sailing against the hostile tides of a remorseless sea. It does not give any hope beyond providing some psychological relief to disenchanted souls whose miseries are multiplied with each verse creating a sense of pessimism.

Akhtar Usman is not only a great poet but he is also a well-read, down to earth and humble person who remains unsung like many other great minds of this knowledge-deficient society. I have had the honour to be in his company which is a constellation of many shining stars who gather at a tea stall in I-10 Islamabad every day at evening. These friends of knowledge and learning represent the sanest voices in this country, who advocate for freedom of expression, tolerance and informed debate like A few others whose voice are trampled in this country for speaking truth to power.

Transformative action is what Akhtar Usman suggests to reconstruct a tolerant, developed peaceful and democratic Pakistan. Amidst the squeezing spaces of expression, staggering bigotry, rampant intolerance, dying art and decaying cultures, the poetry of Akhtar Usman gives some solace and momentary relief even if we do not believe in transformative action. In these tumultuous times, the message of Akhtar Usman is ignored only at great peril.

The writer is a social development and policy adviser, and a freelance columnist based in Islamabad.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @AmirHussain76

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