The delicate world of words

January 29, 2023

Iftikhar Arif’s new book of poetry is both imaginative and experiential – a treat for the connoisseurs of Urdu poetry

The delicate world of words

Iftikhar Arif seems to have been more reflective and concerned about the creative inventiveness of verses than mere quantity. He knows well that moments of creative inventiveness come sporadically and mostly unintentionally and that these need to be differentiated from the ones when the poet depends solely on his mastery of versifying and succumbs to the need of mushaira. While the amount of perspiration always exceeds that of inspiration, without a scintilla of inspiration, poetry becomes soulless, a mere pile of rhythmic words. So, Arif’s poetic oeuvre (recently compiled in a kulliyat) is a bit slim, but each line composed by him is weighty in every way.

The kulliyat, named as Sukhan-i-Iftikhar, contains four thin volumes of poetry while excluding one. Poetry is an art of exploration and exhaustion. First, it explores the denotative and connotative worlds of words; then it exhausts these worlds aesthetically. A mediocre poet takes words as tools – spiritless entities, while an outstanding poet deals with them as uncharted territories, stirring the explorative spirit of the poet. As an outstanding poet, Arif has been traversing the cultural, psychological, political and aesthetic realms of words. In naming his kulliyat, he has resorted to navigating both denotative and connotative domains of the words sukhan and iftikar. Sukhan denotes words, utterance, logos and connotes eros, poetry – imaginative, experiential and inspired. Iftikhar refers not only to the poet’s name but also to the literal meanings of the word too – glory, honour, pride. So, this book contains ‘imaginative, experiential, inspired poetry’, which is a matter of pride not just for the poet but also for the lovers and connoisseurs of Urdu poetry.

Arif is a celebrated poet in the real sense of the word. A poet merits to be ‘celebrated’ on two counts: when his poetry gains an indelible place in people’s common perception of the world outside and within and when his poetry doesn’t fail to attract the best critical minds of the age. A great number of Arif’s ash’aar (verses) are frequently recalled by common people, general readers, and literati alike in their looking for a proper yet powerful description of and their negotiation with a slew of personal, political and cultural mayhems. For instance, his ghazal with the refrain tamasha khatm ho ga, never ceases to be vehemently recalled as an aesthetically exhausted and thematically accurate description of the perennial show of absurdity by our political and establishment elite.

As for critical acclaim, the likes of Faiz, Ali Sardar Jafari, Salim Ahmad, Gopi Chand Narang and Ansi Ashfaq have applauded his poetry. Any critical study of Arif’s poetry has to highlight the themes of hijrat (migration), displacement, homecoming, nostalgia, resistance, absurdity, self-denunciation and loneliness. Self-denunciation has been a dominant theme in his poetry but has not been adequately underscored. Self-denunciation is an oblique way of resistance. On the surface, one curses oneself, but beneath the surface, there is defiance – against the repressive system. In Arif’s poetry, the phrase sag-i-zamana (dog of the times) epitomises this resistance.

Shikam ki aag liay phir rahi hae shehr ba shehr

Sag-i-zamna haen ham kiya, hamari hijrta kiya

[It is the fire of hunger that keeps us wandering this and that city. We are the dogs of the times, so nor us, neither our migration matters]

If we are sag, then it is the zamana which has turned us into sag. Zamana has been more powerful than the individual. Arif’s dexterous use of the nuances of the metaphor of Karbala has been fervidly admired by his critics. He is matchless in this regard. Through this metaphor, Arif describes how we haven’t moved ahead; the powerful elite still resort to injustice, to abuse of their position to silence the voices of sanity, to repress the genuine claims to legitimacy; so that the urgency and inevitability of resistance persist. It is Imam Hussain (peace be upon him), in the words of Arif, who has inculcated a spirit of fearlessness among believers in the face of heartless cruelties.

Arif describes how we haven’t moved ahead; how the powerful elite still resort to injustice and abuse of their position to silence the voices of sanity, to repress genuine claims to legitimacy; so that the urgency and inevitability of resistance remain.

In Urdu, we have a brand of ‘the poets of poets’ – like NM Rashid, Miraji and Majeed Amjad. They are read, appreciated and discussed more by the community of (modern) poets than other readers. Their poetry is less mentioned, rarely liked and hardly recalled by the common folk. Their poetry, unparalleled in many respects, has a sort of elitist aesthetics. In contrast to them, there is a cohort of ‘the poets of the people’ or awaami shair, who are unreservedly liked and frequently recalled by the public at large, though rarely admired in the community of poets and critics. Their poetry is immersed in a sort of exoteric aesthetics. Unlike both, Faiz and Arif are “the poets of both the people and the poets’’. The aesthetics that characterises their poetry might therefore be called egalitarian. However, this does not mean that Arif shares the progressivism or romantic revolutionary spirit Faiz’s poetry is inundated with. While Arif has been ardent admirer of Faiz’s poetry and remained a close friend (the book Faiz banam Iftikhar Arif chronicles their camaraderie), he didn’t partake in his ‘romantic revolutionary’ ideology. Arif’s poetic ideology, if any, is essentially inspired by those of Mir Anis and Allama Iqbal, particularly. Resistance and identity have been major concerns in Arif’s poetry. In putting up resistance through the metaphor of Karbala, Arif looked towards Anis, while to negotiate the issue of identity, he resorted to the Muslim cultural past – a path insinuated by Iqbal. The chief motive of Iqbal’s poetry Meri tamam sarguzishat khoway huwon ki justaju (My whole life story revolves around the search for the lost ones) seems to have been resonating across Arif’s religious poetry and religiously inspired symbolism. Arif’s inspiration from these two giants is effectively mindful and critical. Arif might share themes with his predecessors and peers but the way these themes are conjectured and rendered by Arif is enviably inimitable. Arif’s andaz or poetic style is as exclusive and incomparable as has been that of Mir Taqi Mir, Mir Anis, Ghalib, Iqbal and Faiz. In one of his couplets, Arif asserts that:

Aur ka zikr toe kiya Mir ka bhi saya na ho

Wo sukhan kar jo kisi aur nay farmaya no ho

[There must not be an iota of even the great Mir’s influence on your poetry. You must create verses likes of which none before you composed.]

Arif’s poetic style is born from an intelligent fusion of modern and classical dictions. Granted that he frequently employs Persianised diction, most of his poetic phraseology is invented, not borrowed. Ahl-i-tazabzab (hesitant folks), qaria-i-zar (a town of capitalism), tairan-i-kam hausla (spiritless birds), azab-i-gard-i-khazan (agonies of the autumn dust), wahshat-i-aulad-i-adam (craziness of the Adam’s progeny), hawas-i-luqma-i-tar (lust for the rich morsel), sanad-i-wafa (a charter of faithfulness), sag-i-zamana (a dog of the times), shikam ki aag (the fire of a hungry belly) are just a handful of instances of the poetic phrases invented by him. The point to be noted here is that in inventing these phrases, he follows the classical tradition of Urdu poetry, but their full significance is anchored in the postcolonial modern conditions Pakistani society is characterised with. On one side, he seeks to connect with tradition and the past and, on the other, seems intent on writing in his own times, in his own, well-wrought style. This is how Arif’s neoclassicism can be summarised.

As he had to suffer agonies of displacement, uprootedness and eventually carrying on a struggle for a home and a search for identity, the tones and reverberations of sorrowfulness, disenchantment, self-denunciation and irony got entrenched in his poetry. Home and city came to occupy a special place in his poetry. He experiences a sort of destitution at his home and alienation in the city.

Piambron say zaminain wafa nahin kartin

Ham aisay kon khuda thay keh apnay ghar rahtay

[The lands have not been faithful even to prophets. We were no gods, how could we stay at our homes]

Tairi shoreeda mizaji ka sabab tairay nahin

Aiy meray shehr teray log bhi ab tairay nahin

This is how the poet keeps negotiating and traversing the personal spaces and politico-cultural places.

The reviewer is a Lahore-based critic and short story writer. He is a professor of Urdu at the University of the Punjab. His new book Naiy Naqqad Ka Naam Khatoot is coming soon

The delicate world of words