Nature of poetry and poetry about nature

Nature is generous as it takes little and returns much. Borrowed from nature, poetic images evince jamal or an inimitable exalted beauty

Majeed Amjad

How unbelievably fortunate are you, o’ free forests, / For you are still untouched by human hands / Your morning has still not been assailed/ By the dark night of civilisation

A few words, first, about the nature of poetry. Poetry says little, intends more. It also loves to remain ambiguous and nonchalant about its intended meaning. It leaves gaps to be filled by the perception of its readers. On its surface, poetry may appear crystal clear but the moment we try to grasp its meanings, it gets clouded. Our exploration of the layered, inscrutable world of poetry provides us with an opportunity to witness, on one hand, the wonderful beauty of words; and on the other, the enigmas of life and of the world.

Let us read again the verses about nature quoted at the beginning. Perhaps you grasp instantly and without failing what these lines denote: virgin forests are fortunate because they are away from urban settings. But you will have to reflect deeply to understand the connotations and nuances in these lines. This is another aspect of the nature of poetry: the real significance of poetry lies less in the literal and more in its nuances.

Let’s try to unfold the connotative significance of these lines. How is the virginity of a forest assailed by humans? The answer is to be found by reading between the lines. The freedom of the forests depends upon a real distance from humans. This is because humans are the most perilous predators. Humans trespass the nature’s limits and mutilate and harm its originality and creativity. In the absence of human intervention, trees live their lives the way they were meant to be lived. They are free therefore to follow the natural course of growth and host a surfeit of species. A tree might provide sustenance and shelter to several families of birds, animals and human beings.

Ironically, the modern man, who never tires of talking about his freedoms – of thought, of choice, of expression – is solely responsible for muffling the many voices of nature. Thus the modern man’s narcissism denies all other species the status of ‘free, reflective beings’. Everything except the ashraful makhlooqat (the most respectable of creatures) is deemed or made dumb and deaf in a bid to make his own exclamations louder. Annals of modernity are inundated with the ‘heroic’ achievements of modern man over nature. Only literature, particularly poetry – classical, modern, or post-modern – takes it upon itself to keep reminding modern man of his atrocities done to nature. When humans almost all over the world had to hole up in their homes due to Covid-19, nature took a sigh of relief.

Before unravelling the logos and praxis of the ‘dark night of civilisation’, it is pertinent to utter some words about why culture was defined in opposition to nature and the repercussions this entailed.

Anthropocentrism – the belief that only humans are great in every respect – seems to be the fundamental reason behind describing culture in comparison with nature. Culture is generally defined as a ‘shared set of norms, values, ideas, rituals, arts, etc’ that give humans unbridled power over nature. There was a period in human history when nature was deemed sacred, revered and worshiped. This belief in the sanctity of nature worked as an effective safeguard to protect nature. But with the advent of modernity and capitalism, the belief in the sacredness of nature was replaced with the idea of mundaneness of nature. Nature was thus stripped of its symbolic significance. It was now to be mapped, chronicled, subdued, and killed without guilt.

The idea that nature is killed and bleeds forms a good part of Majeed Amjad’s (June 29, 1914—11 May 11, 1974) poetry. For instance, the third stanza of his famous poem Tausi-e-Shahr (Extension of City) – written in response to a mass felling of trees to expand the city of Sahiwal – reads:

The blue wall of gashing trees came crashing down / The bodies were slashed, the skeletons decayed, the leaves and fruits diminished/ Shrouded in a pale, frightened sun, the corpses (of felled trees) lay heaped.

A large part of the love and reverence we have in our hearts for nature owes itself to how poetry has exalted it. This way poetry gently removes from our perception the smirches wreaked by ‘epistemological darkness’.

The hunter-gatherer of ancient times would be overwhelmed by the sense of guilt after killing an animal – never forgetting to do penance. But the modern, narcissistic man takes pride in conquering and killing nature. All gains of capitalist modernity have, in one way or the other, been accomplished by inflicting irreparable loss to nature. From this point, we can begin to discern the dark side of ‘modern, splendid civilisation’. Pause for a moment. While discussing poetry, it is incumbent upon us to not take the ‘darkness’ for granted. For in poetry, every word can steal into the kingdom of metaphor.

Darkness is not just the lack of, absence, or non-existence of light. It refers to deep murky realms too – actual, mythical, and psychical. Whatever is repressed and marginalised, lurches into a dark realm. These dark realms cannot be seen as mere non-existence of light. They turn into self-sustained domains. So, darkness acquires a power that can undo luminance. Leaving aside medical understanding of Covid-19 for a moment, we can say that it has made us realise how nature can upend the hefty claims about progress and other gains of modern civilisation.

The modern capitalist culture strives perpetually to conceal its darker aspects. Both colonialism and capitalism seek to shield their persona as an engine of progress, enlightenment and the emancipation of humanity. They hide their savageness. To define culture as the polar opposite of nature lays the basis of epistemological violence or in present context ‘epistemological darkness’. It creeps into our daily perception of nature and eventually mushrooms into lethal destructiveness.

How has nature been disfigured and mutilated into ugliness? Majeed Amjad has this description in his poem Koh-e-Buland. This poem tells a story of two worlds. On one side there is the mightiest of mountains (koh-e-buland) – the symbol of hefty architecture of modern civilisation. On the other, there is the underworld – pointing to repressed, stifled, marginalised, nasty, mephitic nature.

Poetry not only raises a voice for nature but also adulates it to the point of deification. A large part of the love and reverence we have in our hearts for nature owes itself to how poetry has exalted it. This way poetry gently removes from our perception the smirches wreaked by the ‘epistemological darkness’. Poetry about nature quite unconsciously inculcates in us a sort of epistemological luminescence.

Nature is generous. It takes little and returns much. While exalting nature, poetry itself becomes splendid. Borrowed from nature, poetic images evince jamal or an inimitable exalted beauty. In order to grasp the distinctiveness of such poetic images, they need to be differentiated from the descriptive images of nature. A descriptive image is the verbal equivalent of any scene, sight, or thing of nature; it seeks to be a ‘true’ copy or faithful imitation of some natural object. On the other hand, the poetic image is a product of the convergence of a poet’s imagination and nature.

By forming such poetic images, poets not only get inspiration from nature to explore the forms of beauty, splendour, and rhythm but also seek to solace our ‘alienated selves’. In such images, the duality of culture and nature and their hierarchical order seem to have been suspended. They are essentially poetic metaphors, carrying only a little denotation and a large amount of connotation. They please our senses and invoke our knack for reflection. The following poetic images from Majeed Amjad’s poetry substantiate this assertion.

From an infinity of time came into existence/ birds, songs, stream, butterflies and roses./ Like the faces of prophets, roses keep chuckling/ while smouldering inwardly

Every time the world/ casts a yellow idol for the mustard bud/ from a lump of gold

The writer is a Lahore-based critic, short story writer and author of Urdu Adab ki Tashkeel-i-Jadid, Nazm Kaisay Parhain, andRakh say Likhi Gai Kitab

Nature of poetry and poetry about nature