Notions of newness in poetry

April 17, 2022

Newness in poetic expression is neither a homogenous notion, nor has a single motive

Notions of newness in poetry


hat are the defining features of newness? Is it a general, all-encompassing concept or a context-bound one? Are the glittery images of new poetry indistinguishable from the glossy stamping of new pottery? Let’s try to investigate these and some other questions related to what makes poetry new. To begin with, everything that has come into existence bearing a mark of individuality, or a thing that has quite recently been discovered and entered the ever-expanding world of our knowledge can be described as new. But this simple notion can be greatly problematic in the realm of poetry.

All art, including poetry, has a preternatural power that deprives things of their socially acquired innocence and simplicity. Nothing in art is as simple as it appears at first sight. Many things in our daily lives might be superfluous, extra, redundant or outmoded. The aesthetics of poetry sweep away all huff causing excessiveness and extravagance. We can say that poetry is meant to refine, refurbish and lighten our daily, cliché-ridden, rotten, overloaded lives. So, how can poetry, itself inundated with clichés, liberate us from the encumbrances of our routine lives?

Every connoisseur will confirm that poetry transforms whatever enters its realm. The realm is quintessentially imaginative. Defying rules and conventions might be the single most essential rule for imagination. So, ways, methods and strategies of poetic transformation are varied. They can be bizarre, too. Sometimes lexicographical meanings of words are transformed and mutated into idiosyncratic ones. On other occasions the fiery imagination of a poet ferociously violates the syntactic rules. Language is thus pushed to its ultimate limits. Paradoxically, its communicative function is exhausted in such a way that all noise of words is transformed into silence. Silence can thus be more communicative than noise.

Notions of newness in poetry

Nikalay gaiy iss kay ma’ni hazaar/’Ajab cheez thi ik meri khamshi

[How curious was my silence!/ Thousands of meanings were extracted from it].

At times verses upon verses are so profusely inundated with neologism that the readers’ interpretative faculties get confused. An attempt at creating a semblance of newness can be traced behind all such poetic endeavours. However, newness is neither a homogenous notion, nor has a single motive.

There are at least three notions of newness with regard to poetry.

First, let us examine the modernist theory of newness. Modernists are of the view that newness is not an add-on quality. As per modernist poetics, newness is an essential ingredient of poetry. If some verses lack an air of freshness, they might be judged as being prosy, dull and monotonous. But how is this much-desired newness created? In modernist imagination, newness is born out of the ashes of oldness. Every modernist poet, in every moment of creativity, has to deal with the binary of modern/individual and tradition/collective. So, newness in modernist poetry fails to acquire its basic sense without a conflict with the old and traditional words and worlds. So, it is incumbent on a modernist poet to not only invent their own, unique-in-every-respect diction, style and technique but also shun repeating the diction and style invented by them. One must embrace a new definition of style.

Notions of newness in poetry

In literary modernism, style is not something that comprises a familiar set of words, phrases, metaphors and symbols and specific rhetorical means of narrating and describing things. If a poet keeps invoking natural, universal symbols like sun, moon, air, ocean, clouds, desert, or conventional symbols like cross, sword, noose, camp, balcony, rose, nightingale, shaikh, zahid, masjid, mandir etc or personal, idiosyncratic symbols in the same context, he or she commits suicide as a poet. Each new book by a modernist poet must exhibit newness and originality. Modernist aesthetics favour rupture instead of continuity. Fluidity and reinvention are the hallmarks of such style. A modernist poet finds being persistently and fearlessly experimental obligatory, thereby distancing from his own early diction and the tastes he once relished. Zafar Iqbal and Nida Fazli, both modernist poets, seem to convey the essence of modernist poetics.

– Zafar Iqbal

[The new taste (in poetry or use of words) that I have abandoned now and passed on to other poets, was originally invented by me.]

– Nida Fazli

[Let us grab a map of the world and look for a new city now that we have grown acquainted to every inhabitant of this city]

Notions of newness in poetry

A second notion of newness sprouts from capitalist consumerism. “Whatever is manufactured and displayed in the market can/must be consumed” is the logic and motto of consumerism. In the capitalist sense, consumption is not limited to commodities. It extends to ideas, images, movies, texts and books. All these are produced, marketed and sold according to fundamental capitalist logic of maximsing profit. Not only are new things being incessantly commodified, they are also replacing the earlier commodities. New books, new ideas, new music, new paintings are as eagerly consumed as new items and new models of gadgets and vehicles. In the consumerist estimation, new poetry and new pottery hold similar worth and value. Both can be sold and are made to be consumed. In most of the mushairas the new yet popular poetry is well received (or hotly consumed). No wonder it is written in accordance with consumer/market demand. It has competitive performative and entertaining power. Consumerism has an in-built characteristic of measuring everything. The mushairas are judged as successful if those are attended by a large audience; a poet is rated high if he is a crowd puller. The quality of a mushaira is measured not by any quality of the content of the poetry presented there, but by its reception, consumption and applause. Numbers measure the popularity of a poet. Every popular poet at a mushaira keeps trying to surpass his performing capacity. In the pre-colonial India, a mushairas would be a cultural activity. Today it has been reduced to an entertaining industry. Conforming with audiences’ sense of values, belief systems and emotional dictates is an essential in mushaira poetry. Unlike modernists, mushaira poets avoid challenging their audiences’ dominant ideas, their systems of thought and belief and norms of aesthetics.

A third notion of newness is rooted in real artistic experience. It asserts that art is paradoxical in nature: it is concomitantly timeless and new. It is timeless in the sense that it surpasses the historically and ideologically drawn boundaries that cause a divide between humans and their histories and come to touch upon fundamental existential riddles and woes shared by entire humanity. It is new in the sense that every encounter with such art inculcates a sense of glowing freshness. We can say that its newness is timeless.

Notions of newness in poetry

According to modernist theory, new means original; rising out of the ashes of tradition. Ideally, not even an iota of tradition is allowed to sneak into a work of modern art. In practice, an array of traces of tradition do slip into modern poetry. The artistic theory recognises no antagonism between new and old. It considers the old-new binary tyrannical and redundant. That’s why, perhaps, Iqbal declared that the narratives of old and new were an outcome of short-sightedness. Tradition is not a bulwark against innovativeness. One can perform all sorts of newness while adhering to a tradition – a set of received ideas, norms, values, notions and practices.

There are therefore two contrasting concepts of tradition. One is marked by a sort of dynamism and the other by statis. The first has a principle of undying flammability, renewing itself and acculturating to recent happenings. It keeps growing and expanding by accommodating a continuous flow of change through an in-built value-judging filter. In the words of Iqbal this notion of tradition is marked by: Har lahza niya Tur, nai barq-i-tajjala (At every moment there is a new Tur and a new lightning of manifestation). The second notion of tradition is characterised by inhabiting an antagonism against every new and modern thing and thought. The reasons are not hard to understand. Their first experience of new and modern was essentially scary. It was bound to Western-colonial constructs. Modern-colonial West left no stone unturned to humiliate, disgrace and mutilate native histories, systems of values, aesthetics and tradition. That’s why among most postcolonial writers and thinkers the thin line of Westernisation/colonisation and modernity gets blurred. They fail to distinguish colonial modernity from true modernity.

This intellectual failure is one of the major reasons for distorted ideas and confusions overwhelmingly prevailing in our political, social and literary circles. Historically and morally, they found themselves bound to rescue and defend their tradition brutally distorted by colonising narratives. In the process they came to staunchly adhere to a firm, stable, monolithic and insurmountable notion of tradition that soon became static. A static tradition is always sceptical about everything new seeing it as colonial/Western. Paradoxically, the static tradition is a modern invention. The past tradition referred to in this notion was neither static, nor monolithic. Also, the static tradition finds itself ensnared in the binary of old and new – and its various forms like original and mutilated, East and West, God and man, sacred and profane, world and hereafter etc – integrated into modernism, though the hierarchical order is inverse.

In classical Urdu poetry we find a concept of jiddat which implies that rah-i-mazmun-i-taza band nahi hae. This simply means that the road to newness is never closed. To create poetry is essentially to bring out something new. One can exercise innovation by resorting to one’s full potential without contesting or refuting (dynamic) tradition. Creativity can work in association with continuity. Rupture is not a quintessential feature of being creative. Modernists would believe that it is the conflict (between individual and society, modern and tradition, present and past, Utopia and Dystopia etc) that breeds newness in art; modern art is thought to be like a war between conflicting forces. Its newness stems from neither victory nor defeat but from a zone of battle where best potential of warring elements is exhibited. So, modernist newness is enunciated in a fairly violent manner. Artistic theory is less conflictual and more harmonic. It is worth mentioning that conformity and harmony are not synonyms. The following verses are exemplary of the traditionally new poetry.

– Mirza Ghalib

[I sing with the warmth of delight of imagined things. I am a nightingale from a yet-to-be-created garden.]

– Yagana Changaizi

[How ‘out of sorts’ is an enchantment of thought! There is, eventually, a new earth, a new sky and a new world.]

The writer is a critic, short story writer and professor of Urdu at the University of Punjab, Lahore. His new book of criticism Ye Qissa kiya hai Ma’ani ka has been recently published.

Notions of newness in poetry