Friday, July 10, 2015

The Living Dead

Honouring our poetic ancestors 

Even the Rain
by Agha Shahid Ali (1949-2001)

What will suffice for a true-love knot? Even the rain?
But he has bought grief's lottery, bought even the rain.

"our glosses / wanting in this world" "Can you remember?"
Anyone! "when we thought / the poets taught" even the rain?

After we died—That was it!—God left us in the dark.
And as we forgot the dark, we forgot even the rain.

Drought was over. Where was I? Drinks were on the house.
For mixers, my love, you'd poured—what?—even the rain.

Of this pear-shaped orange's perfumed twist, I will say:
Extract Vermouth from the bergamot, even the rain.

How did the Enemy love you—with earth? air? and fire?
He held just one thing back till he got even: the rain.

This is God's site for a new house of executions?
You swear by the Bible, Despot, even the rain?

After the bones—those flowers—this was found in the urn:
The lost river, ashes from the ghat, even the rain.

What was I to prophesy if not the end of the world?
A salt pillar for the lonely lot, even the rain.

How the air raged, desperate, streaming the earth with flames—
to help burn down my house, Fire sought even the rain.

He would raze the mountains, he would level the waves,
he would, to smooth his epic plot, even the rain.

New York belongs at daybreak to only me, just me—
to make this claim Memory's brought even the rain.

They've found the knife that killed you, but whose prints are these?
No one has such small hands, Shahid, not even the rain.

I love the ghazal form, and sometimes try to write ghazals — but I find the strict rules difficult, so I break them and label the results 'free ghazals'. This beautiful poet does no such thing. He shows us how to write a true ghazal. And I think he takes it to heights of meaning and emotion. The allusion — almost homage — to cummings is beautifully done, too. (I find that he does rather run to literary allusions in his poems.)

Several sources credit him with popularising the ghazal in American poetry. The (Great) Indian Poetry Project notes that he also wrote in free verse and in other traditional forms, notably the sestina and canzone.

Brought up in Kashmir, he later studied in the United States. The link on his name, above, is to an Academy of American Poets article. There is also some information at Wikipedia, which tells us: 'He held teaching positions at nine universities and colleges in India and the United States.' 

His parents, too, were academics. The enotes study guide says, 'English, Urdu, and Kashmiri were all spoken in his home. Ali considered English to be his first language (it was the only language in which he wrote) and Urdu to be his mother tongue.'

He was always affected by the troubles in his war-torn country of Kashmir, as this ghazal demonstrates.

As you see by the dates next to his name, he lived only to 52. He died of brain cancer. He had a distinguished career, both academically and poetically, and is remembered affectionately by readers, colleagues and students.

There are articles and reminiscences about him all over the web, attesting to this. But I can't find a photo that's not firmly copyrighted, and I fear it would take time to pursue the necessary enquiries to get permission to use one. But you can easily see them for yourself: here.

Meanwhile there is a collection of his poems at PoemHunter, and his books are on Amazon. They include his last book, Call Me Ishmael Tonight, (pictured above) and a 'collected' (also pictured), The Veiled Suite, produced posthumously.

Wikipedia tells us: 'The University of Utah Press awards the Agha Shahid Ali Poetry Prize annually "in memory of a celebrated poet and beloved teacher".'


  1. Wonderful poem and interesting story about the poet. Thank for sharing!

  2. Wonderful poem, Rosemary! I am not sure that I even ever attempted a ghazal. His is stellar indeed.

  3. I love this ghazal, the repetitions make this form so unique....thanks Rosemary for the wonderful post...

  4. Wow, Rosemary, the beauty of this poem leaves me breathless. The ghazal form is so lyrical..........each couplet leaves me just wanting to read more and more of him. Thank you for the introduction. I would not have wanted to miss this poet. Tragic that he died of brain cancer. Wonderful that his work lives on.

  5. I'll have to come back and read it with more concentration than I have on this travelling day. This poet is new to me, but I like the depth and I've put the collection on my wish list at Amazon.

    1. Susan, I must put it on my wish list too! Thanks for the nudge. :)


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