Friday, May 31, 2019

The Living Dead

~ Honouring our poetic ancestors ~


Swear by the olive in the God-kissed land—
There is no sugar in the promised land.

Why must the bars turn neon now when, Love,
I’m already drunk in your capitalist land?

If home is found on both sides of the globe,
home is of course here—and always a missed land.

The hour’s come to redeem the pledge (not wholly?)
in Fate’s “Long years ago we made a tryst” land.

Clearly, these men were here only to destroy,
a mosque now the dust of a prejudiced land.

Will the Doomsayers die, bitten with envy,
when springtime returns to our dismissed land?

The prisons fill with the cries of children.
Then how do you subsist, how do you persist, Land?

“Is my love nothing for I’ve borne no children?”
I’m with you, Sappho, in that anarchist land.

A hurricane is born when the wings flutter . . .
Where will the butterfly, on my wrist, land?

You made me wait for one who wasn’t even there
though summer had finished in that tourist land.

Do the blind hold temples close to their eyes
when we steal their gods for our atheist land?

Abandoned bride, Night throws down her jewels
so Rome—on our descent—is an amethyst land.

At the moment the heart turns terrorist,
are Shahid’s arms broken, O Promised Land?

– Agha Shahid Ali (1949-2001)

Some of us who also play over at dVerse Poets' Pub, particularly in this year's 'Poetry Form' series, are currently trying our hands at the ghazal, an ancient Persian form which has also been adapted into other languages such as Urdu and Hindi.

So I thought I'd look for one by a famous contemporary exponent. Though originally from Kashmir, Ali, who lived and worked in the United States from 1976 until his death, wrote his poetry in English; perhaps that gives those of us who write in English an even better idea of the ghazal form. Then again, I think his style must be unique, even when the form is traditional. In the Introduction to his book, Ravishing Disunities, featuring ghazals in English by a number of other poets, Ali is firmly in favour of the traditional form, including the connections of theme.* 

Kashmir, where he grew up, a disputed territory between India, Pakistan and China, became so war-torn that eventually it was no longer feasible for him to make return visits home – all the more sad in that previously Kashmir had long been famous for its great beauty. His beloved homeland was the subject of much of his poetry.

His personal sadness about his homeland seems to inform this poem, along with an expatriate's ambivalence as to which country is 'home'. From this he seems to extrapolate to sorrows, disappointments and blights of various kinds pertaining to other lands; for instance some of his lines make me think of the Israel-Palestine conflict. Other references are so personal that we can't know any details beyond what is mentioned – yet that doesn't matter, the point being the moods of the various moments in the various lands, adding up to overall beauty, love and grief. That's my reading, anyway.

Wikipedia describes the ghazal as 'a form of amatory poem or ode. ... [which] may be understood as a poetic expression of both the pain of loss or separation and the beauty of love in spite of that pain'. It seems that they are often sung, as you can discover on YouTube. Ali was greatly influenced by the famous – described as 'legendary' – Indian singer of ghazals (and other classical Indian music) Begum Akhtar, with whom he formed a friendship.

As well as becoming a noted poet in English, he had an academic career in America. His Wikipedia entry lists his occupation as 'Poet. Professor.' and adds: 'Ali taught at the MFA Program for Poets & Writers at University of Massachusetts Amherst, at the MFA Writing Seminars at Bennington College as well as at creative writing programs at University of Utah, Baruch College, Warren Wilson College, Hamilton College and New York University. He died of brain cancer in December 2001 and was buried in Northampton, in the vicinity of Amherst, a town sacred to his beloved poet Emily Dickinson.'

Despite his sad, early death, he made his mark on the world with his own poetry, which won various awards, and with his translations from the Urdu of another renowned ghazal poet, Faiz Ahmed Faiz.

In his obituary the KashmirWalla newspaper notes: 'To commemorate his legacy, the University of Utah in Salt Lake City has constituted an award in his name — Agha Shahid Ali Prize in Poetry, for young poets and writers.'

Books by and about him are at Amazon, and you can find here a series of quotes from his work.


*He says (in a much longer context): 'When poets go crazy with the idea of composing thematically independent couplets in a free verse poem, they manage to forget what holds the couplets together—a classical exactness, a precision so stringent that it, when brilliant, surpasses the precision of the sonnet and the grandeur of the sestina (I do mean that) and dazzles the most untutored of audiences. The ghazal's disconnectedness must not be mistaken for fragmentariness...' and, 'If one writes in free verse—and one should—to subvert Western civilization, surely one should write in forms to save oneself from Western civilization?'

Material shared in 'The Living Dead' is presented for study and review. Poems, photos and other writings and images remain the property of the copyright owners, where applicable (older poems may be out of copyright). The photo of Agha Shahid Ali, from his Wikipedia entry, is used according to Fair Use.


  1. So much sadness here, and so much beauty. Kashmir has long been considered heaven on earth for its beauty, it is terrible that humans manage to make a hell of heaven. So sad he died of brain cancer. He was so brilliant. I enjoyed his ghazal. I have not yet tried one, but am intrigued, both by this one but, even more, by the one you wrote yesterday. Thanks for this, Rosemary.

    1. Posted yesterday, written twelve years ago. After reading what Ali has to say, I'm not sure I'd class it as a ghazal any more – but I'm glad you like it!

  2. Thank you for this, Rosemary. Such a wonderful talent...gone way too soon. His poem definitely is a sad one, but definitely a worthy read.

    1. I'm glad you found it so, Mary. I know you love clear, accessible poetry and dislike the obscure. That you so appreciate this ghazal is testimony that, while this form may not be straightforward, it need not be obtuse.

  3. i think it is an interesting subject, why so many poets of different ethnicities and languages write so well in English. A Kashmiri poet, no less.
    The ghazal, in English, I feel is not so easy to write, to get the poem to "connect". Perhaps its Arabic roots, with a strict adherence to meter, makes it better to listen to in those regional languages. Remember, poetry was originally used to tell stories.

    I like the quote by Ali : "If one writes in free verse—and one should—to subvert Western civilization, surely one should write in forms to save oneself from Western civilization?". Interesting thought, and much to ponder.

    1. Yes, it might be something about the Arabic language suiting the form (or the other way about). I have sometimes written ghazals in English in iambic pentameter, and sometimes used syllabics to keep the lines all the same length. Your reminder is apt, about the story-telling function of poetry. Ali has also described how a group of (non-Western) listeners will chime in aloud with, and even anticipate, the refrain of a ghazal.

  4. A fascinating poet. I thoroughly enjoyed the way in which you delved into the many facets (personal, social, scholarly and historical) that, I have do doubt, inform this poet's work. I found the poem captivating, particularly (as you point out) the connections of theme. Thanks so much for this, Rosemary.

  5. A beautiful remembrance, Rosemary! I love Shahid's poetry and I am absolutely enamored of Begum Akhtar's ghazal renditions, especially those penned by prominent Urdu poets like Faiz and Dagh Dehlvi.

    My first introduction with Shahid was incidentally through an "in memoriam" written by Indian novelist, Amitav Ghosh, on his passing. Sharing it here, if someone would like to read it as well.

    1. Thank you, Anmol. That's an absolutely wonderful article by Amitav Ghosh!


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