‘Dissecting a poem robs it of its beauty’

Urdu's unique contemporary poet Afzal Ahmad Syed talks to Ali Madeeh Hashmi about reconciling the friction between creativity and making a living, the poets he considers great and what we can learn from insects

‘Dissecting a poem robs it of its beauty’
Afzal Ahmad Syed (born 1946 in Ghazipur, India), attained renown in the 1980s with two critically acclaimed works: A collection of modern nazm titled “Chini hui tareekh” (An Arrogated Past, 1984), and a second collection in the classical ghazal genre titled “Khema-e Siyaah” (The Dark Pavilion, 1988). His two subsequent ‘nazm’ works “Do zabanoN maiN saza-e maut” (Death Sentence in Two Languages, 1990), and “Rococo aur doosri duniyaiN” (Rococo and Other Worlds, 2000) cemented his reputation as an important figure in Urdu poetry.

Syed’s nazms employ stark imagery and a “majestic diction” that recalls the finest works of the Urdu classical masters. His poetic sensibilities were shaped by two traumatic events in his youth: the violent separation of East Pakistan and its emergence as Bangladesh in 1971; and, later, the Lebanese Civil War in 1976 while he was a student at the American University of Beirut. In the 1990s, the attempts to divide Pakistani society along ethnic lines, brutality, state-sponsored terrorism and cultural erosion that has plagued his home city of Karachi since the 1990s became the new subjects of Syed’s poetry.

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Unique among the Urdu poets of today, he has also studied and translated important bodies of work by contemporary British, Colombian, Iraqi, Israeli, Macedonian, Polish, Romanian, Russian, Turkish, and US poets, playwrights and novelists. He was one of the first Urdu translators of Gabriel García Márquez. His translation of Chronicle of a Death Foretold (“Ek Pesh Gufta Maut”) is considered a classic of the Urdu language. He was also one of the first translators of Jean Genet, whose play, The Maids, he translated from the French. Syed’s poetry was anthologized in An Evening of Caged Beasts: Seven Postmodernist Urdu Poets (New York: OUP, 1999). Urdu’s leading scholarly journal Annual of Urdu Studies published a special section on him (Vol 14, University of Wisconsin-Madison, 1999). He work has been widely published in leading Urdu literary periodicals such as Shabkhoon, Aaj, and Dunyazad. The Friday Times had an opportunity to chat with him.

You are an entomologist by profession. How did that lead into writing poetry?

A: I worked as an entomologist for the Federal government’s Department of Plant Protection till my retirement in 2005. An entomologist’s domain is the insect. We study the thousands of kinds of insects there are and their extraordinary ability to survive against all odds. Scientifically we also come to terms with the fact that insects are the real inheritors of the planet, since they will long outlive mankind. This subject of man’s own mortality, his “guest appearance” in the grand scheme of the universe and the fear that is intertwined with it is a connecting link between entomology and poetry. Not to mention the ample mention of flowers and butterflies – which are again an insect form – in our poetic verses. During my years in entomology, I remember most of my senior teachers and researchers being as absent-minded and preoccupied as you would expect a poet or philosopher to be. It is a difficult and interesting subject, not unlike poetry.


Most writers in our part of the world, willingly or unwillingly, need to have a way, other than writing to sustain themselves. It is next to impossible to make a living from writing. How can one strike a balance between the two?

It is for the most parts a balancing act. A writer’s side-jobs might seem like a hindrance to his creative process at times, but the truth is that even creativity requires sustenance. It cannot thrive on an empty stomach. It is our misfortune that books, especially those on poetry, do not find a good market. A writer’s life can be very difficult if he does not have an alternative source of income to fall back on.

All artists have a deep appreciation of their great predecessors. As a poet, have you ever had second thoughts about writing poetry, about never being able to measure up to poets like Ghalib and Mir?

Not really. As a poet you can either aim for appreciation from a wide audience or a certain select set of readers whom you love and wish to be read by. My poetry has not reached a wide group of readers. Maybe it will one day but even if it doesn’t, I do not have any regrets since I think I was able to get appreciation from the circle of readers I wanted.

[quote]I think I started off on the wrong foot. I started with Ghalib and Iqbal[/quote]

How did you develop an interest in poetry? Who did you read in your early days as a poet?

I have been interested in poetry since my school days. I used to read poetry and memorize the verses I liked. But I think I started off on the wrong foot. I started with Ghalib and Iqbal and they awed me! Obviously after them I could not read any poet with quite the same reverence. I did not dare think of myself as a poet even after I started writing poetry. I began writing ‘Nasri nazm’ (prose poems) at a time when hardly anyone took the genre seriously. Very few people were writing in that style in those days and no magazine was ready to publish them.

How would you advise the youth of today to read Urdu poetry? Which poets should they start with?

Like me, they will obviously not be able to escape the influence of the greats like Ghalib and Iqbal. They would naturally start with them and read them alongside other poets like Muneer Niazi, Majeed Amjad and Faiz sahib. So I don’t think you can set a definite syllabus for them to read through. Perhaps the best way to do it, if you love poetry, is to just start reading it.


You have written a lot of prose poetry. Tell us something about the genre.

You can think of it like the poems that are translated into Urdu and other languages. When poets like Mahmud Dervesh and Khalil Jibran are translated, the final translation is not in the form of a poem itself. Grammatically it is prose that has managed to retain its poetic characteristics even after translation. It is different from ghazal which is more lyrical and which has its own linguistic boundaries. Compared to ghazal, the genre of prose poetry is much more difficult and does not have as many props to hold on to.

You have mentioned Pakistan and Karachi’s state of affairs in your poems. Do you feel that the artist has a social responsibility beyond writing?

I do not think a writer is socially bound to support or defame political or philosophical agendas through his writing. All he should be expected to do is stimulate his reader to think. If he can transcend through his poetry and awaken his reader to the pain of his fellow humans without being sermonic about it, that is his success as a writer.

What are your thoughts on translating poetry from one language to another, especially languages which do not share common cultural references and metaphor? Do you have an intended audience in mind while writing?

Speaking for my poetry, I keep the language simple and the syntax as straightforward as possible. Therefore, in as far as linguistics is concerned; my poems would probably not be very difficult to translate. A good translation usually depends on coming up with the best replacement for a given word in the language you are translating in. I don’t write for a particular audience. With some poems, while I was writing them, I actually did not think my friends or readers would be able to understand or appreciate them in quite the way I wanted them to be.

At what age did you write your first poem? Have you had any formal education in poetry

I have not. I studied poetry as part of my school and college curriculum, and after that on my own I formally designated myself as a poet from 1978 onwards. As is common with budding poets, I styled my earlier poems after the masters, like Faiz sahib and Mir. These were just for the sake of exercise and I did not have them published.

When did you feel, during your poetic career, that you had started to develop your own independent poetic style?

The feeling came after I wrote my poem, “Mitti Ki Kaan”. It was after that poem that I unequivocally decided that I should continue writing poetry.

[quote]Many people are born with a poetic sense, but it can certainly be cultivated[/quote]

What advice would you give to aspiring young poets? Do you think a poetic sense is something you are born with or can it be cultivated?

Many people are born with a poetic sense, but it can certainly be cultivated. I would advise aspiring writers to read. I would also advise them to use their words with discretion, since words are a writer’s greatest wealth. A price must be paid for every carelessly used word. The perfect poem is one that does not have a single unnecessary word in it. I have noticed a trend among some new published poets where they write a line and then use another two lines elaborating upon the previous one. This shows a lack of confidence in the strength of their words.

[quote]"Man's is a guest appearance in the universe"[/quote]

Do you think the nature of an artist’s creative output changes with age?

A: I think it does. The base might remain the same, but the overlying shades certainly change with time. Your creative output feeds off your internal as well as external state of affairs. What you feel and write about during your youth might not be deemed appropriate as you grow older. Maybe you could get away with that in ghazal, but certainly not in nazm. I feel my own poetry has grown more complex with regards to thoughts and ideas.

Who are some of your favorite poets?

There are some great poets who are universally liked and widely read: Mir, Ghalib, Iqbal, Faiz and Miraji, the last of whom, I must say, I find mostly incomprehensible. However I do not think it is wise to excessively analyze poetry. Like a painting, a piece of poetry can be transcendent and may appear to have a life of its own. Dissecting a poem robs it of its inherent beauty and converts it into an academic endeavor.

Musharraf Ali Farooqi
Musharraf Ali Farooqi

We Need a Whole Lot of Flowers (“HameN bahut saaray phool chahiyaN”). Translated from the Urdu by Musharraf Ali Farooqui

A whole lot of flowers

to gather at the feet of the dead

we need a whole lot of flowers

to cover the faces of corpses in gunny-sacs

A whole annual flower show

should be preserved in Edhi’s morgue

to keep at the foot of graves

dug in the police graveyard for the designated dead

A spray of flowers from the balcony in bloom

for the woman shot dead

at the bus stop

Sky-blue flowers

to tickle

the two youths lost to eternal sleep in a yellow cab

Dried flowers

to caparison

and restore a mutilated corpse

We need a whole lot of flowers

for the wounded

languishing in clinics

that neither have the Japanese rock-

nor any other variety of garden

We need a whole lot of flowers

for one half of them will succumb to their wounds

We need a forest of nocturnal flowers

for those who could not sleep for the report of gunfire

we need a whole lot of flowers

for a whole lot of rueful people

we need anonymous flowers

to cloak the stripped girl

we need a whole lot of flowers

We need a whole lot of flowers

on a whole lot of dancing creepers

that we could train to screen this city

Dr. Ali Madeeh Hashmi is a Trustee of the Faiz Foundation Trust and Faiz Ghar (www.faizghar.net). He can be reached at ahashmi39@gmail.com or via his twitter @Ali_Madeeh. Thanks to Dr. Faiza Hameed for her help in preparing this manuscript