Poetry in English

February 19, 2017

A stylistic shift from a modernist to more contemporary approaches of writing

Poetry in English

Despite its brief history, Pakistani poetry in English has remained a practice in constant flux. Throughout the years, it has evolved to embrace within it a range of distinctive voices, experiences, and concerns, as well as a small but curious and slowly growing base of readership.

Be it in response to the shifting socio-political landscapes and ideologies, or the grip of personal strife, the genre has proved itself as relevant, necessary, and open to development through the generations of established and emerging poets within Pakistan and its diaspora.

Perhaps what most broadly marks an evolvement in the short course of Pakistani poetry in English and its ongoing relevance is a stylistic shift from a modernist approach that relies on ornate diction, a focus on the image, and traditional forms, as evident in the poetry of the first generation of Pakistan poets in English (such as that of Taufiq Rafat, Daud Kamal, Maki Kureshi, and Zulfikar Ghose) to more contemporary (and reflective) approaches of writing. The latter foster the raw, immediate, and varied voice, along with experimental forms, as represented by the works of the second generation of Pakistani poets in English (such as that of the American-based poet Shadab Zeest Hashmi, Ilona Yusuf, British-Pakistani poet Zaffar Kunial, along with a range of striking emerging voices, such as Afshan Shafi, Momina Mela, and Mina Malik-Hussain).

What is also refreshing to witness in the work of the latter generation is a departure from the concern to portray the "Pakistani idiom", a phrase established by the late poet, Taufiq Rafat, who, along with some of the poets of his generation, sought to set an idiom in writing through the use of images and symbols that denote the Pakistani culture, mannerisms, and ideology.

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In Rafat’s work, however, this idiom is often circumscribed to images and descriptions of the natural land, leaving one to wonder, as the poet Alamgir Hashmi does in his essay "Prolegomena to the study of Pakistani English and Pakistani literature in English," about "what the term fully denotes apart from local-colourist techniques and translation from other Pakistani languages".

If poetry in English in Pakistan continues to be written and read, even if by a handful of contributors, a growth in the discipline clearly owes itself to the efforts of editors of local magazines, among others.

If one follows Rafat’s lead, the approach remains suspect as it prioritises or reduces the poet’s task to an exploration of one’s Pakistan-ness, as poet Momina Mela comments in her article, "Women in Verse: Where is Pakistani Poetry in English Heading?" The narrowing of this scope in Rafat’s work, as Mela further elaborates, often transpires at the cost of overlooking the various linguistic, psychological, and imaginative explorations at play in the work that remain true to the artistic expression of the self and the truths of the universal human condition.

Thus, one sees in the works of contemporary writers a broadening scope of subjects (and possibly the idiom itself) that range from an exploration of historical events to private and public tragedies and spaces, exile, personal relationships, the body, our multilingual heritage, and so on.

If poetry in English in Pakistan continues to be written and read, even if by a handful of contributors, a growth in the discipline also clearly owes itself to the efforts of editors of local magazines, journals, and anthologies, such as, The Missing Slate, Papercuts, and The Aleph Review, among others, who continue to seek to promote new writing and secure readership of poetry. They do that by providing publication opportunities, exposure through public readings, and promoting growth through writing workshops conducted under the guidance of established practitioners or emerging poets who have enjoyed some degree of success in their new careers.

Moreover, albeit at a minimal scale and largely under-attended, social platforms, such as local literature festivals continue to welcome the showcasing of emerging and established talent.

However, the discipline is still in its nascent stages and is far from thriving in its status as it remains challenged by an inhibition of new talent prompted by a serious lack of resources, opportunities, exposure, and opportunities for the cultivation of a true poetic consciousness. For example, unlike in Pakistan, a range of poets and writers of Pakistani descent who live or have travelled to study in the West enjoy the presence of stronger writing communities, opportunities to learn from skilled practitioners in the field.

Abroad, there’s greater academic, institutional, and philanthropic support for artists and writers. These resources help enable and empower a writer’s practice, provide time and room for experimentation, and eventually pave the way for growth. Consequently, it is not surprising that these poets possess a more skilled and varied approach.

Further impediments to the emergence of new writing include the lack of local publication opportunities for books due to which poets are driven to publish and cultivate their readership internationally. Contemporary poetry in English -- Pakistani or international -- continues to be rarely available in local bookstores. This, in turn, continues to retain contemporary poetry in English in a vacuum that remains largely divorced from its intended readership, many of whom would include potential writers.

Partially, this disinterest owes itself to a particular numbness towards reading and writing poetry and in appreciating the way language can paint realities and mould meaning. Yet, in doing so, it reveals and gives way to understanding the more potent and deep-set threats that impede the sustained emergence of not only new writing at large but the very cultivation of poetic consciousness itself.

For one is led to question, where are the major writers and poets of our age? If the age of poetry hasn’t ended, it is surely ever-dwindling and what continually threatens its stuttering growth, or the growth of a culture of writing and reading of literature, or any culture, for that matter, is a glaring blinding of vision -- a crippling notion of what to think or how to live, in the first place.

We are floundering there, in our dismantling structures of thought and curtailed freedoms. One sees this most distinctly in the disintegrating state of the academy: in the diminishment of critical thought and lack of support for and belief in artistic expression across a majority of schools and universities. In Pakistan, the discipline of writing (in any one of the local languages) is rarely perceived as one from which one can carve a way of life or become a tool for activism and an agent of change.

Add to the above, the growing chokehold around our individual and collective freedoms that, in turn, contributes to a denial of experience and expression. As my dear friend and establish columnist, Aqsa Ijaz argues, poetry is not merely the stylistic arrangement of words. It is something in that act of creating, reading, and listening to poetry what may be called a poetic consciousness, that is the ultimate expression of self-cultivation a culture attains after years of investing in its emotional and intellectual history.

And until we don’t espouse this freedom of experience and thought as necessary tools for the cultivation of a poetic consciousness, then indeed, it becomes enervating to even dream of an age of thriving poetry equivalent or reminiscent to the age of the Urdu poets, as represented over the years by literary giants, such as Mir, Ghalib, Faiz, and so on.

Poetry in English