On reading poetry

January 6, 2019

Poetry doesn’t necessarily reflect what we already know; it appears as a challenge to our usual, ordinary way of seeing things. We come across something new, opaque, estranged and defamiliarised every time we read a poem

On reading poetry

First a few words on what reading is not. Reading is not just an act of skimming the ideas or themes woven into a text. It does not simply aim to find out some major theme disseminated across the text, nor does it indulge in the philosophical issue of resolving the tension between what the author intends and how the text appears to confront his or her intention. Moreover, reading is not just confined to submissively agreeing with or bluntly dismissing what a text claims to assert. In short, a reader is not a consumer, nor a polemic or a passive onlooker.

Then what all reading is about? Reading is both an act and activity, a performance and a pursuit. It is an act of engagement and negotiation, a joint effort to solve the riddles of life, society and reality: a belief that every notion related to life, society and reality appears in forms that do not fall beyond the human power of understanding; a belief that the contents wrapped in these notions have essentially human concerns and significance.

Except reading, there is no activity to make us realise that whatever we perceive, think, know and share with others is deeply entrenched in language. We all are eternal prisoners of language. As Wittgenstein suggests, our limits end where our language ends. No individual can claim to have known the limits of language as these are on a steady expansion. Therefore, there might exist things, realities, entities, universes beyond the (erstwhile known) boundaries of our language; however they would come to have an existence only after being ensnared by language.

So, whatever is said (the content) is said because of a specific use of language which might be referential or emotive, laying bare simple facts that point to well-known things or expressing things suffused with emotions and wrapped in metaphors, images and symbols -- an overall form.

And it is poetry, only poetry, which is to make us fully realise how the riddle of trinity -- life, society and reality -- exists in the mediation of language. It is true that other genres of literature too deal with riddles of life, world and society in one way or the other, but they do tend to make their readers forgetful of the mediational character of language. As we start reading poetry, we come across something new, opaque, estranged and defamiliarised. The way things are perceived and described in ordinary language seems lost in a poetic text. Ordinariness of language with commonplace viewpoints commits suicide in poetry. In other words, the known limits of language are trespassed by poetry and in poetry.

Before jumping hastily to the meaning of a poetic text, we are required to engage first with the defamiliarised employing of words and phrases -- images, metaphors, symbols etc. You alone will have to unlock the door of this defamiliarised world of poetry. Even dictionaries and other reference books might prove useless in this respect for they deal with only known usage and limits of language. Fortunately, every poetic text has a key to have its door opened but that is to be sought from within the text. A poetic text leads its reader into how its mysteries are to be passionately felt, unravelled and interpreted.

It is poetry, only poetry, which is to make us fully realise how the riddle of trinity -- life, society and reality -- exists in the mediation of language. It is true that other genres of literature too deal with riddles of life but they do tend to make their readers forgetful of the mediational character of language.

So, reading poetry is initially an act of engagement with its defamiliarised verbal world. Here, engagement doesn’t mean to barter the defamiliarised elements for familiar ones or throwing the estranged diction away from the ambit of the central theme of the text and embracing commonplace idiom instead. Rather, poetry presses on the reader to get engaged first with defamiliarisation itself, to feel at home with it and know what happens when you are taken out of your ordinary, normal, usual way of seeing and expressing things into an unusual, estranged yet imagined world.

How can one negotiate this defamiliarised world on one’s own, without looking for help from the outside world? How can one parlay the awful sense of opaqueness arising out of the estranged use of words? How can this small-scale, short-lived, imaginative experience work out into a large-scale, long-lived experience of life, society and reality?

Of course, nothing is superfluous in true poetry; its defamiliarisation, if conceived fully, tends to become a metaphor, representing a thing, condition or strategy to deal with the problems of real life. It could be asserted that in breaking the limits of language, poetry suggests us ways to build a new set of relations between the verbal and real worlds. Other than pleasures of poetry, what we learn from reading it turns into an intellectual resource, a corrective and antidote to mental or emotional penuries.

Thinking of real life in terms of pure poetry is not just a poetic idea or hollow fancy. Even poets have discovered a similar pattern between life and poetry. For instance, in Peerzada Salman’s poem ‘20 years ago’, the narrator conceives her beloved as a poem, turning poem into a perfect objective correlative of hers.

She used to be a poem --

Intended rhyming jumping from phrase to phrase

Consonants, well enunciated

Vowels, the right length

A dash of free verse

A bit blank

She drank

All that made her drunk on words

As our life is mostly inundated with more and more prosaic moments, poetry -- and the enriching moments of joy, beauty and insight associated with poetry -- appears as a short period; as the flower blossoms, so the beauty of our beloved soon fades away, plunging us back into the ditch of daily prosaic life. Salman’s poem ends on "And now/ She’s a piece of prose/ Long-winded, verbose", another perfect objective correlative for vanished beauty.


Among the bounties of poetry, sense of wonderment stands atop which is a necessary reward for passionate engagement with estrangement. It is distinct from the wonders of nature because it represents humanly crafted exquisiteness. The world of poetry tells us how the mortal humans with limited, perishing resources can create, imperishable, immortal wonders. Faiz’ poem Mulaqat (meeting), particularly its first line, offers a classical example of estranged diction.


[This night is tree of the pain/which is greater than you and me/It is greater, for/In its branches were entangled and lost/ The caravans of millions of flaming stars;/Thousands of moons have shed their tears of light/under its baneful shade (translated from Urdu by Muhammad Zakir and M.N Menai )]

Some critics termed the metaphor of tree for night as absurd and even nonsensical. They fail to perceive the thin line of distinction between absurd and strange; every absurd thing is bound to be strange but not otherwise. The night, when the imaginary characters happen to meet up, has been defamiliarised by tying it to the estranged metaphor of tree of affliction. Perceived separately, both night and tree are familiar but when they are locked in an unexpected, amazing and somehow challenging metaphor, the above quoted line appears draped in an estranged ambience. As we venture to seek the raison d’etre of how the night became tree of affliction, a flurry of similarities between the night and tree of affliction starts blowing up the mind of the reader. Right here, the reader needs to halt for a moment -- to reflect on how amazing it is to see the melting down of differences and distinctness of things, and embracing a sort of wahdat (unity) lying, most appropriately functioning, beneath kasrat (abundance). This might be taken as a tiny aesthetic-cum-mystic experience. It is not strange to note that all true mystic experiences are expressed in mundane metaphors. As Ghalib says:


[Resorting to using (metaphors of) wine and goblet is the only way to talk about mystic experience.]

As we proceed further, the poem unravels that night is not only dark but filled with ever growing gloom, desperation and pain. Dard ka Shajar or tree of affliction mirrors the ever-growing melancholic pain that the human body feels intensely, just because the waves of pain move through tree-like veins spread all along from head to toe. Moreover, tree implies continuous growth, adherence, uprightness, strength, patience. Trees are justly rhapsodised about their vouchsafing blessings; they bear with heroic patience the blazing heat but shower cool shade indiscriminately upon every living being. In Majeed Amjad’s words:


[If only I could proffer my life to these thick, shady trees that burn in blazing heat.]

In the metaphor of Dard ka Shajr, objective and subjective worlds are intertwined. It is pain or affliction that binds both worlds. Among all kinds of relations, Dard ka Rishta (relation of pain) is the most powerful, everlasting one. Pain not only awakens us from the slumber of forgetfulness of our destinies but spurs the emotions of empathy, sacrifice and giving. Therefore, Faiz affirms that both night and Dard ka Shajar are far greater than us, I and Thou. Why? Because ‘us’ are what ‘we’ intend to be, and ‘we’ intend what our small egos dictate us to; while night is so large, so hefty, so vast in which the number of stars and moons have lost their luminary worlds.

In these lines, both literal and metaphorical meanings of stars and moons seem to work. And this is the art of poetry that engages the readers’ intellect and imagination alike. Sensual urge and cerebral thirst are equally quenched. In dark nights, first the stars and moon illuminate and then slowly they lose their light, vanishing into day. Pain, gloom and affliction hit out egos which are hefty like moon and stars. Throughout the poem, one can witness the play of two worlds: words and reality or art and life or how and what.

Poetry doesn’t necessarily reflect what we already know. In its best instances, it appears as a challenge to our usual, ordinary way of seeing things, affronting our limits of perception of things. To achieve the purpose, poets resort to employing paradoxes. As a poetic device, paradoxes are presumed to have the capability of capturing ‘to be’ and ‘not to be’ simultaneously, the self-contradictory nature of reality. On one hand, poetry seeks to traverse the existing limits of perceiving reality and on the other erects new limits to ensnare new, parallel, alternate versions of realities.

The point to be noted in particular is that new limits are intended not to erase the existing limits from memory but to put them in negotiation with the later ones, launching a sort of dialectic between them. Noon Meem Rashid’s poem ‘Death of Israfil’ can be taken here as a case in point. Israfil, an angel who is assigned the task of blasting the trumpet to mark the end of everything, has been declared dead in the poem. With his death all voices, all eloquence, all arts cease to exist.

With Israfil’s death the provisions of sound are closed to this world

provisions for minstrels, for musical instruments

How will the singer now sing, and what will that song be?

The heartstrings of the listeners, mute!

What moves will a dancer make, what steps rehearse?

The assembly’s floor, its walls and doors, mute!

What will the city’s preacher say now?

The thresholds of the mosques, their domes, and minarets, mute!

What snare will the hunter of thought lay?

The birds of brook and mountain, mute!

(translated from Urdu by Waqas Khwaja)

The state of demise of Israfil is abundant with paradoxical nuances. As per the story, with the second blast of Israfil’s trumpet all the dead will regain life. But in Rashid’s poem, Israfil is said to have died, unable to blast his trumpet while everything else is alive. Though being devoid of voice means the day of judgement has not yet arrived; death of Israfil has occurred somewhere else. But where and how? This question leads us to traverse the boundaries of our usual, historically hallowed way of understanding things, to negotiate problematics inherent in the very fabric of our cognition.

In the second stanza of the poem, it is described that dead body of Israfil is lying ‘Silent, in gleaming sunlight on the sandy beach’. This sandy beach on one side implies ‘fragile, flimsy land for mortals’ and on the other a shore of eternity -- another paradox. All mortals love to embrace eternity while standing on sandy beach. Wishing eternity is essentially embedded in the denial of reality -- of being mortal. Thus, our very cognition about life and death is self-contradictory or of a paradoxical nature.

Does a life without voice, communicative tools, eloquence and arts, deserve to be called existence? Rashid wrote this poem during General Ayub’s martial law. It is far more relevant today.


The writer is a Lahore-based critic, short story writer and author of Urdu Adab ki Tashkeel-i-Jadid (criticism), Nazam Kaisay Parhain and Rakh Say Likhi Gai Kitab (short stories)

On reading poetry