Archive for the ‘poetry’ Category

THE QURAN CYCLE: Illuminating Metaphors – III

In Admiring Literature, cognition, excerpts and quotes, language and communication, literature, perception, philosophy, poetry, psychology, sources of knowledge, The Method on December 8, 2011 at 12:09 am

Linked to Part I and Part II

The irreplacability of a metaphor

The potential meaningfulness of metaphor does not yield to simple paraphrase, its meaning cannot be reduced to a nonmetaphorical, propositional format without loss. This is the reason for the enormous creativity that metaphor displays not only in poetic discourse: In ordinary everyday life it can restructure ingrained patterns of thinking. And in scientific contexts it can have a heuristic* function.

*heuristic= “serving to indicate or point out; stimulating interest as a means of furthering investigation.” (dictionary.com)

The above ‘creativity hypothesis’ of the cognitive theory of metaphor (as summarized by Jakel↓1) mentions one of the reasons why metaphor is an irrerplacable part of any effective verbal message: it is has no simple substitute for meaning. Its meaning can only be elaborated, explored, interpreted, speculated upon to an extent; but it cannot be specified exactly and absolutely.

We need the metaphor in just the cases when there can be no question as yet of the precision of scientific statement.*

*see the last post for source

As the above quote from the previous post reminds us, we depend upon metaphor to express abstract or obscure phenomenon in terms of familiar, concrete and imaginable terms. As Andrew Ortony (↓2)  puts it, “somethings are by their nature not describable.” (p. 14), and it falls upon the metaphor to express the inexpressible.

My references so far may relegate the ‘irreplacibility’ of a metaphor to the way things are: we simply use the metaphor when we have no way around it, when we lack more straightforward ways of describing something. But that view is certainly wrong. Through a literary example, see how metaphor creates new worlds of meaning to whom no other effective entry might be possible other than through the metaphor itself:


Fursat mein sun shaguftgi-e-ghuncha ki sada

ye wo sukhan nahi jo kisi ne keha bhi ho


When free, listen to the sound of the roses’ glee.

This is not speech that has been uttered.

The above is a Nasir Kazmi couplet, both in the original and in translation by me, from a previous blogpost. ‘Roses’ glee’ is a metaphor in itself (to be considered later here as an example), but right now i’m concerned with the ‘sound of’ part. The reader is forced to stop and try imagine what the sound of roses’ glee must be like. Upon analysis (which the readers of that pertinent post linked above may recall), the sound of roses’ glee most likely refers to the many messages of metaphysical nature the poet discerns in the sights and sounds of nature. Yet the interpretation is still open beyond the meaning already considered. And in terms of imagination, the metaphor forges new ground by inviting us to imagine an event that has never been experienced before. Philosopher Mark Johnson↓3 explains well what happens in such cases:

… one experiences the insight that two entire systems of implications… belong together in some fundamental way. The cognitive activity at this level… consists of the alteration of certain experiential structures (e.g. categorizations, concepts), such that one discovers a formal unity between previously unassociated things. 

We automatically associate sound with animate beings; that is the way we experience the world. When presented with Nasir’s couplet, however, we have to re-conceptualize sound as ‘a channel of communication’ or more precisely, as ‘a general aura of meaningfulness that emanates from all beings that have a purpose in their existence’ to get to the meaning of the verse. We similarly recast the flower as ‘an object created with a purpose’ from its foremost conception as ‘a part of the natural world’ or as ‘an object of beauty’.

This is not a rare phenomenon in the rarified arena of literature; more everyday examples abound. For instance, ‘my boss is a shark’ creates a new concept of ‘sharkness in humans’ that is different from both the literal shark and from the usual concept of brutality (for an elaboration of this example and the theory behind it follow the reference in Note 4. below).


The intensity of a metaphor

There is a sense of shock about a metaphor… which results from the clash of juxtaposed literal sense.

__ Paul Henle↓5

One puzzling aspect of the expressive capaciousness of metaphor takes the form of an image’s potential for focusing both thought and emotion in a particularly intense, economical way.  

__ Robert Rogers↓6

…by circumventing discretization [metaphors] enable the communication of ideas with a richness of detail much less likely to come about in the normal course of events.


… the emotive as well as the sensory and cognitive aspects [of the subject of metaphor] are more available [in mind], for they have been left intact in the transferred chunk [of meaning].

__ Andrew Ortony↓7

As Ortony explains so well in his essay, metaphor “lies much closer to perceived experience” in a significant way that makes it a particularly vivid phenomenon. We experience the world in a continuous and holistic fashion. Our stream of consciousness is a flow of sensations of all kind coming in simultaneously, whether at that time we are interacting with the outside world or going through our own ideas, emotions, or memories. We don’t experience things in a discrete, fragmented, one-by-one fashion as when we see concepts graphically displayed in a presentaion, or dissected frog parts laid out on a science lab table. Metaphor does the same by not spelling out the new grounds of meaning: it just poses an image before us and our attempt to apprehend it (holisticall, continuously) does the job. 

The following short poem by Emily Dickinson (found at bartleby) illustrates the point well:

It dropped so low in my regard

I heard it hit the ground,

And go to pieces on the stones

At bottom of my mind;


Yet blamed the fate that fractured, less

Than I reviled myself

For entertaining plated wares

Upon my silver shelf.


Without spelling out what ‘it’ was and why and how it came to be discarded from its high place in the author’s mind, the intensity of the mental event, the vivacity with which the poet experienced it, the emotions associated with the whole episode, and the strong sentiments with which the poet seems to regard in general the contents of her mental life, are all immensely clear from just one reading of the poem.

There is another reason for the vividness of a metaphor, and that is its compactness (Ortony, see notes for source): By juxtaposing two apparently unrelated objects in the readers’ minds (human emotion and a flower in one of Nasir’s examples) and forcing them to envisage a new kind of relationship between them, metaphors posit endless shades of meaning for the reader’s appreciation. For instance roses’ glee could be a reference to their beauty (smiling happy faces have been often likened to flowers), to the emotion that a beautiful sight such flowers create in us (a thing of beauty is a joy forever), to the purity associated with sights of nature, to the freshness of flowers, to their swaying on their stalks like children swinging gaily, to the pleasant sensation generated through their smell, etc. All these shades of meaning and more have been packed into a single two-word phrase, what Ortony calls the ‘compactness thesis’ of his theory.


The memorability of a metaphor

Compactness, vividness, and irreplacibility make for a memorable image: well-suited for educational purposes. In class-room, it were always the skillful lecturers who made the often remote-from-routine-life concepts of __ math, physics, medicine, psychology __ alive in our imagination so that we could picture them easily (and even enjoy the lecture!) that were more successful. Not possible without good metaphors:

The educational power of metaphors is thus twofold. The vivid imagery arising from metaphorical comprehension encourages memorability and generates of necessity a better, more insightful, personal understanding. But also, it is a very effective device for moving from well-known to the less well-known, from vehicle to topic.  

__ Ortony, (p. 17)

Humanliness of the literary metaphor 

Literature’s world is a concrete human world of immediate experience. The poet uses images and objects and sensations much more than he uses abstract ideas … The world of literature is human in shape, … where the primary realities are not atoms or electrons but bodies, and the primary forces are not energy or gravitation but love and death and passion and joy.

__ Northrop Frye↓8

Human beings become human through the acquisition of language, and the acquisition alienates humans from all those things language names. The name is a substitute for the thing, it displaces the thing in the very act of naming it, so that language finally stands even between one human being and another. Much of our poetry has been written to undo this situation, to remove the veil of language that covers everything with a false familiarity… 

__ Robert Scholes↓9

… literary metaphor depicts the themes that occasion it, communicating meaning imagistically by rendering it presentational.

__ Phillip Stambovsky↓10

The success of the  metaphor thus lies in recreating for us the lively vivid life in our reading experience which is so close to us. Thus it most effectively performs its fundamental function in literature: giving it the human shape we need to connect with it; and, as Stambovsky reminds us, performs it in the very manner so essentially familiar to us. This latter feature of the metaphor may be called intimation through a metaphor and is psychologically enticing and influential for the reader…


Intimation through metaphor

There is a unique way in which the maker and appreciator of metaphor are drawn closer to one another. Three aspects are involved: (1) the speaker issues a kind of concealed invitation; (2) the hearer expends a special effort to accept the invitation; and (3) this transaction constitutes the acknowledgment of a community.

__ Ted Cohen↓11

Perhaps the reason why so many metaphors have a peculiarly poignant beauty is because each of them kindles in us momentarily a dim memory of the time when we lost the outer world–when we first realized the outer world is outside, and we are unbridgeably apart from it, and alone. Furthermore, the mutual sharing of such metaphorical experience would seem, thus, to be about as intimate a psychological contact as adult human beings can have with one another.

__ Harold Searle↓12

Some authors even believe that the force of a metaphor’s image can lead to an exchange of material from the unconscious to conscious mind in the reader (in Rogers, p. 11). We must now consider what exactly constitutes this force; what is it in a metaphor that leads to such influence. Let us see.


The metaphor can be disclosive in the sense of being an eye-opener, helping us to understand hidden relations between the [target and source].


Poetic devices and imaginative literature do not necessarily provide us with new information. What they do best is to give us insight into the (tacit) knowledge we already possess.

__ Snaevarr↓13

Both Snaevarr and Stambovsky associate certain terms with metaphorical comprehension that help us realize how metaphor induces an intimate connection with the author, the subject-matter, and, potentially, the world at large. Snaevarr argues how, when we understand a metaphor, we go through the same process of ‘seeing something as something’ involved in many instances of purely sense-based perception. For instance, when an object (such as a cat) is before us, typically, we merely notice what it is. Here our knowledge/concept of the object helps us quickly recognize it: perception nearly depends here on pre-existing knowledge. But when an ambiguous oil painting is presented before us and, while appreciating it, it suddenly ‘dawns’ on us that it depicts a beautiful cat: that is what Wittgenstein↓14 called ‘seeing as’.

from wikipedia 

An easy-to-relate example would be of the famous Necker cube which can be seen either as a cube projecting away from us on its northeast side or as a cube projecting on its southwest side. This kind of seeing-as is internal and spontaneous: external descriptions do not necessarily lead us to see the two different possible cubes in our mind, it has to come from within. There is also a kind of filtering and ‘foregrounding’ involved. When our mental image switches from one possible cube to the other, the first one seems to disappear and certain features of the new cube seem to ‘lighten up’ in the image. The same happens when the meaning intended by the metaphor dawns on us. The metaphor foregrounds a part and when we appreciate it a new meaning dawns on us, or an old obscure or forgotten meaning lightens up with new significance, or a subtly familiar one is brought into explicit focus.

When applied to less visual material, such a seeing-as is better termed ‘insight’: understanding the inner nature of things. The process of insight is both intuitive (that is, it does not involve conscious reasoning) and spontaneous. It also has the quality of an ‘enlightment’ and is often (specially in problem solving) sudden. It gives a feeling of familiarity with the subject in question by suddenly casting it for us in a new light (in the above stated ‘seeing as’ fashion) that we were not able to appreciate before (see famous cognitive psychologist Herbert Simon‘s paper for good descriptions of both intuition and insight). The kind of effective lectures I mentioned before created this in us: a feeling that now we really knew the topic, we knew how things really worked, how it really feels. Good metaphors achieve the same effect. Perhaps that is why:

Metaphors which provide insight into an unknown, transcendent, or mysterious subject thus can have an extremely powerful effect on those who accept them.

__ Stallman↓15 

As Snaevarr clarifies, what metaphor really does is to lighten up a piece of tacit knowledge we already possessed. The most comprehensive definition of tacit knowledge that I could find online is that it is:

Unwritten, unspoken, and hidden vast storehouse of knowledge held by practically every normal human being, based on his or her emotions, experiences, insights, intuitions, observations and internalized information. 

Indeed the feeling of intimacy and closeness will not be produced if we did not realize that the metaphor focused us on a thought or feeling we were familiar with but had never been consciously aware of. For instance consider the following verses by Nasir Kazmi, in translation by me along with the original Urdu in Roman script:


On the town’s vacant station

A passenger must have alighted

[shehr ke khali station per

koi musafir utra hoga]


 Hear it immersed in the depths of heart

No song is indeed a song of glee…

[dil ki gehrayion mein doob ke dekh

koi naghma khushi ka naghma nahin]


Shivering, the long nights put to us a haunting question

Their laden sound-like silence hisses answers…

[ye thitri hue lambi raaten kuch poochti hein

ye khamushi-e avaaz numa kuch kehti he]


In your lane all day

I pick the pebbles of grief

[teri gali mein sara din

dukh ke kankar chunta hoon]


From the nameless reaches of the islands of memory

The waves of your voice still reach

 [yad ke benishan jazeeron se

teri avaaz arehi he abhi]


These verses conjure up in us strange unspeakable feelings (and certainly many more shades of the atmosphere related to) respectively, lonely change or movement through life; the sombre sadness associated with awareness of existential realities that give rise to creative expression; introspection on the nature of our existence that typically transpires in the dark and silent moments of night before we fall asleep; the rambling recall of the many pleasures of a friendship after it has terminated; and the persisting subconscious connection with a long lost love… experiences we have all encountered in life, directlyor indirectly. That is why we relate to them and their author, and feel affected by them.

Metaphors are closer to emotional reality for the same reasons that they are closer to perceptual experience. To say of an unexpexted event that it was a miracle is to say far more than that it was inexplicable: it is to express joy, admiration , wonder, awe and a host of other things without mentioning any of them.

__ Andrew Ortony↓16

Remember that tacit knowledge encompasses a great number of sources such as bits and pieces picked up incidentally, subconsciuosly or by implication; by engaging in non-verbal skills; through general observations and readings; and knowledge of internal states personally experienced or understood through empathy. That is why, metaphor is a powerful and often the sole means of expressing our internal states. And “the particular ability of imaginative literature to disclose the unique, not least the uniquely personal” (Snaevarr, p. 361) most probably depends on metaphor.


The psychological power of metaphor

If a new metaphor enters the conceptual system that we base our actions on, it will alter the conceptual system and the perceptions and actions that the system gives rise to.

__ Lakoff and Johnson, 1980, p. 111

In their book Metaphors We Live By (1980), Lakoff and Johnson make the case of how metaphors do not just represent our perception of common realities, they have the power to create realities themselves. For instance, the prevalence and conventionality of the metaphor “argument is war” not only represents but also reinforces in turn a culture of argumentation where it is viewed as competitive rather than as a cooperative social exercise; whereby it is supposed to be won or lost rather than as taken to be a means of forwarding consensual decisions.

Consider the example of a fresh metaphor: ‘problems are solutions’, where solution is used in the chemical sense of the word. Actually, the authors took the metaphor from a real example of their Iranian student who thought that the expression ‘the solution of my problems’ was metaphorical. The student visualized “a large volume of liquid, bubbling and smoking, containing all of your problems, either dissolved or in the form of precipitates, with catalysts constantly dissolving some problems (for the time being) and precipitating out others”. The metaphor is not actually in use anywhere, but, as Lakoff and Johnson demonstrate how this metaphor creates a new, more profitable view of ‘problems’ than is currently prevalent. In this new view, derived from the new meaning constructed by the metaphorical comparison of real-life problems with a chemical solution, problems are accepted as a more or less recurring part of life. We use certain catalysts which temporarily solve some problems but the same process, or the disturbance in the combinations of catalysts created by a single-instance usage may lead to the precipitation of some other problem. “Rather than direct your energies toward solving your problems once and for all, you would direct your energies toward finding out what catalysts will dissolve your most pressing problems for the longest time without precipitating out worse ones. The reappearance of a problem is viewed as a natural occurence rather than as a failure on your part to find “the right way to solve it”.”

In contrast the more current view of problems as puzzles reinforces the expectation that there is one solution to each problem, that once applied, it will make the problem go forever. Recurrence of the problem implies a failure on the part of our ability to solve it. While the problem lasts, a state of confusion and frantic attempts to solve it and resolve it continue. Etc, etc.

Similarly, James Geary mentions research to the effect that when finance journalists use ‘agent metaphors’ to describe stock market behavior (such as ‘prices climbed higher’, or ‘the market fought back’) “an enduring internal goal or disposition” is inferred with the implication that the trend “is likely to continue tomorrow” (p. 31). In fact, it is in this sense of metaphor’s effects that scholars such as Lakoff and Johnson have highlighted the political, or let’s say, ideological power of metaphor…


The ideological power of metaphor


The people who get to impose their metaphors on the culture get to define what we consider to be true.

__ Lakoff and Johnson↓17  

What therefore is truth? A mobile army of metaphors, metonymies, anthropomorphisms: in short a sum of human relations which became poetically and rhetorically intensified, metamorphosed, adorned, and after long usage seem to a nation fixed, canonic and binding;

 __ Friedrich Nietzsche↓18 (in James Geary, p. 116)

Indeed we are familiar with presidential candidates, regimes, or factions in society popularizing and reinforcing ‘pet metaphors’ in their followers’ minds to ingrain their preferred sets of attitudes — their ideology. Similar examples can be given from the domain of religion. The budhist’s wheel of life and the muslim’s Straight Path are presented metaphorically, binding important aspects of their faith, creating their spiritual reality for them, defining the meaning and purpose of life to them, and motivating important attitudes and behaviors in each.

[This is not the place to argue, however, on the absolute relativity (or not) of truth (a topic with which this blog though is very much concerned and is yet to present a full-fledged treatment of the problem; though the topic has been touched upon in various posts).]

After having explored the concept of metaphor, establishing its power and significance from the point of view of both the sender and receiver of a communication, we are now set to see how the topic relates to the Quranic corpus. It’s easy to find all kinds of metaphors in Qur’an; important systems of extended conceptual metaphors that present, educate, and penetrate to the heart and mind of it’s readers; beautiful, visualizable, and novel, original metaphors that capture the sentient nature of its target audience and leave lasting and powerful impressions; metaphors so original and absolute as they must be for depicting realities beyond the periphery of ordinary human perception.

I feel excited at this point of my journey in the realm of the Metaphor. For these past few months, having thought about familiar metaphors from the Quran against all my developing understanding of metaphors in general now makes me feel as if I am approaching the great universe of the Qur’an with fresh eyes.

Till then, fi aman-i Allah


1. Olaf Jakel (2002). Hypotheses revisited: The cognitive theory of metaphor applied to religious texts, metaphoric.de, vol. 2, pp. 20-42. Found at http://www.metaphorik.de/02/jaekel.pdf

2. Ortony, A. (1975). Why metaphors are necessary and not just nice. Reprinted in Cultural Metaphors: Readings, research translations, and commentary, Ed. M. J. Gannon, 2001, Sage Publications. Found at http://books.google.co.in/books?id=Ih0BUezsl6kC&printsec=frontcover

3. Johnson (1980), taken from Bob Stallman (1999), Divine hospitality in the Pentateuch: A metaphorical perspective on God as host. PhD Dissertation, Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia, pp. 40-41. Found at http://eagle.northwestu.edu/faculty/bob-stallman/files/2011/03/2.pdf

4. Sam Gluckseburg (2008). How metaphors create categories — quickly. In Metaphor and Thought, 2nd ed., Ed. Raymond W. Gibbs. Cambridge University Press. Found at ftp://ftp.turingbirds.com/ai/The%20Cambridge%20Handbook%20of%20Metaphor%20and%20Thought.pdf

5. Paul Henle, (1958), Metaphor. Reprinted in Philosphical Perspectives on Metaphor, Ed. Mark Johnson, 1980, University of Minnesota Press, p. 102

6. Rogers, R. (1978). Metaphor: A psychoanalytical perspective. University of California Press, p. 7. Found at http://books.google.com/books?id=zxH3W27COqgC&printsec=frontcover

7. (1975), from Cultural metaphors, pp. 16-17

8. N. Frye (1964) found in Phillip Stambovsky’s (1988), The depictive image: Metaphor and literary experience, University of Massachusetts Press, p. 50.

9. Scholes (1985) in Stambovsky, 1988, p. 89.

10. Stambovsky, 1988, p. 3

11. T. Cohen (1978) from Stallman (1999), p. 44

12. Harold Searle, Collected Papers on Schizophrenia. Quoted in Rogers, 1978, p. xi

13. Stefan Snaevarr (2010). Metaphors, narratives, emotions: Their interplay and impact, Rodopi, Amsterdam, p. 83 and p. 360 respectively.

14. Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein is credited with this conceptamong many others he theorized upon in his now classic Philosophical investigations. For a simple explanation of his concept read point 1 of this lecture presentation: http://www.phil.cam.ac.uk/teaching_staff/ahmed/WittgensteinPhilosophicalInvestigationsLecture15.pdf

15. Stallman (1999), p. 41

16. in Cultural metaphors, p. 17

17. George Lakoff and Mark Johnson (1980). Metaphors we live by. Originally published by University of Chicago Press. Found online at: http://www.pineforge.com/upm-data/6031_Chapter_10_O’Brien_I_Proof_5.pdf

18. in James Geary, (2011), I is an Other: The secret life of metaphor and how it shapes the way we see the world, Harper Collins, p. 116.




RUMI REVELATIONS: True knowledge, and actual ignorance

In excerpts and quotes, God, literature, philosophy, poetry, Quran, Rumi Revelations, sources of knowledge, The Method on September 4, 2011 at 11:59 pm

The insights revealed by literature are sometimes more powerful and incisive than the best of sciences…

I have found many extracts from Rumi’s spiritual outpourings that expand and illuminate on the current topic of this blog.

My interspersed commentary is an attempt to both link the extracts and make them more accessible to readers. Note that any underlining in the excerpted poetry is mine.


Rumi on the true versus the weak sources of real knowledge↓:


Ignorent men  are the soul’s enemy

Shatter the jar of smug words

Cling for life to those who know

Prop a mirror in water, it rusts


We are coming straight from a discussion with the upshot that how science, despite all the progress it has incurred, must still fall short on revealing the true nature of this world and the truest guidelines for human living. It’s the divine which makes up for this lack in our lives, not the human. The wordy lectures and papers of the self-claimed ‘learned’ men while ‘informative’, actually tell us nothing about what we really need to know.



Reason, leave now! You’ll not find wisdom here!

Were you thin as a hair, there’d still be no room.

The Sun is risen! In its vast dazzle

Every lamp is drowned.




Water, stories, the body,

all the things we do, are mediums

that hide and show what’s hidden.

Study them,

and enjoy this being washed

with a secret we sometimes know

and then not.


4. From


Ascend from materiality into the world of spirits, hearken to the loud voice of the universe;

Then thou wilt know that God is glorified by all inanimate things: the doubts raised by false interpreters will not beguile thee.


5. From


Come, recognize that your sensation and imagination and understanding are like the reed-cane on which children ride.

The spiritual man’s knowledge bears him aloft; the sensual man’s knowledge is a burden.

God hath said, Like an ass laden with books: heavy is the knowledge that is not inspired by Him;

But if you carry it for no selfish ends, the load will be lifted and you will feel delight.


God with His Brilliance and Actuality certainly pales any other source of enlightenment and illumination possible. Not only that, Our Creator’s mysterious workings and intricate powers seem to have enmeshed themselves with the fabric of the ‘apparent’ world created for our temporary existence. Such that the closest possible examination of any corner or pattern on the tapestry of this world either blinds us (given the Dazzle of the Source of things). Burdened by the contradictory and mutative conclusions from our observations and the enigma of explaining what we can see and can’t see in the terms of our limited understanding, we remain ignorant and indifferent to the Light. Or, we experience a touch of the dazzle ourselves in form of awe, wonderment, a sense of being in the presence of the Sacred, and a sweet and submissive urge to bow down our heads before this Source.



Body of earth, don’t talk of earth

Tell the story of pure mirrors

The Creator has given you this splendour —

Why talk of anything else?




you’ve carved a wooden horse

riding and calling it real

fooling yourself in life

though only a wooden horse

ride it again my friend

and gallop to the next post

you’ve never really listened

to what God has always

tried to tell you


In the physical world, every level of existence (such as the cultural, the individual, the biological, the chemical, and the subatomical) requires it’s own set of explanatory processes and phenomena. How can we claim to deduce understandings of how this world was created by restricting ourselves to the level of this earth? This will never be possible, unless we stop taking the things of this earth as the end of the road, as the literal reality itself. We must take them instead as signs, pointers or mirrors to the deeper nature of things at a level far far beyond the earthly. Instead of restricting ourselves to the details of this earth, we should move ahead to what this detail signifies: the magnificence, the splendour, the sublimity of how it all came to be.



I have lived on the lip

of insanity, wanting to know reasons,

knocking on a door. It opens.

I’ve been knocking from the inside!


And so external observations are not the end of the road for the one earnest seeker of the Truth. After you’ve completed your observations, then, like Ibrahim, you must close the door of externality and turn on the fountain of contemplation from within.




‘Twas a fair orchard, full of trees and fruit

And vines and greenery. A Sufi there

Sat with eyes closed, his head upon his knee,

Sunk deep in meditation mystical.

‘Why,’ asked another, ‘dost thou not behold

These Signs of God the Merciful displayed

Around thee, which He bids us contemplate?’

‘The signs,’ he answered, I behold within;

Without is naught but symbols of the Signs.’


God has already planted the germs for recognizing the truth within us. When we trun inwards, rather than remaining blinded by the tangled mechanisms of the outer world, we come to access and reinstill these germs.




That which is real is nearer than the neck-artery, and you have shot the arrow of thought far afield.

The philosopher kills himself with thinking. Let him run on: his back is turned to the treasure.

Most of those destined for Paradise are simpletons, so that they escape from the mischief of philosophy.

While the clever ones are pleased with the device, the simple ones rest, like babes, in the bosom of the Deviser.


The huge enterprise of science is not even needed to unlock the mysteries of the universe. Those who know the art of looking within (rather than remaining stuck on the without) for answers, even if they lack the material sophistication of the externalists, have more easily acquired that personal and intimate connection with our God that we either are magnetically attracted to or crazily run away from.


I finish with an ayah and a quatrain…

إِنَّمَا يَخْشَى اللَّـهَ مِنْ عِبَادِهِ الْعُلَمَاءُ 

OF ALL His servants, only such as are endowed with [innate] knowledge stand [truly] in awe of God. (in Sura Fatir, 28)



I know nothing any more, except

That knowing you, I know the source

Of Knowing ; this fire-spring you pull me in

Sometimes, where ‘you’ and ‘I’ burn.



All translations have been taken from the Rumi edition of the Everyman’s Library of Pocket Poets. In order of appearance of quoted poems, here are the translaters with page number references.

  1. Andrew Harvey, p. 60
  2. Andrew Harvey, p. 62
  3. Coleman Barks, p. 86
  4. Nicholson, p. 128
  5. Nicholson, p.130
  6. same as 2
  7. Nader Khalili, pp. 76-7
  8. Coleman Barks, p.84
  9. Nicholson, p. 93
  10. Nicholson, p. 96-7
  11. Andrew Harvey, p. 163



RUMI REVELATIONS: Understanding Ramadaan through Rumi

In excerpts and quotes, literature, poetry, psychology of religion, Ramadaan, Rumi Revelations on August 23, 2011 at 1:07 am



When the Ramadan banner flies, soul restrains nature,

so it can taste its own foodl


The strength of horses and the intensity of fire,

these are the powers of sacrifice.

Fasting, we honor the guest.


Clouds of courage give rain,

because it was in this month that the Qur’an rained down,

light through an opening.


Grab the rope.

Be lifted out of the body’s pit.


Announce to Egypt, Joseph of Canaan has come.

Jesus dismounts the donkey,

and the sacramental table descends.


Wash your hands. Wash your face.

Do not eat or speak as you normally do.

Other food and other words will come in the silence.



The concept of silence here symbolizes the fast. The silent person side-steps from the usual impulse to talk and to speak up his mind. This willing evacuation of the mind of petty distraction of conversation makes room for wisdom and insight. 

Rumis says this more eloquently in the following ghazal couplets**:


If you want your every atom to be eloquent and a poet,

don’t place your faith in poetry and prose, be silent.


If you start to talk, you will stray from your thought.

Don’t stray from your heart’s intent. Stay away from talk.



Fast performs similar functions for us on a much broader scale. Why does performing acts God loves, with great frequency, length and recurrence become much easier in Ramadaan, than at other times? It’s not just because of the extra incentive we have in form of hope for extra reward; it’s not just due to being reinforced and encouraged by seeing nearly everyone around doing more. The fast frees us from the constant chain of distractions that our bodily ties of food and drink provide us through the day. Ordinarily, we remain mentally bound by one concern followed by another. Since hunger and thirst are of the body, naturally, other bodily and personal interests take forte as well and keep us occupied. Even when we think of doing something ‘extra’, we get lazy, feel busy, or simply forget amid the ‘stimulus overload’.

Fast provides a calm for the whole day. It also changes the schedule of daily life, thus helping to reinforce the change. The calm and peace resulting from a control on bodily hungers also weakens the force of other personal desires and lusts. Although, we feel the nutrient deprivation, we don’t even feel as much hungry as we would if we could not eat on time on a regular day. All this ‘stimulus underload’ paves the way for the better and nobler instincts of our psyche to come forward and to take lead.

If a mosque was full of chatter and banter, how could it inspire noble meditations, pious intentions and love-filled inclinations? It is the vast seclusion of the typical mosque from everything earthy and wordly that encourages those honorable attitudes.

And then….




This fasting sifts the soul like a sieve,

Discovering the hidden flecks of gold.

Once the soul outshines the brilliant moon,

It will tear up the veil and light up the seventh heaven.




* Translated by Coleman Barks in Rumi: The Big Red Book, 2010, New York: Harper Collins Publishers, p. 273

** Translated by Iraj Anvar and Anne Twitty in Say Nothing: Poems of Jalal al-Din Rumi in Persian and English, 2008, Sandpoint: Morning Light Press, p. 17.

^ Translated by the same as above, p. 19.

RUMI REVELATIONS: Is there anything left to say?

In excerpts and quotes, God, literature, poetry, Rumi Revelations, spirituality on August 18, 2011 at 11:01 pm

I ended my last post with the above statement.

After reading through all the reminders of our Gentle and Loving God, there can only be spontaneous outpourings from the heart (or from the eyes); tongue is amazed into silence.

And what better way than to capture the outpourings than to let Maulana Rumi talk…

The spontaneous outpourings of the humble heart…




I have come here to lay my head at your feet,

to ask forgiveness,

to sit in the rose chair and burn my thorns.


Whatever I thought to do,

when I am here with you, is nothing.

Make my face yours.

I will shorten this poem.

Read the rest inside me.


Where Love reigns…




Love draws a dagger and pulls me close.

Lock and key. Bird with both wings broken.


The love religions is all that is written here.

Who else would say this?


You open me wide open, or you tie me tighter.

The ball waits on the field to be hit again.


You push me into fire like Abraham.

You pull me out like Mohammed.


Which do you like better? you ask.

All the same, if it is your hand, troubles or peace.


Then comes the sure attention

of a mother’s hand for her hurt child.


So, how to begin…?




Love is musk.

Do not deny it when you smell the scent.


And then…




And He is with you means He is searching with you.

He is nearer to you than yourself. Why look outside?

Become like melting snow; wash yourself of yourself.

With love your inner voice will find a atongue

growing like a silent white lily in the heart.



How to call up this Love?



In every breath

if you’re the center

of your own desires

you’ll lose the grace

of your beloved


but if in every breath

you blow away

your self claim

the ecstasy of love

will soon arrive


in every breath

if you’re the center

of your own thoughts

the sadness of autumn

will fall on you


but if in every breath

you strip naked

just like a winter

the joy of spring

will grow from within


all your impatience

comes from the push

for gain of patience

let go of the effort

and peace will arrive


all your unfulfilled desires

are from your greed

for gain of fulfillments

let go of them all

and they will be sent as gifts


fall in love with

the agony of love

not the ecstasy

then the beloved

will fall in love with you




1, 2 & 3. Translated by Coleman Barks in Rumi: The Big Red Book, 2010, New York: Harper Collins.

4. Translated by Kabir Helminski in Everyman’s Library Pocket Poets: Rumi

5. Translated by Nader Khalili in above.



Related Posts in this blog:

Past Rumi Revelations

QURAN IN RAMADAAN: How God relates to His subjects

RUMI REVELATIONS: The Root of the Root

In excerpts and quotes, literature, poetry, Rumi Revelations, spirituality on August 14, 2011 at 3:48 am

Immediately after doing my last post of Qur’an in Ramadaan, I found the following two poems of Rumi in an astonishingly close approximation with the thesis of that post and the ones before. This time round I attempt to append my commentary on stanzas from the first poem to make the connections clearer. The second poem is too plain to need further illumination, I think. Both poems are highly motivational, uplifting, and rejuvenating as is indeed nearly all the poetry of the famed poet.





Don’t go away, come near.

Don’t be faithless, be faithful.

Find the antidote in the venom.

Come to the root of the root of your Self.


Molded of clay, yet kneaded

from the substance of certainty,

a guard at the Treasury of Holy Light —

come, return to the root of the root of your Self.


Once you get hold of selflessness,

you’ll be dragged from your ego

and freed from many traps.

Come, return to the root of the root of your Self.


You are born from the children of God’s creation,

but you have fixed your sight too low.

How can you be happy?

Come, return to the root of the root of your Self.


Although you are a talisman protecting a treasure,

you are also the mine.

Open your hidden eyes

and come to the root of the root of your Self.


You were born from a ray of God’s majesty

and have the blessings of a good star.

Why suffer at the hands of things that don’t exist?

Come, return to the root of the root of your Self.


You are a ruby embedded in granite.

How long will you pretend it isn’t true?

We can see it in your eyes.

Come to the root of the root of your Self.



don’t be bitter my friend

you’ll regret it soon

hold to your togetherness

or surely you’ll scatter


don’t walk away gloomy

from this garden

you’ll end up like an owl

dwelling in old ruins


face the war and

be a warrior like a lion

or you’ll end up like a pet

tucked away in a stable


once you conquer

your selfish self

all your darkness

will change to light




I like the term ‘the root of the root’. I wish I had access to the original Persian to see how it was expressed there. As it is, to me it reminds me of the famous adage which means: recognize yourself to recognize your God. We cannot realize the close connection we all have with our Maker unless we first establish a close connection with our own selves, accepting and facing all our limitations and faults and weaknesses for what they are.

Our nature might be transient, of clay, of atom, but our essence, the soul, is connected to one large ‘certainty’: the ultimate reality (the Treasury of Holy Light) the seed of which has already been sown inside us in form of the a-lastu bi rabbikum dialogue.

 In entangling ourselves with petty worldly needs and fears, we agree for a low existence; whereas real highness awaits us. It’s time to realize our potential to the fullest; that is our destiny, but we need to engage it with our own step forward.



1. Translated by Kabir Helminski in Everyman’s Library Pocket Poets: RUMI.

2. Translated by Nader Khalili in above.

RUMI REVELATIONS: Eternal reality and the journey towards God

In excerpts and quotes, God, poetry, Rumi Revelations, spirituality, universe on August 11, 2011 at 10:56 pm


Come beggars

sit with open hands

at the gate

of nothingness

God will bring bread

without the medium

of bread


without honey or bee

when past and future


there is only you

senseless as a lute

upon the breast of God




why are you so busy

with this or that or good or bad

pay attention to how things blend

why talk about all

the known and the unknown

see how unknown merges into the known

why think separately

of this life and the next

when one is born from the last

look at water and fire

earth and wind

enemies and friends all at once

you too must mingle my friends

since the earth and the sky

are mingled just for you and me

my beloved grows

right out of my own heart

how much more union can there be


My two cents

Light and atom seem to join the Eternal and the transient, the Divine and the earthly in an inseparable relationship…

This enigmatic interaction created for the purpose of testing the man…. does he run away… or comes forward?

Rumi invites us to come boldly

and to plunge into the realms of eternity despite the confines of this world.


1. Translated by Daniel Liebert, in Everyman’s Library Pocket Poets: RUMI.

2. Translated by Nadir Khalili, in above.

THE BIOGRAPH: Flashback (و نفخت فيه من روحي )

In God, poetry, The Biograph on April 24, 2010 at 3:29 pm

Wa Nafakhtu fihi min Roohi

وَنَفَختُ فيهِ مِن روحى

(And I breathed into him of My spirit; in Al-Hijr, 29)

They lured me

With their glimpses of promised beauty.

They entranced me

With a dose of flamboyant romance.

They enticed me

With fulfilling fruits believed in.

They trapped me

With warming visions that I blindly bought.

They shocked me

With sharpnels of suddenness.

They froze me

With cold-hearted disclosures.

They bled me

With ripped-open illusions.

They teased me

With that smug leer of fate.

But beyond these stage curtains



I see

laughing softly

the playing Sage

Whose Hands wrote

the tender pages of my life.

And He waits

with the patient love of a mother

and with a father’s grace

for my comeback.

He knows I will stand

through the shocks

through the shakes

through this loosening earth

and through all I put at stake..

That I will rise above these curtains

break away

from this a-grounding burden

of a broken-heartedness

That I will tread into the lane

He points with His Hidden Hand

That He had all the way prepared.

I can see

that down this Road

I will be as sagacious

as His Breath

that He secreted into me

at the advent of my humanity

will inspire me to be.



29 December, 2007

ADMIRING LITERATURE: Wilbur and his Paintbrush

In literature, poetry on March 30, 2010 at 6:26 pm


Many a poet has enticed the reader with their word-pictures. Their creations transport the perusing mind from its concrete locale into a surreal world of color and sound; where ideas are embodied in beautiful similes and suggestive metaphors. Poets, themselves peeping into that vast vista of the “inward eye”, bring out such vivid depictions of what they have observed and saved that the reader easily follows in their lead and tastes the same profound pleasures.

Wordsworth’s Daffodils commonly suggests itself when discussing the power of the poet over the reader. But I here aim to share what I feel poetry can achieve whenever I read Richard Wilbur’s “In the Elegy Season”. Wilbur is a famous American poet known for an art full of grace and sensitivity. The poem I have referred to was published in Wilbur’s second collection of poems Ceremony (1950), later reproduced in his New and Collected Poems (1988).

But more on imagination first. That “synthetic and magical power”, in Coleridge’s words, that unifies the activity of the poet. For, as in Eliot’s view, poets must use their imaginative concentration to glean and weave and construct from their common and essentially ordinary experiences.

What the poet observes is indeed often ordinary. But the way she portrays it, the feelings that she discovers and evokes, the way she often invests these open-to-all observations with deeper meanings; and finally the way she makes use of the visual and acoustic forms of her creation, binding meaning in the very sounds those words produce… This is the power of the poet – the mysterious genius – of which source many have claimed is God himself!

Elegies are mournful poems, laments for the dead. Although Wilbur’s poem is indeed a lament for the ‘dead’, it is still not depressing or saddening to the heart. The poem entices the reader from the very first few words. He begins…

Haze, Char, and the weather of All Souls’:

A giant absence mopes upon the trees:

Leaves cast in casual potpourris

Whisper their scents from pits and cellar-holes.

Notice how he captures his image of autumn in small, single-syllabled yet beautiful sounding words. If the reader is imaginative, s/he will at once enter the atmosphere of this autumn: fog mingling with the dust and debris of the last summer; the fallen leaves, broken twigs, and shreds of bark now blackening with old age. An average Pakistani reader – not aware that the festival of All Souls is a yearly Christian observance coinciding with autumn in the Northern hemisphere – is not at all disadvantaged by this lack of knowledge.

The second line will always be my favorite, representing a delightful poetical pun. The author refrains from a concrete reference to those ‘leaves’ whose absence he so mourns. He has created a more emphatic picture of this ‘absence’ through the ‘absence’ he here applies. The word ‘giant’ conjures up the right picture in its proper magnitude: rows upon rows of scarecrow skeletons devoid of their ordinarily lavish garments. Use of the word ‘mopes’ instead of its possible synonyms such as ‘broods’ and ‘sulks’ elicits a humorously delightful response to this giant absence. It shows us the writers’ attitude to this season. Although he envies the summer bygone as the next stanzas will show, there is no despairing melancholy. Instead, he seems to observe his present surroundings with a vivid and witty observation.

‘Potpourris’ and ‘scents’ in the subsequent lines confirm this attitude. The images created are not in the least depressing. Rather, they are colorful and involve all the aesthetic senses of the sensate reader. The poet continues:

Or brewed in gulleys, steeped in wells they spend

In chilly steam, their last aromas, yield

From shallow hells a revenance of field

And orchard air.…………………..

Beautiful images continue the atmosphere and the mood set in the first stanza. The poet captures the sense of time with the word ‘brewed’. The moping yet beautiful processes of autumn have been taking place for some time…. leaves gathering in natural openings and channels, browning and yellowing, cooking an amazing flourish of warm palette shades and simmering perfumes. [Note that cellar holes are sites where old houses once stood, with only root cellars now left; while gulleys refer to dried channels in the earth made by old running waters.] The mixed touches of temperature at the time of year are captured by the phrase ‘chilly steam’. Gathering and mixing in the chilled waters of the wells, the leaves loose their heat from the sun in aromatic vapors.

By the third line of this stanza, the poet has established an atmosphere so gratifying to the reader’s senses, that the ordinarily aversive reaction to the word ‘hell’ is not provoked. Rather, ‘hells’ – a hyperbole referring to the numerous potpourris – serves to contrast with the invigorating and wholesome atmosphere of the summer he has now alluded to. It is these very hells that call to his mind an image of the golden season past, like a haunting awakening of the dead – for this is the meaning of the word ‘revenance’. Note here the correspondence of hells with revenance. This poem has been referred to as an exemplar in word choice in texts on poetry.

After this hint, the poet now enters his actual theme of the longed-for summer, closing the above stanza…

…………And now the envious mind

Which could not hold the summer in my head

While bounded by that blazing circumstance

Parades these barrens in a golden trance,

Remembering the wealthy season dead,

And by an autumn inspiration makes

A summer all its own. ……………

At the very outset of this transition, the poet’s attitude to the “season dead” is revealed. Delving into the connotations of the word ‘envious’ reveals to us the true state of the poet’s feelings: A treasure which is beyond one’s possession and cannot be obtained keeps ignited an intense preoccupation and admiration for itself.

A process of projection follows. Personified, the envious mind has been infused with a quality of independence from the poet. The current environs of denuded trees and hellish (hence ‘blazing’) leave-gatherings are deemed too limiting. This sense of being restricted stimulates visions of the coveted summer. The mind then achieves relief by implanting these visions onto the limiting ‘circumstance’. Thus a barren walk is transformed into a wealthy, golden trance.

………………. Green boughs arise

Through all the boundless backward of the eyes,

And the soul bathes in warm conceptual lakes.

I personally feel that Wilbur’s pen is at the height of its power in the opening phrase of this quote. As you read “Green boughs arise” you virtually watch lush and laden twigs rising from the ground and occupying the foreground of your imagination. The seduction of the reader is complete. First, into the hazy, aromatic atmosphere of the seething autumn. Now – a dream in a dream – the reader follows into the wonderlands of the poet’s ‘envious mind’.

The envy of the poet does not seem to be of the greedy kind. Rather it may have a sacred devotional quality, as I deduce from the sacred-ritualistic association of the phrase “the soul bathes”. Another possible meaning of these words is that the poet recognizes the abstract quality of his pseudo-gratification. The lakes are not real, and the feeling of warmth and the sensation of bathing are all conceived by the stimulated mind. ‘Bathing’ also accompanies a sense of willing and fulfilling immersion. Fantasized though this summer may be, the deprived soul is gladly involved.

With these acknowledgements of the unreality of his mind’s escape, the poet now describes a more earthy response to autumn:

Less proud than this, my body leans an ear

Past cold and colder weather after wings’

Soft commotion, the sudden race of springs,

The goddess’ tread heard on the dayward stair,

This stanza is composed of so many ingenious allusions that I’m not sure how to begin. Firstly, the poet acknowledges the earthiness of his latter response by associating it with his body: Our bodies are necessarily rooted in the physical reality whereas our minds can make whatever leaps they wish. He presents another contrast with the earlier fantasy by recognizing the majesty, stateliness and the distinct superiority of that vision in the word ‘proud’. His body’s response is an optimistic yet humble discernment of the ultimate return of summer. But this far away ‘hope’ must be inferior to the more three-dimensional sense of the summer’s imagined presence.

The poet realizes the time distance yet to be borne before the joyful comeback. He depicts each phase of the intervening seasons through beautiful imagery. His reference to the annual migration of birds at the approach of winter will be delightful to any reader in the single word ‘commotion’. Because of its literal meaning, the word suffices to create an image of a great flock of birds, wings toiling. Their undulating strokes will indeed remind one of a pulsating but gentle turbulence, something like that of the waves.

The migration will be followed by “cold and colder weather” with flighty spring on its heels soon spent. And only beyond that is held the promise of the summer: an awe-inspiring deity slow-entering the stage of the day with small regal steps. This final image seems to confirm the devotional quality of the poet’s sentiments. Wilbur is known for weaving religious images and meanings into the subtext of his poetry.

In the final stanza the poet

Longs for the brush of the freighted air, for smells

Of grass and cordial lilac, for the sight

Of green leaves building into the light

And azure water hoisting out of wells.

The poet has gone through the phases of a mind that revolts to the bared surroundings and revels in the abandon of fantasy and a body which discerns the coming of the beloved beyond all the succession of the days between. Now the poet plainly acknowledges his simple wish. Summer has traditionally symbolized the full vigor of life, where energies are at their peak and expressions of youth and passion reach their zenith. It is this liveliness of earth, air and water that he so craves.

With a tinge of nostalgia, he is enumerating all the sweet remembrances which quicken his yearning. The gentle caress of an air loaded with the smells of an erupting landscape. The “cordial lilac”, not only welcoming with a familiar friendliness, but also reviving to the spirit. [As a noun, the word cordial refers to any drink, food or medicine which gives strength to the weak body]. The “green leaves” forming patterns like filigree woven into a background of clear light. And finally, waters as blue as the intense unclouded sky of the summer, pouring forth from springs with such energy as if they are being raised and lifted through some force.

In this essay, I have focused only on the content – the words and their meanings. I have tried to illustrate how the choice of words with many shades of meanings creates the images with the right sentiments the poet wishes to evoke. An image is never a brain copy of the perception of a real object. It has many layers of feelings and associations, combining the acoustic, tactual and other contextual properties of the imagined object, thus giving rise to a picture that is very personal, and private, and suffused with a sense of being lively.

Richard Wilbur spent a pleasant and carefree childhood roaming with his brother about his family farm and the acres of landscape surrounding the old stone house that his family had hired. The second U.S. Poet Laureate, winner of the Pulitzer Prize, and a long lasting friend of Robert Frost, he now spends his time between his two homes in Florida and Massachusetts. He has collected all his poems including translations of other poets in a neat publication called Collected Poems 1943 – 2004.


*[Note: 1. A substantially different and summarized version of this article was published in Daily Dawn’s 20th December edition of Books & Authors.

2. Click on pictures to view original sources.]


Interested in more literature? Here’s another article from this blog:

ADMIRING LITERATURE: The Mysterious Sestina

ADMIRING LITERATURE: The Mysterious Sestina

In literature, poetry on July 21, 2009 at 12:19 pm

I have been a dilettante reader and writer of poetry. The finest period in my sparse history of writing poetry was when I was attempting to improve my efforts by going through X. J. Kennedy and Dana Gioia‘s Introduction to Poetry (I have their 8th edition, 1994).

One of the highlights of my journey through this book (it was the year 2002, I remember) was my discovery of a wonderfully mysterious and captivating form of poetry called a SESTINA. I’m sure, you, if you have always been an amateur dabbler in poetry like me, have never heard of it before. So if you care, come along with me today and discover the joys of understanding, reading and composing (if you please) a sestina!

six-petalled flower

A six-petaled flower

Sestina is a poem of six stanzas of six lines each, followed by a three-lined stanza called as envoi. The lines are not rhymed. However, the poet uses a set of six words repeated as end-words in a fixed pattern through the six stanzas. The envoi uses the six words again, three ending one of the three lines, others embedded elsewhere in the lines.

The patterning is an example of neat numerical ordering. If the end words of the first stanza are ABCDEF, their order in the next stanza would be FAEBDC; the sequence for the third stanza would be CFDABE; the fourth being ECBFAD; the fifth, DEACFB; and finally the last would be BDFECA.

Can you see what is happening here? If you can successfully modify the last sequence so that it yields the original order (the first stanza order, that is), you have got the trick!

Due to this heliotropic structure, the sestina has the power to create an unusual reading experience.


If you wish to stop here and encounter a few sestinas first, please go through to the end of the page and click through my personal selection of a few favorite sesitnas available on the net.]

The end-words

The six end-words (also called as teleutons), since they figure so frequently in the sestina, must be chosen with care. As John Frederick Nims explains in his essay The Sestina, in a good sestina the poet has six words, six images, six ideas so urgently in his mind that he cannot get away from them; he wants to test them in all possible combinations and come to a conclusion about their relationship. [Cf. Kennedy and Gioia, 1994, p. 192]

This is not the only way the poets have plied their end-words. The other way, in Elizabeth Bishop‘s words, is to use as colorless words as possible –like Sydney, so that it becomes less of a trick, and more of a natural themes and variations. [Cf. Victoria Harrisson’s Elizabeth Bishop’s Poetics of Intimacy, p. 82]

The repetition

like the repeated turns of a helix...Ezra Pound called the sestina a thin sheet of flame folding and infolding upon itself. Marilyn Hacker likened it to a camera on a rotating boom/ six words spin slowly round and pan the room. (from The poetry Dictionary, p. 279)

ferris-wheelWormser and Capella, in their book  Teaching the Art of Poetry liken, the sestina’s effect to that of a Ferris wheel: One moves in a circuit and keeps seeing the same sights from slightly different vantage points. (p.191)


The obsession…

This somewhat tipsy repetition can be fascinating, mesmerizing, or, as some have asserted, obsessive!

The repeated words, inexorable in their order, seem designed to convey a state of obsession… [Anthony Hecht in Green Thoughts, Green Shades, Ed. Jonathan Post]. To the extent that they may even invite a monotony that best accompanies a dolorous, despairing, and melancholy mood…

However, many poets, through the “cunning” of art, do often refuse to yield to that mood of solitary and redundant woe. Rather, they successfully divert us by drama, pathos, a crescendo of emotional forces and… encourage us to feel that in one way or another each succeeding stanza will provide some novelty or a wholly new perspective.

The inevitability

In every fresh sestina, it is interesting to observe how the writer has dealt with the inevitability of the end-words turning up again and again at different points.

A learner was asked: “Did you plan it like that or did you just follow where the poem led?” Reply: I’d had the first line knocking around in my head since the beginning of the week, when I picked the prompts, and I knew how I wanted the poem to end…but the bit in the middle just sort of wrote itself… think I went into some sort of sestina induced trance.

John Ashberry once remarked that writing a sestina was like riding downhill on a bicycle and having the pedals push your feet. [Cf. Kennedy and Gioia, 1994, p. 192]

However, good artists never let the inveterate form dominate the mercurial art, as you will find in the sestinas below.

A brief anthology

In my bouquet of sestinas below, I hope you will find all the different shades of their splendor and magic!

  • Elizabeth Bishop‘s famous Sestina. It reads like a modern fable whose meaning is only half manifest, the rest to be deduced from the suggestions in the motifs that the poem relies on. It’s one example of a mesmerizing sestina; you keep returning to it to enjoy it and to decipher it more and more.
  • Here is another sestina by Elizabeth Bishop, A Miracle for Breakfast, illustrating the success of the form in conveying social problems of current eminence. The form seems very suitable for depicting the on-the-surface urge induced by a perpetual state of deprivation. The background is the 1930s’ Great Depression in America.
  • James Cummins’ sestina from a sequence of 24 sestinas called The Whole Truth based on the famous fictional detective Perry Mason. It is one of my favorites and narrates the fictional aftermath to Perry Mason’s mind after his retirement from the field.
  • Caroline DaviesMother’s Song, a haunting depiction of the bewildered state of mind of an obsessed and possibly psychotic mother. She’s trying to understand and justify how she dealt with her baby, responding to a nurse who has commented on her (Nurse’s Song byLouise Gluck).
  • Another contemporary and light-hearted sestina that shows how well the sestina can be used to write a contemporary monologue: Pam White’s The Concord Art Association Regrets. Notice how the relentless repetitiveness creates the air of mundane self-conceit. Scroll down to get to the poem.
  • A final example is Lewis Turco‘s (Wesli Court) The Obsession, incorporating an interesting variation in the form. The poem illustrates the delightful possibilities of innovation in an apparently rigid form of poetry. Scroll down to get to the poem.

seven petalled flower (starflower)


POETRY: Nostalgia

In poetry on March 18, 2009 at 4:41 pm

I wrote this poem on 7th May, 2007, the day after the Chief Justice of Pakistan, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry reached Lahore in a huge procession. This, after a historic night of warm and enthusiastic reception by the masses all along the way.
The poem does not revolve around him, however. It focuses on the role of the antagonist who had brought the axe on his own foot by tampering with the judiciary. The poem was strangely prophetic of 12th May next-week. I’d kept this poem private, but since the restoration of Mr. Iftikhar I’ve been thinking may be I should share it after all.



“Justice reigns!”

Or so he says

With finger raised

High on Pedestal

On fictitious cloud.

His reins will master

The gallop of rebuilding thought

(Or so he thought)

En masse.

His baton will make

The refrain of people

Die nascent,

Return to the grave.

(“Well, if not the baton,

then cane!”)

His cord


That ties his knot

To more than a single

Decaying Pharaoh

Will call this disaster

To a halt.

So he takes up his sword,

Swings it through thin air,

Flings into the veins

Of true earth.

(“Its heat will moulder.

Its moist will be colder

And quash the smolder

And bow out of path!”)

(And yet so he dreams

In his comical wrath!)

But now

Does he see

The red line

Enlivening the horizons?

Does he hear

The brim of the flood

Spilling on to the plains?

Does he feel

The point of that sword

Now pointing of its own will

To his heart?