Posts Tagged ‘poetry’


In Rumi Revelations on August 11, 2011 at 10:32 pm

Maulana Jalal-ud-Din Rumi needs no introduction. I remember two stimuli that instilled my interest in Rumi.

One was a small sample of a translation of his work that I read in the Dawn newspaper many many years ago. I noted some instances down in my diary. The date on my diary is of 23rd August, 1999.

Come to my side

I will open

the gate to your love.


You dance inside my chest,

where no one sees you

but sometimes I do, and that

sight becomes this art.


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!

 The second stimulus was a Persian line by dear Dr. Allama Mohammad Iqbal, that I came across in a commemorative edition for the later by the monthly periodical on Urdu Literature Mah-e-Nau. It msut have been a few more years after the above encounter with Rumi:

پیر رومی خاک را اکسیر کرد   

Nobody needed to tell me the translation. The line meant: Master Rumi truned soil into ointment. The beauty of the original just cannot be translated and so I developed a longing to read more on and by Rumi. I mentioned this desire in a discussion with a good friend. He was kind enough to gift me this precious book: Life & Work of Muhammad Jalal-ud-Din Rumi by Afzal Iqbal (I have a different edition of the book from a different publisher, than as in the link). In addition to detailing Rumi’s biography, the book also charts the development of his thought and art, citing beautiful examples from Rumi’s ghazals and mashnavi with original Persian and authentic translations by experienced scholars such as Nicholson and Arberry.

And so I was initiated into the school of Rumi, though I never could become a real student, merely an occasionally indulgent delittante. Maulana Rumi was not an ordinary Islamic scholar nor an ordinary Sufi. Rather his emotional spirituality was solidly grounded on his training in Islamic sciences, hence his high status in the realms of both Islamic history and Muslim literature.

His mystical perceptions reflect their brilliance on the same mysteries I often grapple with in my blog posts. What is true reality, how can we reach it within the confines of this world, etc etc… From the birth of this blog, I have longed to share his gems with my readers. However, I’m not the copy-paste type of blogger merely posting what I like from other writings. On the other hand, interpreting Rumi’s poetry like a literary scholar is simply beyond me. Now, however, I have written enough on my blog that I don’t need to create a whole article out of one verse on Rumi. Rather, I have decided to occasionally share those excerpts from his translations ( I will add the orginial Persian where I could), which speak far more eloquently and revelatorily on the same themes I have been developing in many of my posts and with which my readers are now familiar.



LITERATURE|RELIGION: Hidden Meanings in the Universe

In Literature|Religion, nature, perception on July 24, 2011 at 4:48 am

God reflects His Self through the Universe.

To reach Him we must reflect upon the Universe.

Or we may use the writings of those who have reflected before we did.

Windows of Reflection in the Verses of a Poet:

Her shai pukarti he pas-e-parda-e-sukuut

lekin kise sunaun koi ham-nawa bhi ho

Fursat mein sun shaguftgi-e-ghuncha ki sada

ye wo sukhan nahi jo kisi ne keha bhi ho


Everything speaks behind these cloaks of silence.

Alas, there is no audience. Ears here are struck.

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

This is not speech that has been uttered.

–Nasir Kazmi (Deewan, Ghazal no. 1, p.11)↓1

What is Nasir saying in the first line?

Every object around is a being in its own right with a place in the universe. At the highest and spiritual level of meaning, every object as a creation of God signifies some property of that Creator: beauty, completeness, power, or profoundness. Here, Nasir laments of the indifference of general society to this “World in a Grain of Sand” [from William Blake]. ↓2

The second of the two quoted verses serves as a specific and illustrative example of the general idea in the first. Its first line is very pleasing and fresh (read slowly in Urdu to appreciate). It creates a beautiful image in our mind that is not just a static visual (a pleasant half-open flower bud), but is additionally decked with sound! – a striking combination. One instantly indulges imagining how, say, a rose-bud must sound if we could hear it…

Of course, this is not a literal reference to a synesthetic experience, ↓3 as the word ‘shaguftagi’ helps us realize. Word ‘shaguftagi’ is masdar in Urdu grammar, equivalent to an abstract noun in English. The poet thus is attempting to call our attention to the delightful quality of the rose. It bespeaks some meaning that is part of the mystery of the universe. (The mysterious atmosphere of the Urdu verse reinforces this conclusion).

Moreover, the Persian word ‘sukhan‘ in the fourth line is used not just for ‘speaking’, but also for the best form speech can take: literature. Thus the glee of roses not only speaks, it does so at the highest possible level, aesthetically and meaningfully.


The Highest Level of Meaning…?

All communication is made up of small signals or alphabets which combine in a way to form something bigger and meaningful (a symbol).↓4 Symbols (such as words, equations, or lines of html) in turn combine to produce something even larger and fuller. Fuller because the meaning of the combined product goes beyond a mere sum of its parts (such as a rousing poem, a theorem that helps explain some mystery of the universe, or an interactive computer program that seems a far cry from the lines upon lines of dry code it springs from.).

Thus ‘meaning’ is the overall pattern created by hierarchical combinations of symbols and signals. As such meaning is also latent (hidden); it doesn’t reveal itself as long as you stay focused on the underlying symbols or signals. One can’t even see the whole painting on a wall, let alone interpret it, if one is standing too close looking at a portion of the whole. ↓5

The Essence of a Reflection:

In combination, the four lines lend to four major realizations, in deciphering of which, the last line is of paramount significance:

First: The ‘speech’ Nasir refers to is the ‘meaning’ contained in the layers of inscription this world is made up of: the sands, rains, leaves, seasons…. No creator of things ever makes anything without some meaning (or purpose).

وَما خَلَقنَا السَّماءَ وَالأَرضَ وَما بَينَهُما لٰعِبينَ
AND [know that] We have not created the heavens and the earth and all that is between them in mere idle play. [Al-Anbya, 16]

Nasir, in his beautifully conversational way invites us to try sense these messages in nature. her shei pukarti hei..econd: These messages are as real as our speech but seem far beyond the bubble of our existence, since we have never really looked beyond that bubble; or if we did, we just focused on the symbol, appreciating at most, say, the beauty of a flower.  fursat mein sun..

وَإِن مِن شَيءٍ إِلّا يُسَبِّحُ بِحَمدِهِ وَلٰكِن لا تَفقَهونَ تَسبيحَهُم

and there is not a thing but celebrates His praise; And yet you understand not how they declare His glory [Al-Asra (also Sura Bani Israil), 44]

Third: Moreover, these messages correspond with the finest possible form this mode of communication can take. The whole of Al-Qur’an proves that the form in which the timeless realities of the Universe are revealed must have been the epitome of all literature.↓6
We do not even need a reference ayah for this point. Attend closely to any good and authentic recitation of the Qur’an or learn it by translation.↓7  ye wo sukhan nahin..

Fourth: Nasir’s comparison of these hidden communications to human literature is solely for the purpose of explication. It is no comparison in fact. Since even though many magnificent examples of literature exist, no person has ever said anything approximating the timeless meaning of all the signs in God’s universe.  Qur’an’s own challenge (unanswered to date!) to humans to produce anything like a single surah (Al-baqarah ayah 23) of it is sufficient for reference. jo kisi ne keha bhi ho..


Note that there is an incomplete loop in the flow from human perception to metaphysical inferences. I mean, even though we may begin to glimpse and apprehend to a very meagre extent the mysteries contained in these symbols, they will certainly remain beyond our full encompassment. None of us can ever claim that we have comprehended the universal significance of all objects truly and completely because of their latent quality.
Interestingly, The above conclusion is a highly logical deduction from Nasir’s own words: as soon as the meaning of the universe becomes totally comprehensible by humans, it will be translated into the human form of communication. It will mean that someone has spoken those meanings in words. But that is not possible. That has never happened in this world, and by implication will never happen in the future either.
وَلا يُحيطونَ بِشَيءٍ مِن عِلمِهِ إِلّا بِما شاءَ
and they cannot comprehend anything of His knowledge except what He pleases [Ayat-ul-Kursi, Al-Baqarah, 255]
Certainly, that is why Nasir refrains from hinting at any particular meaning he might be discerning through his mysterious teachers. Since the bounds between the human and the divine sounds are essentially unsurpassable, any subjectively derived meaning could be just that: subjective. The humility and the unbiasness of the highly real Nasir must prevent him from sharing his intuitions. Poetically, his reticence helps retain the mysterious and obscure quality of the world of meaning and of the corresponding ‘air’ of this verse.

 I am amazed what depths of phenomena may be explored in the span of a ghazal’s verse by an honest and artful poet.


God’s own Word can be the only link enclosing the gap between the limitations of human perception and the real meaning and significance of all the elements of the universe out there.



1. Translated by the humble author of the blog.

2. Nasir had a particularly incisive eye for the sights of this world. In the second line of this verse, he laments of his difference in this respect with typical ‘others’ in society.

3. Ever heard of synesthesia? On first reading, ‘the glee of a rose-bud’ reminds of that welding of two or more senses when sights are experienced as sounds (or some such other combination of sensations). For a first hand description of a synesthestic experience, read my older post on ‘outrageous sensations‘.

4. The concept that the ‘whole is greater than the sum of its parts’ is old (generally known as holism) and has been popularized in psychology by the gestalt school who explain it very well.

5. Read Douglas Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid for more on the nature of meaning. My absurd attempt to organize and summarize the concepts developed in the book reads here.

6. On the human level, being able to sense the glee of roses also corresponds with the highest possible form psychological experience can take. Abraham Maslow devoted his life to studying just such ‘peak experiences‘ which have an indescribably transcendental quality, when a person’s senses and emotions seem to go beyond the limits of daily life and to perceive something ‘pure’ and otherwordly.

7. For an interesting article on the literary aspects of Al-Quran, click here.

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?