Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Reflected Glory: Agha Shahid Ali

So, I'm a few days late with this post, as I had intended for it to coincide with Agha Shahid Ali's birthday, but there you have it. Had he not passed away in 2001, he would have turned 61 on February 4.

Although I never had the opportunity to meet him, I feel personally indebted to him, and sad that I did not know him. My poetry book was published last year after it won the 2009 Agha Shahid Ali Poetry Prize. Since then, I have had a number of conversations with people who did know him, and they invariably go on and on about what a fantastic human being he was. And it's not at all in the way that people tend to speak well of the dead. In every one of these conversations, people speak in an almost trance-like state. Their voices and eyes soften, as if his immense kindness were channeled through them.

He was born and raised in Kashmir, attended the Universities of Kashmir and Delhi, and then came to the United States, where he earned a PhD from Penn State and an MFA from the University of Arizona. He taught at creative writing programs across the country, leaving behind a trail of devoted students and colleagues.

He wrote several books of poetry, but is perhaps best known for his championing of the ghazal, an ancient Arabic poetic form that dates back to like the 6th century. It long ago spread across southern Asia, and has become a common form in Persian and Urdu poetry. He translated a collection of ghazals by Faiz Ahmed Faiz into English, and his best-known work is probably his posthumously published collection Call Me Ishmael Tonight: A Book of Ghazals.

The ghazal form consists of a series of couplets, where the second line of each couplet ends with a sort of extended rhyme. What I mean by that is that there are one or a few words at the end of the line that are repeated exactly in each couplet, preceded by a conventional rhyme. It also conventionally contains the poet's name in the last couplet. Agha Shahid Ali's most famous ghazal is the title(ish) poem "Tonight" from his posthumous collection. You can find it easily on the internet, and you should.

Here is his poem "Land," where you can see the ghazal form as well as the soul of the man who was so well loved.


     For Christopher Merrill

Swear by the olive in the God-kissed land –
There is no sugar in the promised land.

Why must the bars turn neon now when, Love,
I'm already drunk in your capitalist land?

If home is found on both sides of the globe,
home is of course here – and always a missed land.

Clearly, these men were here only to destroy,
a mosque now the dust of a prejudiced land.

Will the Doomsayers die, bitten with envy,
when springtime returns to our dismissed land?

The prisons fill with the cries of children.
Then how do you subsist, how do you persist, Land?

"Is my love nothing for I've borne no children?"
I'm with you, Sappho, in that anarchist land.

A hurricane is born when the wings flutter ...
Where will the butterfly, on by wrist, land?

You made me wait for one who wasn't even there
though summer had finished in that tourist land.

Do the blind hold temples close to their eyes
when we steal their gods for our atheist land?

Abandoned bride, Night throws down her jewels
so Rome – on our descent – is an amethyst land.

At the moment the heart turns terrorist,
are Shahid's arms broken, O Promised Land?

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