Karachi: August 1986
When selecting your wording what do you pay most attention to?
Does sensitivity or does content play a greater role when you
choose your words?
Ahmed: It is the subject that calls up
words. Meanings and words are interrelated. Without sensitivity
one cannot choose the right word for the right meaning, though
in all true art it is the computers of the mind that matches
words and meanings. In ordinary language, it is only through
symbols that one can suggest the meaning.
The symbols of poetry are words. Words have
different qualities, of similes or metaphors, which reach
different levels, simile traveling along certain levels,
allegory sounding deeper levels through metaphor. All art is
creation which springs from the unknown subconscious. It is a
complex abstract process which, in order to assume concrete
form, employs images which, in poetry, assume the form of words,
in painting of colour, and sound in music.
Ideas belong to the realm of thought which is
a hidden activity and requires expression to come into the open.
But words are not ideas; they are only symbols which have
acquired certain definite meanings which are often nebulous.
Nevertheless they evoke response similar, or close to, the ideas
or feelings of the creator or vates as the poet was called, or
as close as the associative quality of words can communicate
them to the sensitivity of the reader.
Poetry and prophecy are
akin in delving into the source of inspiration (called
revelation in the case of poetry); only poetry fails to reach
the innermost depth of the dark force that lies hidden in the
collective subconscious we call divinity.
Semantic symbols in the form of simile and
metaphor play an illuminative role in poetry, and metaphor and allegory in prophecy. In poetry a single word can illumine
connections which the multitude cannot grasp; and in allegory
the significance is communicated to the select few, though the
word is available to all.
A common example from poetry could be:
My love is like a red, red
That’s newly sprung in
Which would not mean anything to a person who has not seen a
rose. For allegory, consider
It is one who conjoined
two large bodies of water,
One fresh (and) sweet, the
other brine (and) bitter,
And has placed an
interstice, a barrier between them
You can yourself draw the conclusion: which
plays a more important role in poetry, content or word or both!
When did you first get involved with poetry?
Ahmed: I suppose when I was eleven or
twelve, though even as a child, my mother used to tell me, and I
have a vague recollection of it, I used to babble for hours
playing by myself, making up words that made no sense.
Do you think that special situations are needed for writing
poetry? Does poetry live within you?
Ahmed: Being “wrapt up” in poetry
does not make you a poet, as being dressed up in clothes does
not make you a man, though it may give you culture and polish.
The springs of poetry lie within you; you cannot acquire them by
reading which, however, may impart appreciation and a criterion of good and bad, that is, literary
Since poetry resides within you, special
“situations” are necessary to bring it our of you. The name
of “situations” in art and poetry is experience. Feeling and
the capacity to experience being inborn, only those can feel and
experience who are sensitive by nature.. In fact, predilection
to poetry itself occasions situations, as it is visionaries who
alone see visions which non-visionaries can neither invent nor
Can you comment on the development of literature (in particular
of poetry) and the stage, which it has reached today? In
today’s mass media and era of high technology of
communications, do you think that literature has been untouched
by these – can mass media convey the messages in poetry or
Ahmed: One requisite of poetry is
leisure. Without leisure one cannot contemplate. Without
contemplation emotion cannot open out into its many-coloured
spectrum nor find occasion for recollection in tranquility which
renews the springs of inspiration. You cannot write poetry
riding a double-decker bus in the madness of London rush.
Few have, therefore, been able to write
poetry in our day, except by finding refuge in the isolation of
their minds: Ezra Pound in his essentially demented personal
situation, T.S, Eliot in the paranoiac awareness of the
irreligiosity of his generation and the consequent escape into
the psychotic state of Christian mysticism, and Rainer Maria
Rilke in the loneliness of suffering and resultant leisure his
peculiar circumstances provided for contemplation as the Duino
Elegies show. Nonetheless, with the exceptions of Rilke it is
doubtful if their poetry achieved real greatness – Pound is so
The art of poetry has been progressively
declining since its rise in the Elizabethan age, in the same
proportion as material success incumbent on imperialist
expansion and industrialization, the
consequent hurry and mechanization of life have
increased, culminating in the increase of materialism
represented by Darwin’s devastating theory of man’s descent
from the ape.
This took away the sense of wonder at the
phantasmagoria of life and the divine order of Creation, and
gave rise to pessimism which has led to the gradual desiccation
of whatever hope remained in the eternal mystery of the
beginning and the End.
The best ages of poetry in the West, to
confine ourselves to the English-speaking world, were the
Elizabethan and the Caroline when in the former a new wide vista
of hope and wonder was opening up before the mind, and in the
latter a leisure was created for contemplation and love after
the turmoil in the intervening decades. (See, for instance, Andrew
Marvell’s “To His Coy Mostress.”) The French Revolution
broke the atmosphere of complacency that had come upon Europe,
and agitated the spirit into a second Romantic interlude.
But it was short-lived and marked with a sense
of haste, as though a hidden hand were pushing it out. And the
poetic careers of Wordsworth and Coleridge were confined to the
brief period of the Lyrical ballads, and those of Shelley, Keats
and Byron were too short.
The coming Industrial Revolution, trailing
into the Victorian age, produced an era of skepticism, doubt,
and a false sense of security in imperialism and the certainty
of possessing everything that was good and beautiful, and the
hypocrisy of Victorian morals against the background of
prostitution and French cancan . . . The poet of fin de
siecle is consequently sick and tired, and easily trails off
into the sentimentality of the Georgians when the poets were
crying over the dead ass as if it were their brother.
Today, with all sense of wonder drained by
the arrogance of power, the nuclear explosions, the conquest of
space, Reagan’s Star Wars, there is no room for wonder or
poetry. Man has become his own creator and destroyer; the Big
Idea of life has fled. When all real poetry and literature, the
greatness of thought and the written word have been drowned in
the noise of electronic machines, the tape and the TV, the
radio, the screen, and the computer has replaced the human mind,
what message there then remains for man’s artificial devices
to convey, when the spirit itself is dead?
Do you think that poetry can change our world? Why poetry?
In view of what has been said above, which seems to point
to the death of poetry, how can it “change the world”? Not
that poetry does not have the power to change the world. It has
definitely changed it once. That was after the invasions of
Changez Khan and Halaku’s hordes when the Islamic world lay
devastated in the throes of death with no hope of its rising out
of the traumatic experience.
What then sustained the Muslims and raised
them out of their stupor was the poetry and message of Jaluddin
Rumi and Sa’di Shirazi which filled them with hope and vigour
again. There was no other power that could have awakened them
and made them whole. But then belief was alive; today faith in
the eternal principle and the guiding hand that shapes the
destiny of man is dead.
How do you relate the essence of the poem with its style?
The answer to the relation of the essence of the poem
with the style lies embedded in the answer to questions above.
It is essentially the nature of the subject that dictates the
style, the subconscious acting as computer.
In your view, what makes a poem relevant for the future?
The factor that contributes most to the relevancy of a
poem is the nature of experience. If it has a lasting import and
universality, it cannot fail to cast its shadows into the
future. Its relevancy to the future lies in its presenting the
eternal verities of life, of fellow-feeling and bearing with
fortitude the trials that befall. Its appeal even to the future
is assured in such a case.
posted 8 July 2005
* * *
||Ahmed Ali (1910-1994)
of Letters, short story writer, literary/cultural activist,
novelist, translator, diplomat, university professor, poet was born in Delhi in 1910, and educated at Aligarh
and Lucknow universities: B.A. (Honours), 1930 and M.A. English,
circle of friends included E. M. Forster, George Orwell,
Virginia Wolf and the Bloomsbury Group, Han
Su Yin, Tien Chen, Sarojini Naidu, Laxmi Pandit, Raja Rao, Jamni
Roy,Kunwar Natwar Singh and the Surahwardy family; Mohsin
Abdullah and Laurence Brander from Aligarh and Lucknow were
his dear friends to the end.
Ahmed Ali died in Karachi on 14th January 1994. During a period in which a modernist movement in
Urdu literature, Ahmed Ali co-authored the historic and
revolutionary collection of Urdu short stories Angaray [Red
Hot Coals]. Angaray criticized mullahs, social
hypocrisy and much else, caused an uproar. The authors were
accused of being “atheists” and “anti-Muslim.” The
Government of India banned the book.
On April 5, 1933 Ahmed Ali
and Mahmuduzzafar published a joint statement “In Defence of Angaray”
in The Leader, [Allahbad] and proposed a League of
Progressive Authors, which would bring out similar collections.
In 1936 this became “The All India Progressive Writers
Association" committed to independence, religious harmony
and the socialist, egalitarian creed..
Ahmed Ali broke away from the Progressive Writers
Association, amid much acrimony and accusations of betrayal he
could not accept limitations imposed by the Marxist ethos and
wanted to explore dimensions beyond proletariat literature and
went to on found, The Progressive Writers Association which was
to have far-reaching consequences for South Asian literature.
In 1934, he published his first Urdu collection 'Sholey [Flames].His
much-praised Urdu short story 'Hamari Gali' set in Delhi was
published in New Writing in London. 'Hamari Gali' took
him back to his roots, to Delhi and made him realize that he
wanted a much larger canvas to portray its bygone culture.
To reach a broader anglophone audience Ali wrote Twilight in Delhi in English, first
published by The Hogarth Press in London in 1940. The
novel provides a portrait of the static and decaying traditional
culture of Delhi, the Mughal capital, while the British hold the
Coronation Durbar of 1911 and draw up plans for their new
imperial city, New Delhi.
a poetic passage from Twilight in Delhi:
Night envelopes the city, covering it like a
blanket. In the dim starlight roofs and houses and
by-lanes lie asleep, wrapped in a restless slumber,
breathing heavily as the heat becomes oppressive or
shoots through the body like pain. In the courtyards, on
the roofs, in the by-lanes, on the road, men sleep on
bare bed, half naked, tired after the sore day's labour.
A few still walk on the otherwise deserted roads, hand
in hand, talking; and some have jasmine garlands in
their hands. The smell from the flowers escapes, scents
a few yards of air around them and dies smothered by the
heat. Dogs go about sniffing the gutters in search of
His linguistic strategy was innovative and courageous, a
hallmark in efforts to translate one culture (Urdu and Persian
images; traditional Indo-Muslim culture) into the
language of another culture, a colonial and imperial power,
Ali's other works include two novels, Ocean of Night and Of
Rats and Diplomats; The Prison-House; Purple Gold
Mountain; Selected Poems; Mr. Eliot's Penny-world
of Dreams; Muslim China; Ghalib: Selected Poems,
The Problem of Style and Technique in Ghalib; and The
Ahmed Ali translated from Urdu, Persian, Indonesian, Chinese and
Arabic. His translation of classical Urdu poetry, The Golden
Tradition (Columbia University Press, 1973), makes an
important contribution to the study of comparative literatures,
and surveys in depth the literary and philosophical background
of the Eighteenth and Nineteenth centuries.
AI-Qur'an, A Contemporary
(Princeton University Press, Oxford University Press &
Akrash) is Professor Ahmed Ali's most outstanding contribution
in the field of translation. Approved by eminent Islamic
scholars, it has come to be recognised as the best of existing
translations of the holy Qur'an.
Professor Ahmed Ali was a
Distinguished Visiting Professor of Humanities at Michigan State
University in 1975, Fulbright Visiting Professor of History at
Western Kentucy University and Fulbright Visiting Professor of
English at Southern Illinois University in 1978-79. He was made
an Honorary Citizen by the State of Nebraska in 1979. He was
Visiting Professor at the University of Karachi during 1977-79,
which later conferred on him an honorary degree of Doctor of
Literature in 1993.
A distinguished gentleman of
refined taste and manners, Professor Ahmed Ali had a deep
interest in sufism and a passion for Ghalib. His writings voiced
concern over the decay of Muslim culture and the injustices of
posted 8 July 2005
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On one level, Salvage the Bones is a simple story about a poor black family that’s about to be trashed by one of the most deadly hurricanes in U.S. history. What makes the novel so powerful, though, is the way Ward winds private passions with that menace gathering force out in the Gulf of Mexico. Without a hint of pretension, in the simple lives of these poor people living among chickens and abandoned cars, she evokes the tenacious love and desperation of classical tragedy. The force that pushes back against Katrina’s inexorable winds is the voice of Ward’s narrator, a 14-year-old girl named Esch, the only daughter among four siblings. Precocious, passionate and sensitive, she speaks almost entirely in phrases soaked in her family’s raw land. Everything here is gritty, loamy and alive, as though the very soil were animated. Her brother’s “blood smells like wet hot earth after summer rain. . . . His scalp looks like fresh turned dirt.” Her father’s hands “are like gravel,” while her own hand “slides through his grip like a wet fish,” and a handsome boy’s “muscles jabbered like chickens.” Admittedly, Ward can push so hard on this simile-obsessed style that her paragraphs risk sounding like a compost heap, but this isn’t usually just metaphor for metaphor’s sake.
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