A Gift of Ghazals*
W Agha Shahid Ali starts to write a poem, he chooses between two entirely different approaches. At times, he selects a pattern-breaking individualism that roams among prose-like lines, elliptical epigrams and quotations; at others, he cleaves hard to tradition by taking up archaic and technically demanding forms such as the villanelle, sestina, canzone and the like. Then, as if to repudiate all such polarities, he may also plunge into a ghazal, an Eastern poetic structure whose “formal disunity” he first heard from his Urdu-speaking mother in his native Kashmir. “For me,” says Ali, “ ghazals are first and foremost about my feelings, whether from the distant past or from yesterday, that I need to put into a form with special meaning to me. I want to contain those feelings in a singular way, where I can revisit them again and again. Ghazals were the first poems I ever heard, and the form itself returns so much to me.” The late poet James Merrill once compared Ali’s poetic works to “Mughal palace ceilings, whose countless mirrored convexities at once reduce, multiply, scatter, and enchant.” W.S. Merwin has found in them “our own lost but inalienable homeland.” To John Ashberry, Ali is simply “one of America’s finest younger poets.” Ali earned the accolades of these three Pulitzer Prize winners before even bringing out what he considers his best ghazals, a collection of which he hopes to publish under the title Call Me Ishmael Tonight.
Although the form is an old and extremely disciplined one, Ali says, ghazals “do not demand long elaborations and consistency of thought. In that respect they match the inclinations of the young. But to be good
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requires years and years of distillation. I am only now getting to that point.”
Ali’s first two collections, published in Calcutta in the early ’s, are testimonials to what is for him an ambivalent modernism. A poem from that time called “Dear Editor,” written when he was in his early ’s, contains ironic verses that are still useful for understanding a poet who straddles different worlds: “I am a dealer in words / that mix cultures / and leave me rootless: / This is an excellent trade” and “I swear / Dear Editor / I have my hopes / Hopes which assume shapes in / Alien territories.”
In this time he often foregrounded treasured childhood memories of his mother’s recitations, which in these early poems became inexorably entwined with the ongoing strife in Kashmir: “Ghazal, that death-sustaining widow, / sobs in dingy archives, hooked to you. / She wears her grief, a moon-soaked white, / corners the sky in disbelief.” In the poem “Learning Urdu,” he speaks of his mother tongue as if it were itself a contested land, pressured between the cultures of India and Pakistan: “Across the line of blood my friends dissolved / Into bitter stanzas of some dead poet. / I couldn’t sympathize / I only wanted the bitter couplets explained.”
In , he came to the United States to complete his doctorate at Pennsylvania State University. He still regards the move with characteristic ambiguity, one that both acknowledges opportunity and recognizes the cost of leaving behind both his language and his landscape. The HalfInch Himalayas, his first American collection, published in the prestigious Wesleyan University Press New Poets series, begins with the bittersweetly nostalgic “Postcard from Kashmir”:
Kashmir shrinks in my mailbox,
My home a neat four by six inches.
I always loved neatness. Now I hold
the half-inch Himalayas in my hand.
This is home. And this the closest
I’ll ever be to home....
Now on the faculty of the University of Utah, Ali considers himself a Kashmiri-American and an English-language poet. “Someone of two nearly equal loyalties,” he wrote about the two languages, English and Urdu, “must lend them, almost give them, to...
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