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The News - Poetic career is a voyage

An Interview

Mohammad Izhar ul Haq is one of those prominent poets of 1970s who revisited the tradition and blended it with Islamic and historical metaphors in order to define their own individuality. Born in 1948, the senior civil servant published his pathbreaking first collection of poetry 'Diwaar-e-Aab' in 1982, followed by 'Ghadar' (1986) 'Parizaad' (1994) and 'Pani Pay Bicha Takht' (2003). An established poet with a unique diction and ideological stance, he has been writing weekly columns in an Urdu daily since 1992. He remains a witty commentator on socio-political and literary issues. Excerpts of an interview with him follow.

By Abrar Ahmad

The News on Sunday: You are among the prominent poets of 1970s who refused to conform and attempted to devise a new poetic paradigm. Do you think, in poetic pursuits, deliberation really works?

Muhammad Izhar ul Haq: I did refuse to conform

"Since following the footprints of the masses causes to drift onto a strand

We do not take the route adopted by convoy".

As for the second part of your question whether new paradigms in poetry emerge with planning, the answer is no, probably not. I believe that poetic creativity cannot be planned. It is the inner self which finds its outlet in the form of poetry. There are no blueprints in poetry, no wires that can be pulled. And those who try to plan it end up with something which cannot be termed poetry in the real sense. Poetic pursuits find their own expression.

There were three things that pushed me into the unseen lands of poetry. First, the poetic sense that nature had placed in my chemistry. I agree with those who believe that poetry and oratory cannot be learnt. You will not find any school in the entire human history where non-poets were turned into poets. Second, the milieu in which I was brought up: I was fortunate to have been born in a family of scholars and writers. My grandfather and his sons would, very often, communicate with each other in Persian. My father has authored several books in poetry some of which are in Persian. My education started with Persian and Persian poetry. Third, poetry became a way of life for me. I relished it, nurtured it and lived in it.

TNS: You belong to the post-partition generation. How do you define your point of departure from the pre-existing literary scenario?

MIH: According to me, the poetry which lamented the tragedies of partition proved a point of departure. I vividly remember an anthology of poems written about partition which an elder cousin of mine used to read and recite when I was a child. The pre-existing or pre-partition poets, whatever you term, were unable to look at things in absolute sense. The colonial era was deeply embedded in their subconsciousness. When Faiz said, 'Yeh daagh daagh ujaala Yeh Shab-guzeedah Sahar', he was unconsciously confessing his inability to look at the new dawn with an un-jaundiced eye. As a doctor, you would know that Schizophrenia is characterised by a loss of contact with the environment and by hallucination which gives the patient a feeling that he is accompanied by another human being. Pre-partition poets were unable to shed the burden of colonialism. On the contrary, we the post-partition generation of poets, looked at our environment with no preconceived notions. We had a better sense of belonging to the freed motherland. We had more confidence. We were not timid.

TNS: Do you think the work done by the group to which you belong has had a following among the new ranks of literati and how?

MIH: Yes. This is an undisputed fact that this group that brought its own style and diction in 1970s has been massively followed. A whole lot of poets imitated this group -- especially myself, Sarwat Hussain and to some extent Jamaal Ihsani. The vocabulary we coined and introduced was adopted by many and some of them followed so crudely that they became ludicrous and I had to suggest.

I was the first poet to have brought Cordoba, Granada, Samarkand and Bukhara in ghazal (not in nazm). Many followed including those who had never visited these places nor had enough knowledge of history and its relationship with the culture of subcontinent. But, on the whole, our impact on the generation who came after us has been positive as well as visible. It does impart a sense of achievement.

TNS: Your poetry derives inspiration from Islamic civilization and its metaphors. Has this aspect expanded or limitised the relevance and scope of your work?

MIH: Poetic career is a voyage. It is not something static. Islamic history and civilization gave a lot to my works. The inspiration and influence was innovative as well as productive to a remarkable extent. The fact that I was brought up in an atmosphere steeped in Persian and Arabic literature and Islamic jurisprudence and later on my odysseys to Spain, Central Asia, Middle East, Turkey and North Africa contributed to this phase of my poetry. But that was not all. There were other catalysts as well. I studied economics, came in contact with the system through civil service, had the privilege of having lived in both the halves of Pakistan - rural as well as urban. My latest collection ('Paani Pah Bicha Takht 2003) contains much that stems directly from my own land, people and their problems. This diversity has been hinted at in a couplet.

TNS: Asatiri ghazal is the term sporadically used to refer to the poetry of this kind and sensibility. Your comments.

MIH: When you say sporadically, I derive vicarious pleasure out of this and enjoy. In fact 'Asatiri' ghazal is a misnomer. Asatir means mythology and the kind of ghazal which we are discussing doesn't have anything to do with mythology. Besides, mythology in absolute terms does not convey any sense. A mythology has to belong to a certain civilization, for instance Greek, Persian or Indian. But there is no such thing as Islamic or Muslim mythology. I derived my phraseology and terminology from Muslim history and Quran. For example:

TNS: You lately took to prose poem writing. What is the essential difference between the two and what are the future prospects of prose poem?

MIH: A very important question indeed. It's true my first book 'Diwaar-e-aab' comprised only ghazals but I did resort to prose poem as a tool of poetry soon after. The second anthology 'Ghadar' contained prose poems. And so did two books that followed. The most important aspect to be seen in this context is whether the poet has undergone the tough test of composing poetry with the discipline and bounds of meter and rhyme. If elsewhere he has done it and is recognised for having done so, his prose poems must be taken seriously and have to be reckoned with. This method of judgement serves as a scanner to filter out those who take shelter in the sanctuary of prose poem to camouflage their unskillfulness. They are, essentially ungifted.

To appreciate the significance of prose poem, it may be helpful to look at the kit of a golfer. You use different clubs for different purposes and you keep on changing them according to requirement. My experience is that in the height of pleasure and hypochondria, prose poem is the most apt outlet. The controversy whether prose poem is poetry or otherwise is sheer wastage of time and loss of creative resources. Not long ago blank-verse also encountered similar resistance. In fact prose-poem is a powerful tool and what ghazal, poem and blank-verse cannot deliver, prose-poem communicates effectively while retaining all the essential and integral elements of poetry barring meter and rhyme. Its future prospects are bright. In fact it is already thriving.

TNS: Do you think literature holds an undiluted relevance today? And how do you look at the current literary situation?

MIH: It was during the 1980s when the 'one child only' restriction was imposed on Chinese families. By the beginning of the current century these single children were grown up without seeing any cousin, uncle or aunt. The Chinese writers, especially novelists, were at a loss as to how to bring these characters in novels when nobody could comprehend these relationships.
This is just one example to stress that literature can never turn irrelevant even in the most materialistic societies. The age of super-tech computer does not mean that people will not laugh or weep or be without emotions. All this will continue to create literature and demand literature.
As far as current literary scenario is concerned, I am optimistic. Poetry is flourishing. Literary periodicals of high quality are there. Epoch making novels like 'Kaee Chaand Thay sar-e-aasman' are being written in our era. Negative forces are also there. Those who are handling literature on electronic media are ignorant of who is who of literature and are contributing only towards nepotism. Substandard 'literary' sections of newspapers continue to promote -- if I am allowed to use the word -- yellow literature. The curse of so called Mazaahya (humorous) musha'iras is deteriorating the aesthetic level of viewers and listeners. In spite of all this the wheel has not stopped. Creative writings of high standard continue to appear.

TNS: Why have we failed to witness the emergence of a new significant critic? Your views on contemporary criticism?

MIH: New significant critic. Allow me to say that we do not have the old significant critic. Unfortunately, our critics have generally been myopic and subjective. They can not shun their prejudices. Criticism, as such, is a creation of the West. Our classical literature of Arabic and Persian never contained any work of criticism except a few pieces here and there like portions of 'Maqaamaat-e-Hareeri', 'Maqaamaat-e-Hamdaani'. 'Chahaar maqaala' etc. Regretfully our critics do not (or perhaps cannot) study English literature and are totally indifferent to what is happening elsewhere. Our so called history of criticism is also marred by cronyism and parochial and linguistic considerations. Some critics have resorted to this field after experiencing failures in the field of creativity. Altaf Hussain Hali had remarked about them:

Jab na ho kuch bhi to Haali nukta cheeni keejyay.

TNS: Do you think you were successful in striking a balance between your career as a poet and a civil servant?

MIH: I cannot pass a judgement on myself. I endeavoured not to mix the two. I never introduced myself as a poet or as a student of literature in the corridors of civil service. I believe that literature is not everybody's cup of tea. Many do not deserve it. Some do not appreciate. Poetry should be recited and literature should be discussed only in the company of persons of letters.

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