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Poetry, Politics And Desire

The passing away of Kaifi Azmi represents the slow disappearance of a liberal humanism that was able to achieve a straightforward, passionate, unassailable manifestation in poetry.

Anjum Hasan ON | 13 May 2002
Poetry, Politics And Desire
Poetry, Politics And Desire
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How would I, an English language poet and one separated from Kaifi Azmi by two generations, respond to his life and work? One is inclined to say less about the exact qualities of Azmi's verse and more about the ideas that he represented. Ideas about how poetry becomes an instrument of politics and desire.

A poet friend of mine attempting like me to find the nerve-centre of his poetry says that unlike the famous Portuguese, Fernando Pessoa, who was several poets in one, Indian English poets (notwithstanding reports of older poets sitting on piles of unpublished manuscripts, he says) have always been half, one-third, one-fourth poets. So how can we talk about our creed when we haven't even donned the mantle?

What does it take to don the mantle? One reads stories about the Progressive Writers' Movement that nurtured Azmi, not able any longer to respond to the politics of that time but fascinated still because it was a politics that blew life into poetry. Saadat Hasan Manto is important not just because of his searingly honest writing which somehow stood outside the Progressive fold, but also because he had a fold to stand outside of, because his writing was willy-nilly one of the many compounds produced by the chemistry between politics and art in mid-twentieth century India.

The passing away of Kaifi Azmi represents the slow disappearance of a liberal humanism that was able to achieve a straightforward, passionate, unassailable manifestation in poetry. However, the equation between what we believe in and how we write about it did not change overnight. One could perhaps trace the trajectory of political beliefs on the sub-continent from poet to poet. If Azmi represented a fervent idealism and poets like Nissim Ezekiel, a questioning of the sense of national identity that underlay that idealism, then we who are just coming into our own seem to have turned poetry itself into the act rather than the instrument of questioning.

Of course, to think about Urdu poetry is also to think about the larger concerns around the Urdu language, just as to think about Indian poetry in English is to conjure up some kind of general worldview of its authors. The question is not whether these worlds address each other, for as the poetry of Agha Shahid Ali showed, they most certainly can. The question is - in our quest to become more than one-fourth poets, will we ask ourselves - what is it to be a poet and not - what is it to write poetry? If so, Kaifi Azmi, the poet, must of necessity continue to speak to us.


Anjum Hasan's Shillong, Bob Dylan And Cowboy Boots was the winner of the third prize in the last Outlook-Picador non-fiction essay competition. Some of her poems have appeared in the recently released Reasons for Belonging: An Anthology of Fourteen Contemporary Poets edited by Ranjit Hoskote (Penguin India).

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