Agha Shahid Ali (1949-2001), born in New Delhi in 1949 and raised in Kashmir, was a Kashmiri-American poet. Ali was educated at the University of Kashmir, Srinagar and the University of New Delhi before coming to America in his early twenties. He earned a Ph.D. at Pennsylvania State University in in 1984 and a M.F.A. in Poetry at the University of Arizona in 1985.
Ali taught at Hamilton College in New York, was director of the M.F.A. Creative Writing program at the University of Massachusetts, and also taught at the University of Utah and Warren Wilson College.
He is the author of eight books of poetry, one work of translation, the editor of an anthology of ghazals, and a book on T.S. Eliot.
He was awarded Guggenheim and Ingram-Merrill fellowships and a Puschart Prize and was a 2001 finalist for the National Book Award with his collection Rooms Are Never Finished.
Ali died in December 2001 of cancer.
– Adapted from “About the Author” from Call Me Ishmael Tonight.
Guggenheim Fellow Ingram-Merrill Fellow National Book Award Finalist (2001), Rooms Are Never Finished
“His ghazals offer a path toward a level of lyric expansiveness few poets would are to aspire to.” – Michael Palmer
“Agha Shahid Ali’s Kashmir, in his poems, is our own lost but inalienable homeland. . . . But the grace and wit, the perceptions and illuminations they serve, their accent, are his own.” – W. S. Merwin
“Combining humane elegance and moral passion, Ali speaks for Kashmir in a large, generous, compassionate, powerful and urgent voice. . . . Few poets in this country have such a voice or such a topic.” -Hayden Carruth
“Extraordinary formal precision and virtuosity. . . . This is poetry whose appeal is universal, its voice unerringly eloquent.” – Edward Said
1 from Amazon.com’s database of editorial reviews.
At a certain point I lost track of you.
You needed me. You needed to perfect me.
In your absence you polished me into the Enemy.
Your history gets in the way of my memory.
I am everything you lost. You can’t forgive me.
I am everything you lost. Your perfect enemy.
Your memory ets in the way of my memory:
I am being rowed through Paradise on a river of Hell.
Exquisite ghost, it is night.
- from The Country Without A Post Office
The Editor Revisited1
You still haven’t called me a poet, Dear Sir,
and I’ve been at it,
this business of meanings, sometimes delayed,
selling words in bottles, at times in boxes.
I began with a laugh, stirred my tea with English,
drank India down with a faint British accent,
temples, beggars, and dust
spread like marmalade on my toast:
A bitter taste: On Parliament Street
a policeman beat a child on the head.
Hermaphrodites walked by in Saffron saris,
their drums etching a drought-rhythm.
The Marxists said,
In Delhi English sounds obscene.
Return to Hindi or Bengali, each word will burn
A language must measure up to one’s native dust.
Divided between two cultures, I spoke a language foreign even to my ears;
I diluted it in a glass of Scotch.
A terrible trade, my lip service to Revolution
punctuated by a whisly-god.
Now collecting a degree in English,
will I embrace my hungry country
with an armful of soliloquies?
This trade in words continues however as
Shakespeare feeds my alienation.
Please note, Dear Sir, my terrible plight
as I collect rejection slips
from your esteemed journal.
1 In an interview with NPR (see Interviews With Ali), Ali says that as a child he regularly sent poetry to journals, sending enough that he eventually got a personalized rejection letter asking him not to send any more.
On English When Ali wrote his first poems at the age of twelve, he said it was only natural that the language of his pen turned out to be English …. Ali makes an unusual distinction between mother tongue and first language. For him, he writes, the former is Urdu, but the latter is English, and he is unequivocal in laying claim to both the language and canon of colonial legacy. “I do consider English in many ways a South Asian language,” he said, elaborating in conversation. “I mean it’s something worth pointing out to people that the third largest English-speaking population in the world exists in India. That is more people than the entire population in Canada. That gives people a sense of perspective.”1
On Writing Poetry “It varies from poem to poem. I am not one of those people who requires to be away from the world and be isolated and all that. I need chunks of time, which can be just one day or two days, but I don’t need to go away to one of those places. I can work quite well in my own room, meeting friends in the evening and just working on the poem during the day. I can even work with friends – someone may be in the room and I’d be working on the poem.”2
On The Ghazal’s Reception in America “The form has really been utterly misunderstood in America, with these free verse ghazals. I mean, that’s just not the ghazal.”1
On the ‘Proliferation’ of Free Verse “I do think that because of the proliferation of MFA programs, a certain kind of free verse poem has become an utter cliche … It has nothing to do with the innate nature of free verse, I think. It has to do with the fact that this has been the prevalent, received form now for twenty to thirty years and people have gone around thinking that they can just express themselves in these prosy lines and chop them up with some sense of discipline but no real questions being asked. I would say if free verse is becoming very easy, try sonnets, try sestinas.”1
On Incorporating Allusions in His Poetry “Will the reader get it or not? If they get it that’s great, it’s wonderful. I am a bit of a conservative or an elitist in this manner. If people are serious about poetry, they should know their Shakespeare,, they should know their Milton. They should be devouring poetry all the time, and some of the pleasure is in recognizing.”1
For an audio interview with Ali on NPR, see http://web.me.com/ipatkin/Izhar_Patkin/veiled_threats/shahid_audio.html.
1 Interview with Agha Shahid Ali, by Christine Venvenuto, c. 1990s.
2 Interview with Agha Shahid Ali, by Eric Gamalinda. Poets & Writers. 2002. See http://www.pw.org/content/interview_poet_agha_shahid_ali?cmnt_all=1
‘The Ghazal can be traced back to seventh-century Arabia. It is composed of autonomous or semi-autonomous couplets that are united by a strict scheme of rhyme, refrain, and line length. The opening couplet sets up the scheme by haviting it in both lines, and then the scheme occurs only in the second line of every succeeding couplet – i.e., the first line (same length) of every succeeding couplet sets up a suspense, and the second line (same length but with the rhyme and refrain – the rhyme immediately preceding the refrain) delivers on that suspense by amplifying dramatizing, imploding, exploding.’
The predominant theme of ghazal poetry is illicit or unattainable love. While English-language ghazal poetry has been experimented with for nearly a century, it did not achieve meaningful recognition until the 1990s, when poets including John Hollander and W.S. Merwin published ghazal poetry.
Adapted from Ali’s Call Me Ishmael Tonight and Wikipedia. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ghazal
Rooms Are Never Finished
The Country Without a Post Office
The Beloved Witness: Selected Poems
A Nostalgist’s Map of America
A Walk Through the Yellow Pages
The Half-Inch Himalayas
In Memory of Begum Akhtar & Other Poems
The Rebel’s Silhouette: Selected Poems (Faiz Ahmed Faiz)
Ravishing DisUnities: Real Ghazals in English (Editor)
T.S. Eliot as Editor