A Lively Progression: Mapping Pakistani Poetry
Essay by Ilona Yusuf

English. In Pakistan, the language of public correspondence. Of the law courts. Of government. Of education. The language of media. Ergo, the language of power.

Macaulay’s didactic (and discriminatory) ‘Minute on Education’ of 1835 declared “We must…form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern; a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect.” (1)  The recommendation that English become the official language of India as well as the medium of educational instruction (replacing the Persian of the Mughal Empire) was a strategy that created the backbone of the civil service and ensured the smooth running of Empire. Ultimately it also created a love for the language of the colonisers, and a cross pollination of words, phrases, thought and ideas.  

Independence, in August 1947, coincided with the Partition of the subcontinent to form two nations, India, and Pakistan, with its Muslim majority and communities of religious minorities.

Rajeev S. Patke, in Postcolonial Poetry in English, notes that at the time of Partition, “writing in English met resistance from indigenous languages and the State. Traditionally, poets in Pakistan preferred Urdu and Persian to English. Muhammad Iqbal (2) (1877-1938) wrote with brilliance and passion in both.” But a limited tradition of creative writing in English did exist, although it was in prose that early innovations in language took place. (3) Ahmed Ali’s novel Twilight in Delhi, still considered a classic, is set in the early decades of the twentieth century and depicts the life of a Muslim household belonging to the declining feudal culture. The author affects a break from the English tradition by importing local speech patterns into his writing. (4)

Cut to the nineteen seventies, a period of political and artistic freedom, and we enter a new dimension, a profusion of literary, particularly poetic, activity. Schools and universities, especially for the elite, still ran on pre-Partition lines, with English as the medium of instruction. Writers of this period had been taught using the English canon as the dominant literary reference, but now a fledgling movement took wing. In Lahore, the poet Taufiq Rafat broke away from traditional poetic form. Published in the literary magazines of the sixties and seventies, Perspectives, Vision and Pakistan Quarterly from Karachi; Pakistan Review and Ravi (the magazine of Government College, Lahore), Rafat, who had been writing since the late nineteen forties, was already an established poet. With fellow poet Kaleem Omar, he formed a writers’ group frequented by Athar Tahir, Khaled Ahmed, Shuja Nawaz, Tariq Yazdani Malik, Alamgir Hashmi, and Jocelyn Ortt-Saeed, who honed their poetic skills under Rafat’s mentorship. Waqas Khwaja, originally trained in the formal traditions of English poetry, in rhyme and metre, remembers Rafat for his generosity in nurturing talent. Local and foreign poets, among them the British poet Anthony Thwaite, joined the group’s meetings and judged poetry competitions organised through colleges as well as the British Council and the American Center; and Alamgir Hashmi’s radio programme ‘The English Magazine,’ broadcast from Lahore, featured readings of their work by local poets.

It was Rafat who forged what is referred to as a Pakistani idiom, a conscious effort to move away from the English canon, sowing the seeds of modernism, experimenting with free as well as formal verse, and the use of atonal speech patterns. His own poems, coloured by the rhythms of the land, a semi-agrarian landscape peopled by characters from his native Sialkot, are written in simple, direct language, and often follow a sequential narrative. But his best work uses nature as a metaphor for human strength and weakness. Perhaps these, such as “Kingfisher,” from which the following extract is taken, are the poems in which he does not consciously subscribe to a specific form or idiom:

‘Bird or hovercraft, your angling skill
proclaims the confidence
of repeated success; you flash
rainbows as you plunge to kill.

But what about tomorrow? Will they hiss
and boo from the sidelines
as you find, pause, fold and dip towards
the horror of your first miss?’

If Rafat’s indigenous imprint eventually gave rise to a group of poets who limited themselves to representations of the local landscape, it may have been a catalyst for another generation’s creative development, taking the example provided by its insistence on a new identity, while resisting its drawbacks.

Poetic activity was not central only to Lahore. Karachi was the home of Maki Qureshi, (5) poet and lecturer, and Daud Kamal who worked as a lecturer at Peshawar University. Both were poets with a small output of memorable poetry. (6) Maki Qureshi’s startling images, laid down almost objectively, manifest the underlying violence in humans and animals:

A universe surrounds us. At least
stay on the far reaches
of the wall. We intend no hurt to each other,

yet our contact point is horror.
I scream and shudder.
Quickly you wriggle behind a tall vase.

Then, without cause, creep round to stare at me close.
My calm breaks like glass.
Quite easily you also come apart.

I value your ethnic difference. Just keep

To your side of the universe. Please.    (“To Any Lizard”)

Daud Kamal’s short poems, sometimes dark and brooding, sometimes sparkling like jewels, resemble the work of the imagists, conjuring a mood or an image in almost every line:

Under the shade
Of a willow tree
Where the river bends
In a rock-pool
Prayer–beads rise
To the surface
From the mouth
Of an invisible fish.    (“Prayer-beads”)

Perhaps it is not incidental that most of these poets, who laid the foundation for Pakistan’s postcolonial literary tradition, were well versed in the rich literary traditions of the vernacular. Rafat, Hashmi, Daud Kamal and Waqas Khwaja have all produced fine translations of poetic works in the national as well as regional languages.

This flowering of writing and publishing was soon to meet the arrival of martial law in the late seventies. Under the iron fist of General Zia-ul-Haq, the nineteen eighties was a decade of political repression and religious ascendancy during which artists who coveted freedom of expression went underground. In response to this dark climate, Waqas Khwaja, (7) then living in his native city of Lahore, founded a group with two fellow writers, (8) bringing together authors to develop a critical understanding of texts in English as well as regional languages. The group, which met every fortnight and counted among its members the well-known feminist poet Kishwar Naheed, Urdu short story writer Intizar Hussain, and journalist and newspaper editor M. A. Niazi, grew to include visiting foreign poets and eventually ventured into the art of translation. During roughly the same period, Adrian A. Husain’s writers’ group, Mixed Voices, based in Karachi, became a multicultural forum that brought together writers from different racial and linguistic groups with the purpose of allowing for interaction between them, in the way of readings, translation and critique. Among the poets in attendance were Maki Qureshi and her daughter, Shireen Haroun.

This was the decade in which the government’s attempt to introduce Urdu as the official medium of instruction (9) met with resistance and a consequent mushrooming of privately run English medium schools. By the nineties this parallel education system contributed to the decline of the national language, giving students the option to learn ‘easy Urdu,’ which taught them basic sentence construction and a limited vocabulary. In a country where regional languages, rather than the official national language of Urdu, are learned and spoken at home, this meant that many children belonging to the elite were strangers to Pakistan’s strong literary tradition.

Notwithstanding all this, vernacular poetry was and still is a fundamental element of Pakistani society, from the street labourer to the Americanised elite. During the sixties and the seventies, poetry was routinely set to music, sung by famous vocalists, broadcast over radio, shown on television, and even used in playback film music. It was used as the rhythm of protest during repressive regimes. The work of national poets, such as Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Ahmed Faraz, was woven into the speeches and slogans of politicians, particularly as an exhortation to freedom and democracy. Most recently the words of the socialist poet Habib Jalib have come to be associated with the Lawyers’ Movement through the songs of a local rock band. If the younger generation has otherwise lost its connection to local language, the thriving popular music scene has countered the loss by giving them anthems, using well known poems set to music which is often a fusion of eastern semi-classical form and western jazz, blues and rock.

And despite the literalist religion of the eighties, current fundamentalist movements and an undercurrent of violence have eroded Sufistic teachings; Sufi poetry is also woven into the consciousness of the people. The interactive experience of a Pakistani poetry reading ensures a bonding with the audience, who are expected to respond audibly to the poet’s recitation, in which lines are often repeated for emphasis, following the listeners’ appreciation.

If the seventies were the benchmark for creating a new idiom in literature in English, the nineties brought a fresh burst of activity. The establishment of courses in creative writing and postcolonial literature at the Lahore University of Management Sciences during the eighties gave impetus to a budding group of writers. Hima Raza, who taught English literature and creative writing at the latter institution, experimented with a variety of forms and themes in the two collections of poetry published before her short life ended in an accident. Word puzzles, jazz rhythms, visual or ‘size’ poetry define much of her work, which examines the materialistic quality of modern relationships and cultural divides. Hers is an urban, politically informed metaphor, in which history is used as a reference to challenge the colonisers and the formerly colonised.

imperial designs (plus)
colonial practice (equals)
a new ‘civilizing mission’
(encased in) sanctimonious shades
of red, white and blue…

it’s a good thing I’m used to this;
the process of shutting things out
as they fall apart,
the pretence of cool
in a dry, hot season,
the taste of redemption
in a t.v. screen…     (“the pretence of cool”)

A number of young poets have stepped into this playing field of modernist and post-modernist form. Hima can be considered representative of this movement. They have a literary tradition, however brief, to use as a reference point. This tradition has grown to include a large diaspora, as well as developments during and after the seventies, which have taken poetry beyond the Pakistani idiom, ‘towards a more universal metaphor’. (11)

Several poets belonging to the formative period of this literary tradition, working in Pakistan during and after the seventies, are represented in this anthology. Among them are Alamgir Hashmi, whose verse, alternately lyrical, whimsical, wry and sarcastic, straddles and sometimes finds itself suspended between the often disparate worlds of east and west. This appears in an early poem, “America is a Punjabi Word.” The poet tours America with a camel with whom he carries on a private conversation expressing wonder and bewilderment at cultural similarities and differences. Digressing from the poets belonging to this formative tradition and crossing over to the diaspora, award winning poet Moniza Alvi, (12) who was brought up in England and has been writing since the nineteen eighties, borrowed the device in “Alamgir Hashmi’s Camel,” (13) using it to explore the English suburbs. Alvi’s early work expresses the colour and flavour of the east, as the child of a mixed marriage. But it also contains the seeds of her mature work, which culminates in How the Stone Found its Voice. The cycle of short poems which give the title to this collection—their own titles inspired by Kipling’s Just So Stories—investigate dichotomy, injustice, war, silence, and anger, and the bittersweet last poem where, after the war of wars, the stone at last finds its voice. The first section of “At the Time of Partition, The Line” is written in a similar style: an almost naive tone which represents a harsh, brutal reality. Alvi’s work often examines separation, the division between body and soul, between people, between East and West. Returning to the formative period of Pakistan’s literary tradition, award winning poet and Shakespeare scholar, Adrian A. Husain, ‘aspires to write verse that transcends time and space, rather than specifically Pakistani ethnic poetry.’ His poems, characterised by short line breaks, often paint an idyllic, peaceful landscape in which there is a hint of something beyond, often the presence of evil which lurks unnoticed by the subject, only to reveal itself chillingly at the climax of the poem.

Of the diaspora writers who began their writing careers during the sixties, Zulfikar Ghose is an influential poet, essayist and novelist. Fiercely independent, he consciously eschews the postcolonial label into which most writers originating from this part of the world are lumped. Ghose began his literary career with poetry, and three collections were published before he turned to the novel and the essay. He has recently returned to poetry: this volume includes the early poem “The Attack on Sialkot,” and the new “Silent Birds.” Born in Sialkot, the writer moved several times during his early life, eventually settling in Texas where he has spent the major years of his career. A member of The Group (14) in England, Ghose’s early work shows its influence in his attention to technique and construction; the themes are frequently nostalgia for the country left behind, or the exploration of intellectual concepts such as the changing shape of memory. His later poems, which are less tightly controlled, often portray the intense colours, flora and fauna of the landscape of his current home, evocative also of that of his childhood, a ‘country’ to which he constantly returns in spirit.  

Amongst the emerging poets, several are familiar with the vocal tradition of the vernacular. Harris Khalique is a bilingual poet, writing in Urdu, Punjabi and English, the latter a terrain where he feels freer to experiment than in his national language. Shadab Zeest Hashmi, whose collection The Baker of Tarifa recently won the San Diego Book Award, grew up with the poetry of Iqbal, Bulleh Shah and Faiz, ‘inspired by how boldly they question the status quo, how deftly they fuse rhetoric with lyricism, and how powerfully they utilize paradox, engaging the reader on various levels as they negotiate spirituality with the intellect.’ Hashmi has experimented with compo-sing in the traditional sub-continental poetic form of the ghazal, which she has also taught. History is very much a part of her oeuvre, used to unco-ver common places and spaces between East and West. She is a masterful painter of light, and has vast reserves of empathy for the characters who people her poems.

Kyla Pasha also grew up with this oral tradition, which contrasted with her experience at university in the United States, where she encountered a preoccupation with style and form. Her discovery of Def (15) poetry confirmed the impact of spoken poetry that she was familiar with from childhood. But she recognises the importance of learning ‘how to balance the physical and vocal art of performance poetry with poetry laid down on the page.’ Pasha’s ardent, impassioned voice owes much to both western and eastern influences, in the latter case the Sufi idea of talking directly to God. Her themes and form, however, are intensely modern, subscribing to the feminist idea that ‘the personal is political.’

If Pasha addresses God in the Sufi tradition, Sascha Aurora Akhtar weaves rhythms reminiscent of a group of chanting, swaying forms approaching euphoria in “Sufi’s Sestina,” which translate equally well into jazz rhythms, as the poet herself points out.

To talk about the work and background of all the poets in this anthology would require an exhaustive essay, which might detract from the poetry itself. The purpose here is to trace threads and recurrent themes, and to provide background so that the reader unfamiliar with poetry from this part of the world understands the poetic heritage of the poets represented. What is clear is the wide diversity of theme and handling, whether these be identity, place-related poems such as those of the lyrical Sahar Rizvi; of Sehba Sarwar, whose work has its roots in performance poetry; or that of Waqas Khwaja, whose poem, “Tryptich”, recalls landscapes discovered in his childhood, then rediscovered in the present, rendered in a style and form reminiscent of the English Romantic poets. Sadaf Halai, winner of the Young Voices competition, (16) evinces a philosophical preoccupation with the unseen connections between small events in a person’s life, which represent a much larger reality. Connecting the dots reveals a larger design, an alternative reality, which escapes the immediate, naked eye. Other variations are the exacting form of rhyming verse used by Faraz Maqsood Hamidi, a sarcastic, sometimes bitter take on urban reality particularly among the educated middle and upper middle classes; the flights of fantasy, modern takes on the literary past by Rayan Khan; the painterly eye of Moeen Faruqi, the crystalline images of Bilal Tanweer and Shireen Haroun’s implicit identification with the natural world.

What one realises in reading the poems is that this is a group of poets who have a masterful grasp of what they want to say. They confidently straddle two worlds, seeking to reinvent language in very individual voices, through metaphors culled from local and international poetic traditions, skilfully using allusions stemming from an internalised knowledge of forms. What transpires is the reshaping of language, the fusing of vernacular and traditional English speech and poetic patterns. Not to be forgotten is the role of the globalized world and technological innovation, in which the last few decades have seen wide access to world literature and developments in writing.

In a way, these poets are refashioning the idea of identity, by aspiring to the universal, rather than remaining confined to one place, capitalising on an appetite for the exotic or producing elevated political rhetoric. Place and time are two entities that are inescapable. It’s in how we transcend them that we make poetry.



To Blaine Marchand, for initiating this project, and with whom it’s been a pleasure to work.

To Vallum, for giving Pakistani poetry a platform.

To the poets who, in conversation, helped me piece together the evolution of a literary tradition in Pakistani poetry: among them Waqas Khwaja, Adrian Husain, and Alamgir Hashmi.

To the poets, who have contributed to the making of a fine body of work.


Work Cited
1 Macaulay’s ‘Minute on Education’, (1835) The Victorian Age, The Civilizing Mission, The Norton Anthology of English Literature, online. It also declared ‘the entire native literature of India and Arabia is not equal to a single shelf of books in the English language.’
2  Muhammad Iqbal is the national poet of Pakistan. He wrote to motivate the Muslim community, and was inspired by Islamic ideals of community as well as the philosophy of Nietzsche.
3 Although during the 1930s Shahid Suhrawardy (who later migrated to Pakistan) published Essays in Verse in English, there was not much poetic output, and whatever was written was often informed by the work of Rabindranath Tagore.
4 Ahmed Ali is more remembered for his prose than for poetry: the latter, published in The Purple Gold Mountain, uses a romanticised English idiom and lacks the innovation of his prose.
5 Maki Qureshi, Pakistan’s first female poet writing in English, was from the minority Parsi community but married a Muslim. Her poetry embodies references from both faiths.
6 This transitional stage in the development of English writing culminated in the publication of several anthologies, First Voices in 1965, Pieces of Eight in 1971, and Wordfall in 1975.
7 Waqas Khwaja, poet and translator, is originally from Lahore but is now settled in Atlanta, Georgia.
8 Mahmud Gilani and Chaudhary Shaukat Ali were the co founders of the group.
9  The transition from English to Urdu created controversy. Among other reasons, there was a lack of corresponding texts in the vernacular, particularly in the sciences.
10 From 2007-2009, lawyers, civil society and certain political groups fought for the independence of the judiciary following the unconstitutional sacking of the Chief Justice by General Pervez Musharraf, then ruler of the country.

11 Adrian A. Hussain

12  Alvi’s work was shaped by her experiences and contact with writing groups and poets in Britain. She was introduced to Hashmi’s work when asked to review his collection The Ramazan Libation (Arc Books, 2003)
13  From How the Stone Found its Voice (Bloodaxe Books, 2005)
14 Members of The Group included Peter Porter, George MacBeth, Alan Brownjohn, Martin Bell, B. S. Johnson and Peter Redgrove.
15 Def Poetry, also known as … Def Poetry Jam, which was co-founded by Bruce George, Danny Simmons and Deborah Pointer, is an HBO television series … (which) presents performances by established spoken word poets, as well as up and coming ones. Well known actors and musicians will often surprise the audience by showing up to recite their own original poems … though technically not a poetry slam, Def Poetry has become heavily associated with the poetry slam movement…’ (Wikipedia)
16 Young Writers’ Competition, Goethe Institut, Karachi with the Heinrich Boll Foundation of Lahore and Oxford University Press, 2007.


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