#56: FAIZ AHMED FAIZ. There is a jeweled, ecstatic quality which seems to be the special property of Islamic and Sufi verse, familiar to some Western readers now by the recent wild popularity of Rumi; similarly, there is an entranced and erotic tone particular to certain Indian poets, as in the great Bengali figure Tagore. The poetry of Faiz Ahmed Faiz rests at a meeting point between the two, but at many other crossroads as well. He was born in 1911 in Punjab, which was part of India at his birth and of Pakistan at his death in 1984. He was raised an orthodox Muslim but came to see himself as agnostic; he had a traditional grounding in Arabic, Persian and Urdu, knew these literatures intimately, and yet opened himself to the influences of English Romanticism and European surrealism; he wrote ghazals (the recurring poetic form of Urdu and its eighteenth-century master, Ghalib) and sonnets. He also, perhaps inevitably, felt the influence of Marxism, and he extended the reach of Urdu into the characteristic twentieth-century poetic form of political witness. He was shunned and imprisoned by repressive politicians and came to his official honors posthumously; but in the literary world and among the Pakistani people he seems to have been a beloved and revered figure. Reading his verse even in translation one finds a radiance and generosity, a quality of goodness, that makes his personal reputation believable; it certainly puts to shame, say, the crabbed right-wing politics of many of the Modernist poets. The selection done by V. G. Kiernan (Poems By Faiz, New Delhi, Oxford India Paperbacks, reprinted 2000) is a particularly interesting book from the point of view of translation: there is an Urdu text and transliteration, but also a close literal version as well as one in verse; one can follow, in a sense, some of the distance Faiz covers to get to English, and the rhymed versions, with their late Romantic manner, are often quite good. There is also 100 Poems by Faiz Ahmed Faiz, translated by Sarvat Rahman (New Delhi, Abhinav Publications, 2002), not as good as Kiernan’s versions but with poems not included there. Faiz: Fifty Poems (Oxford, 2013) has texts and transliterations, but I found the translations by Mahmood Jamal disappointing.

The liveliest and most charming introduction to Ghalib is The Lightning Should Have Fallen on Ghalib, translated by Robert Bly and Sunil Dutta (Ecco, 1999). Another good and interesting book is Ghazals of Ghalib (Columbia, 1971), with seven different poets translating, including W.S. Merwin and Adrienne Rich. A recent title is Love Sonnets of Ghalib, with translations and explications by Sarafaraz K. Niazi (New Delhi, Rupa and Co., 2002), in which the explications tend to smother the translations rather badly. The real oddity here is that the poems included….well, aren’t sonnets, at least not in the traditional use of the term. But then they made the movie “Krakatoa East of Java,” and nobody thought to tell them that Krakatoa is west of Java. Sometimes these things just slip by you…..

Recent Posts

See All


#187: ILLUMINATION. In the fourth chapter of Christopher de Hamel’s wonderful History of Illuminated Manuscripts, he borrows from the thirteenth century the tale of a student being roundly berated by


#186: I WANTED TO PAINT PARADISE. I read Joseph Stroud’s extraordinary collection Of This World: New and Selected Poems (Copper Canyon Press, 2009) almost in a state of suspense. The opening sequence,


#185: THE LADY HAS HER SAY. Sailing now well past its twentieth anniversary, Carol Ann Duffy’s collection The World’s Wife (Faber, 1999) remains an impudent delight. With the mere addition of a letter