The Pedantic Verses

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It comes as no surprise that the book Modern Poetry of Pakistan — an anthology of mostly 20th century (and a little 21st century) verse from the fraught nation — is riddled with paeans to faded grandeur and yearnings for better times. This is a society where a Minority Minister can get murdered for challenging Islamic blasphemy laws, and where the carnage of suicide bombers is a quotidian fact. Thus we meet with poetry suffused with a longing for the lost happiness of a people. Only problem: that idea of a people. Of the 148 poems herein, just over half were translated into English from Urdu, the rest coming from six regional languages: Baluchi, Kashmiri, Pashtu, Punjabi, Seraiki and Sindhi.

With that kind of linguistic (and ethnic) diversity, it seems odd to talk of a unified anything. The poems comprise a mix of religious devotionals, slobbery romantic entreaties, fuddled Sufi invocations, well-wrought traditional forms, political satires, the odd social-realist call to arms and other works by 44 men and women, born mostly before Partition in 1947. And yet, despite the differences, a continuity of mood largely unites them.

The first in the anthology is "The Great Mosque of Córdoba" by the larger-than-life philosopher and political leader Allama Muhammad Iqbal, who died in 1938 before seeing his dream of an independent Muslim nation of Pakistan come true. Its verse sets the tone for the whole collection. Written after Iqbal visited the famed Andalucian mosque, the poem eulogizes the passing of Islamic civilization on the Iberian Peninsula. It, and nearly every other poem in this anthology, is steeped in religion, succoring itself with theocratic visions of a golden past that might guide Pakistan toward a glorious future.

Which might explain why Iqbal's poem and most of the rest are so cheerless and medicinal. Humor the reader? Why, we have souls to save! No time for jokes — unless you want to laugh at the overdressed valentines so many of these poets are lamentably fond of. "For your burning eyes, one would renounce a thousand thrones," woos Ghani Khan, in a puffy coo addressed to a temple dancer.

The great, insurmountable challenge of this book is reconciling through translation two opposing modes of expression. One (modern, international) abhors cliché; the other (traditional, Pakistani) revels in customary usage and sentiment, almost touchingly so. Formal barriers abound (differences in standards of lineation, syntax, punctuation between English and the various Pakistani languages) but even more worrisome is that when a "clash of sensibilities occurs," as co-editor Waqas Khwaja writes in his introduction, "the result is liable to become banal, odd, or even ludicrous." True. "Our country is awake, awake our native land!" begins the late Kashmiri poet Taos Banihali's "Anthem," a rousing reveille to revolution. Just try getting published in the Paris Review with lines like that.

Still, there are poems that minimize the cultural distance. They are gorgeous. They are mystical and brilliant. Here, in its entirety, is Urdu poet Munir Niazi's "Cry of the Desert," the best of his three contributions to this nobly conceived but uneven anthology: "Pitch-dark all around/ heavy, rolling clouds — / She says, 'Who?'/ I say, 'I' — / 'Open this heavy door,/ let me come inside' — / After this, a lingering quiet/ and the roar of hurtling winds." These eight dark and intimate lines are words without borders. Though their land has been buffeted more than most by internecine and geopolitical tempests, Pakistanis aren't alone today in seeking shelter from the storms of our times.