Professor Guy Rotella’s on Intimations of Ghalib (Orison Books, 2018), M. Shahid Alam’s sublime new translation of the great poet’s Ghazals.
I first encountered Ghalib in the early 1970s. I was in graduate school, studying poetry. Then, as now, I had no Urdu. The medium of transmission—translation—was Aijaz Ahmad’s Ghazals of Ghalib, from Columbia University Press. It comprised versions of ghazals by W.S. Merwin, Adrienne Rich, William Stafford, Mark Strand, and others, all of them working from Ahmad’s literal translations and supplementary comments. My interest (probably slaking along the way some ersatz thirst for the supposedly exotic) was more in the American poets I admired than in the original poems they tried to bring into English. Merwin, Rich, and the rest were driven to Ghalib, or so I thought, by their quest for alternative models to the high modernist masters they were trying to shed or shred, by their search for remoter precedents to replace nearer ones they needed to reject.
The ghazal is united by form (two-line units, rigorous patterns of rhyme and refrain) but discontinuous in theme (each two-line stanza is distinct and separable from its fellows). The ghazal is also oral and performative, even in some ways interactive. And, however much it is steeped in tradition, at least in Ghalib’s hands, it feels intensely personal. This must have seemed an antidote to imaginations trained on, then sick of the thematic and other unities of British and American poems, of the primacy of print, and of the then still thunderous man-date to write impersonally that had begun as a revolt and become an orthodoxy. There’s irony in this: the ghazal belongs to a master-apprentice tradition bound not only to technical rigor but also to stern commitments to inherited and formulaic sets of images, characters, and motifs. But it’s an irony lightened by the ghazal’s roots in oral performance and by the at least apparent likeness of its discontinuities to the surrealist, deep image, and other, often foreign styles American poets in those days were trying out and trying on. At a time of cultural upheaval, when America’s inherited colonial war in Vietnam was being prosecuted and protested, Ghalib’s particular circumstances might have resonated, too. He was an impecunious aristocrat in a still only nascently nationalist India; he lived at the tag end of a dying Mughal dynasty increasingly beholden to British colonial rulers who were capable of monstrous reprisals to repress and punish rebellion; he could seem to have made a separate peace. A faithful but non-sectarian Muslim, Ghalib was also wittily, irascibly irreverent and more in tune with ecstatic Sufi sensuality than more conservative Islamic asceticism, as much given to the pleasures of love affairs and wine as to those of the strictest poetic craft. Even Ghalib’s more than Keatsian precocity—many of his finest poems were written by the time he was 19—might have seemed a recommendation in those youth-besotted days.