In 2020, Palestinian-American poet Noor Hindi’s poem, titled “Fuck Your Lecture on Craft, My People Are Dying,” was published in Poetry magazine. With an unapologetically provocative title, the poem may not conform to traditional notions – or at least my standards – of what good poetry is; however, perhaps this was precisely the intention.
In response to a dire crisis such as war or genocide, the poem’s narrator vehemently dismisses the importance of form, highlighting the urgency of their message. While I empathise with the emotional intensity of the poet’s response and her cause against the Israeli oppression of Palestinians, I find myself at odds with her perspective on craft. This discord sparks something I’ve been thinking about lately: can a traditionally crafted, formally “conservative” poetry be radical? Conversely, can seemingly “free” verse be considered confined?
First things first: The politics of a poem’s content has nothing inherently to do with its form – the concerns of form have historically been aesthetic. And this isn’t related to poetry alone. A realist is not always a social realist – realism can often contain layers of meaning beyond seemingly mundane lifelike details. An abstract piece of art – despite being formally non-representational – isn’t necessarily always based on an abstract idea; it can encompass a diverse range of content, from personal emotions and experiences to broader social or political commentary.
For the sake of an easy argument, consider hip-hop. The genre since its inception has been used to express a wide range of ideas and it has historically been anti-racist because of its origins. But is it inherently anti-racist? A female hip-hop artist may use this form to create empowering and feminist rap songs, highlighting her struggles or desires. Conversely, a male hip-hop artist could use the same form to write songs that degrades women, embodying misogyny. This contrast illustrates that the form remains neutral; it’s the content, the lyrical and thematic elements of the genre, which carry the weight of sociopolitical meaning. In this way, the form, whether it’s rap music or any other, is a malleable canvas onto which artists can project their content, which can range from empowering and just to oppressive and fascistic.
However, it does not mean that form or formlessness in art has never been politicised or politically justified: Socialist Realism as an officially endorsed art form of the former Soviet Union and the development and glorification of Abstract Expressionism with the backing of the United States’s spy agency, the CIA, to foil the Soviet styled Socialist Realism, are good examples of when the form in art – independent of its meaning or lack of it – has been exploited for political gains.
The inside and outside of poetry
But let us go back to poetry for now. Much like mere adherence to politically correct or emotionally vulnerable messages labelled as “free verse” does not necessarily create a poem, I must admit that form alone doesn’t suffice to craft poetry either. The essence of good poetry, even if it’s highly political, is inherently dual in nature: it comprises both the external and internal spaces. The external components include language, cultural influences, environmental contexts, and structural forms, providing the framework for poetic expression. However, it is the internal, often intangible and deeply personal, which is the soul of poetry – a quality that transcends linguistic and cultural boundaries, resonating universally among poets in any language.
This elusive internal essence, referred to as “ghaib” by Ghalib, embodies the unknown that infuses a piece of writing with the true spirit of poetry. And that’s why the source of Ghalib’s mazameen from ghaib is no different from Yeats’s ghostly dictations.
However, this mysterious inspiration, the ghostly idea that exists even before you write it down, needs the body of your words to come into being. It can’t happen without the body, the form. Jack Spicer calls this haunting idea a source from the Outside. In a candid lecture in Vancouver in 1965, upon asking if a poet should not interfere with this dictation from the Outside, Spicer emphasised interfering with oneself, while also acknowledging that it takes a huge amount of practice to do so and called the process “almost an athletic thing”. “Well, it’s the rhythm between you and the source of the poetry,” said Spicer, “You have to dodge here, it has to dodge there, and all of that. And you’re going to make some missteps.”
Spicer’s reference to poetic practice as something “athletic” while simultaneously acknowledging the Outside as a source of ideas reminds me of my Hindustani classical music teacher telling us how back in the day disciples of Khayal music were encouraged by their gurus to do rigorous physical exercises to have a good control on their breath. This control could not and cannot be achieved without practice, riyaz. And aside from bodily exercises, the repetitive vocal practice of perfecting the notes and embellishments itself requires patience and routine. The physical aspect is crucial to unveil the rasa of a raga in an otherwise very spiritual framework of Indian classical music. There is, after all, a method to every creative madness.
And this method in formal poetry possesses the remarkable ability to create new images, meanings, universes, by being steadfastly loyal to the sounds and rhythms initially established by the poet. Take, for instance, the ghazal – a poetic form where the first couplet is always from the Outside. What unfolds subsequently is a meticulously crafted multiverse, as the poet becomes constrained by the sounds of the rhyming scheme set forth in that inaugural couplet. The poet’s choice of words and their order, dictated by the meter, rhyming and refraining patterns, often leads to the creation of something entirely unforeseen, which the poet might not have thought about earlier.
Please note that I’m using the example of the ghazal in which each couplet is a standalone independent of the rest of the couplets – what unites them is a shared meter, rhyming patterns, and refrains, and not necessarily the theme or continuity of the narrative. This underscores the importance of grasping the formal intricacies, a facet often disregarded by English poets who claim to write ghazals (or other traditional poetic forms, for that matter) This attitude reflects the death of form in modern English poetry. And its wider acceptance makes the journey of formalists seem quite lonely.
For a child in Gaza
Speaking of loneliness, BBC quoted the British doctor Ghassan Abu Sittah, who is working in Gaza City: “There is no lonelier place in this universe than around the bed of a wounded child who has no more family to look after them.” How does one bring comfort to such a child? I’ll conclude the piece with a ghazal written as a lullaby. The intricacies of the form complement the universal simplicity of lullabies in various cultures. This formal consistency, however, stands in stark contrast to the chaos and the heart-wrenching disarray of the situation in Gaza:
Don’t weep, my child; your mom will come
Just sleep, my child; your mom will come
Don’t touch your scar; let fairies heal
It’s deep, my child; your mom will come
Your plant will grow, some birds told me
Said sheep, my child: your mom will come
Your toys will find your mom in the
Scrapheap, my child; your mom will come
Think of music, and don’t be scared
Of bleep, my child; your mom will come
She’s gone to some magical farms
To reap, my child; your mom will come
Your mom is rain – Into our land,
She’ll seep, my child; your mom will come
There won’t be wounds, blood or debris
In sleep, my child; your mom will come
Ammar Aziz is a poet, literary translator, and filmmaker. He can be reached at email@example.com.