In Memory of a Poet

Agha Shahid Ali , the most accomplished english-language poet of Kashmir, passed away on 8th December 2001. He authored several collections of poetry, including Rooms Are Never Finished (2001), The Country Without a Post Office (1997), The Beloved Witness: Selected Poems (1992), A Nostalgist's Map of America (1991), A Walk Through the Yellow Pages (1987), The Half-Inch Himalayas (1987), In Memory of Begum Akhtar and Other Poems (1979), and Bone Sculpture (1972). He was also the author of T. S. Eliot as Editor (1986), translator of The Rebel's Silhouette: Selected Poems by Faiz Ahmed Faiz (1992), and editor of Ravishing Disunities: Real Ghazals in English (2000).

Shahid received fellowships from The Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, the Bread Loaf Writers Conference, the Ingram-Merrill Foundation, the New York Foundation for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation and was awarded a Pushcart Prize. He held teaching positions at the University of Delhi, Penn State, SUNY Binghamton, Princeton University, Hamilton College, Baruch College, University of Utah, and Warren Wilson College.

His poetry is best described by an American contemporary – Shahid drew on the lyric poetry tradition of the ghazal while joining it with Western poetic influences, including the sounds and rhythms of the English language. His range of conventions, covering two very different poetic traditions, were truly multicultural – the result being English language ghazals in which the rich musical pattern, often lost in translation, stood fully revealed :

Where are you now? Who lies beneath your spell tonight
before you agonize him in farewell tonight?
I beg for haven: Prisons, let open your gates-
A refugee from Belief seeks a cell tonight.

("Ghazal", The Country without a post office, 1997)

The late poet James Merrill, a Pulitzer Prize winner, compared Shahid Ali's poetic works to
"Mughal palace ceilings, whose countless mirrored convexities at once reduce, multiply, scatter, and enchant."

Shahid belonged to a renowned family of intellectuals of Kashmir. Our families would meet occasionally – before the social fabric of Kashmir was blown apart in the early nineties, never to recover.

Once after a poetry reading session at our home he asked me what I thought of the poems he had just recited. "A bit morbid, too many ashes and bones" I replied with the brutal frankness of youth, much to the chagrin of my mother and the rest of the company. Shahid however was not the least bit put out and graciously presented us with autographed copies of his poetry books.

My favourite poem is from one of these books:
The Wolf's Postcript to 'Little Red Riding Hood'

First, grant me my sense of history:
I did it for posterity,
for kindergarten teachers
and a clear moral:
Little girls shouldn't wander off
in search of strange flowers,
and they mustn't speak to strangers.
And then grant me my generous sense of plot:
Couldn't I have gobbled her up
right there in the jungle?
Why did I ask her where her grandma lived?
As if I, a forest-dweller,
didn't know of the cottage under the three oak trees
and the old woman lived there all alone?
As if I couldn't have swallowed her years before?
And you may call me the Big Bad Wolf,
now my only reputation.
But I was no child-molester
though you'll agree she was pretty.
And the huntsman:
Was I sleeping while he snipped
my thick black fur
and filled me with garbage and stones?
I ran with that weight and fell down,
simply so children could laugh
at the noise of the stones
cutting through my belly,
at the garbage spilling out
with a perfect sense of timing,
just when the tale
should have come to an end.