I’ve often thought that the best translation of great poetry is not a translation but a commentary — usually citing Robert Greer Cohn’s Toward the Poems of Mallarmé (1965) as a model. In recent years, I could also cite the commentaries that attend the translations in Peter Cole’s marvelous anthology The Dream of the Poem: Hebrew Poetry from Muslim and Christian Spain, 950-1492 (2007). I can’t, however, put this small volume of explications of twenty-one ghazals, or lyric poems, of Ghalib in the same category — the glosses are simply not detailed enough, and insufficiently focused on linguistic particulars, to satisfy me. We who want to know something of a poetry we can’t read in the original are like the voyeuristic lover portrayed by Ghalib, who pries into love letters written to another: “A stranger wanders and flaunts the letter you have written / When asked of its secrets, they must be revealed.” But are they? Never quite, but still, given the few and generally tepid translations I’ve previously come across, this book goes much further toward clarifying for me why Ghalib is one of poetry’s legendary names. Ghalib (the pseudonym of the nineteenth-century Urdu poet Mirza Asadullah Beg Khan) is an exact contemporary of Heinrich Heine, and is broadly of the generation of Shelley, Clare, and Keats in England, Leopardi, Belli, Hugo, Solomos, Mickiewicz, and Pushkin in Europe — that is, the great second wave of Romanticism. But he belongs to a different phase of his culture’s history: a twilight, that of the Mughal Empire. And yet while his poetry contains the delicate, evanescent moods and divided self-consciousness one associates with periods of decline, it also embodies the opposite, an arrogant rhetorical vehemence and originality that, if I have to look for comparisons closer to my own experience, at times calls to mind John Donne more than any of Ghalib’s Western contemporaries; I can almost hear Ghalib berating with Donne that “Busy old fool, unruly sun,” or crying to his beloved “Batter my heart,” though in his tradition, the addressee would not be God but an unnamed person with both divine and human aspects — but then, we encounter that same kind of namelessness in Donne too: “Twice or thrice had I lov’d thee, / Before I knew thy face or name.” There’s an affine sensibility in lines from Ghalib, like the astonishing “The sun’s ray teaches a dewdrop how to vanish / I live because you have not bestowed the grace of your attention upon me.” Where Ghalib is nothing like Donne — un-Donne, you might say — is in the structure of his poetry, which is not that spring-wound mechanism the Englishman devised. The ghazal is necessarily a thing of loose form: each sher or couplet should stand as an independent entity, and while the ghazal forms a further whole as well, its structure is associative and combinatory. Here I seem to find myself almost on contemporary ground, close to those poets who have set the line at liberty within the poem, and the poem at large within the book. In this poetry of drifts and meanders, the poet’s stormy emotions give way to pensiveness: “the space of imaginings becomes a quiet tavern.” After the death of the beloved, “The interpretation of desire is forever lost in your ashes.” Complexities of feeling breed irony. And always, the poems are shot through with echoes. Age-old conventions have become fragile, but all the more meaningful; as Raza and Suleri Goodyear put it, “While lover and beloved seem to have been stripped of a protected universe that allowed them to perform their classical assignations unrehearsed, the pervading memory of such encounters appears to quicken even the apathy of the present times.”

Azra Raza and Sara Suleri Goodyear’s Ghalib: Epistemologies of Elegance (2009) was published by Penguin Viking India and is out of print.

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Barry Schwabsky

Barry Schwabsky is art critic for The Nation and co-editor of international reviews for Artforum. His recent books include The Perpetual Guest: Art in the Unfinished Present (Verso,...