Saturday, June 23, 2018

Agha Shahid Ali - Stationery

Poetry is an acquired taste. The more you sample it, the more flavors you extract.  -- Elle Greco

Reading a Kashmiri poet for me is a first, and first impressions when it comes to poetry mean the world to me.

Ali's poem troubled me. Nostalgia and loneliness exuded from the poem as a whole, but I had trouble realizing this until the very end, when in a world full of paper, the poem's persona has yet to hear news from a loved one. The trouble was decoding the choice of words in the first six verses. Reading and re-reading still couldn't provide me with definite motives that would help me build a definitive story which brought on such nostalgia.

And then, when you think the poem eludes you, you remember the one universal law embracing it: poetry is felt, and when feelings enter into the picture, the picture becomes subjective for each person. 

I suppose the biggest question is who "you" refers to.

Is "you" addressing the person the poem's persona is urging to write in the last line, or a generic "you" aimed at oneself? If it is the former, then the "sheets, reams of silver handmade by you" are texts by the loved one living afar that the persona sees laid out before him or herself. In this case, the "world is full of paper" could express that for the persona, all that matters, all that is real and constitutes existence for him or her is found in the letters he or she receives. To translate this into an example, it is as if Ali living in the United States heard news of his home country which meant the world to him through correspondence from family and friends. 

If the interpretation of "you" is a generic one, then it is as if the persona is swamped in a desert of papers produced by him or herself that contrast in emotions and gravity to remind him of the true sheets and reams he or she would want to be looking at -- the papers that would bring words full of meaning from a loved one, not the papers of "brisk emporium" the persona composes for a living seen strewn before him or her on a desk.

Whatever the case, papers full of words are all that is left in life. This is a poem where the warm, languid, barren sands of a far-away land commingle with the cold, white, blank stacks of paper roused to life through written utterances. The final result is both one of personal expression and reflection on the ability poetry has of rousing inanimate reams to life.

The moon did not become the sun.
It just fell on the desert
in great sheets, reams
of silver handmade by you.
The night is your cottage industry now,
the day is your brisk emporium.
The world is full of paper.

Write to me.

 Agha Shahid Ali  - Stationery

  • poet, professor
  • 1949 – 2001 
  • born and raised in Kashmir, India
  • moved to the U.S. in 1976
  • came from a highly educated family
  • received PhD in English (1984)

  • disputed by India, China, Pakistan since 1947
  • changing Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, Sikh rule of the area
  • Anglo-Sikh wars (1845-1947)
  • territorial division of British Indian Empire in 1947 brought on war between India + Pakistan
  • China enters conflict in the mid-1950s (border dispute since late 1800s when China didn't accept agreements signed by Britain, Russia, Afghanistan) after 1949 Communist revolution 
  • tensions flare again in the 1970's (Ali decides to permanently move to the US in the mid 70s)
  • for a brief clear explanation of the Kashmiri conflict read the following: A brief history of the Kashmir conflict
  • also read this excellent article on The Wire about Ali's choice to migrate to the US and his ties to Kashmir. 
"In an interview with Stacey Chase, Shahid talked about his exile as an involuntary state that he has been pushed into."


  • found in his collection of poems The Half-Inch Himalayas, 1987

  • central ideas / themes: 
    • writing
      • choice of words reflects this: sheets, reams, paper, write
      • the power of the word & communication
      • poetry as a means of expression

    • stationery = stationary
      • motionless, stagnant existence away from a loved one is made bearable through writing materials
      • stationery serves as an umbilical cord which maintains communication 

  • poem can (for the sake of analysis) be divided into 3 parts
    • Part 1: 1st four verses = past tense
    • Part 2: next three verses = present
    • Part 3: final verse = future through the use of the imperative mood (action expected to be carried out in the future)

  • Part 1
    • atmospheric, unfolds the setting
      • moon, darkness
      • desert
    • locations
      • nature: moon & sun mentioned instead of time
      • desert: associated with barrenness, desolation but also expanse and openness
    • juxtaposition
      • moon - sun
      • contrasts continue in verses 5 + 6: 
        • night - day 
        • cottage industry - brisk emporium
    • melancholic
      • darkness remains and doesn't turn into day
      • choice of the word "just": 
        • synonymous with "merely" or "plainly"
        • qualifies the action of the moonlight falling on a barren landscape (desert) as apathetic, unromantic 

  • Part 2
    •  bleak reality of routine
      • day follows night in a streamlined succession of "industry" and "emporium"

    • sober/pragmatic exposition of facts 
      • 3 statements linking time to activity, space to an object
        • night = cottage industry
        • day = brisk emporium
        • world = full of paper
      • train of thought is indicative of persona's inner world (important in analyzing character)
        • if the poem's "you" refers to a loved one, the persona's days are spent thinking about what that loved one must be doing
        • if "you" refers to the persona, the shift from daily activities to a world full of paper signifies a confining environment. The persona is incarcerated in a world of lifeless objects, devoid of meaning.
    • reveals persona's concern 
      • preoccupation with what is going on elsewhere (in their loved one's life)
    • setting
      • temporal: day & night
      • focuses on locality: cottage & emporium
    • personal versus social
      • juxtaposition of cottage industry to emporium
      • cottage industry: 
        • 1st meaning: family units working at home using their own equipment
        • 2nd meaning: activity pursued with great enthusiasm 
      • brisk emporium
        • suggests a larger commercial center
        • "brisk" connotes the movement of people in this commercial center and the nature of the business itself
      • the poem's persona could be referring to their own pursuits in the evening or is imagining what the person they would like to receive news from is doing in the evenings and during the day
  •  Part 3
    • poem's overall conclusion
    • definitive, short, to the point
    • request made regarding what the persona wants done
    • follows on from persona's train-of-thought seen in previous lines
      • sheets / reams ⇒ industry paper write to me

  • pace of poem
    • lulls reader with its simplicity and prosody, then hits them in the final emphatic verse.
    • first 4 lines contain diphthongs and long sounds
      • moon
      • great
      • sheets
      • reams
      • handmade 
    • next 3 lines contain almost the same number of long sounds 
      • night
      • now
      • day
      • paper
    • in those 7 verses, there is 
      • an interchange of long and short lines (varying meter)
      • long and short words (single-syllable versus multisyllable words)
    • final line = 3 single syllables which generate 3 words that make up an entire sentence

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.

Hot Off The Press

MSU-CELC / MSU-CELP Examination: Speaking Topics (Narration)

Just like the two previous lists with topics that cover the Description section of the MSU-CELC exam in English (if you'd like to tak...

And Now For Something Completely Different ...