Love’s Labor Lost?

By Anjum Altaf

In a recent article (The Music of Poetry), I argued that it didn’t make sense to ask if one poet was greater than another. The musical metaphor I attempted proved to be the undoing of the piece; perhaps I should have tried a different metaphor – it would be silly, for example, to ask if Tendulkar is “greater” than Muralitharan, though both are cricketers. The reason is obvious, the one being a batsman and the other a bowler. My conclusion was simply that we should place less emphasis on “greatness,” however defined, and focus instead on the pleasure that comes from a given work.

The use of a cricketing metaphor, however, adds another point to the argument. In cricket, statistics are available for comparison in a way impossible for poetry or music, but even then the matter is not as simple as it seems.Comparisons across time (Tendulkar and Bradman) are fraught by all the things that might have changed – the material of the bat, the nature of the pitch (turf or matting), the advances in physical fitness. Even when time is controlled for (Tendulkar and Kallis), one has to look into the nature of the opposition faced by each – statistics do not capture the differences between a century against Zimbabwe and a century against Australia. The most obvious comparisons become problematic and call for caution – so as with poetry, where we turn to Faiz and Ghalib for different pleasures, we are left to let Tendulkar and Muralitharan enthrall us in their different ways.

I chose a musical metaphor because cricket is not rich enough to capture a central nuance of poetry. Poetry combines words, melody and rhythm to generate powerful emotions, more powerful than even the most magnificent cricket can, and it is possible to read into those emotions one’s own dreams and aspirations in a way that it is not into a cover drive, however majestic.

The emotional richness of poetry is matched by music far more than cricket; it is said that music can evoke nine distinct moods or states of mind (navarasa). This is easy to believe – all one has to do is to think of the background music of different genres of movies, employed to make the viewer feel tender or angry or afraid. Our feelings become one with the music to the extent that is often not possible to separate the cause and the effect, and it is this transference of our emotions into the medium that is not possible to capture with the metaphor of cricket. A poor shot is always a poor shot, but a technically poor verse can still move us.

The musical metaphor, however, failed to resonate with readers, which brings me to another point. Long ago, I took a class in logic, and one of the first lessons was that the intersection of two distinct sets is always smaller than the sets themselves. In a class, if one set were the set of all students with black hair and the other the set of all students with blue eyes then their intersection – the set of students with black hair AND blue eyes – would be smaller than either of the two sets. A pictorial representation is a Venn diagram: two circles represent the given sets, and their intersection is the area where the two circles overlap.

Trying to understand the lack of response to the previous article, I imagined a Venn diagram. If one set is those readers interested in Urdu poetry, and the other all those readers literate (not just interested) in Indian classical music, then the intersection of those sets may be quite small. If we were to then introduce a third set – those readers inclined to participate in virtual discussion groups – the resulting intersection (interested in Urdu poetry AND literate in Indian classical music AND inclined to participate in virtual discussion groups) would obviously be even smaller.

The article might, of course, have simply been a poor one, which would account for the lack of response, but nonetheless my interest has shifted to Venn diagrams and to the smallness of the intersection I have mentioned. The point to reflect here is the following: In Pakistan, the set of those who like Urdu poetry is very large; of those who are literate in classical music, very small and shrinking. Exactly the converse is true in India – the set of those literate in classical music is very large and that of those interested in Urdu poetry is small and shrinking. Therefore, without cultural exchange between the two countries the set of those interested in Urdu poetry AND literate in classical music would very soon approach what happens in a Venn diagram when the two circles do not overlap at all – the null set.

So, should I stop using the language of music and let the language of cricket (with its huge numbers of fans on both sides) suffice? Perhaps, for purposes of communication, I should, but I am not being compensated for what I write nor asked to produce it for anyone. As it stands, I feel a little like the woman in the Andaman Islands who was the last living speaker of her language. When she died, the language died with her. But she spoke it to herself as long as she lived because she loved the sound.

For those interested in Urdu poetry we offer the Ghalib Project on this blog. For those interested in musical literacy we have A Modern Introduction to Music in 17 parts.


  • Vinod
    Posted at 09:52h, 07 February Reply

    Do you get told by people around you that you think too much or that you are too complex?

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 15:19h, 07 February

      Vinod: Sometimes I do but it is a misperception. Thinking is involuntary; everyone thinks all the time. It’s just that some record their thoughts and others don’t. It is the process of recording – when one orders the thoughts and tests them for coherence and consistency – that creates the illusion of thinking too much. Writing is like a job (think of columnists who deliver two columns a week or journalists who have to file a story every day) and after a while one gets into its particular rhythm. Like anything else that one does routinely, it gets done quickly leaving lot’s of time to be spent on this and that.

  • Armchair Guy
    Posted at 13:05h, 13 February Reply


    I think the differences you point out between cricket and poetry stem from the fact that poetry is a quale almost by definition, while cricket only induces qualia and has independent quality.

    In other words, it is possible to define what makes a good batsman in a way that’s acceptable to most humans (average, strike rate, high score when rest of team scores low, etc.), but that is not true of poetry. If you tried to define what good poetry is, you’d end up using some sort of cyclical definition, like “good poetry is poetry that people enjoy”.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 16:46h, 15 February

      Armchair Guy: I agree. Even with cricket, one can’t take the commonly available statistics at face value but need to dig deeper. For example, the number of test hundreds doesn’t tell you the breakdown between those made at home or abroad, against weak or strong teams, on easy or difficult pitches, how many chances were offered, etc. Accurate comparisons are difficult. There is a useful article by Malcolm Gladwell (The Order of Things) in the February 14-21 issue of the New Yorker in which he shows how difficult it is to compare even three sports cars – the rankings change as you change the weights of various attributes.

    • Armchair Guy
      Posted at 22:34h, 15 February


      “For example, the number of test hundreds doesn’t tell you the breakdown between those made at home or abroad, against weak or strong teams,…”

      Agreed. But all of these are objective measures. Take any of these measures, and most people would agree that it’s a valid measure. With poetry all measures are subjective.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 17:07h, 16 February

      Armchair Guy: We agree on the fact that compared to poetry it is much easier to employ objective measures of performance for cricket. That is the reason I had shifted from the metaphor of music to that of cricket in the post. I am only making the point that the boundaries are not as clean as one might imagine. Even in cricket, the commonly available statistics are not sufficient – one has to dig beneath the numbers to be really sure that one is comparing like with like. And in the case of poetry, it is not really true that all measures are subjective. The rules of scansion are quite unambiguous and even a lay audience at a Mushaira can tell when the two lines of a couplet don’t scan appropriately – you mighty hear the comment sha’ir vazan meN nahiiN hai. Similarly, in music many listeners can tell when a performer is off-pitch or off-beat and in competitions performers are judged on the mastery of such skills.

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