Love Poems for America
By Priyanka Srinivasa
For the past few months, hate speech has been on the rise, marginalizing those most vulnerable. Through
campaign promises that rattle crowds of supporters fascinated by the loudest and mightiest, the United States is alarmingly growing used to hate speech in the same of National Security and defense. What threatens our democracy is mob rule and fear that slights minorities. As Islamophobia is on the rise- a reaction to global events, we ask what will save us from hate?
What America needs- more than anything is a love poem.
Last week on the Library of Congress podcast “ The Poet and The Poem ” with host Grace Cavalieri, Ambassador Akbar Ahmed, the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University , recited and discussed his poetry from his anthology Suspended Somewhere Between. (The Library of Congress podcast is available at http://www.loc.gov/poetry/media/avfiles/poet-poem-akbarahmed.mp3 ).
Lauded by BBC as “ the world ’ s leading authority on contemporary Islam, ” Ahmed has published more than a dozen books, countless articles, and served as the High Commissioner of Pakistan to the UK. He is currently writing the fourth book to his quartet Journey into Europe a contemporary study of the Muslim community in the context of European history and society. Parallel to his career in the Pakistani civil service, Dr. Ahmed wrote poetry, reflecting on a political world around him and a world behind him. Poems heavy with history like fruit on the limb- he reflected throughout his politically contentious career the ramifications of both this political world and making sense of the divine. After an illustrious career watching South Asia and the Islamic world rapidly change, Ahmed sat down in the cool marble confines of the prestigious Library of Congress to share much needed wisdom about a “ world on edge ” .
At the core of Ahmed ’ s heart, as he reveals through his poetry are two things – first, a deep unbridled desire to understand his world-Islam, South Asia, the fall of empires, and the new dawn of change in the world; and second, to come face-to-face with humanity. When asked why he wrote poetry, Dr. Ahmed responded “ poetry is a deeply personal pastime. Poetry is an escape ” . Poetry, as Ahmed furthers, goes beyond ethnic and national lines. There is something universal and raw about the experience of living and needing to describe one ’ s world. As long as humans have spoken, poets have been composing poetry as a way of stripping down to the truth: attempting to describe the way they are in the world with words that can only symbolically hold experience. These cathartic murmurs are beyond the individual to something larger- leaving identities of ‘ Other-ness ’ to our side to embrace something beyond us yet simultaneously so personal. We need poetry to be human. Like breath- it is vital.
Dr. Ahmed began the hour with the poem “ Train to Pakistan ” - a heart-wrenching poem narrated by Ahmed as a boy- remembering the bloodshed of Partition that swallowed the Punjab in 1947. He described how passengers going between India and Pakistan were murdered but the conductor was left alive, driving in carcasses across the border. Dr. Ahmed described his childhood in the throws of nation-building between India and Pakistan. As he says “ a world where there was so much conflict and bloodshed ” . Yet at the same time, he ends on an unsettling note knowing that the violence on both sides of Pakistan and India was out of a “ desperate need to love and be loved ” - understanding that violence is deeply rooted in the clinging of identity. Although Partition took place seventy or so years ago, the mechanisms of violence have occurred in other struggles. Whether in Rwanda or Burma the way in which Ahmed describes violence and the need to transcend it through recognition of the human is universal- a need of transformation.
To this Cavalieri asked Ahmed if “ all statesmen should write poetry ” . As the Ambassador chuckles he says, yes. Poetry is central to finding humanity. Being able to connect with what makes us human is central to understanding how to run a state. Ahmed stresses that poetry leads to a deeper understanding of the collective human experience. Poetry is a tool. Poetry gives us a stronger spine.
At the end of the hour, Dr. Ahmed reads one of the strongest poems in the collection. The poem is titled “ What is it that I seek ” .
What is it that I seek?
A force of such might
it sets me free
A light so bright
It blinds me
I heard it in the voice of the nightingale
I know it was in the hearts of the wise
I sensed it in the lover ’ s tale
I saw it in your eyes
I heard it in Rumi ’ s poetry
I know it was in Gandhi ’ s gaze
I sensed it in Mandela ’ s oratory
I saw it in Jesus ’ ways
What is this riddle and what is its part?
What is this enigma and mystery?
What can reveal the secrets of the heart?
What has the power to change me?
It is God ’ s greatest gift
It raises us high above
It is the bridge over the rift
It is love, love, love
Give it in generous measure
Give it as if there ’ s no tomorrow
Give to all you meet this treasure
Give it and banish sorrow ”
What makes this poem so special is the immediacy of seeking beyond the violence and terror – past the clouds into something divine. Here Ahmed confronts his faith, an exercise of finding his own Islam through seeking. In it he finds that it is love – love that is the champion. This poem in many ways is America ’ s love poem- a single rose. What we need more than ever in America is a semblance of truth and mitigation of fear. Perhaps it is the unknown that needs to be embraced and with its caress, a recognition of the power of giving and of love. Listening to the poems it was easy to see why Grace Cavalieri gave Ahmed the title, “ Ambassador of the Heart ” .
(Priyanka Srinivasa is a graduate from American University, Washington DC, and has recently completed an MA from Cambridge University in the UK. An American with an Indian background, she is a trained anthropologist, a published poet and activist)