The Refrains of Kashmir: Agha Shahid Ali's Canzones and the Forms of Exile

by Caleb Agnew

Freedom’s terrible thirst, flooding Kashmir,

is bringing love to its tormented glass.

Stranger, who will inherit the last night

of the past? Of what shall I not sing, and sing?           (241)[1]


These concluding lines to Agha Shahid Ali’s canzone “After the August Wedding in Lahore, Pakistan” disclose the crucial intersections of his exilic poetics—the hope of freedom within the “tormented glass” of form, the question of aesthetic versus political inheritances, and finally the choice of poetic object. Ali’s poetry aims to represent his experience as a “Kashmiri-American” poet by reflecting on his life and locales, past and present, but frequently his work turns his own experience into a heuristic for thinking through the notion of exile as the lyric situation, as in his conclusion to the “Ghazal” that ends each couplet with “by exiles”: “Will you, Belovéd Stranger, ever witness Shahid— / two destinies at last reconciled by exiles?” (Ali 298). He ends the ghazal with a terrifying lyric question, carving speaker and reader into the shape of their estrangements, as those two destinies (to write and to read as the teloi of literary connection) emerge in the alienations of writer from lyric subject and reader from interpellated other (both beloved and strange). Ali indulges in wordplay on his name here as well, which means “The Beloved” in Persian and “witness” in Arabic, as he reveals in a ghazal from his previous volume (226), and this punning leads us to think of the oscillating self and/as refrain as a formally constitutive property of his exilic poetics.

Ali exports the ghazal’s “echo chamber” (Ramazani 104-105) into other verse forms as he explores the recombinatory possibilities of exile as figure and refrain, especially in the intricate canzones, with their incessant invocations of Kashmir reinstantiating the gap between poet and homeland. This paper reads Ali’s poetics principally through his canzone, “After the August Wedding in Lahore, Pakistan,” epitomizing Ali’s commitment to form as not only a vehicle of poetic expression, but as a figure for dissecting the lyric mode within the continued departures of refrain. His forms assemble the pieces of an elegiac poetics around exile, in which return to the absent homeland is repeatedly denied through the repetition of naming, as the incessant turn to “Kashmir” loses its symbolic valence in favor of an incantatory resonance, foregrounding the loss of each invocation.

A glance at his use of the word “Kashmir” reveals that he mentions his homeland by name ninety-four times in the collected volume of his poems, but more crucially, not once explicitly between the publication of The Half-Inch Himalayas (1987) and The Country Without a Post Office (1997). He does not mention Kashmir for two entire books of verse, and then The Country Without a Post Office erupts with a litany of ‘Kashmir’ that bypasses signification:

Let me cry out in that void, say it as I can. I write on that void:

Kashmir, Kaschmir, Cashmere, Qashmir, Cashmir, Cashmire,

Kashmere, Cachemire, Cushmeer, Cachmiere, Cašmir. Or Cauchemar

in a sea of stories? Or: Kacmir, Kaschemir, Kasmere, Kachmire,

Kasmir. Kerseymere?             

(“The Blesséd Word: A Prologue,” p. 171)


On the collection’s first page the poet announces his homeland, muse, and poetic object in what seems like a cosmic invocation. Writing “on that void” (note the deictic points away from the page) an incantation of his homeland’s name foregrounds the divinely creative power of the speaker while also straining the notion of poetic production in the tension of “cry” versus “write,” exposing the core difficulty of grief’s legibility against the virtuoso opportunism of the elegy. This explosion becomes a valuable window into Ali’s poetics; naming his lost home marks the impossibility of yearning rather than the object of its signification. The poet finds eighteen different ways to spell ‘Kashmir’ in a Roman script, already taking the Sanskrit word into exile far from its orthographic origins, foregrounding the role of foreign language in mediating Ali’s (even more so, the reader’s) experience of Kashmir. The discerning philologist may object that ‘Kashmir’ as geographically recognized by that term today (denoting the larger region) dates to the nineteenth century, whereas already by the end of the eighteenth century the Roman alphabet was used to transliterate Sanskrit words. Exactly—few other words cut so quickly to the core of Ali’s poetics. By making ‘Kashmir’ a refrain in his last two volumes, the poet forces us to recognize the word’s lineage of resonances, including centuries of linguistic development alongside the historical litany of imperial regimes involved in the region. The poet even slips the French “Cauchemar” (nightmare) into his incantation of ‘Kashmir’, suggesting not only that exilic loss is a horrific dream, but also that it obsesses over the difficulty of linguistic representation, as a set of phonemes variously signify home and something else, and this constant reiteration changes the shape of Kashmir in his poetry.

“On paper, Agha Shahid Ali was a poet of exile,” opens Christine Benvenuto in an article for The Massachusetts Review after Ali’s death (261), and that initial declaration, so latent with subversion in the qualifying phrase “on paper,” encapsulates one of Ali’s insurmountable difficulties: How do we read this “paper exile” against larger traditions of exilic poetics and greater paradigms of homelessness in the late twentieth century? Ali’s turn toward Kashmir in his penultimate volume brings along with it a deluge of Western poets in the collection’s quotations and epigraphs—Osip Mandelstam, W. B. Yeats, Emily Dickinson, Zbigniew Herbert, Gerard Manley Hopkins, James Merrill—that forces us to consider the aesthetics of exile far more than its politics. He is truly a “paper exile” because he uses the written word to figure and reconfigure the echoes of his exile, turning his elegiac poetics of the lost homeland into nearly unlimited occasions for poetic making. The shapes of form both in the external world and in the poems’ crucibles fail to console, though the purely aesthetic fulfillments of his elegiac canzones allow us to consider the practice of reading as a process of lyric departure, in which the massively ornate contrapuntal forms of his major elegies transform even refrain’s ubiquitous return into a perpetual leave-taking.

Such a claim requires that we consider what form might mean for Ali in particular. In “Reflections on Exile,” Edward Said convincingly argues that poetic form for Mahmoud Darwish provides a potential analogue for exile (142), though the term “form” has historically taken a score of meanings according to its resonances for different cultures, and by extension, theorists of poetry. Angela Leighton summarizes the history of English poetry’s revisionary appropriations of the word ‘form’ from Kantian aesthetics all the way to twentieth-century debates about formalism and expressionism in art, focally dwelling on Picasso’s question, “what is outside or what is inside a form?,” and proposing form as a conceptual dividing line, “the shape of a choice to be made” (16), something one might have said of the psychocartography of exile. While any type of poetry necessarily has an objectively definable form that constitutes the text’s body and border, for Ali the borders are obvious in their rigidity and yet capacious for his artistry, as the boundaries of his exilic imaginary both restrain and free his poetry. Any discussion of form typically figures it as paradox throughout twentieth-century criticism on the subject, from Susanne Langer’s notion of shadowy virtual objects that disclose their non-representational quality through form (Langer 212) to Kenneth Burke’s understanding of form as creation and then fulfillment of a desire (Burke 31), and all these notions (border, the shape of choice, spectrality, desire) put us in mind of the crucial aporia of exile for Ali’s poetry, which Ramazani assesses as “anticompensatory elegizing” (130).  Ali’s elegies, instead of offering consolation, articulate the experience of exile instead by dwelling on losses inherent in the structure of refrain and forcing the reader to confront generic assumptions of closure.

While Ali wrote many beautiful ghazals throughout his career, for a thorough examination of his commitment to formal poetry this paper turns instead to the canzones that may in some ways be considered his true masterpieces, both because of their unparalleled formal difficulty and because no other writer has produced their equal in English. The canzone[2] is a sixty-five line form in six stanzas with five refrain words, essentially a much more difficult version of a sestina. Every line must end with one of the five end words, so five twelve-line stanzas and a five-line envoi shuffle these end words in a motivic progression that we cold term an “echo chamber,” using Ramazani’s term for Ali’s ghazals in an even more fittingly massive and contrapuntally resonant form (indeed, the canzone may be the best Western poetic analogue for the ghazal form). Two of Ali’s three canzones use the already-ubiquitous “Kashmir” as one of the refrain words: “Lenox Hill” and “After the August Wedding in Lahore, Pakistan.” The former, Ali’s elegy for his mother, conveys a sense of the canzone’s fugal mode with the torrent of ‘Kashmir’ released by the trauma of separation from his mother(land):

                                                            For no verse

            sufficed except the promise, fading, of Kashmir

            and the cries that reached you from the cliffs of Kashmir


            (across fifteen centuries) in the hospital. Kashmir,

            she’s dying! How her breathing drowns out the universe

            as she sleeps in Amherst. Windows open on Kashmir:

            There, the fragile wood-shrines—so far away—of Kashmir!  

             (Ali 248)


The recurring placement of ‘Kashmir’ holds out the homeland’s finality as a suggestion and then refuses it as the poem continues, incessantly leaving ‘Kashmir’ in the movement of the verse (which is also, cleverly hidden inside ‘universe,’ a refrain word), always pointing beyond: “Kashmir: / There.” The deictic forces us into the recognition of distance in the interweaving of ‘Kashmir’ and ‘mother’ as Ali imaginatively overlays the powerlessness of his mother and his homeland while positing the sonic connection of the elephant’s cry as an arbitrary cosmic echo-location, yet the figurative reiteration only multiplies the linguistic departures. Kashmir is the promise of return, then the location of an anecdote, then directly (and desperately) apostrophized other, and then Kashmir moves from being outside the window to being “—so far away—” as we feel the verse pulling Kashmir into the sonic abyss with every repetition. Despite the assertion that “no verse / sufficed,” the poem’s only sufficiency emerges in the plenitude of arbitrarily perfect rhymes.

Befitting the recursions of Ali’s work, now we return to the poem quoted at this essay’s beginning, “After the August Wedding in Lahore, Pakistan,” a poem I would describe as an elegy for Kashmir, to offer an in-depth look at his exilic poetics and imagined returns. The title runs right into the poem’s first line, propelling the reader into the poem with the realization that the title, with its final comma, offers no secure vantage or containing force for the lyric, which continues, “we all—Save the couple!—returned to pain, /  some in Massachusetts, some in Kashmir” (239). Despite Lahore’s close proximity to Kashmir and the communal nature of the celebration, the moment of almost-return quickly pushes the reader away into the poem’s departures and toward a focus on the poet’s anxiety over writing, “all my words sylvanite / under one gaze that filled my glass with pain. / That thirst haunts as does the fevered dancing” (239). His “sylvanite” words have value only as a loss already (an impure mineral compound of gold) under this mysterious and painful gaze, which reads both as his own and as the reader’s. His thirst as desire and lack connects to the dream of return, while his feverish dancing, both at the wedding and in his verse craft, is exhausting. The performance of poetic virtuosity haunts him just as the dream of return, and we come to the elegy’s choice of poetic craft over the beloved object, an analogue in Ali’s life for the expatriate’s choice. He turns away from the possibilities of Kashmir in the second stanza with a pivotal question: “Sing then, not of the promising / but the Promised End. Of what final pain, / what image of that horror can I sing?” (Ali 239). Ali forecloses the “promising” hope for return on this occasion of geographical nearness, instead searching only for an appropriate “image of that horror” as poetic occasion.

As he reflects on his vocation and recounts part of the wedding singer’s song, Ali turns to personal reminiscence for just a moment:

                        With a rending encore she closed the night.

                        There was, like this, long ago in Kashmir,

                        a moment—after a concert—outside Kashmir

                        Book Shop that left me stranded, by midnight,

                        in a hotel mirror. Would someone glass

                        me in—from what? Filled, I emptied my glass,


                        lured by a stranger’s eyes into their glass.      

                        (Ali 240)


The “rending encore” divides rather than unifies, and suggests identification with the poem before our eyes, because “After the August Wedding in Lahore, Pakistan,” is the final poem in The Country Without a Post Office. The poem fools us with the Kashmir rhyme’s opposition of in/outside and the enjambment of “Kashmir / Book Shop,” as we find ourselves in the exile’s nightmare (“cauchemar”), trapped both inside and outside the homeland like the receding and recurring refrains. Ali describes his position as “stranded” in a mirror, connoting far more than the experience of looking at himself, as the act of looking fixes the glass as permeable boundary, allowing images to reflect but also preventing their immediate contact. The poet is “glassed in,” cut off by the glass’s borders from access to the wider world, instead becoming fixed in the gaze of the observer (“lured by a stranger’s eyes”), as if an aesthetic object. Form becomes a constitutive fact in mediating exilic representation, calling to mind the mimetics of his craft here under the reader’s gaze. The poet finds no sanctuary in the aesthetic image though he spends more time framing his own reflection, requiring the placement of the body’s form so as to produce and observe the distance between the subject and its aesthetic objectification, suggesting that the lyric subject’s abstracted distance matters more here than the immediacy of his homeland. As the poem slips away from the reader into the last stanza, the fugue finally modulates into the scale of Kashmir, and it begins after an homage to Dickinson’s syntactical voids in the deluge of dashes: “O, to have said, glass / in hand, “Where Thou art—that—is Home— / Cashmere— / or Calvary—the same”! (240). Ali cuts the line just before the comparison to Calvary, the enjambment drawing out the illusive hope of return until the excruciating pain of exile’s permanence takes over, with the succession of dashes pushing us away from return as we become caught in the poem’s movement. His assertion that “in each new body I would drown Kashmir” (240) resonates with the recombinatory forms of his poetry, recalling the meaning of form as bodily shape, while also placing his native land on the altar of his poetics for sacrifice.

The poem’s conclusion runs back into the problem of poetry from the insoluble difficulties of the exilic situation as well as the violences of Kashmiri history and politics:

                        A brigadier says, The boys of Kashmir

                        break so quickly, we make their bodies sing,

                        on the rack, till no song is left to sing.

                        “Butterflies pause / On their passage Cashmere—”

                        And happiness: must it bring only pain?

                        The century is ending. It is pain


                        from which love departs into all new pain:

                        Freedom’s terrible thirst, flooding Kashmir,

                        is bringing love to its tormented glass.

                        Stranger, who will inherit the last night

                        of the past? Of what shall I not sing, and sing?          

                        (Ali 241)


Along with Ali’s determination to “drown Kashmir,” the memory of colonial occupation recalls torture, with “singing” suggesting poetry beaten out of subjected bodies. We see another Dickinson quotation, dragging out the moment of “passage” as Ali troubles the notion of departure by running love through a circuit of pains when the form demands three consecutive lines end with that particular word. The “tormented glass,” which once again signals both the nation’s bounded image and the reflective space of his formal poetry, brings the poem to an ultimately indeterminate lyric question, “Of what shall I not sing, and sing?” The speaker’s rhetoric inclines us to paraphrase the question as “What can’t be discussed in poetry?” but the comma and the negative modifier make the rhetorical stress impossible to pin down; we could equally well read a genuine question “What shouldn’t I sing about?” or “What shall I not continue singing about?” or even “What can a poet refuse to sing about?” The immaculately balanced ending line leaves the reader’s eye on Ali’s central concern, the vocation of the exilic poet, amid the echoes of “Kashmir,” “sing,” and “glass.”

One could say that for Ali the elegy for Kashmir is not an individual poem, but an entire poetic strain that relies on an apostrophic impulse and splinters the locale into universe and fragment, as the sheer number of repetitions elegiacally erases the exilic signified. The more we hear Ali repeat ‘Kashmir’ in The Country Without a Post Office, with every recombination of exilic figurative imagery and the name of his lost native land, the more his refracting crystalline verse forms expose the absence of Kashmir in the continued sonic departure. If we consider the beginning of “Lenox Hill” as a keystone for understanding his refrains, “The Hun so loved the cry, one falling elephant’s, / he wished to hear it again” (247), we can see the fiction of form as pure aesthetic caught in a sequence of continuous loss under the governing desire of the lyric subject. The violence of separation comes under the governance of the lyric imperative, figured as a repeated listening to the same “cry,” the tireless refrains of the canzone trapping reader and writer in the aesthetic exchange.

It may prove useful to turn back to the lyric questions mentioned briefly at the beginning of this paper to sketch out some further thoughts about the reader’s experience of elegy and lyric more broadly. We can look at a paradigm of “overwhelming questions,” if you will, in some of the major reflective lyrics of the post-Romantic tradition, from Keats’s “Do I wake or sleep?” (Keats 460) to Yeats’s “How can we know the dancer from the dance?” (Yeats 217), and the meditative questions seem to invite the reader into the process of the lyric subject’s self-conception as it evolves in the poem, but we should consider how the questions draw out our assumptions about lyric reading. It might be tempting to tell Keats that he is awake, but we have then ignored our reading’s failure to consider the lyric subject as a textual effect. We can see that Ali’s questions in “Lenox Hill” and “After the August Wedding in Lahore, Pakistan,” collapse universal pain and grief into the individual, but only if you read them with a mind to response: “what (I close the ledger) are the griefs of the universe / when I remember you… O my mother?” (249); “Of what shall I not sing, and sing?” (241). In fact their locations at the end of the poems rather make us aware of lyric’s problems of abstraction and the impossibility of continuing the (already compromised) conversation. The limitations of form are clearly up for debate, and the closing thoughts in these poems send the reader back into the echo-chamber to suffer once again elegy’s disconnect, slipping through the poem’s sonic closure through the rhetorical indeterminacy of the ultimate question.

To use Leighton’s comment on form, the “shape of a choice to be made” governs the conclusions of these poems by deferring closure beyond the assumed lyric interchange. The poem breaks just as it becomes complete, in line with how Giorgio Agamben reads “The End of the Poem” – the lyric question is in some ways the ultimate antipoetic move, but it allows for the reinscription of the lyric exchange within an arbitrarily textual matrix, as the question’s patent disregard for potential answers figuratively repeats the canzone’s dynamic refrain. The continued movement between prompting and then subverting the readerly desire for closure forces us to consider our mode of lyric reading as a continuous exilic process, pushing ourselves further from the poem’s internal formal completions as we descend through its succession of rhyming chambers until our sense of the refrain words has replaced the notion of return with that of departure.




Works Cited                                                                                                                                                                                                                              

Agamben, Giorgio. “The End of the Poem.” The Lyric Theory Reader: A Critical Anthology. Edited by Virginia Jackson and Yopie Prins. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014. pp. 430-434. Print.

Ali, Agha Shahid. The Veiled Suite: The Collected Poems. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2009. Print.

Benvenuto, Christine. “Agha Shahid Ali.” The Massachusetts Review Vol. 43, No. 2. Amherst: The Massachusetts Review, Inc., 2002. pp. 261-273. Web. JSTOR. 29 March 2015.

Burke, Kenneth. Counter-Statement. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957. Print.

Keats, John. Keats’s Poetry and Prose. Edited by Jeffrey N. Cox. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2009. Print.

Langer, Susanne K. Feeling and Form. New York: Scribner, 1953. Print.

Leighton, Angela. On Form: Poetry, Aestheticism, and the Legacy of a Word. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007. Web. ProQuest. Accessed 10 April 2015.

Ramazani, Jahan. A Transnational Poetics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009. Print.

Said, Edward. “Reflections on Exile.” Reflections on Exile and Other Essays. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000. Print.

Yeats, William Butler. The Poems of W. B. Yeats. New York: Macmillan, 1983. Print.        


[1] Unless otherwise attributed, all citations to Ali’s verse refer to the The Veiled Suite: The Collected Poems (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2009), which includes his published poetry from The Half-Inch Himalayas through his final volume, Rooms are Never Finished, also including his book of ghazals, Call Me Ishmael Tonight.

[2] The etymology links to “canto” and “chanson,” forms with lengthy international traditions of reinterpretation, but the form as described here obtains for Anglophone verse in the later twentieth century.