Believe it or not, there are some people who think that poetry is inaccessible or even pretentious. I know, I know. Who would say that? But, it’s true. These same people argue that it is often difficult to understand poetry because the poet is too much inside his or her own head. That poets like to be cryptic. That poets use unnecessarily obscure words.
Rather than argue about those points, I’d like to write today about poet Agha Shahid Ali. His poems deal with issues of place, home, loss, and identity, none of which are straightforward concepts, especially in our increasingly global world. One of the methods he uses that makes his reader feel comfortable within the poem is dialogue. Consider the following lines from “Snow on the Desert”: “Each ray of sunshine is seven minutes old,” / Serge told me in New York one December night. / “So when I look at the sky, I see the past?” / “Yes, Yes,” he said, “especially on a clear day” (lines 1-4). Ali invites the reader into a discussion of the passing of time, and the relativity of time and its passing, without alienating him or her. Most readers can consider this concept – when you look at the sky, you are seeing the past – after reading this dialogue. There is nothing cryptic about Ali’s presentation.
Ali does the same thing later in the poem. The speaker is driving his sister to the airport in Tucson. While they drive, the speaker says, “Imagine where we are was a sea once. / Just imagine!” (lines 26, 27). The wonder in the speaker’s voice invites the reader to experience the same wonder, no interpretation required. The road on which they are driving used to be on the bottom of an ocean. The sheer number of years that had to have gone by to dry up an ocean clearly shows the concept of time and its effects.
Time, place, and loss are three of the themes present in this poem. By introducing the reader to these themes early on in the poem through the use of easily processed dialogue, Ali invites his reader to consider the more personal, intimate examples that appear later. His sister leaving on a plane, the fog closing him up in the space of Tucson afterwards; his favorite singer’s death. The reader is acquainted with the speaker’s thought process through his dialogue, and so it is not such a leap when, at the end of the poem, Ali compares the earth’s loss of an ocean to his own losses. The lines “a time / to recollect / every shadow, everything the earth was losing, / a time to think of everything the earth / and I had lost, of all / that I would lose, / of all that I was losing” (lines 74 – 80) are as clear as that sky full of sun rays.
Ali, Agha Shahid. “Snow on the Desert.” A Nostalgist’s Map of America. New York: WW Norton, 1991.