Once the code has been broken, and the proper meter of a poem is known, we abandon our invaluable analytical notion of the flexible syllable. A flexible syllable may be long in one instance and short in another: we call it flexible to show that we do not yet know which it is in the instance we are considering. But once we DO know the meter, there's no longer any such thing as a flexible syllable. Every syllable is either long or short. (Some meters--#14-#19--may begin with either a long or a short syllable. If the first word in the line is a flexible monosyllable, it might seem that it would retain its flexibility. But in fact in such cases the word is always read as long.)

Scanning a poem accurately on paper is, given enough lines, a purely mechanical process. Reciting it properly is not. Yet we find that most students can learn to recite with some competence, and benefit by doing so. Recitation helps the student memorize, pronounce, analyze, and enjoy the poetry much more easily. And since Urdu poetry is so much part of an oral tradition which includes simple ta;ht ul-laf:z [ta;ht ul-laf:z] recitation, unaccompanied tarannum [tarannum] performance, and full-scale singing in a classical raag [raag], the student who hears and recites, as well as reads, has much better access to the poetry as native speakers experience it.

Before trying to recite a poem, you should thoroughly learn its meter. It is easiest to do this in terms of feet: traditionally educated native speakers learn meters as a series of afaa((iil [afaa((iil]. You may find it easier to substitute your own nonsense words. To express the sequence (- = = =), it may be easier to say da-dum-dum-dum than mafa((aiilun [mafaa((iilun]; similarly, dum-da-dum-dum may replace faa((ilaatun [faa((ilaatun], etc. Any combination of syllables that works for you will do, especially when you are just starting, but try to choose your set and stick to it.

When you practice reciting, choose a meter with three or four identical feet for your first attempt. Meter #10 or #26 would be a good one to begin with; both are easy and popular. Start with the fundamental idea that a long syllable takes roughly twice as much time to say as a short one. You can even use a metronome to get the feel of it. Or tap on the table at a steady rate, holding a long syllable for two taps and a short syllable for one. Go as slowly as necessary at first, and get the rhythm RIGHT. Practice the first foot until you get it, then add the rest one by one, until you can say the whole line in slow, clumsy but ACCURATE rhythm. Be especially careful to make long syllables twice as long quantitatively, in duration, rather than giving them extra stress or a heavy accent as in English. It is insidiously easy to slide over from quantitative into qualitative emphasis, especially at first. That is why slow careful mechanical practice is of the greatest importance. Only when the rhythm has been thoroughly mastered should the words of the poem be gradually substituted for whatever set of foot-naming words you have been using.

The first meter learned in this way may be slow going. But later ones become easier surprisingly quickly, since the basic feet keep recurring, and your ear becomes accustomed to quantitative distinctions. The most helpful thing is the constant recurrence of a handful of really common meters. You will quickly learn to be comfortable with them and will be able to recite new poetry in them with great ease, even on the first try.

Eventually, you will learn to recognize them almost on sight and you'll no longer need to use pencil and paper, except for rare meters. You'll be able to recite a line of poetry in your head in one or two possible meters, and see which one works. Only rarely will very unusual meters perplex you--as they perplex native speakers. You can then scan systematically with pencil and paper, and teach yourself the meter once you have worked it out. But as a rule you will be able to identify the most common meters even from their first few syllables.

For reference, here is a list of the most common meters, in order of decreasing popularity. Naturally in different genres and different periods, preferences have varied. This list is an over-all one, prepared for us by Shamsur Rahman Faruqi. The number assigned to each meter is its number in Section 6.1.

#19 =* - = = / - - = = / - - = = / - - =
#18 =* - = = / - - = = / - - = = / = =
Frequently used together. *This long syllable may be replaced by a short.

#5 = = - / = - = - / - = = - / = - =

#10 = - = = / = - = = / = - = = / = - =

#26 - = = = / - = = = / - = = = / - = = =

#34 - = - = / - - = = / - = - = / - - =
#33 - = - = / - - = = / - = - = / = =
Frequently used together.

#8 = = - / - = = - / - = = - / - = =

#7 = = - / - = = = // = = - / - = = = Has caesura.

#15 =* - = = / - = - = / - - =
#14 =* - = = / - = - = / = =
Frequently used together. *This long syllable may be replaced by a short.

In A Textbook of Urdu Prosody and Rhetoric, Pybus gives his own version of such a list (pp. 44-46): #26, #8, #10, #18-19, #5, #33-34, #28, #30 (in its half-length form), #14-15. Note that the first six meters are the same in each list, though differently ordered.

Once your recitation is mechanically correct, you should take note of the subtleties. Notice that some short syllables are extra short, especially word-final one-letter ones (e.g., in dard [dar-d]; kaam [kaa-m]; dilchasp [dil-chas-p]). Practice your favorite lines until you can keep the meter perfect without thinking about it: the more you internalize the meter, the more you can afford to try embellishments and experiments in recitation. Listen to records or tapes. Classical Urdu Poetry, by Barker and Salam, is accompanied by a set of six cassette tapes that contain recitations and metrical patterns for a number of poems from the book; many students find them helpful. If possible, have native speakers recite for you. Don't be dismayed if you have trouble hearing the meter at first. It will come with practice.

At some point you may feel like trying your hand at composing a poem of your own. More non-native-speakers than you might think have written Urdu poetry, and some have even done it reasonably well. If you've assimilated the material in this book you will be able to write metrically perfect poetry with only rare mistakes on small esoteric points. Start with simple words, and ideas that are not too complicated. Check the Glossary for some of the forms of flexibility available to you as a poet in particular words, and remember the beauties of word-grafting (Section 3.1) as well. You will come to have a lively appreciation of the flexible monosyllables (Section 2.1). Nothing will make you admire the achievement of the great poets more than wrestling with the same artistic constraints and choices yourself.

If you are serious, the traditional thing to do is to show your poetry to an ustaad [ustaad], a senior poet whom you respect, for criticism and revision. A poem must be more than metrically correct to be appreciated: its rhythm should be flowing, ravaa;N [ravaa;N] and its language well-chosen, fa.sii;h [fa.sii;h]. These criteria are subtle and intuitively determined. There's more to it than this, of course; even Ghalib had his troubles with the connoisseurs of his day. You could do worse than make a study of Ghalib and Mir; this website provides a great deal of material for doing so.

If you are lucky enough to find a good ustaad , pay close attention to him or her (the feminine form of ustaad is ustaanii [ustaanii]). Such an ustad may suggest many changes. Don't be discouraged. Ask questions, and think carefully about the criteria your ustad is using. Read more poetry. Memorize verses that you like, and recite them to yourself. If you persevere, you'll be rewarded. The best reward will be a far more sensitive and sophisticated understanding of how Urdu poetry works--how it is created, evaluated, and enjoyed. The true ahl-e zabaan [ahl-e zabaan], who knows and loves the poetry fully, is made and not born.


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