Poetry: Pakistan’s Progressive Poets

By: Adeeba Shahid Talukder

Read Ms. Talukder’s poetry selection here
Credit: Aldo Rafael Altamirano

In a mushaaʿirah introduction to his poem Rule of the Land, written about Pakistan’s 1963 constitution, the poet Habib Jalib relates: “After the creation of Pakistan, when, one by one, our dreams were being shattered, we began searching for people who shared our ideals of freedom, democracy, and economic independence. So I wrote this poem, Dastoor, that I recited at a mushaaʿirah in Muree. All the cream of Pakistani society was present. The atmosphere was so tense that no leaf dared tremble. And I began reciting: That lamp that burns only within palace walls


The All-India Progressive Writers’ Movement took root in pre-partition British India and originally served as a form of vocalization of popular dissent against British rule. Members of the Movement espoused the ideology that art, especially in troubled times, bears the responsibility of serving as a vehicle for sociopolitical change. These writers sought to unite art, use, and beauty in their work to create pieces that were both aesthetically compelling and brought to light the ills of their time. Many writers continued voicing their dissent long after the departure of the British and the formation of the separate state of Pakistan in 1947.  Their work now reflected the trauma of partition and the heartbreaking realization that their new rulers—now from among their own people—were no better than the ones that had just left. Among the most prominent figures in this movement were the poets Habib Jalib (1928-1993), Faiz Ahmed Faiz (1911-1984), Ahmad Faraz (1931-2008), and Noon Meem Rashid (1910-1975).

These poets critiqued the oppressive and irresponsible tactics of the regimes and administrations of their day, which often severely limited individual liberties and expression, and perpetuated and exacerbated social and economic inequality.  Like all great works of art, however, the poems I have chosen to translate transcend their own contexts and take on new shades of meaning in the present age. These poems continue to be relevant in today’s Pakistan, a broken country that has, since its birth, suffered from constant bloodshed, corruption, and deep ethnic divisions. The ideas and words of these poets are important for the people of Pakistan, who need to imagine their terrible, inexplicable present within a larger narrative of struggle and its promises of eventual justice. These poets’ works have come to prominence in light of recent events in Pakistan: they were recited and sung at rallies of the 2008 Lawyers’ Movement to bolster the crowd’s courage and raise their spirits. And in early 2011, when Salman Taseer, governor of Punjab, spoke out against the country’s discriminatory Blasphemy Laws, he would acknowledge the danger of backlash by religious fundamentalists, but then proceed to recite: “Who now remains worthy of the executioner’s hand? / Friends! Gather your broken hearts and set out! / Let it be us, once again.” Upon his assassination, television personalities lamented for days, reciting those very verses over and over again. These poems also speak to the present age at large—they engender the spirit of all the Occupy movements, the spirit of all aggrieved people who seek to confront the authorities that have wronged them.

In order to truly appreciate the poetry of the Progressives, it is important to recognize the role of the poet in Pakistan as a voice of the age, and as the common man’s dialogue with higher authority. In a culture and society that revolves to a large extent around poetry and music, the poet plays a tremendous role in the lives of everyday people. Whether or not he is literate, just about every person knows verses of poetry.  They’ve been ingrained in him since birth and indeed, are “part of the air [he] breathe[s]” (Ali xi): he’s heard them sung by Noor Jahan and Ustad Mehdi Hassan, and heard them repeated over and over again in movies, in television shows, in stories, in speeches, and in conversations.

The relationship Pakistanis have with poetry can perhaps only be explained or evoked when compared to the one that many Americans have with political slogans: when chanted in unison with a large crowd, they have the power to transform every individual that comprises it. Many verses have the same effect: when they have a good mix of musicality and punch, they catch on very quickly.  One becomes what these verses espouse, even if just for a moment. For that period of time, however long it lasts, everyone who experiences and repeats its message is united by the common experience of its art and becomes part of a single, larger entity. Perhaps it is these feelings that create the sort of phenomenon Jalib describes towards the end of his reading: When I finished reciting the poem, the mushaa’irah simply came to an end, and everyone came out with me to march on Muree Road. A more established poet said to me, ‘That was not an opportune moment.’ I said to him, ‘I’m no opportunist.’”

Government leaders of their time were well- aware of the incendiary nature of these poets’ words. They knew their power over the people, and, understandably, feared it. For this reason, many progressive poets also spent years in exile and in prison, their works being banned for considerable lengths of time. Some of these poems spell their dissent out very simply, as in Jalib’s refrain: “I do not accept, I do not acknowledge” or Faraz’s plea: “For a thief, a murderer, a tyrant’s sake / do not divide yourselves / my beloved people.” Rashid’s shades, on the other hand, are a little more subtle, and involve more questioning than directly presenting political views; in his poem “The Blind Peddler of Broken Things,” Rashid presents the disconcerting image of a blind man selling broken and discarded dream, and in another, he implores man to reconsider his glorification of the age, urging—or rather, gently coaxing—man to see beyond the “cord tight-bound/ around [his] eyes.”

These poems are not merely works of political protest; they are also masterpieces of stylistic rebellion. The poems do possess a nostalgia for the classical tradition and the universe it evokes—a universe imported almost wholly from the 18th century Persian literary tradition. At its epicenter resides the cruel, unattainable beloved—whether a handsome boy, a beautiful woman, or God Himself. The speaker of the poem, like the legendary lover Qais, tears at his collar, cries tears of blood, runs into the bazaar chanting his love’s name, and slays his ego on the path of desire. Like the Sufi mystic Mansur al-Hallaj, he, too, declares his love and convictions openly, with “arms wild/ intoxicated, dancing” even if his passion’s outward manifestation should lead him to the scaffold’s dry branch. These poems also, however, move forward into new realms of thought and expression: “Don’t ask me, my love, for that love again,” asks Faiz of his lover. His is a generation of poets who do not write love poetry for its own sake, but rather for a separate ideal, a new beloved: social and political change. The old universe and all its elements are there, but they are presented differently, and with a new purpose. The poets also depart from the classical tradition by experimenting with new forms of poetry, or poetry without form—and sometimes even without meter.

These poems, though they were penned years ago, continue to speak to and engender the struggle of the Pakistani people in their quest for just leadership, stability, and peace. They reflect an injured, but strong-willed and outspoken people who are not afraid to proclaim their love for their ideals, whether “in shackles” or facing the threat of imprisonment of execution. “Surpass fear, or let life pass us by,” writes Faiz, “To die or to live: this matter’s still in the air.”

Read the selection of poetry of Progressive Poets in English Translation.



Ali, Agha Shahid. The Rebel’s Silhouette: Selected Poems. 2. Amherst: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1995. xi.

Habib Jalib- Poetry of Defiance. (1988). Retrieved January 2, 2012.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.