Other Torments And Other Joys: The Dialectical Poetry Of Faiz Ahmed Faiz

Two of the most prominent ways in which Faiz’s poetry is dialectical are: firstly, as a dialectic of the self, and secondly, as a dialectic of hope

Other Torments And Other Joys: The Dialectical Poetry Of Faiz Ahmed Faiz

Faiz Ahmed Faiz is a monumental name in the world of leftist poetry; at least in the Marxist circles. Of course, his is a name even more monumental in the world of Urdu poetry generally, but whenever we speak of Faiz, we do so with the understanding that he was – like many of his peers – a progressive, dedicated to the struggles of the people. Both in his life and his poetry; both of which intersected often.

Faiz, thus, isn’t a ‘misunderstood’ figure. Most know him for who he was and what he stood for. The popular stories attached to him recall almost in a legendary manner the Faiz that was a revolutionary and progressive poet. Moreover, we have the Progressive Writers’ Movement which is a relatively well-known literary movement within the country. Yet, this is where the popular Faiz’s legacy ends, and this is a partial injustice to the true depth of his works.

I feel that the Marxist version of dialectics underpins the work of Faiz. Whenever we read Faiz, the dialectical acts upon our subconscious. To make this invisible dialectic more visible is the aim of this article. 

Here I shall try to discuss how Faiz’s poetry is dialectical in both form and content. I will also talk about how this dialectical nature of his poetry makes it truly revolutionary and progressive.

I will be using V. G. Kiernan’s translations of Faiz throughout this article.

Two of the most prominent ways in which Faiz’s poetry is dialectical are: firstly, as a dialectic of the self, and secondly, as a dialectic of hope. By the dialectic of the self I mean that his poems showcase self-transformation, in the sense that a ‘false consciousness’ in the individuals is changed into a more mature consciousness whereby individuals start to recognise ‘real’ problems which give rise to the issues they see in society –as Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in The German Ideology put it: “[…] under definite material limits, presuppositions and conditions independent of (men’s) will.”

This is also a process through which one learns to care for all, and not just for their own self. Then secondly there is the dialectic of hope by that I mean a process of finding hope within the bleakest times. It is a dialectical process because one who ends up finding hope must go through the dialectical process where the thesis of hope constantly collides with its antithesis, hopelessness and despair.

Now I will demonstrate both of my points through two of Faiz’s poems. The first one is Mujhse Pehli Si Muhabbat or as translated by V. G. Kiernan Love, Do Not Ask. The poem has a very interesting structure, which can be found in other poems of Faiz but is the most prominent here. Faiz starts the poem by mournfully and helplessly addressing a beloved. For he asks the beloved to not ask for “that love again” – the love which once kindled between them. Next, Faiz goes on to praise the beloved in multiple ways as if to multiply the intensity of his agony by recounting the true greatness of his loss. For he says that once he paid no heed to the pains of life and time, for “you alone were pain”. Thus, for Faiz there was no “time” or dahr thus no pain for it. The only thing that existed was the beloved and thus pain attached to them. All these metaphors, these hyperboles of a lover paint the picture of a deeply personal torment. Here the pain is confined only to Faiz and his beloved. Thus, the very beginning of the poem introduces us to a conflict in the narrator’s mind which has a limited proximity; it is romantic and ideal.

But as we move on the structure as well as the content begin to change. Here we begin to witness the true reason which makes this poem a masterpiece. For here, Faiz is using the structure in such a way as to move from a personal problem to a more universal one. This structural quality of the poem showcases the transformation of the consciousness of that individual in whom the flame of revolution has begun to kindle. The second stanza begins with the admission that whatever Faiz thought of his love was “not true… but only wishing.” Then comes the recognition that there indeed exist “other torments than of love/And other happiness than a fond embrace” thus we see that the narrator has begun to move away from the problems that once tormented him for they have found something greater.

Then immediately Faiz starts to talk of the “Dark curse of countless ages”. Of how “Men's bodies sold”, thus speaking of laborers. Here we see another change, the language Faiz now employs is one of a person who is breaking free of the chains of false consciousness; someone who is letting go of a childish idealism for the sake of a true materialist understanding of society. This is made clear in how Faiz uses more concrete words as “Bodies”, “thick blood”, “Flesh”, “disease” instead of the previously used abstract nouns such as “time”, “beauty”, “fate”, even when he did speak of something material it was only to be attached to his ‘ideals’ either of beauty or love; “My universe held only your bright eyes”. But now Faiz uses material nouns in a material context for he admits that “Your beauty is still charming, but what is to be done?” for there is more to this world than love and union.

Thus, we see that in Mujhse Pehli Si Muhabbat (Love, Do Not Ask) Faiz employs a structure which starts at the personal and ends at the universal. He also uses abstract and material nouns in their proper place to invoke the sense of the dialectic more clearly. Hence, Mujhse Pehli Si Muhabbat is a dialectical poem – in form and content – which speaks of the dialectical transformation a revolutionary must go through.

The second poem I want to talk about is Subh-e-Azadi or Freedom’s Dawn. Though due to constraints of space I shall only briefly discuss it here; perhaps one day I shall write a piece dedicated solely to that poem. In Subh-e-Azadi we see a clear example of the dialectic of hope; a common characteristic of the poetry of Faiz Ahmed Faiz.

The poem, as its name suggests, is about the independence of Pakistan. It paints a stark image of the post-independence Pakistan. Faiz speaks of the “leprous daybreak”. The theme of hope seems to appear in the next few lines, but only as a broken, failed and decapitated hope; as hopelessness and despair. Immediately Faiz admits that “This is not that long-looked-for break of day”, nor is it the dawn the arrival of which “those comrades” had envisioned.

Then he speaks of how alive this now dead hope once was as he writes, “When we set out… how many hands plucked at our sleeves” yet “dearer was the lure of dawn's bright cheek” Hence despite ultimate difficulties and obstacles Faiz and his comrades never lost hope. Because to win independence meant much more to them than their own lives or anything else. But now the hope has been crushed as “the birth of day from darkness/Is finished…”, already the dialectic of hope is established. First in the pre-independence days Faiz talks of and now when he and his comrades struggle to find hope. The poem ends on a hopeful note that “Let us go on, our goal is not reached yet” – suggesting that what was hoped for is yet to come.

Thus, Faiz Ahmed Faiz was a great poet, and he is rightfully recognised as such. But we must dig deeper into his (and other’s) works to enrich our understanding even more. To find theoretical etchings within the realms of poetry is to find a popular expression for our ideas; the ideas which are to be the backbone of a worker’s movement. And if these are the ideas which really are to become the backbone of such a movement, then they have to be popularised.