158: Constitution: Habib Jalib

I hate name poems, but when looking for a poem about the U.S. Constitution a number of people had asked for acrostic poems about it or the First Amendment. Some cynic wrote this:

Confusingly formed
Ostentatiously born
Neanderthal even then
Suspicious in form
Trifling language used
Insidiously abused
Trampled and burned
Undermined evolution
Terribly archaic now
Insistent to the ludicrous
Out dated
No longer valid

This is not poetry. While the author knew this, it bothers me that the teacher who assigned it throws about the term “poetry” like this. Yuck. No wonder kids hate poetry.

That said, I am starting our unit on The Great Depression and tie in the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution (what is promised here, and what is the role of the government?). My wife suggested starting our unit by having students write out the alphabet and to come up with a word for each letter. I’ve used such a thing for a formative and summary assessment, too. But, poetry… No.

Here’s a real poem about the Constitution. Or, a Constitution. Habib Jalib is a Pakistani revolutionary poet. He has been arrested several times and continued to fight against tyranny for his entire life. I read about his story, and the story of this poem, here in an article in the Friday Times by Mujahid Barelvi. You can read about his life in Wikipedia here.

Here’s a little bit of Jalib speaking of poetry and democracy. It’s grainy, with subtitles, and in the first part he speaks of the fight a political poet must wage, but I find the less packaged media grab the students best.

Political poetry is an interesting artifact. First, is it art? Why? Does it remain fresh over time, or grow stale as politics becomes history? Should poems be clever, or subtle, or metaphors, or can they be obvious? I think of the poems of Milton, written during Cromwell’s rule of the Commonwealth of England, and how they wavered from blunt polemic to sublime artistry. Does Jalib meet the standard of poetry here? Is there a cultural standard at work–English vs. Developing World vs. Developing World? A religious divide? A democracy divide? Are some works of “art” merely historically important (I’m talking to you, Upton Sinclair!)?

Why can’t I find a decent poem about the U.S. Constitution?

Historically and politically, how do Jalib’s words stand with regard to the U.S. Constitution? Can we borrow a poem from another country, in another language, in a different time, against a different government, about another document and still wring meaning from it? Are there universal truths? If so, what are they? Can you find other poems that express them? Is it culturally arrogant to assume what we interpret in Jalib is what a Pakistani would?

Oh, the questions you can ask. And, your students might have a few answers.

Habib Jalib

A constitution whose light only makes the palaces bright,
That minds nothing but the happiness of a few,
That grows in the shade of compromise,
Such a constitution, such a dawn of darkness,
I refuse to accept, I refuse to acknowledge.
I am not afraid of the noose.
Let the world know I am Mansoor, the martyr.
So don’t bother threatening me with prison walls;
This treatise of tyranny, this night of ignorance,
I refuse to accept, I refuse to acknowledge.
“Flowers are now budding on branches,” you say;
“Carousers now have their cups full,” you say;
“Wounds are now healing,” you say.
These blatant lies, these frauds on perception,
I refuse to accept, I refuse to acknowledge.
How can I call you our saviour
When you have actually made us suffer for centuries?
You can no longer befool us.
You are not our saviour, and if someone says you are,
I refuse to accept, I refuse to acknowledge.

Translated and adapted from Urdu by Babar S Mirza


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