Well amid the Waste:
An Introduction to the Poetry of Ahmad Shamlu
By AHMAD KARIMI-HAKKAK
In his recent visit to the United States, the leading Iranian poet Ahmad Shamlu told me, with a tone of sober reflection, that he would rather be remembered and judged as the poet of collections such as "Aida in the Mirror," "Blossoming in the Fog," "Phoenix under the Rain," "Elegies of the Earth" and "Abraham in the Fire" than as the author of the earlier and much more famous poems, particularly "The Fairies" and "Poetry that is Life." To those who have always turned and returned to Shamlu's poetry as documents of political and historical significance, this statement may be surprising. However, for those who in the past thirty years have attentively watched the evolution of this free spirit in an increasingly unfree society, the poet's estimation of his own work may come as an illuminating revelation. At any rate, all those who are familiar with the development of contemporary Persian poetry will perhaps agree that Shamlu's long and successful career, both as a poet and as an intellectual, is inseparably linked with the social and political conditions in modern Iran. His life has paralleled the life of his country, inspiring its future direction, reflecting its ups and downs and at times even caught in the middle of such extrinsic conflicts as World War II and the turbulence of the early 1950s.
Born in Tehran in the fateful year of 1925 when Reza Khan finally seized the throne, bringing all intellectual hopes for a democratic government to an end, Shamlu spent his childhood in various provincial towns. The remembrance of his early years still makes the fifty-one-year-old poet visibly uncomfortable, and from the little that he has written about his childhood and youth, one gets the picture of a helplessly unhappy youngster trying to understand the misery and suffering surrounding him:
A filthy pension in the tiny city of Khash I see a mattress which one more starving Baluch boy has wetted the night before, perhaps from fear of approaching death. This is almost a daily scene In Mashad, a sickly, disgusting and ill-tempered teacher .The agonizing memory of his whip-strokes still fills my body and soul with pain . Villages with no trees, fields with no water and no shady spots . The tears of my mother who had to wash the dead body of her son, my brother, with her own hands This is the context of my perceptions, the mirror which is supposed to reflect in itself all external reality!
On one occasion, however, the young boy overheard a neighbor playing Chopin on the piano. The experience drowned him in a thirst for music which poverty gave him no chance to quench. It had to be suppressed. Years later he referred to this memory in a statement which holds the key to understanding the most peculiar feature of his mature poetry, its music.
My poetry, I think, originates from my suppressed longing for music in the same way that the dance-like patterns of Persian rugs have their origin in a national desire for dance and music which Islam had suppressed.
Shamlu then turned to reading as a diversion from his hopeless love for music. He soon was so addicted to reading that he had to quit school in order to devote all his time to it. For the next twenty years of his life his reading took him through the field of national politics to the realm of poetry, before landing him first in an Allied prison during the postwar years and then in government prisons after the coup of 1953. In the past twenty years or so Shamlu's poetry has gone through many stages of development. The variety of his experiments with the language, the diversity of his poetic music, the multifariousness of his imagery and the stubborn independence of his poetic ideas demonstrate his refusal to fall into any easily identifiable category. In recent years the world of the Iranian intellectuals has come under increasingly forceful demands for conformity from the political establishment. As the possibilities of independent thought and free expression shrink more and more, only polar alternatives remain available to a living Iranian poet. Shamlu's reaction to this situation has been a grand internalization of his poetic message and a growing attitude of ambivalence toward his public. The sparkles of pro-test are still prevalent in his poetry, but whereas in his early poems he tended to confront the social system, in his later poems it is the healing power of poetry which soothes the anxieties of the poet and the reader.
Shamlu began his poetic career at a time when Persiain poetry had been remolded and given a new dynamism in the hands of a dynasty of men who gradually broke through the stagnating traditionalism and the consequent decline into which Persian literature had fallen in the nineteenth century. The opulent, ornamented language of the Persian poetry of the previous century had made it virtually incompre-hensible to the masses, and this, of course, reflected the gradual isolation of the ruling elite from the realities of the common man's life. The growing familiarity of the Persian intelligentsia with rapidly changing European societies caused a wave of reawakening which finally resulted in the Constitutional Revolution of 1906. The reforming spirit in the works of such socially motivated poets as Bahar, Iraj and Dehkhoda and the revolutionary zeal in the poetry of Farrokhi, Eshghi and Lahuti played key roles in this process and in the subsequent struggles.
Following in their wake came Nima, a solitary man of unusual genius who, in his rustic simplicity, single-handedly challenged and systematically changed almost all the traditionalistic tendencies in Persian poetry. In his hands poetry became the most profound means of artistic expression whose order is organic rather than plastic, imposed from within by the dictates of the poet's feeling rather than from without by the tradition of poetic precepts. The excellence of the poet is measured, according to Nima, not by the degree of his success in strict adherence to traditional ideas of diction, decorum, rhyme and rhythm, but by the sincerity of his expression:
The more sincerely you express yourself, the more poetic you become This is true for the poets of the past, too . Whoever has reflected his time better is a better poet . One has to be the essence of his time, without pretense, without falsity.... First comes life.
Of all the disciples of Nima, none has put the words of the master into poetic expression as astutely as Shamlu in his "Poetry that is Life," a poem which he himself once considered his ars poetica. This is how the poem opens:
The subject of poets of yesteryear
was not of life.
Today the theme of poetry is a different
Poetry today is the weapon of the masses.
For poets themselves
are branches from the forest of the masses,
not jasmines and hyacinths of someone's
The post-World War II generation of Iranian poets, including Shamlu, were fascinated by Nima's poetry and poetic philosophy. What he taught these young poets was not to feel dwarfed by such great names as Firdawsi, Rumi and Hafiz, to open their eyes to the world, to keenly observe the social realities and to speak without affectation. But above all he taught them, by his own example, never to cease their quest for new experiences, new spheres and the New Poetry. The result was staggering. In the past thirty years Persian poetry has given rise to poets like Mehdi Akhavan Saless, Forough Farrokhzad, Sohrab Sepehri and, of course, Ahmad Shamlu, each of whom would perhaps be sufficient to make our time one of the most glorious eras of Persian literature.
What Shamlu owes to Nima above all is the ever-searching spirit of his poetry, always ready to plunge into new domains for the true poetic experience. A cursory glance at such youthful works as "The Forgotten Songs" (1947), "Manifesto", (1951) and "Steel and Feeling" (1953) in comparison with Shamlu's later poetry reveals the extent of his debt to Nima. In these early collections, written before the poet could fully comprehend the message of the master, a bewildered young man constantly seems to be trying to manage the unmanageable. An uneasy language, uneven rhythmic patterns and cumber-some rhyme schemes create an enervating atmosphere in which the poet's indeterminate attitude toward his art hinders him from the noble intention of singing the suffering of the masses.
By contrast, in later works, particularly in "The Fresh Air," "Aïda in the Mirror," "Phoenix under the Rain" and "Blossoming in the Fog," Shamlu is always in command. Whether in a folk-inspired work like "The Fairies" or in an entirely lyrical song such as "Aïda in the Mirror," or even in his meditative poems, the excessive emotionalism of youth has hardened into a romantic belief in man, a mature outlook on life and a genuine faith in love. The easy-flowing rhythm in these later poems follows the poet instead of dragging him along; the softened music of the lines eases the movement of the poem, and strongly visual images reveal a penetrating power of observation. Most importantly, a happy marriage between Eastern and Western mythology and symbolism often gives a universal character to his poetry.
"I, an Iranian poet," Shamlu has written and is fond of emphasizing in his conversation, "first learned about poetry from the Spaniard Lorca, the Frenchman Éluard, the German Rilke, the Russian Mayakovsky and the American Langston Hughes; and only later, with this education, I turned to the poets of my mother tongue to see and to know, say, the grandeur of Hafiz from a fresh perspective." And indeed, Shamlu's poetry and poetic philosophy reflect an even more deeply-rooted Western influence than he can perhaps be conscious of. In many of his lines one can detect direct echoes of Lorca and Aragon. His images are sometimes as visual as Pound's, sometimes as abstract as Breton's. Like Éluard and Aragon, whom he has translated, Shamlu believes that poetry is first and foremost language, and as such nothing is more essential for the poet than to begin by trying the language on all its levels. Like Pound and Yeats, he considers the visual experience of the poet the base on which the poem is made to stand or fall. His belief it the profound will of poetry, in its deep memory and if action as the ordering principle underlying any poem links him with many of the great contemporary poets of our time such as Mayakovsky, particularly in his early poems.
Shamlu is one of the few Iranian poets who have read both the Bible and the Koran as poetry. His lyrical poems are remarkably influenced by the Song of Songs, which he also has rendered rather successfully into Persian. Christ's character and his Passion have always held a fascination for Persian poets. His life can easily be identified with the lives of thousands of nameless heroes who were betrayed and tortured because of their free spirits and their love of humanity. Shamlu's richly lyrical "Death of the Nazarene," for example, pictures a Christ who is liberated from within by his own compassion and purity. In "Tablet" Christ is identified with the poet whose message goes unheeded, while at the same time the nature of his mission vis-à-vis modern martyrs provides the poet's basic view of history. Here the poet descends from heaven viewing "the square and the streets / an octopus stretching a languid leg in every direction / toward a black swamp." When the crowd refuses to recognize and respect his mission, the poet reminds it that this is the very last Coming:
And I cried out, "Gone are the days
of mourning some crucified Christ,
for today every woman is another Mary,
and every Mary has a Jesus upon the cross,
albeit with no Crown of Thorns, no
Cruciform and no Golgotha;
no Pilate, no judges and no court of justice,
Christs all of a destiny, clad similarly,
uniform Christs with boots and leggings
alike in everything,
with the same share of bread and gruel,
(for sameness is indeed the true heritage
of the human race).
And if not a crown of thorns,
there is a helmet to wear upon the head;
and if not a cross,
there is a rifle to bear on the shoulder;
means of greatness all at hand,
every supper may well be The Last,
and every glance perchance that of a
In his more tranquil poems Shamlu preaches love not as an eternal allegory with cosmic significance but as a moment of internal harmony. Here a balanced, harmonious form often becomes the mirror, reflecting the deep tranquility and nobility which love is capable of bestowing upon man:
Your lips, delicate as poetry,
turn the most voluptuous kiss
into such coyness
that the cave-animal uses it
to become human.
Shamlu's love poems are many and varied. In some, notably the earlier love lyrics, the poet pursues a sunlit, joyous kind of love which refines and ennobles the lover. Its benefits and ill effects are supreme joy and sorrow. In others love prompts the poet to meditate on the nature of man, a process which often leads to thoughts of vanitas vanitatum. In more recent love poems the poet expresses his feelings with dazzling immediacy and memorable drama. As one reads these love poems, most importantly the Aïda cycle, one cannot help but notice a gradual movement toward simpler expression and, at the same time, an increasing desire for isolation which is occasionally accompanied by a disquieting attitude of condescension toward the outside world. Lately Shamlu has written a number of poems which on the surface appear to be love poems. However, a close reading of these in conjunction with the poems of the Aïda cycle reveals a movement from love to solitude, from essential harmony with the other to an existential loneliness. The poet desires complete imprisonment in the self:
A fortification like an onion-skin,
that with my solitude when I sit in secret,
seven gates shall slam shut
upon the body's longings and belongings.
Shut may they be,
Yes, shut may they be
and shut may they stay,
and on every gate
seven heavy locks of steel.
Passages of this kind may indeed seem at best unlikely from the poet of such socially committed works as "Poetry that is Life," "The Daughters of Mama Sea" and, above all, "The Fairies." When it exploded on the Persian literary scene in 1956, "The Fairies" brought a great excitement to the literary community of Iran. Even disregarding the meaning of its story and simply looking at it as an exercise in language, bringing together the literary and the common modes of speech, it was a triumphant achievement. It stirred the minds of the avant-garde literati with its sweeping force and profound implications. Finally a way had been discovered to create literature of social significance in the language of the masses. Now, in all languages we find two modes of speech: common speech, the normal, everyday means of communication among individuals; and literary language, a refined medium of expression for the intelligentsia. In societies where the masses are illiterate the latter tends to become a lifeless plant gradually withering at its root. The former, on the other hand, extends its roots to the source of all life, namely the people. As such it remains a more intense, more primitive medium, appropriate to the collective acts of ritual. The heartbeat of the people becomes its rhythm, their music its melody, their dreams its fantasy, their power its magic. Since poetry is an act in which poet and people commune, a successful combination of the two modes of speech is nothing short of magical.
This was the magic of "The Fairies." The poem begins with lines reminiscent of the old nursery rhyme with which children's stories begin:
Once upon a distant past
under heaven's dome downcast
at sunset were fairies three
sitting, sobbing silently.
In this fairy-tale nowhereland, under a darkening sky, the story of the fairies is told while they sit "weeping ceaselessly like a spring cloud." They have left the Fortress of Old Legends behind and have found their way to the real world, whose profound miseries are making them weep so. Before them is the City of Captive Slaves, whence the clanking of chains fills the horizon. Soon a lone horseman, on his way to the city, appears and inquires about the cause of their deep sorrow. Being a mere human, his frame of reference is human needs:
Fairies fair, are you hungry?
Fairies fair, are you thirsty?
Fairies, are you tired and beat?
Have you had something to eat?
He tells them that if they stay outside at night in their nakedness, snow, wolves or, even worse, a monster might descend upon them. He invites them to ride on his horse to the city, where the slaves are about to free themselves from long suffering. The fairies meanwhile go on shedding their endless tears, keeping their unbroken silence. Their refusal to get excited with the horseman about the future of his city makes him suspect their nature and their intentions. These may not be the friendly fairies of the fairy tales he has heard.
The horseman asks the fairies why they have bothered to come to this world of harsh realities. He explains how human beings have accepted their world and life with all its shortcomings. He admonishes them for having left the Fortress of Old Legends, where everything, according to fairy tales, is rosy and beautiful. Again trying to entice them to come and witness how men too eventually make their own destiny and free themselves from the bonds of ignorance and the chains of slavery, he describes the imminent uprising:
Tonight all over the town
Homes of devils crumble down,
Everybody, sing and dance,
This is real people's chance:
Ours is the day, devils die!
Sing, dance and say devils die!
Bright's our day, devils die!
Darkness, away! Devils, die!
Still having heard no answer, he remembers that fairies are said to be sensitive to human touch. He immediately touches them on the shoulder to get them going, when, in a grand metaphor of metamorphosis, the fairies change into elemental symbols time after time, emphasizing the mutability and transience of the world. Finally one turns into a jug of wine, another into a sea of water, and the third into a formidable mountain obstructing the path to the horseman's destination, the City of Freed Slaves. The horseman, thus enlightened, realizes that these wicked fairies were all along plotting to detain him and becomes more determined than ever to free himself from their machinations. He drinks up the wine, crosses the sea and climbs the high mountain. His trials over, he now can see the city, basked in the generous rays of the sun. There people have destroyed injustice, worship freedom, share the toil and the blessings of life and live happily ever after. The poem thus ends with another nursery rhyme recited at the end of many a children's tale.
"The Fairies" remains a landmark in modern Persian poetry. In it dance, song, music and poetry merge, while a deceptively simple and childish story becomes the vessel containing a far-reaching allegory. The poem tells a story with an internal coherence of its own, almost entirely independent of its rhythmical variation. Thus the poem derives its unity from the story it tells and its diversity from the rhythmical structure. As an exercise with the capacities of folk and popular language, it is a superb experiment one that none, including Shamlu himself, could ever again equal. As an allegory of political change, it drives the point home despite certain ambiguities which tend to make it rather difficult to comprehend without a line-by-line dissection. The images of light and darkness, in their literal and metaphorical opposition, create a dimly lit atmosphere in which such polarities as legend and reality, master and slave, fairies and men assume allegorical significance. The fairies, alien to the world of historical realities, are completely timeless creatures. They are not characters but symbols whose existence is justified by their function. The journeying horseman, on the other hand, can only be seen in his movement through time and space. When he describes what is about to happen in the City of Slaves, he assumes a degree of historical specificity that no one slightly familiar with the contemporary history of Iran can fail to interpret as the prophecy of an imminent revolution.
The slaves gather, torch in hand
to burn the night off our land,
to force the chain-maker out,
chain him, drag him all about.
And it was, above all, a promise of such magnitude which made "The Fairies" a stunning success and perhaps one of the most lasting poems in the mind of the Persians.
The success of "The Fairies" stunned even the poet himself, who for twenty years has insistently discounted its importance. He once wrote:
"The Fairies" was little more than what you can find in our popular folksongs and children's rhyme games. It belongs more to people than to me. All I did was to make a little hut with the material of popular songs.
However, "The Fairies," I believe, is much more of an imaginative work than even Shamlu recognizes. The structure and pattern of ritual, the meaning of the metamorphosis of the fairies, the imagery and symbolism of the poem and the mythical basis of the story each can be the topic of a separate study, to say nothing of the narrative and descriptive technique, the folk elements, the extraordinary diction and the hypnotic rhythm of the poem. To mention but one feature, the rhythm of this unusual work is designed to change in harmony with the movement of the narrative and consequently with the heartbeat of the reader. When event overtake the horseman, the rhythm quickens breath takingly and the reader is made to gasp, whereas the moment the hero regains the mastery of his own mind, the poem changes pace and the reader is calmed down by the serenity of a peaceful rhythm.
"The Fairies" was the product of a historical moment- one of those poems which cannot be created without the help of some indefinable magic, like that of the fairies themselves. As the political environment of the country turned more venomous, and as the establishment quashed the intellectual ideal of a democratic society more and more brutally, it became next to impossible for the poet -any poet- to reflect such dreams. In the past fifteen years or so Shamlu has published half a dozen volumes of poetry in which not a single attempt has been made to revive the language and the rhythm of "The Fairies." To be sure, Shamlu has constantly been trying to create a harmonious world of the image and the idea in which the only music is the sound and the meaning of the word echoed in silence. It is a much more subtle, much more abstract poetry. Images such as "the height of the abyss," the "depth of solitude," "silence speaking with a thousand tongues," "the bloody tumbling of the dawn" and many others of this kind abound in his later poems. Often the unity of the poem depends on the symmetry and parallelism of its stanzas. A short poem entitled "The Dark Song" may serve as an illustration:
In the leaden backdrop of the dawn
the horseman stands in silence,
the long mane of his horse
disheveled by the wind.
O Lord, 0 Lord!
Horsemen are not to stand still
when the event is brewing.
By the burnt hedge
the girl stands in silence,
her delicate skirt
waving in the wind.
O Lord, 0 Lord!
Girls are not to remain silent
when, weary and despairing,
men grow old.
The fleet-footed, sure-minded horse-man of "The Fairies" has now been lulled into the flat-footed, still-minded man of this poem in which silence reigns supreme. The poet's own feelings and emotions, which build and occupy many of his poems, have undergone a parallel transformation. For instance, thirty years ago when the young poet was in prison, his father repeatedly urged him to secure his release by signing a letter of remorse. In answer the nineteen-year-old poet wrote a poem entitled "Letter" in which he speaks as one filled with conviction:
You teach me to be a coward, father?
To register repentance at my enemy's will,
to enchain my soul in order to free my
to seat deceipt higher than truth,
to turn away from the rising dawn, Oh,
to accompany a passing night on its death-
Take your soul to safety, father, and I my
body to the battlefield.
Shelter yourself in comfort, and leave me
in my great danger.
The speaker of these lines is haughty and proud. He knows- or he thinks he knows- his own will and way. His defiant conviction, oozing from every line, can hardly be contained in the simple vessel of his poem. Thirty years later the same man summarizes himself in relation to the enemy in these lines:
To be born
on the dark spear
like the open birth of a wound.
To travel the unique exodus of opportunity
to burn on one's flame
to the very last spark
on the flame of a reverence
found by the slaves
in the dust of the way
Thus red and coquettish
to bloom on the thornbush of blood
and thus tall and proud
to pass through the scourge-field of
and to travel through to the extreme of
Oh, who am I speaking of?
The living with no reason, we are
conscious to the reason of their death,
A possible misconception must be dispelled before this brief account of one of the most influential living poets of the Persian language is brought to a close. I do not intend to lead the reader to believe that the early Shamlu is a better artist. On the contrary, Shamlu's later poems are likelier to determine the future trends in Persian poetry than are his earlier ones. The degree of cohesiveness which Shamlu has achieved in some of his recent poems such as "The Song of Abraham in The Fire," "The Song of the Man of Light who Passed into Gloom" and "I am still thinking of that raven " can only be compared to such poems as Mallarmé's "Le cygne," Yeats's "Sailing to Byzantium" and Alexander Blok's "The Twelve." His lyrical poems are already approaching Pound's most lyrical moments in the Cantos or Cavafis at his best; and the poet, one must remember, is still in mid-career. What this essay proposes is that, in a world of shrinking possibilities of expression, Shamlu has perforce been separated from his audience and made to turn inward. He has moved from action to reflection, from certainty to doubt and from quest to solitude. Many of Shamlu's latest poems remain completely within the domain of intense personal experience, hardly venturing outside the poet without becoming blurred and vague. The poet who once expressed the dreams and aspirations of his society now tends to distill them into intense and pure feelings which he hopes will signify to the reader the underlying vision which the poet can no longer express as freely as he used to. By telling his reader about his weariness and despair, he hopes to prompt us to inquire about the reasons behind them. Thus the mere expression of this despondency becomes a gesture of protest in itself. Early Shamlu is a man of power, persuasion and determination; later Shamlu is very much a poet of pen, paper and deliberation. As such, while the verisimilitude of his early works demands a basically historical response, the abstraction of his later poems evokes a primarily imaginative one. He has come more and more to view poetry as a mirror which the thinking poet, in an uncertain world, holds up to his own soul. The sweeping energy of the young dreamer has gradually subsided into the brooding pessimism of the white-haired poet who knows -or believes he knows- that change will come only if thought accompanies action. His struggle, like that of his countrymen, now goes on below the surface.
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