MPT FEATURE

The Phoenix Rising: An email interview

2015 Number 1 - Scorched Glass

those who are in exile always feel nostalgic and wistful about their home country; their language and cultural sensibility usually freeze at the time of their departure

Atefeh Tahaee is a literary critic and translator, based in Tehran. In this email interview MPT editor Sasha Dugdale and Atafeh discuss modern Persian literature.

SASHA DUGDALE: How integral is poetry to Iranian life?

ATEFEH TAHAEE: Iranians love poetry. The best evidence for this
is the constant incorporation of poetry into daily life, a habit which began in the distant past and still continues. Poems, both ancient and modern, run through people’s lives: in proverbs; in the celebration of Nowruz, the Persian New Year, and Yalda in the deep midwinter; from the mouths of TV and radio presenters; in the voices of singers and the tunes of musicians; in newspapers, postcards and even in the street where you can buy Hafiz’s auspicious verses for divination for just a coin.

SD: There is a long tradition of European writers being influenced by and imitating classical Iranian poetic forms, from Goethe’s West-östlicher Divan to Fitzgerald’s Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám. Tell me about the transition from these forms and traditions, to a modern poetics in twentieth-century Iran? Was it fraught with contention, or was it a harmonious evolution? How was it linked with social changes in Iran?

AT: The transition from old or classical poetry to new and modern poetry, like the modernization of Iranian society, has not been without dislocation and revolution. Towards the end of the Qajar era in the nineteenth century, Persian classical poetry was in a state of stagnation and decay. Poetry was limited to the royal court rooms and the poets of the period competed for nothing more than kingly favours and laureateships. In the nineteenth century all of this changed. Iranian students began travelling to Europe to study, and the whole country was set on its course toward modernity. Iran had a feudal and lawless society, with vast numbers of dispossessed poor, and Iranian intellectuals began demanding government reform, rule of law and social justice.

The translation movement first started during the reign of Nasser al-Din Shah (1848–1896) with the translation of textbooks for students at Iran’s first university Dar-ul-Funun. But translation soon expanded to the field of literature. Of all the literary genres and styles, novels and plays in translation were the most popular, since these forms were new to Iranian readers and their introduction had profound effects on poetry and poetic form.

As Iranian intellectuals began to realize that the only way to improve the meagre conditions of the masses was through political struggle and the democratization of power, poets, too, tried to take their poems out of the court halls and into the crowded streets. During the Constitutional Revolution (1905–1907), most poets adopted a direct, pared-back and uncluttered language to talk about peoples’ problems and their hopes for the future. They avoided metaphor and complex figures of speech and they used colloquial vocabulary and structures in their poetry in an unprecedented way. The content of Persian poetry also changed: there was much less talk of love, mysticism and other abstract and universal themes. The old forms, however, remained prevalent. 

At the same time modern printing techniques simplified book and newspaper publication, and the increasing availability of reading matter had a remarkable impact on culture and awareness. Newspapers and magazines disseminated ideas and often, too, the socially-themed poems of the era. Later in this period, poetry was at the centre of a divisive argument playing out in these publications, especially in two publications with very different intellectual bases: the magazine Daneshkadeh was in favour of changes only to the language and content of poetry, while Tajaddod called for an end to the old forms and the development of new forms.

SD: We are publishing a poem by Nima Yushij in this selection who was one of the great formal innovators at the beginning of the twentieth century. Tell me about his contribution to the ‘argument’.

AT: The shifting scene created the space for a new poet with new perspectives and Nima Yushij (1895–1960) was that poet. He grew up in an era of socio-political change in Iran; he moved with his family to the capital city of Tehran at the age of twelve, and studied in the Francophone St. Louis School. 

Yushij believed that language, content, and form were simply tools in the service of the poet and that each subject demanded its own particular form. A poet had to be free to create this form, and not just to use the ready-made forms of the past. He argued that the artificiality of classical poetry was due to this rigidity of form and his own work bore out his views. 

For example his poem ‘Afsaneh’ (Tale), written in 1922, is in the form of dialogues in a play, with the poet and Afsaneh as two characters conversing with each another. Each section of the dialogue counted as an independent part of the poem, allowing the poet more freedom in his expression. In his introduction to the poem ‘Afsaneh’, Nima addressed the young poet, ‘The structure that contains my Afsaneh is that of a natural and free dialogue... My intention has been to free the language and expand the text... [In this way] it’s the characters themselves who talk, [free from the] the troublesome obligatory poetics that limited the classical poets.’

After introducing more poetic freedom into the old forms and adopting dramatic scenes and new language and imagery, Nima Yushij eventually wrote his first modernist poem, using the formal
rules of the old syllabic form, the Aruz, but allowing himself greater flexibility in the syllable-count: the poem ‘Qoqnoos’ (The Phoenix) in 1937, written some fifteen years after publishing ‘Afsaneh’. Although even after ‘Qoqnoos’ Nima continued to write poems in classic forms such as the Ghazal, Rubayi (Persian quatrain) and the semi-modern Chahar Pareh (a four-line stanza), what makes Nima the father of Persian modern poetry are the new possibilities he offered Persian poetry with ‘Qoqnoos’ and other similar poems.

SD: His legacy, I know, is still felt. Form is still a major preoccupation in Iranian poetry. How was he received initially and by his poet-peers?

AT: The changes made by Nima were met by hostility and disapproval by the classicist camp. Even some younger contemporary poets thought of Nimaic poetry as too radical, and these conservative young supporters of new poetry continued using a classical form known as Chahar Pareh. This was the most recent formal invention of classical Persian poetry, developed and popularized at the beginning of the twentieth century. Chahar Pareh loosened the formal conventions of the Rubayi without doing away with them. 

But another group of young poets, including Ahmad Shamloo (1925–2000), whose work is published here, were fascinated by Nima’s poetics. Some of these poets gradually developed their own styles, surpassing Nima, and making even more radical changes. Ahmad Shamloo, for example, did not abandon rhythm completely, but abandoned metre in order to achieve the variation necessary for his free-verse poems. Forugh Farrokhzad’s poetry was conservative in form and radical in content.

SD: Forugh Farrokhzad (1935–1967) is the lone female voice in the narrative of ‘conservative v. radical’ schools. She’s also probably the best known of the Iranian women poets and has been fairly widely translated. Tell me about her work and her status as a poet? She had a short and tragic life, as I understand it?

AT: Forugh’s brave, sincere poetry was born of a woman’s emotions and thoughts, and as such it was inherently critical of the status quo. Her stance was unprecedented in classical poetry and in the few female poets who came before her. Although Iran was moving toward modernization at the time, it was still a very traditional society, especially with regard to women and family. But Forugh went beyond these limitations. At the age of twenty, she was a divorced single mother. Her first poetry collection, Aseer (The Captive) is a reflection on her four-year marriage; in this collection, she talks freely about her physical desires and her irritation with the rigid limitations of family life. In spite of the bold and radical content, her first three collections – Aseer, Divar (The Wall), and Osyan (Rebellion) – are not formally radical, and are mainly written in Chahar Pareh. 

Forugh, like many other contemporary artists and writers, didn’t limit herself to poetry: She acted in a local production of Pirandello’s Six Characters In Search of an Author, and made a famous documentary, The House is Black, in Ebrahim Golestan’s filmmaking workshop and studio. Her poetry also developed through these explorations and innovations. Publication of her fourth poetry collection in 1963, Tavallodi Digar (Another Birth) made waves in the Iranian literary scene. As you mentioned, her life came to an abrupt end – she died of her head injuries after a car accident, only 32 years old, at the peak of her artistic creativity. Her last poetry collection, Eeman Biavarim be Aghaze Fasle Sard (Let Us Believe in the Beginning of the Cold Season) was published posthumously and made her loss all the more poignant.

SD: The Iranian Revolution and its aftermath were tumultuous times for Iran. How did the literature develop at this point in Iranian history?

AT: In the seventies under the authoritarian rule of the Shah, Iranian society suffered from political oppression and stalemate. In this climate Iranian literature became mostly a vehicle for the expression of the author’s political views and poetry – protest manifestos, eulogies for political resistance and freedom fighters and reproaches directed at traitors and conformists. Love poems and formal intricacy were regarded as ivory-tower aesthetics. But the 1979 revolution and its aftermath marginalised this political trend – most Iranian writers and poets made significant revisions to their poetics when they saw how their emancipatory aspirations and imaginations had given rise to a completely different reality. Young poets, whose formative years were in the period immediately preceding the revolution, went into exile or immigrated, some lost their lives for their ideals in the violent clashes of the immediate years following the revolution, and others were killed in the eight-year war with Iraq. 

By the end of war in the late eighties, Iranian literature started to recover. The nineties saw more literary publications, more active artistic circles and even the creation of some literary prizes. Publication of the poetry collection Lab-rikhte-ha (Overflowing) by Yadollah Royaee (b. 1932) was the significant event of this era, leading to hot discussions on form and language in poetry. Some established literary figures started to teach younger generations in literary workshops, among them Reza Baraheni (b. 1935) whose workshop was most influential in the poetry scene of the nineties.

SD: Many millions of Iranians live outside Iran and the diaspora includes many poets and writers (we are publishing a number of them here). This interests me greatly because a single culture and language in diaspora divides into many branches and becomes influenced by other cultures. I’m interested in your perspective on this as a critic in Tehran. What do you note about the differences between Iranian poetry being written outside and within Iran?

AT: A good poem is a good poem regardless of where it is written. But it is important to distinguish between those who have immigrated to another country willingly, and those who are in exile, unable to come back. The first group usually adopt the host country’s culture with more ease. But those who are in exile always feel nostalgic and wistful about their home country; their language and cultural sensibility usually freeze at the time of their departure. In the case of a writer or poet in exile, they tend to be conservative in their style, and repetitive in their content as they have lost their connection to their social environment. Some may manage to go beyond this phase, if they invest considerable time and energy. 

But those who have immigrated with their family at a very young age, or second-generation immigrants are somehow different. They don’t know Iran except for what they’ve heard from their parents and what they see on the news. Except for their Persian language and some piecemeal influences they are totally immersed in their adopted culture. So in their poems, in spite of poor language skills and limited vocabulary, they present the lived experiences of an ‘other’ in the social and cultural context of their adopted country and this brings a sense of novelty and freshness to their works. 

Considering the vast numbers of that second generation I think the full flowering of immigrants’ poetry is still to come.

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