A Rebel Poet in Search of an Audience
Ahmad Shamlu is the primary, most prolific and most popular engagé Persian poet of post-Mosaddeq Iran. While critics in general view Shamlu’s poetry as a mirror reflecting the stages of modernist Persian poetics from Nima Yushij (1895-1960) onward, Reza Baraheni has also described it as “a biography of our society.” As a sociological study of this very important Iranian writer, this essay provides a chronology and analysis of Shamlu’s relationship with his reading public and “the people,” an overview of the nature of modernist engagé Persian poetry in general, and an assessment of the influence the “committed” poet has been able to exercise on Iranian society during the past three decades, in particular.
Shamlu was born on December 12, 1925, in Tehran but lived in Baluchestan until the age of 10, and then, in Mashhad. His memories of childhood are bleak. Dying Baluchi children and “a disgusting, sick, and ill-tempered teacher,” whose love was only for the cane, people these memories. At 10, he was accidentally exposed to Chopin’ “Etudes” and to other Western classical music, the effects of which he later compared to “the first unknown feelings of puberty: a blend of pleasure and pain, death and rebirth, and God knows what else.. .” For financial reasons music was not pursued and, by the age of 13, it was superseded by literature. Henri Bordeaux’s “The Musician” transported Shamlu from a world of notes to a world of words. Nevertheless, much later, he still maintained that his poetry rose from his “suppressed longing for music.” Gradually, reading took precedence over all the other subjects which were being taught al school, and school “became a prison.” He left before finishing high school, went to Tehran, and began a career in journalism, which coincided with the Allied occupation of Iran. At the age of 16 he found himself in an Allied prison where he was kept for a year and a half. At 22, he published his first collection of poems, Ahangha-ye Faramush Shodeh [Forgotten Songs (1947), which he later wished he had burned. Four years later, two other collections followed, Bist-o Seh [Twenty-Three) (1951) and Qat’nameh [Manifesto] (1951), and two years after these, Ahanha va Ehsas [Irons and Emotion] (1953). All of these constitute his infantile period in poetry, and none herald the poet who was to reappear in 1957 with Hava-ye Tazeh [Fresh Air]. At age 29, following the fall of Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddeq, Shamlu was arrested for being a member of the communist Tudeh Party of Iran and imprisoned for one year. These prisons became his “new school.” From the time he left prison until the present, Shamlu has been arrested and/or jailed seven times more, though he has not been a member of any political party since. Nevertheless, a review of his “politics” may prove beneficial in understanding him and his engagé poetry.
What had tempted Shamlu to join the Tudeh Party was the concept of an ideal dream-state for mankind which he saw in socialism on paper and in words. In commenting on the Western intellectuals who espoused the cause of the left during the Spanish Civil War, Charles Glicksberg could be describing Shamlu when he writes:The vision of the Kingdom of Heaven established on earth –namely, classless society based on justice, equality, and brother-hood — this was the shining ideal that motivated them to become loyal Communists or fellow travelers.
Shamlu left the party for good, however, when it became evident that the party leaders had “betrayed the cause, “the military wing,” “the members,” and had fled the country following the fall of Mosaddeq. In 1979, when the party had re-emerged after the revolution, Shamlu wrote one of his most bitter articles against the Tudeh, condemning it for its hypocrisy, and stating, “It seems that they [the Tudeh] are intentionally trying to discredit socialism!” However, in the same year, when asked about his ideas on the Iranian Revolution, Shamlu said: “In our age, a true and successful revolution is one which results in the complete liberation of the hard-working masses from the servitude of capital an solves the problem of profiteering among men. I mean a ‘revolution’ cannot be in any other shape and form….It cannot have any other definition or adjective or preposition.” Hence, Shamlu remains a believer in terms of the “ideology” of the left, and knows that “the artist, in the words of William H. Gass, is a born “enemy of the state.” In his own words:“I believe that an intellectual can serve his mission [resalat] for as long as he is in a position of protest. As soon as he acquires. . . ‘a governmental position and a desk,’ he has abandoned his mission and has become one of the nuts and bolts of the ruling system. In other words, he has left the position of protest and attack, and has entered the position of a miserable palace guard.”
In 1979, Shamlu stated: “Unfortunately I don’t like any form of government and believe that whosoever should consider ruling [hokumat kardan] over me, will unjustly: be considering me as one condemned [mahkum].” Thus he is in a dilemma. On the one hand, he believes that Iran’s economic ills, and the abject and impoverished state the majority of Iranians can be cured and improved only by a “true revolution,” a “socialist” one; on the other, he knows that even a socialist government will be, after all, a government, and governments attempt to “govern” all, including those free spirits who refuse to be governed. Fully aware of this contradiction, Shamlu finally states: “I’d like a system where man would not be forced to hide his thoughts and opinions, and such a system, of course, can only exist in dreams. Yes, I am a dreamer.” Shamlu the dreamer, who is enough of a realist to know that he is a dreamer, is more of a rebel humanist than a revolutionary socialist. Differentiating between the two, Arthur Koestler writes:What distinguishes the chronically indignant rebel from the earnest revolutionary is that the former is capable of changing causes, the latter not. The rebel turns his indignation now against this injustice, now against another; the revolutionary is a consistent hater who has invested all his powers of hatred in one object. The rebel always has a touch of the quixotic; the revolutionary is a bureaucrat of Utopia. The rebel is an enthusiast. The revolutionary is a fanatic.
In this context, Shamlu is the “quixotic” rebel par excellence. Like Albert Camus, he joined the Communist Party, left it, and chose “not to accept a doctrine, be it Christianity or Marxism, on faith,” but “to work out his own principles, his own code of ethics…. ” However, unlike Camus, he did not condemn “the militant Marxists” but even wrote poems for them and for others with very different ideologies who had sacrificed their lives in their struggle against tyranny and oppression; the “humble discoverers of hemlock.” Hence, it may be said that Shamlu is more of a realist and a humanist than either Camus or Sartre. Like Sartre, he knows that an abandoned, abused, and abject hungry mass of human beings exists out there whom a socialist revolution could help. And, like Camus, he knows that the artist is an idealist rebel who could not and should not compromise his dream for a deformed reality such as the one that existed in the Soviet Union, a rebel who would find fault with everything every chance he got. Thus, Shamlu is a rebel with immense respect for the revolutionary. Whereas the rebel and the revolutionary created an unbreachable gap between Camus and Sartre, their conflict has been resolved harmoniously in Shamlu, though he clearly knows that he himself is and must remain the free rebel. A review of his poetry written in the early and mid-1950s reveals that Shamlu began as not only the rebel but also very much the revolutionary.
The most interesting poem in the context of Shamlu as revolutionary is “She’ri keh Zendegi-st” (A Poetry That Is Life) (1956), wherein the poet says:
Today poetry is the people’s weapon; For the poets are but a branch from the forest of the people, not jasmines and hyacinths of someone’s greenhouse. … He writes poetry — meaning, he touches the wounds of the old city; meaning, he tells a tale at night of pleasant morning.
Shamlu, who used the nom de plume “Alef Sobh” [A. Morning] up to 1953 and henceforth, “Alef Bamdad” [A. Dawn], has always utilized “night” as a symbol of evil and oppression. Thus, when he states,
He writes poetry meaning, he opens sleeping eyes toward the rising morning…,
he is clearly indicating that the poet’s function is to “awaken” the people and to assure them of the inevitable “morning,” the dawn of revolution and light. With few exceptions, Shamlu is overflowing with hope in the poems ofFresh Air. At times, he is the heart of the revolution: “Come/my companions/with your pains/and trickle the poison of your pains/into the wound of my heart”; at times he writes, “I am the common pain/cry me out!” In “Barun” [Rain] (1955/56), a poem written in a folkloric form, “four vigilant men” tell a helpless child:
...not much remains to dawn …who’s ever seen night stay? …When the men rise clouds will disperse the cock will crow at dawn and lady sun will know that night’s time is up…”
He knows that “One day we will find our doves again/and kindness will hold the hand of beauty. ” And on his shoulder sits a dove who constantly reminds him “of light/and of man who is the god of all gods. “
The most interesting poem in the context of Shamlu and his “ideal” audience at this stage of his career is “Avaz-e Shabaneh Bara-ye Kucheh” [A Nocturnal Song for the Street] (1952/53), where he states:
I write for the prostitutes and the bare, for the tubercular, the destitute, for those who, on the cold earth are hopeful, and for those who believe no more in heaven. Let my blood spill and fill the gaps among thepeople. Let our blood spill and graft the suns to the sleepy people…
In short, Shamlu is writing for the “proletariat,” and his mission is to inform the proletariat of its “historic mission.” However, from 1956/57, faint signs of despair began to appear in his poetry for two reasons. One was that a great number of the intellectuals of the Mosaddeq era knew that Mohammad Reza Pahlavi’s return to power had been the CIA’s accomplishment, and they were very hopeful that shortly after the coup the people would overthrow the monarch again. Their expectations were never realized. The second cause of this despair was the betrayal by the Tudeh Party. The “cowardly” flight of its leadership, the “confessions” which led to numerous executions and a number of other facts pertinent to the Tudeh in the mid-1950s shocked leftist intellectuals. But Shamlu still had enough faith in the ideology to go on fighting by himself, apart from the party:
And a man who goes on alone on the road tells himself: “It’s pouring in the street and here’s no warmth at home! Truth has escaped from the city of the living; I go with all my epics to the graveyard;” And alone, for in which fellow-traveler’s sincerity can one believe? …. The air I breathe is polluted with the lie-infested breaths of my deceitful fellow-travelers and, really, what need has he, the traveler of this road, for fellow-travelers? As for the despair that resulted from the people’s resigned attitude toward the shah’s return to power, Shamlu’s reaction may be seen in “Beh To Beguyam” [Let me Tell You] (1956157), where he said: There is no more room. Your heart is full of sorrow. The gods of all your heavens have fallen to dust. Like a child you feel insecure and alone. You laugh because you’re scared and a dumb pride prohibits you from crying. … This is the human being you’ve made of yourself, of the human being I loved and still love. You’re afraid–let me tell you–you’re afraid of life, of death, more than life, and of love more than both. You stare at darkness, tremble with terror, and forget me by your side.
At this point, the poet is still very much on the side of his petrified people, constantly reminding them of his loving presence and compassion. In short, Shamlu still has hope in the people and believes that they will listen.
As for the poet himself, there is not a shade of compromise. Addressing the staunch defenders of traditional Persian poetry and the antagonists of modernism, he states: “I am neither Fereydun/nor Vladimir./I will neither turn back/nor die. ” His reference to Fereydun Tavallali (1919-1985) indicates that Shamlu does not intend to abandon his engagémodernism and to revert to traditional forms and themes as Tavallali did. Nor is he going to succumb to pressure and commit suicide as did Vladimir Mayakovsky. Though Fresh Air exhibits traces of Mayakovsky’s influence and moral support along with Eluard’s and Aragon’s, Shamlu is more confident of his own revolutionary zeal than of anyone else’s. With Fresh Air we also begin to see masks of Shamlu as the rebel.
Shamlu’s favorite persona for the rebel’s archetype is also Marx’s, both choosing Prometheus. In the Foreword to his -doctoral dissertation. Marx wrote in 1841:
“Philosophy makes no secret of it. Prometheus’ admission ‘I hate all gods’ is its own admission, its own motto against all gods, heavenly and earthly, the consciousness of man as the supreme divinity. ” Shamlu writes: “I am the starless Prometheus/who has spread his wounded liver for the fateless crows forever.” And, in “Ghazal-e Akharin Enzeva” [Lyric on the Ultimate Loneliness] (1952/53), he declares the supremacy of man:
Is not man a miracle? Man. this devil who dragged God under, tamed the world and shattered the prisons! –who tore apart the mountains, broke the seas, drank the fires and turned the waters into ash! Man. . This just cruelty! This bewildering bewildered thing! Man. This sultan of the greatest love and the most dreadful loneliness .
Like Camus, who believed “Once the rebel has abandoned his faith in god, he is saddled with the responsibility of himself creating the order of justice…. ” Shamlu also believes that modern man has acquired a new responsibility which he cannot and should not shirk. He declares ‘”Man…the god of all gods.”
In Bagh-e Ayeneh [Garden of Mirrors] (1960), Shamlu remained the Promethean rebel, but the revolutionary’s zeal had subsided considerably. He still declared, like Prometheus, “I have cursed all the gods/as the gods/have cursed me. ” But the people’s continued passive and resigned attitude was now driving him toward despair:
We wrote and wept We laughed and rose to dance We roared and forfeited our lives…. No one heeded us. *** Far away they hanged a man. No one raised his head to see. *** We sat and wept and, with a cry, we vacated our frames. Now he witnessed the sufferings and executions which had followed in the post-Mosaddeq trials, and felt the loneliness: My unknown companions fell like burnt stars in such numbers to the dark earth that you’d think the earth remained forever a starless night.
And finally, the poet finds himself in a prison where the crimes of many of the other prisoners have stemmed from their abject poverty. His sole “crime” is that he knows who the real criminal is.
The long, pessimistic, folkloric poem, “Dokhtara-ye Naneh Darya” [The Daughters of Mother Sea], when contrasted with the very optimistic “Pariya” [The Fairies] of Fresh Air, reveals the change that took place in Shamlu during the last four years of the 1950s. He still had flashes of hope: “I feel/in the worst moments of the deadly dusk/thousands of sun-springs/bubble in my heart/from certainty”; and he could still declare, “A lamp in my hand/and one before me/I go to battle darkness.” But such hopeful utterances were balanced, if not actually drowned, by despair. Perhaps the best expression of Shamlu’s struggle between hope and hopelessness in Garden of Mirrors are the lines appearing on the opening page:
I became neither free of hope nor of sorrow, how I struggle in the middle to stay afloat.
Shamlu’s struggle with sorrow and his subsequent anger at the cause of this sorrow begins to clearly manifest itself with the poems of Ayda dar Ayeneh [Ayda in the Mirror] (1964). The poems of this collection, dating from the spring of 1961, along with the poems of the next collection, Ayda: Derakht-o Khajar-o Khatereh [Ayda: The Tree, the Dagger and a Memory] (1965), constitute a distinct period in Shamlu’s poetry. His main persona in this period is, to a great extent, Jesus, and to a lesser one, Moses. He is an angry and totally disillusioned prophet, suffering amongst his own pathetically passive people. And although this mask of the poet continues well into 1969, his rage quieted considerably during the years 1966-69. It should also be noted that, from the mid-1960s onward, Shamlu ceases to search for or to believe in an ideal audience.
Love, a new theme introduced into Shamlu’s engagé poetry with Garden of Mirrors, now became his primary preoccupation, replacing his ideal people and audience. In “Az Shahr-e Sard” [From the Cold City] of Garden of Mirrors, the poet had so addressed his beloved:
Make me invulnerable with the armor of your caress. I will not succumb to darkness. I have summarized the world in your small bright dress and will not return toward them.
In other words, Shamlu had expres-sed his wish to seek refuge from the cold and careless city in the arms of love. But love was more than a refuge: it was also armor protecting the poet from the blows of “darkness. In love he sought and found the strength to withstand the onslaught of darkness, which had become increasingly gripping once his ideal ally, “the people,” had proven to be, at best, unreliable and, at worst, antagonistic. Contributing to Shamlu’s disillusionment in the people- -not to mention to his frustration and anger–was that the very people for whom he was writing his poems were complaining of the difficult and not easily communicable manner of expression which he had employed, i.e., modernist poetry. Turning to his beloved, Ayda, now the poet said:
O my written and unwritten poems! Let there be no doubt as to your royal reign if she alone remains your reader! For she is my independence from petty merchants and people alike also from those whose sole motive for reading my poems is to criticize me for their own dull minds. And addressing the people, he wrote: I am twice condemned to torture: to live so, and to live so amongst you with you whom I have loved for so long.
Shamlu now felt his intense loneliness among his people. He realized his pleas and pledges, all offered through his passionate poems, had not been understood and had remained uncommunicated. He wrote: “Those who understood how innocently I burned in this unjust hell/in number/are less than your [Ayda’s] sins!”
It was also with Ayda in the Mirror that Shamlu began to employ the unacknow-ledged prophet as the symbol of the poet. In Tekrar [Repetition] (1963), for the first time, Shamlu spoke of “poets” as “prophets” and of both as “martyrs.” Writing on the French authors of the nineteenth century, Glicksberg says:
many writers and artists felt cut off from their public and at odds with their world. They turned against society because it was more interested in material well-being than in art; it betrayed no genuine understanding or appreciation of their work. Furthermore, they were antagonized by the stupidity of conservative critics and of the inveterate hostility of the venal press.-. Gradually they created the legend of the artist as the prophet without honor in his native land, the martyred victim of philistine society (emphasis added).
Shamlu’s anger was intensified because the people were not even realizing that in order to achieve “material well-being,” they had to rise, to move, to change the status quo. However, it is interesting to note the message, of these poets-prophets, these seemingly Marxist martyrs:
And the tired prophets descended unto the dark spread and the cry of their pain when torture was tearing the skin of their frames was thus: “The Book of our mission is kindness and beauty so that the nightingales of kisses may sing on the branches of the Judas-tree.” We have wished a happy ending for the ill-starred freedom for the slaves and hope for the hopeless, so that the divine dynasty of Man may regain his eternal reign over the kingdom of the earth. The book of our mission is kindness and beauty so that the womb of the earth may not become imbued with the seed of rancor.
A very similar message was to appear in “Lowh” [The Tablet] (1965) also. However, as Vernon Venable has pointed out:
Engels polemicizes against “‘true love of humanity’ and empty phraseology about ‘justice,”‘ and Marx attacks the “higher ideal” type of socialism which wants “to replace its materialistic bases…by modern mythology with its goddesses of Justice, Freedom, Equality and Fraternity.” They deny explicitly that communists preach morality…
Hence, it should be noted that Shamlu is more of a humanist at this stage than a “Marxist.” His search is for an “ideal state,” populated and governed by “ideal human beings.”
In “The Tablet,” written less than four months after SAVAK had issued a public statement on the exile of Ruhollah Khomeini effective November 4, 1964, and during the protests and demonstrations which followed in Tehran and other cities, Shamlu realized that his passive people could move, but only when moved by the worst possible motive: religion! The people appear at the beginning of “The Tablet” as a languid octopus, stretching into the streets, and waiting with “anticipation/ and silence.”, The persona of the poet-prophet, a blend of the lyrical Jesus and the epic Moses, holds up to them a clay tablet which “speaks of compassion, friendship, and honesty.” But the people who lack “an ounce of guts,” prefer to wait for their religious messiah. The angered poet-prophet, whose naive and humane formula for their happiness consists of “a sincere hello,/a warm handshake,/and an honest smile,” cries out” the truth to them:
Gone are the times you wept in mourning for your crucified Christ; now every woman is a Mary and every Mary has a Jesus on a cross though with no crown of thorns, no cross, no Golgatha, no Pilate, no judges, no courts of justice; Jesuses with similar fates, Jesuses with similar souls, uniformed Jesuses, with boots and leggings of the same kind– the same kind, with equal shares of bread and gruel (for Equality is the precious heritage of Mankind!) And if there is no crown of thorns there is a helmet to wear on your head; And if there is no cross to bear on your shoulder, there is a rifle (the means of greatness all at hand.) And every supper may well be The Last Supper and every look the look of a Judas. …. And, alas, no more is the way of the cross an ascent to Heaven for it is a descent to Hell and the eternal wanderings of the soul.
But the people do not seem to heed the poet-prophet’s call for a secular struggle. They disagree with his view of religion as a “sin” in our times. And the speaker realizes the futility of his appeals:I now knew that they waited not for a clay tablet but for a book and for a sword and for guards to assault them with whips and maces and drop them to their knees before the steps of the one who would descend the dark stairway with a sword and a book.
Fully aware that his reader knows Islam is the religion of the sword and the book, Shamlu attacks it, an attack which gains significantly in its bitterness when one reads “Dar In Bonbast” [In This Dead-End] (1979) where his fears have been realized and the guards have appeared in the form of the “Pasdaran,” the “revolutionary guards,” and “the one” has descended in the shape of Ruhollah Khomeini. The poet-prophet goes on to say that “this people,” the Muslim Iranian people,
only accept the martyrdom of him who, for truth, makes a shield of his chest before the sword. It seems as if they don’t believe torture, suffering and martyrdom (all exclusive to the ancients!) exist if they’re accomplished by modern means….
In other words, his anger stems from the fact that the people go on regarding only Imam Hosayn and his 72 followers at Karbala who died for their religious convictions as “martyrs” and pay no such tributes to all the secular revolutionaries who, for the sake of the people, wither away in the high-tech torture chambers of SAVAK. Finally, the poet-prophet realizes that his “fire” did not spread in them, that he failed to communicate his “message,” because he had “said the last word about the heavens/without having even/mentioned/Heaven.” In short, Shamlu confesses to the failure of effective communication with the people in contexts other than religious.
The realization of religion’s appeal to the masses, along with continued complaints on the “difficult” style of his poetry which he counterattacks most aggressively, add to Shamlu’s loneliness, bitterness, and need for Ayda’s assuring love. Angrily, he tells the people, “My intention is to hurt you!”; and “my death is not a journey/but a migration/from a homeland I did not love/because of its people! ” He sees the people as hypocrites whose courage is limited to throwing stones from their rooftops which may or may not hit the right target. He realizes that:
now, ideology is nothing but a memory or a book in the bookcase and a comrade is a ladder on which you step to climb out of the pit!
He sees that his friends and fellow travelers were wasted for the sake of Man who, “naked and with chains on his feet/looked at our struggle/as a sane man/would look at lunatics!” He feels that “Man/has grown accustomed to his centuries-old agony.” And “in a darkness where God and the Devil appear the same,” and where “ideologies” have become mere “excuses for power struggle,” his mind still echoes the heartrending cry of those who were crucified on “the cross of the people’s ignorance”: “Father, forgive them/for they do not know/what they do unto themselves! ” Their deaths permeate his love- -the only thing which has managed to retain its innocence. Turning to Ayda, he says,
let our first kisses be in the memory of those kisses that comrades with the red mouths of their wounds placed upon the ungrateful earth.
Ayda: The Tree, the Dagger, and a Memory enforced what the critics had suspected and feared in Ayda in the Mirror, namely, that the people’s poet was turning away from the people. They were displeased that “their poet” of Fresh Air had said in Ayda in the Mirror:
People and the stench of their worlds are all a hell from a book which I have memorized word by word so that I may understand the long secret of loneliness– the deep secret of the well through the meanness of thirst.
But instead of being intimidated or even influenced by growing criticism, Shamlu gave a number of statements wherein he manifested the unprecedented anger and indifference to which we shall return shortly.
In 1964 Shamlu refuted 1,A Poetry that Is Life” as an “Art Poetique” in which he had ceased to believe. He also said, “If someone asks me now, ‘What good is a poem?’ I won’t know what to answer him.” In short, he had ceased to view poetry as a “means” through which he could lead the people or which the people could utilize as a “weapon.” But he also stated that “no human being could be indifferent to the miseries of others.” He said, “even in my most lyrical love poems you will find a social theme.” And he added that this “sympathy” was inevitable whether one was a poet or not. In other words, he was not distinguishing any longer between engagé and non- engagé writers as self-consciously as before. One, he realized, did not “choose” to become an engagé poet but became one by virtue of being a decent human being who saw the sufferings of others and was touched by it sufficiently for it to be reflected even in his most private poems.
However, by 1966 these very people whose sufferings had touched his life so deeply were being compared to those Jews who had resumed worship of the golden calf while Moses was on the mountain. Angrily, Shamlu recalled the SAVAK-instilled insecurity and loneliness he had suffered and, in the Novruz issue of Ferdowsi magazine, bitterly wrote:
Anxiety, horror, and nightmares have filled my nights and days. Everytime the phone or the doorbell rings, a cold sweat settles on my forehead. I have wasted the best years of my life over nothing, either in prisons or in front of a Justice who carries a sword in one hand and a scale in the other. While on one side of the scale they place what you have been charged with, in the other, you must put the amount of money you can dish out. These prisons and prisons were the price I paid, the atonement I made for living with those whom I loved, with whom I have shared common memories, and in whose name most of my poems have been written. The people who once were my most awe-inspiring love.
Shamlu now fully realized the ultimate loneliness of the Iranian engagé poets who “shout in a vacuum” and know that not one sympathetic ear will make an effort to listen to their cries. Hence, he concluded, “they are moaning, sincerely, for themselves. “
Aside from the people’s relationship with the poet in general, another interesting issue which Shamlu touched upon in a 1964 interview, is the poet’s relationship with his audience, i.e., the reading public:
Interviewer: The reader of contemporary [Persian] poetry hits the brakes as soon as he sees a modernist poem… What must one do to avoid this?
Shamlu: I don’t have much to do with readers. I mean, if a reader doesn’t read my poem … so what?
Interviewer: My question is why shouldn’t people be able to read contemporary poetry?
Shamlu: It’s not my job [to find out why]…
Interviewer: Is it theirs?
Shamlu: If our poetry isn’t very successful, there are many reasons for it. I publish my poem. This guy likes it, that guy swears, another doesn’t publish it, and a fourth one writes from such and such a place, requesting to see my new manuscripts…. This depends on the people, individually, whether they like it or not…
Later, in 1966, Shamlu also complains of limited readership, limited to the extent that the poet “knows his readers individually!” Firstly, it is surprising to find an engagé poet unconcerned whether someone is going to read his poems or not. Secondly, Shamlu doesn’t seem, at this point, to know precisely what it is about the modernist Persian poem which may intimidate a reader and turn him away. One may conclude that from this point onward, Shamlu realizes that “poetry in its highest form,” as Nima put it, “is an observation that a certain handful of people have for a certain handful of people.” In other words, he doesn’t expect it to do the work of “political propaganda.” However, Shamlu is also aware that he must, regardless of its probable lack of effectiveness, continue to cry out against injustice in his poetry. As Eric Bentley puts it, “an artist cannot give up regarding himself as the conscience of mankind, even if mankind pays no attention.” Shamlu cannot be a writer who is “fiddling with words while Rome burns,” and is thus “perpetuating the status quo.” In as early as 1966 he said, “What can poetry possibly do in a world such as this?…” confirming that, as Auden put it, “Art is impotent”; that poetry can do nothing “to eradicate [gross evils] or alleviate [appalling misery].. .. Shamlu touched upon the poet’s relationship with the public in a number of other poems up to the late 1960s also, but he ceased completely to see himself as the militant leader of the masses from the early 1970s onward. Whereas in Fresh Air to a great extent, and in the following Garden of Mirrors to a lesser one, he had attempted to “change the world,” and in Ayda in the Mirror and Ayda: The Tree, the Dagger and a Memory had expressed his frustration and fury in not being able to do so, now he believed that “commitment” came “from within the artist himself” and was “inseparable from his personality.” Hence, Shamlu noted, sociopolitical themes touched even his most lyrical love poems.
In Qoqnus dar Baran [Phoenix in the Rain] (1966), Shamlu’s fury subsided and his perspective changed. He was still certainly bitter and bitterly ironic in poems such as “Marge-e Naseri” [The Death of the Nazarene] (1966) insofar as the pathetically passive and ungrateful crowd was concerned. But, unlike in “The Tablet,” he was no longer on a platform inundating the people with his fervor and fury. His poems were hard as diamonds, cleansed of all oratorical rhetoric. In “The Death of the Nazarene,” by simply following Jesus to the hill of his crucifixion, Shamlu succeeds in showing the ingratitude and meanness of the “masses” who react in this poem more like “mobs.” The ultimate loneliness of Jesus, the loneliness of all “committed” intellectuals who sacrificed their very lives for the people, is manifested at the moment when Jesus fails to find any compassion in the external world and “gazes into his own clarity” like “a proud swan.” The very people whom he had attempted to save” now shout to the Roman soldiers, “Whip him,” or “Put a crown of thorns on his head.” Even Lazarus, the one man who literally owed his life to Jesus, having convinced himself that “Unless he [Jesus] didn’t want to, or else he could [save himself],” turns his back on him and strolls away. The crowd remains shameless to the very end. Only the sun and the moon cover each other’s faces. Finally, the godless sky falls heavily on the last cry of the crucified Nazarene and he surrenders life in “the silence of compassion.” “The Death of the Nazarene” remains the final and finest poem in which Shamlu has utilized the symbol of Jesus.
Phoenix in the Rain marks the beginning of a period when Shamlu does not waste words anymore or use the first one that comes to mind. Though he had begun “coining” compound words and creating new ones in Fresh Air, it is with this collection that he and the Persian language seem to become inseparable and indistinguishable from each other. Based on this and on the following collections, one may boldly and with sufficient justification state that no Iranian poet since the fourteenth-century Hafez has contributed as much as Shamlu to the Persian language. Nor has any poet since Hafez used language so fully aware, as is Shamlu, of the denotative and connotative dimensions of words. His mastery has reached such a level that Mohammad Hoquqi asserts that Shamlu can even use “linguistic compounds that are grammatically ‘incorrect’ which may be seen in his poetry not as mistakes but as precedents that other poets may follow without fear.” In The Tradition of the New, Harold Rosenberg says:Lifting up a word and putting a space around it has been the conscious enterprise of serious poetry since Baudelaire and Rimbaud. .. The commonplace is the effect of a perspective to which the observer is held by a web of vocabulary. It turns to dust when the acid of poetry burns each word away from the old links.
Lifting up the word and making it new, giving it new energy or even a new meaning, is what Shamlu accomplishes henceforth in a far more acceptable and refined manner than in his previous collections.
Having thus found his language and fully realized his métier, which Picasso defined as “that which is not learned,” Shamlu also transformed his persona from a public poet-prophet to a sensitive, often helpless, and seldom silent observer who was not only a witness to the “crime” but was also a victim, an observer who refused to compromise his conscience. From Phoenix in the Rain onward, Shamlu portrays himself less and less as one of the effective elements of sociopolitical change and, instead, begins to see that role in the persona of those militant revolutionaries who literally fought and died for their cause. One such poem is “Zendegan” [The Living] (1966), which was written for the second wave of communist army officers executed by the Pahlavi regime:
They said: “We don’t don’t want to die!” They said: “You’re enemies enemies enemies of the masses!” How simply how very simply they spoke and they how simply how very simply killed them!
In another poem of Phoenix in the Rain, “Majalleh-ye Kuchek” [Small Magazine] (1966), Shamlu’s agony and loneliness in the role of the observer emerged most clearly:
To stay yes to stay and to sit and watch yes to sit and watch the lie: how very royally passes life in the city where no one hides hypocrisy and the sincerity of your fellow citizens is only in this!
Phoenix in the Rain was followed by Marsiyeh’ha-ye Khak [Elegies of the Earth] (1969), which began with: “Poetry/is liberation/it’s salvation and freedom….” However, by this point it is poetry in itself that is so liberating and not its effectiveness in altering social reality. As a matter of fact, in Elegies of the Earth, the people’s relationship with the poet is depicted as one of audience and tragic actor. In “Hamlet” Shamlu sees the people as “sadists” who know the “plot” but have paid good money to come to the play and watch him suffer all over again! He knows that the people will not change, that their reaction will remain the same as it has always been:
What help can I ask of them who, in the end, call for me and my uncle equally to bow before them, though my agony has clearly proclaimed to them that Claudius is not the personal name of an uncle but is a general concept!
The poet, now in his mid-40s, contemplates death; he is so sick of surviving under such degrading and alienating circumstances that he ends “Hamlet” by saying:
not a question but a temptation is this to be or not to be.
Finally, having refused to dwell upon death’s inevitability, the manner of death becomes the central issue for Shamlu:
To become a rain of blessings for the earth- – [a fountain-death of this kind] or else the earth with you will become a swamp if you have died as humble brooks do.
The distinguishing poem of Shekoftan dar Meh [Blossoming in the Mist] (1970), “Sorud Bara-ye Mard-e Rowshan keh beh Sayeh Raft” [Song of the Man of Light Who Walked Into Shadow], is an elegy on Jalal Al-e Ahmad (1923-1969). Shamlu, however (in a personal letter to the author dated September 9, 1985), vehemently denies this rumor and claims that this poem is dedicated to an “ideal” human being and to a prototype victim of the establishment.
This “victim,” in his energetic devotion to his people, had been so full of life and was still so very much “alive” that Shamlu now said, “Cockroaches stare at your corpse with suspicion.” Shamlu’s subtle choice of words imbues this line with far more meaning than is evident at first reading. His choice for “cockroach” was kharkhaki, a seldom used compound noun which contains the word khar, meaning “donkey,” “ass,” and khaki, “earth.” Also, his choice of su’-e zann for “suspicion” had immediate “police” connotations which recalls SAVAK to the reader’s mind. Hence, aside from the obvious meaning of the line, Shamlu had cursed SAVAK (through kharkhaki), reminding the reader of SAVAK’s “suspicion” of all anti-establishment members of the intelligentsia, and had, by implication, accused SAVAK of murder.
Al-e Ahmad’s death, which occurred two and a half years after Forugh Farrokhzad died (1935-1967) [the foremost Iranian woman poet in the 1,100 years of Persian poetry] and one year after the death of Samad Behrangi (1939-1968) under mysterious circumstances, left the Iranian engagé intelligentsia in a state of desolate shock followed by a feeling of helplessness and sorrow.
Shamlu’s Ebrahim dar Atash [Abraham in the Fire] (1973) depicted a sick and static, a morbid and lifeless society. The first poem of this collection, “Shabaneh” [Nocturnal], was an appropriate prelude to the poems which followed:
There is no door there is no road there is no night there is no moon neither day nor sun. We are standing outside time with a bitter dagger stuck in our spine. No one talks to anyone for silence is speaking in a thousand tongues. We fix our looks on our dead with the sketch of a grimace and wait our turns deadly serious!
“Barkhastan” [Rising] and “Taraneh-ye Tarki” [The Dark Song] were, once again, about the static submissive attitude of the people, much in the line of “Sokhani Nist” [Nothing to Say] (1960), which had first appeared in a section of Ayda in the Mirror, published later as a separate book, Lahzeh’ha va Hamisheh [Moments and Forever]. In “Rising,” Shamlu addressed to the people in a tired and gentle tone, comparing them to “infected” Jobs who had and still have the chance to rise like an Elias. Had they risen, he says, the wind and the earth would have cooperated with them. But, alas, they never did and still do not. The poem ends with a drained voice uttering: “I have said this/I have always said this.”
The same theme, albeit in a more lyrical and powerful manner, appeared in “The Dark Song”: Against the leaden background of morning the rider stands still, the long mane of his horse flutters in the wind. God, O God, riders must not be still when they are being warned of the incident. *** Beside the burnt hedge the girl stands still, her skirt flaps in the wind. God, O God, girls must not be still when men, tired and hopeless, grow old.
The only “active” elements of “The Dark Song” were the horse’s mane and the girl’s skirt, both moving unwillfully. As for the people, they were, as always, inert.
The two poems of Abraham in the Fire which were written for the executed revolutionaries were followed by a number of others on similar subjects in his next collection, Deshneh dar Dis [Dagger in the Dish] (1977), which was published in the poet’s absence. Unable to tolerate the oppressive atmosphere of Iran any longer, Shamlu had left with his wife Ayda for the United States, where they lived near Princeton, New Jersey, for a year before leaving for England. Apparently the poet’s self-imposed exile had only added to his popularity. The first edition of Dagger in the Dish sold out in less than one month, and a second edition of 20,000 copies was issued. It is interesting to note that “the people,” though still a major concern of the poet, are not addressed in any of the poems of this collection. The only poem in which “the people” do seem to appear is “Khatabeh-ye Tadfin” [Eulogy] (1975), where they form the “ghafelan” [the unaware]:
The unaware are concordant only the storm gives birth to unique children.
And the “concordant” are the shadow-like,/cautious,/on the borders of the sun.” Whereas the “children of the storm” , the revolutionaries , “stand before the thunder/Light the house/and die.” The poet, it seems, belongs to neither group but is one who records the truth, and his rebellion lies in recording the whole truth and nothing but the truth in “the age… of the lie.” Shamlu’s tribute to the “revolutionaries,” the true movers who shape history, reaches a new zenith when the rebel-poet categorizes himself in the collective pronoun, ma [we], and states, “We are living without a ‘why’,/they are aware of ‘why’ they die.”
In Dagger in the Dish Shamlu sees “liberty”, as the ultimate ideal of all idealists as opposed to a particular “ideology.” In “Taraneh-ye Bozorgtarin Arezu” [Song of the Greatest Wish] (1977) he equates liberty with constructiveness and human productivity:
Oh, if liberty sang a song small as a bird’s throat, not a single wall would stay crumbled. It doesn’t require long years to perceive that every ruin indicates an absent human being, that the human presence is cultivation and construc-tion.
It is also with this collection that he confesses to his own past pessimism and acknowledges the optimism of those who forfeit their lives for liberty. Referring to the revolutionary movement as “the wind,” Shamlu addresses himself in these words:
You said: “…the wind is dead! The mountain has fatally wounded the wind.” But they [the revolutionaries] said: The wind is alive awake in its work, aware of its work.”
And the poet feels humiliation in the face of such courageous believers:
You–time and again– with your life, have suffered shame from the dead. This I have felt like the fever that dries the blood in my veins. The collection ends in a tone of qualified optimism: To be deserving of freedom …. or else, there is no problem– the fledgling will, finally, spread its wings in the long sky.
In early 1979, when the shah was forced out and the bird “spread its wings,” Shamlu returned to Iran from London, where he had worked as the editor of the newspaper Iranshahr. As soon as he returned, he began writing articles and giving interviews wherein he attempted to make certain that the meaning of the line “to be deserving of freedom” was properly understood.
Shamlu was among the first intellectuals to notice a new tyranny emerging and issued numerous, pertinent warnings. By the summer of 1979, fully aware that the revolution was over and oppression was back, he said, “In the early days, I spoke of ‘beware.’ Now, I express my ‘condolences’. He attached the new Parliament for attempting “to drive a high-ranking clergyman [Ruhollah Khomeini] to the temporal and nonspiritual position of a ‘dictator.”‘ The poet of the “nocturnals,” who had used the nom de plume “Bamdad” [Dawn] for so long, now declared, “The scheduled program of ‘sunrise’ has been completely canceled. Black crows are on their way to occupy this domain completely.” In the first sentence of Ketab-e Jom’eh‘s first issue in July 1979 (which he edited for 36 issues until mid-1980), he wrote, “Black days are ahead,” and denounced the regime for “denouncing democracy, nationality. . civilization, culture, and art.”
In 1980, Shamlu ‘s most recent collection of poems appeared. Taraneh’ha-ye Kuchek-e Ghorbat [Small Songs of Exile] contained a number of poems written during and on exile, “Hejrani’ha” [Nostalgicas], and about a dozen poems written after his return to Iran. The “exile” poems are very helpful in understanding Shamlu’s refusal to leave Iran in recent years. In one of these poems the speaker asks, “Who are we and where are we?/What are we saying? What are we doing?” These questions can all be categorically answered in one word: “nothing!” The persona waits for an answer in vain and the poem ends with “the echo” of the exiles’ questions “shattering them” In another of these poems the “committed” intellectuals in exile are seen as “the grim guards” of their own “suffering,” as the guards of their own “bitter sorrows,” lest they step out of the “black frames of responsibilities” they have fashioned for themselves. Exile creates such a feeling of futile existence, of nothingness, that the rebel-poet finally realizes the very definition of what or who he is depends upon the very environment responsible for the formation of his personality. Hence Shamlu wishes “to feel” his “country” under his feet and to hear the sound of his own growth- -the sound of the “execution drums” and the “final raging roar” of “the lover-tigers” (the executed revolutionaries). Shamlu, in other words, identifies his very existence and growth as a life-long record of the victims of tyranny. These victims give unity and significance to his otherwise scattered and haphazard life. “Or else,” he says, “In which era have I lived?/Which chain of nights and days?”
After returning home and witnessing the death of a dream, Shamlu begins to record the fast and furious transformation of the “revolution” into a reactionary state. In “Taraneh-ye Hamsafaran” [Song of the Fellow Travelers] he writes:
Where the roads parted there was a castle with one layer of moonlight and one layer of stone. Where the roads parted there was a castle with one layer of joy and one layer of war. *** Where the roads parted there was a castle with two layers of tears and two layers of laughs. Where the roads parted there was a castle with three layers of jackals and one layer of birds.
Finally, in “Dar In Bonbast” [In This Dead-End] he gives a powerful and clear picture of post-revolutionary Iran where “Love,” “Light,” “Joy,” and even “God” must be kept in hiding lest they be arrested, and where “drunk and victorious,/Satan feasts our mourning.”
Yet another telling and powerful poem of this collection is “Sobh” [Morning], for which the poet known as “Dawn” and his readers had waited so long. In “Morning” Shamlu depicts a totally lifeless and languid world where, throughout, only one active verb has been employed and that was attributed to those who had died during the revolution: “And the rose-stained shrouded/in their graves/tiringly/exchange spines.” In short, the poem is an elegy on an aborted or miscarried dawn.
But Shamlu refused to surrender hope completely. He wished to continue believing in his archetypal “Man” who had been, beginning with the Fresh Air poems, the lord of his universe. Even in a “pessimistic” poem, “Seh Sorud bara-ye Aftab” [Three Songs for the Sun] (1966), Shamlu had said:
But still–my wandering heart- – don’t forget that we –you and I- – have always held love in high regard, don’t forget that we –you and I– have always held Man in high regard, regardless of whether he was or wasn’t God’s masterpiece himself.
And now, in “Khatabeh-ye Asan, dar Omid” [A Simple Sermon on Hope] (1980), the longest poem of this collection, he reaffirmed his humanistic belief and anthropocentric optimism:
To live and offer prayers to the exalted lordship of Man on earth; to live and to perform miracles or else what is your birth but the memory of a futile pain, just as your death just as the passing of your barren mule train through the desert distance between your birth and death. …
And for Shamlu, “the ultimate miracle” was “to be just.” However, this collection also appropriately ended with a “Shabaneh” [Nocturnal] poem, at the end of which the tired poet asked, “Has it always been like this?/Is it always like this?”
The inherent bitterness of these questions is clarified further once we remember that the rebel-poet asking them is the very man who had written “The Tablet” in 1964. Fifteen years earlier Shamlu had become aware of the mystique which religion still held for the masses of the Iranian people. Fifteen years earlier he had delivered a sermon to them on the futility of religious faith and had been thwarted by them because he had not mentioned “Heaven.” And now he was witnessing his fatal scenario being acted out. “He” had come with “the sword and the book” and “the guards,” and here were the masses, on their knees through faith or force. Shamlu had been given fifteen years to change the people’s attitude toward politics and religion; the people had remained unchanged. Why? The answer is inevitably a reflection on the nature of modernist engagé Persian poetry also. But before an attempt can be made to answer that question, a further point needs to be examined.
It should be noted that “the people” had been addressed in Shamlu’s poems with decreasing frequency until, inDagger in the Dish, they were mentioned just once as the “unaware” and in his most recent collection, have been avoided altogether. This, however, did not mean that Shamlu had ceased to be concerned about them. On the contrary, he spent most of 1979 not in writing poems, but in authoring “political” tracts and in giving interviews in which he had tried to warn the people against the emerging tyranny. As in the mid-1960s, he discovered that their “hearts and ears” were not with him.
In December of 1979, Shamlu held a solemn, sincere, and revealing dialogue with the students of Daneshkadeh-ye Olum-e Ertebatat [The College of Communicative Sciences], in the course of which he said:
Today I ask myself, during those first four or five months [following my return to Iran] when all my days and nights passed in writing and speaking, for whom have I spoken and whom have I addressed? What has been the result of my work and what have I achieved? The answer I give myself is truly sad. During those months I have spoken only and only to people such as yourselves; meaning, people who did not need to listen to me in order to know and to understand the issues. On the other hand, where my words were ‘supposed” to have an effect, they not only did not have the least listeners but also became an excuse for some others to use them in antagonizing those very people against me.
The rebel-poet was once more revealing his awareness of an ideal “audience” that was, as always, absent. The reasons for this “absence,” i.e., the reasons for making Shamlu’s poetry ineffective as a factor contributing to social change, can be divided into three categories. The first two have their roots in the very nature of modernist, engagé, Persian poetry, while the third is a social factor.
The first communicative barrier contributing to the ineffectiveness of Shamlu’s poetry as a factor for social change is the very form of modernist Persian poetry. The elliptical and imagistic style of this poetry which relies heavily on juxtaposition results in a particular kind of obscurity about which T. S. Eliot has written in his introduction to St. John Perse’s Anabasis:
Any obscurity of the poem [Anabasis] is due to the suppression of “links in the chain,” of explanatory and connecting matter, and not to incoherence, or to the love of cryptogram. The justification of such abbreviation of method is that the sequence of images coincides and concentrates into one intense impression…. The reader has to allow the images to fall into his memory successively without questioning the reasonableness of each at the moment; so that, at the end, a total effect is produced.
Such selection of a sequence of images and ideas has nothing chaotic about it. There is a logic of the imagination as well as a logic of concepts.
The reader of a poem written in such a modernist style is “no longer a consumer but a producer of the text,” participating in the reconstruction of the text’s “meaning” through a particular “art of reading” with which few Iranians are familiar.
Another important formal issue is the “symbolic” character of modernist Persian poetry. In its engagé Persian sense, symbolism was born out of the “committed” poet’s need to escape censorship. The more conscious and careful the censor became, the more the modernist Persian poem evolved into a symbolic and ambiguous form. In other words, by attempting to escape the censorship and to get to the people, poets decreased the communicative power of their poems and hence, lost the people! Censorship turned the poet-reader relation- ship into a closed, vicious cycle, driving poets deeper into their private world. In sum, “the form of expression” that the Persian, modernist, engagépoet had chosen “became more and more removed from the world, the concepts, and the language of his public.”
The second factor contributing to the ineffectiveness of engagé modernist Persian poetry on the public’s consciousness is its secular content. Shamlu’s glorification of Man as the supreme lord of the earth, his denunciation of the moment when man first raised his arms like a beggar unto a God that he had fashioned with his own creative hands, constitutes a clearly heretic view in the context of Shi’i Iran. Shamlu’s view promises Man “heaven on earth” ifhe is willing to abandon hope in Heaven. Many Iranians, as can be seen from the number of volunteer “martyrs” they gave in the early days of the war with Iraq, were not willing to abandon that hope. In other words, Shamlu and the majority of the Iranian engagé intelligentsia were approaching sociopolitical issues from a post-Hegelian, linear point of view where man was born once on the line of time and died once, for all time–a line which moved forward, never repeating itself, ever evolving. The majority of the Iranian public, however, looked at history as merely the diameter of a circle at the beginning and at the end of which was a perfect paradise ruled by a just God. For Shamlu, time’s limit was and remains undecided by its very nature and limited to one lifetime for each individual. Hence, for him, Man has no other alternatives but to struggle and to strive for his share of happiness while he lives. For the majority of the public, on the other hand, passively remaining virtuous to the extent that it was possible guaranteed a just Day of Judgment at the end of limited time, i.e., “history,” which, in this religious view, means no more than Man’s life on earth from the day of Adam’s “fall” to the day of “resurrection.” In short, Shamlu and the majority of the other Iranian intelligentsia held a “secular” world view antithetically opposed to the “sacred” world view that the religious masses had traditionally believed in and continued to believe. Hence, through “content” or its very “revolutionary message” as well, the modernist engagé Persian poet was alienated from the public. As W. D. Redfern puts it in his discussion of Paul Nizan,
What in fact do we know of the effect of politically oriented literature on a reader’s political attitudes or behavior?… It may well be that books can bolster, but rarely subvert, already formed beliefs. But the question whether they can inculcate where only a vacuum existed before is wide open.
The “formed beliefs” that the engagé Iranian intelligentsia failed to “subvert” with their literature was, of course, Shi’i Islam.
The third and final factor in this context is the sociological issue of readership in contemporary Iran. At the beginning of his career, when Shamlu said he wrote “for the prostitutes and the bare,/for the tubercular,/the destitute,” only 12.5 percent of Iran’s total population was literate. The chances that even one percent of the literate was constituted of prostitute and paupers was almost nil. Hence, in 1956 when he wrote “poetry/is the people’s weapon,” the 87.2 percent illiterate public could not even read what he was saying let alone approve of it. Then came the period of Ruhollah Khomeini’s exile and the social unrest which preceded and followed it, culminating in the rebel-poet’s realization that for nearly a decade he had been shouting in a void. Shamlu, frustrated and furious, lashed out at the public. No poet, in the whole history of Persian poetry, has loved the people as angrily as Shamlu. He wanted them to listen to him for their good. But they did not. Thus he felt, as some prophets must have felt before him, that he was “a victim of philistine society.” The “Jesus” persona emerged more clearly than before and uttered on “the cross of the people’s ignorance:/’Father forgive them/for they do not know/what they do unto themselves:'” Then, from the mid-1960s to the early 1970s, the persona of his poems was gradually transformed into the helpless observer, who continued to tell his passive people, nothing will change unless you “rise”; “I have always said this/I always say this…” But, alas, “Man/had grown accustomed to his centuries-old pain!/This we did not know…/and continued to shout/in the. . .streets.” Then, continuing in the vein of his mid-1960s realization that poetry was incapable of altering the real world, he began to view himself as helpless and ineffective and shifted his attention to the revolutionaries who had actually done something, even if they had paid for it with their lives. The fact that these militant guerrilla groups began their activities from the early 1970s explains this shift in Shamlu’s poetry. He now wrote for those who “stand before the thunder” and “light the house” before “they die.”
Shamlu gradually sank deeper and deeper into the private world of poetry, though never at the price of ignoring social reality. His most sophisticated and refined poems were concomitantly powerful engagé poems. However, the more accomplished and polished his poetry became, the less the reading public seemed to understand it. Finally, when Shamlu’s last and most openly “committed” collection appeared in 1980, less than 45 percent of all Iranians could read. Of those who could, how many did? Of those who did, how many read modernist Persian poetry, i.e., Shamlu’s last collection? And of those who read the Small Songs of Exile, how many understood it? And of those who “understood” the massages of such poems as “Morning” or “In This Dead-End,” how many did not already know them before they even opened Shamlu’s book? Almost nothing remains in the final analysis. In The Charterhouse of Parma, Stendhal wrote:
Politics in a work of literature are like a pistol-shot in the middle of a concert, something loud and vulgar and yet a thing to which it is not possible to refuse one’s atten-tion.
How many Iranians, one may ask, attended “a concert,” in other words, read and understood modernist Persian poetry, who were not aware of the very target of the “pistol-shot” before the trigger was even pulled? Sartre complained that only one out of every hundred French citizens read a book which sold 100,00 copies. At the height of his popularity, when the first edition of Dagger in the Dish was sold out in one month and a second edition of 20,000 copies was issued, Shamlu’s book had been bought by one out of every thousand Iranians! How many of these 0.1 percent understood the poems, will never be known.
Fully aware of the impotence of poetry in improving the living conditions of the people, Shamlu had commenced to serve them by serving and preserving “their” language and hence, their culture. His fascination with colloquial Persian, which resulted in his jotting down words or phrases on scattered pieces of paper, had begun at the early age of 12 or 13, though he had seriously pursued this folkloric endeavor from the early 1950s onward. Shamlu had always been acknowledged as a master of colloquial Persian who could take a crude slang word, place it between two literary words, and make it fit! Also, the “simplicity” of his poetic language, often compared to conversational Persian, had influenced many poets, the most important of whom was Forugh Farrokhzad. Finally, in 1979, Shamlu began publishing his dictionary of “street language” called Ketab-e Kucheh, five volumes of which were published before the Khomeini regime ordered it stopped in 1981.
As mentioned earlier, Shamlu’s love affair with colloquial Persian had a long history, but his serious effort to publish it in the late 1970s signifies his lifelong concern for the people and his new attitude with regard to what a man of letters could actually do for the people. As early as 1964, when a critic had complained about a colloquial compound word, Shamlu justified his use of that word by saying, ” the people are the ‘father’ of language, not scholars. They have more rights on language…” Also, in 1957, he had published “The Fairies,” which he asserted “had been made with the language of the people, street language…” and which became one of the most popular Persian poems of the century. In short, Shamlu has merely re-emphasized and strengthened his lifelong service to the Persian language in general, and to “the people’s” Persian in particular. Interesting to note is that in one of his most recently published articles, Shamlu chose to reprint, under the title of “Bahsi Digar dar Bab-e Ta’ahhod va Mas’uliyat” [A Further Discussion on Commitment and Responsibility] (1979), a 1971 article which he had written on a translation of Mikhail Sholokhov’s novels. In this article, Shamlu argued that a writer is, first and foremost, responsible to his language. He goes on to say, “Is not the blow that he [the irresponsible translator] inflicts on the body of the language and the literature of his country also a direct blow on his own ‘commitment’ and ‘responsibility’?” Recently the president of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Mir ‘Ali Musavi Khameneh’i, claimed that the Persian language “for centuries constituted something of a fortification against Islam” and has “never truly accepted Islam, clinging to its Zoroastrian origins.” Thus, by recording, preserving, and rejuvenating the Persian language, Shamlu has extended the scope of his “commitment” and “responsibility” and has added a new and very practical dimension to his role as the rebel-poet of his generation.
Despite the fact that for the past couple of years the Khomeini regime has not allowed the publication of any new poems by Shamlu, he continues to write. He writes because of an overwhelming “burning urge” which he compares to the powerful sexual urges of a young man. He writes because for him the poem has “an instantaneous life” which it demands from the poet as a fully developed fetus would from its mother. Shamlu writes because he is doomed to write and damned to remain “the conscience of mankind, even if mankind pays no attention.” Finally, Shamlu writes because he “needs to shout or to whimper, and shouting or whimpering are manifestations of protest and signs of life.” He writes because, as Auden said, by writing he reminds “the Management of something that managers need to be reminded of, namely, that the managed are people with faces, not anonymous numbers….”