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Ahmad Shamlou: A Poet in Exile    

Naomi B. Schalit



Ahmad Shamlou is one of the brightest lights of contemporary Persian letters. He is a poet of profound commitment and superb lyric gifts whose works are known and admired throughout Iran. He is also a writer of short stories, a translator from several European languages, an editor of long and varied experience, and a gifted reciter of classical and modern poetry. Like other writers in Iran, he has found it ever more difficult to be heard. The government's censors, fearful that some shred of truth or protest might slip by them, have slowed the presses at last to a halt.

Poets leave their own countries at their peril. They flourish best at home, in their own language, and rarely sing much or well in exile. Ahmad Shamlou left Iran when it became more intolerable to remain silent in his own country than to leave it.

Jerome W. Clinton


Q.        You have said that you left school when you were very young in order to devote all your time to reading books. Why?

A.        That's a very long answer... I found that I was getting nothing from school. Our educational system is a colonial system; people aren't educated, they're given nothing by the system. I was thirsty to read and understand and see things; that's why I left school early. I read everything 1 could find...l got involved in politics, and sometimes in clandestine situations I found artillery manuals, and I even read those.

Q.        When did you start to write poetry?

A.        Always... I don't know when I started. In Iran, everyone is a poet. I can tell you that I started quite early, from the time I learned to read and write.

Q.        You have said that your poetry originates in your suppressed longing to make music. Is your poetry inspired by any specific composer? Have you tried to capture the music of any composer within your poetry?

A.        No. There is a sense of music in our language For example, when you listen to Persian poetry, you can feel the music in it. In Persian poetry, music, and that which we call rhythm or meter is not truly music. In the poetry of Ferdowsi (the poet of the Iranian national epic, c.940-1020) there is music and there is rhythm or meter. But it's not just rhythm, it's music. It gives the feeling or sensation of music, that which music can express. Let me give you an example. In Persian, when the wood of a bow is bent, we say the sound is CHAKH, CHAKH, CHAKH. When Ferdowsi wants to say that Rustam took his bow and drew it:



(He made a pillar of his left arm and bent his right. A cry arose from the bending of the bow of Chachi)

In the first line it's as though Ferdowsi, in getting the sounds right, and then presenting them to us, is tuning his instrument, which is his poetry. We hear the two sounds in the first line, and then they are repeated in the second line: che o che o che (Shamlou breaks off here to describe the meter of this passage, which is È-- È-- È-- È-). Then you have, in the second line, the sound of the bow as he is drawing it. The meter here gives rhythm to the poetry, but the music is in the sound.

Q.        Then you're saying the language is onomatopoetic?

A.        Yes. This is a quality that may possibly be found in all languages, though I think that it's more common in Persian. Of course, I am Iranian and Persian is my native language, and I have more feeling for it. If I put aside this attachment which I have for it, I think that rhythm and music are more manifest and apparent and they're closer to the surface in Persian than other languages.

Q.        Are you comfortable having your poetry read in translation?

A.        I think that Persian poetry is untranslatable. I have seen French, English, Russian and Serbo-Croatian translations of my poetry, and no one of them was my poetry. Rather, it was a kind of rendering, an explanation, a sort of guide to my poetry - a pony. Poetry cannot be transported.

Q.        But you yourself have made translations, from French and English into Persian. Are you satisfied with what you've done?

A.        I think that the Persian translations were successful because the poetic possibilities of Persian are abundant. It's important to realize that we have two Persian languages: a literary language, and a colloquial language. Both of them are quite imaginative...Then there's another matter here, and that has to do with how you define poetry. I am convinced that in poetry the words have no role, and the meanings have no role, only in the form do the words have some role. It's the things themselves that are important in poetry. If, for instance, the word "wall" appears in a poem, this is not the word "wall" anymore. It is the wall itself. That is, it is things which are set forth in poetry. We in the East have the tools, the material objects of Western culture, and thus we can grasp their significance. But the reverse is not true. There are things which are absolutely Persian.

Let me give you an example. One of my favorite poems is "The Blue Song." I wrote it the night I left Iran. Blue is the ritual color of Iran; you find it in the tiles, in mosques, above all in Isfahan. The poem is charged with the feelings of all my childhood experiences...but the poem is not translatable. I'll explain. It's very hot in certain parts of Iran, very hot and dry, because there is little rain. There are basement rooms in the houses in which we have long and narrow pools lined with blue mosaic tiles...a thin jet of water murmurs in the middle of the pool. There are no windows, only grilles which are inset with blue mosaics, which allow air but little sun to come in. This is blue; water is blue. Since there is no water in these regions, no rain, no sea, no rivers, all this blue is really like a "nostalgia" for water. It's almost like a complex, a color-complex which covers my whole country. This you cannot translate.

Our national context, our local situations have not come to the west, these things are not conceivable in the West. Inevitably, when those things and situations which are particular to our own local culture are incomprehensible, our poetry is incomprehensible too. Hafez, who lived in the fourteenth century and is, I am persuaded, the greatest poet of all times, all languages, and all countries, influenced Goethe through translations of his work. I cannot at all conceive how it was possible for Goethe to understand Hafez; Hafez' "cupbearer" is not my "cupbearer," and if I don't understand it the same way he did,   how could Goethe? In Iran we are familiar with  many foreign poets, yet abroad we are unknown.

Q.        Are you able to write poetry here in America?

A.        Hardly at all. In these ten or twelve months I've written one poem, and I'm not very happy with it. However, I want to say that this is not something new for me.

Q.        There is, however, an element in your poetry, which is internationally relevant, that is, your political voice...

A.        It's the community of feeling, the shared experience which is understood, not the poetry itself.

Q.        Do you think that in your poetry, especially in your love poems, your personal emotions are a strong enough metaphor to communicate your feelings about the political situation?

A.        Yes, without doubt. They are inseparable.

Q.        Ahmad Karimi, in an article about you in ''World  Literature Today'', says that the internationalization in your poetry resulted from the politically repressive environment in Iran. Do you think you were forced to develop in that way or that this was an organic development of your poetic style? Or perhaps both?

A.        Both. This is something which really ought to be studied, and a matter on which I hope to work a great deal.  I  don't mean just my own poetry, but contemporary poetry as well. The matter of political repression, of strangling, in Iran has given a very peculiar shape to our poetry because poetry is the national weapon, above all in Iran, and in this situation during the course of the last few years a miracle - truly the only word I can find to describe what has happened is "miracle" - has occurred in Persian poetry. The miracle is this: a language has come into existence in contemporary poetry which the censors do not understand,  but which  the  people themselves understand as soon as they hear the poetry. For instance, one of my books was confiscated from the bookstores by the police only after it was in its eighth printing, three years after it was first printed.

(Shamlou gets up and walks over to the bookshelf. He pulls down five or six volumes of his poetry, and, opening two of them, places them side by side. One book was printed about twenty years ago, while the other is a recently printed (since he left Iran) collection of his poems. He shows me one poem as it appears in both volumes. The new, censored version has huge blank spaces where chunks of the poem have been taken out. Other poems that he shows me are what he calls "a montage," where what is left of several censored poems have been thrown together into one new poem.)

One day, an editor telephoned me from Tehran to tell me that the Bureau of Censors had ordered him to send them all the copies he had of my books, which they had banned. He sent them the books, and they cut everything...what can we do? What can I do? He told me, "We're obliged to do what they say." Why didn't they censor them before, when they first came out? Before, they couldn't understand. Now, there are people who work with them, intellectuals who sold themselves to them. This is their work. But even now, the poems as they stand, censored, are still understood by the people.

Q.        You have spoken of two languages in Persian, the literary and the colloquial. Is this poetry written in a third language?

A.        No. It's not that the words are changed, or that there are new symbols, it's that the language is perceived differently by the bureau of censors and by the people. It's a labyrinth... The language is the same. However, one can mix this literary language with colloquial language, as I have in the past attempted to do. I'm not the first one to have tried this: Ashraf al-Din Hoseyni and Nesim-e Shomal used the language of the masses, but it was a kind of verse, of metrical language, it wasn't poetry because it didn't endure. It can be said that I was the first one, with my poem PARIÂ ("The Fairies") to write popular poetry.

However, in this case, the situation is completely opposite. The language of poetry has in fact become more difficult, and nevertheless, the censors (who, whatever else they may be, are educated people) ought to be able to understand it more readily than ordinary people. But in fact, ordinary people, even uneducated people from South Tehran, understand the poetry at once, while the censors don't. It's not that the language became more difficult: the poetry became more difficult.

Q.        In your poem PARIÂ, you used colloquial language. In the last fifteen years, however, you haven't used this language. Why not?

A.        That was an experiment. I could not continue it in practice. If you write poetry in colloquial language, you can't speak imaginatively, poetically. You find yourself running after folk-songs...it's a very structured language and you cannot deviate from the straight line, there are phrases which cannot be changed. Yet there are folksongs which are very rhythmic, alive, and extremely poetic. I tried to create a poem like this with PARIÂ, a poem with all the elements of the people's language, and it's for this reason that PARIÂ is untranslatable. In fact, I not only abandoned the colloquial, popular language of everyday life which I had used in PARIÂ and several other poems, but, regarding form, my poetry turned back to the prose of the tenth and eleventh centuries. I should say that during that period one finds books in which some of the most beautiful linguistic achievements were made.

Some of the loveliest examples of Persian may be found in books on politics, agriculture and history written during this period. This is Persian at its very best. In Iranian schools, in the Faculty of Letters, they are obliged to teach these books: that is, they teach agricultural books in the literary faculty because they are such wonderful examples of the possibilities of Persian prose.

When I started this type of work twenty years ago, perhaps no one in Iran thought that I would have any success with the forms to which I gave life...At that time the newspapers and journals had created a language style between that of books and that of colloquial speech which had come to dominate our poetry. When I turned back to the capacities of the language as realized in the prose of the tenth and eleventh centuries, I broke that journalistic style which was dominating the poetry; that is, I came and replaced the rhythmless, deficient journalistic prose with that well-tested, well-formed prose of the tenth and eleventh centuries. I have been successful to the point where now, when you look at the poetry that is published in newspapers it has adopted this style. Even newspaper poetry has abandoned journalistic style.

Q.        You have been called a protegé of Nima Yushij (1879-1960; one of the founders of the modern movement in Persian poetry). At this point when you returned to tenth and eleventh century forms, was this a break with Nima?

A.        Yes. Nima showed us what poetry was. He legitimized himself; and there was no one who denied him his legitimacy. The new generation accepted Nima, and for a period all of us were completely under his influence, especially at the beginning of our own work. He cut off the present generation from tradition. We became classics instantly.

For example, in my book HAVÂ YE TÂZE, which was the third or fourth collection of poetry I published, the language of many of the poems is Nima's language, the view is Nima's view, the words are Nima's words. Only the thought is mine. Nima did for Persian poetry the same thing that Rimbaud did for modern French poetry.

Then, quickly, each of us found his own way. Farrokhzad, Akhavân e-Saless remained more under Nima's influence. Farrokhzad took a special way, she adopted more popular language and a simplicity of description.

Q.        Sadegh Hedayat (1903-1951; one of Iran's leading prose writers) did a great deal of research during his lifetime on the mythology and customs of Iran. It has been said that he turned to this type of historical research because he could not adapt himself to the political situation in Iran at the time. You are now writing a book on the mythology and folklore of Tehran. Are you doing this type of work for the same reasons?

A.        No. I am not doing the same type of research. Hedayat started, only started, this work, with his essays on folklore and children's songs...but he wrote only on what he heard. With my work (and with this he shows me a nine page essay in which he discusses one word of a song), I've done research into different areas, and other scholars' works. I've collected different versions of the same songs...my work is encyclopedic, I'm not writing just essays. Hedayat was a pioneer in this work, but he wrote only a few pages.

Q.        But did you turn to this type of work because you were forced to?

A.        No, no, it's my desire, my passion. The question of popular culture is much more important than official culture. You may be astonished to learn that an encyclopedic dictionary of official Persian would be one hundred volumes, but a dictionary of popular culture would comprise one thousand volumes.

Q.        If, as you have said, poetry is an effective national weapon, why did you leave Iran?

A.        Because I couldn't speak anymore. They wouldn't let me write anything, they wouldn't let my works be published. I had an extremely popular radio program too, just ten minutes long, and they cancelled that.

Q.        But if, as you said, you can't write now, can you still consider yourself a political force? How? - through your presence in this country?

A.        Yes.

Q.        What can you do here?

A.        I can organize a Persian publishing house here, a monthly review. Right now I've got invitations to go to Europe concerning this plan, and I'm not entirely decided as to whether I should do it here or in Europe. In any case, for those Iranians who are outside of our country's borders, I think this is an extremely necessary political action. More and more people are leaving Iran; when they are in Iran, they have nothing to read, they have no opportunity to find out what is happening. When they leave, they have no roots, they become rooted only in their exile. But they have to leave. Our culture now is a culture in exile. One can't write in Iran, there are no newspapers, no books...something must be done here. The problem now is to get a press.

Q Do you think that your choice is the only choice for an Iranian?

A.        No. In Iran I had become completely isolated, and in the same way so had other writers. Had I known that developments such as those that have occurred recently would take place, however, there is no possibility that I would have left Iran. I do not at all suggest that poets and creative writers should all follow my example...and I would go back now if the government would not create difficulties. But it's something which I have done and for the present it's just not possible to return.

Q.        Do you think that one day you will be able to return to Iran?

A.        Yes. God willing. When there is a change of regime.

Q.        In your poem LOWH ("Tablet"), you suggest that the members of the crowd are all potential martyrs. Do you consider all Iranians such potential martyrs?

A.        This poem refers to a time long ago (summer of 1963). It ought to be judged in that particular context. There was an atmosphere of hopelessness with regard to the national movement, in particular because of the deception which we had endured at the hands of the so-to-speak 'most progressive' party then in existence. That was the stimulus for the composition of the poem and conditions are much different now.

Q.        But the poet in that poem is separated from the crowd, he is up in the air, approaching the crowd. Do you think the poet should be separated from the crowd?

A.        Not at all. I think these thoughts of divergence and vulnerability, and of being closed off or boarded up were common in my poetry at that time. But I have now abandoned that. It was a kind of philosophical despair from whose evil I have fortunately been able to free myself.

Q.      .Then you don't think now that the poet should remain separate from the crowd?

A.        No...Even at that period I was not separated from the people. It was ultimately for them that the poetry was being written. It had not so much a quality of despair as it had of provocation. I was telling them: You are defeated, because you have condemned yourselves. Injustice is what you deserve because you tolerate injustice. At that time I would say "you," not "we." Now I say "we;" now we act in concert. At that time I had to be a prophet...at that time the intellectual class believed that the call for freedom had to be given to the masses. Now it is different, the situation is reversed. It's the masses who are calling for political action.

Q.        In your poem, "On Night," you say, "I joyously voice my bright hope like a ray of sun." Do you have a hope, now, for Iran?

A.        I have the same hope now, even more. At that time we were at the apogee of fervor and excitement at the hope of acquiring independence and freedom. This time truly the level of illumination of the masses is of such a degree that they will not allow themselves to be tyrannized and dominated by any coup d'état.

(This interview was conducted in French and Persian, and translated by Naomi Schalit and Jerome Clinton.)

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