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Ahmad Shamlou:

A Rebel Poet in Search

of an Audience

By Leonardo P. Alishan


Ahmad Shamlou is the primary, most prolific and most popular engagé Persian poet of post-Mosaddeq Iran. While critics in general view Shamlou'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 Shamlou'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.


Shamlou 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 For financial reasons music was not pursued and, by the age of 13, it was superseded by literature.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 Shamlou 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, Shamlou 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, Shamlou 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 Shamlou 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 Shamlou 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.

Shamlou 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, Shamlou 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, Shamlou 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, Shamlou 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, Shamlou 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, Shamlou 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." Shamlou 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, Shamlou 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 Shamlou 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, Shamlou 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 Shamlou, 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 Shamlou began as not only the rebel but also very much the revolutionary.

The most interesting poem in the context of Shamlou as revolutionary is "She'ri keh Zendegi-st" (A Poetry That Is Life) (1956), wherein the poet says:



             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 --


he touches the wounds of the old city;


he tells a tale

             at night

               of pleasant morning.

Shamlou, 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


he opens sleeping eyes


                   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, Shamlou is overflowing with hope in the poems of Fresh 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 Shamlou 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, Shamlou 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 Shamlou 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, Shamlou'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


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, Shamlou 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 Shamlou does not intend to abandon his engagé modernism 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, Shamlou is more confident of his own revolutionary zeal than of anyone else's. With Fresh Air we also begin to see masks of Shamlou as the rebel.

Shamlou'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. " Shamlou 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.... " Shamlou 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), Shamlou 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



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 Shamlou 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 Shamlou'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.

Shamlou'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 Shamlou'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, Shamlou ceases to search for or to believe in an ideal audience.

Love, a new theme introduced into Shamlou'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, Shamlou 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 Shamlou'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.

Shamlou 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 Shamlou began to employ the unacknow-ledged prophet as the symbol of the poet. In Tekrar [Repetition] (1963), for the first time, Shamlou 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).

Shamlou'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 Shamlou 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, Shamlou 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, Shamlou 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, Shamlou 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 Shamlou'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, Shamlou gave a number of statements wherein he manifested the unprecedented anger and indifference to which we shall return shortly.

In 1964 Shamlou 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, Shamlou 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.

Shamlou 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 Shamlou 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?

Shamlou: 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?

Shamlou: It's not my job [to find out why]...

Interviewer: Is it theirs?


Shamlou: 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, Shamlou 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, Shamlou 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, Shamlou 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, Shamlou 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." Shamlou 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].. .. Shamlou 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, Shamlou noted, sociopolitical themes touched even his most lyrical love poems.

In Qoqnus dar Baran [Phoenix in the Rain] (1966), Shamlou'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, Shamlou 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 Shamlou has utilized the symbol of Jesus.

Phoenix in the Rain marks the beginning of a period when Shamlou 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 Shamlou to the Persian language. Nor has any poet since Hafez used language so fully aware, as is Shamlou, of the denotative and connotative dimensions of words. His mastery has reached such a level that Mohammad Hoquqi asserts that Shamlou 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 Shamlou 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," Shamlou 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, Shamlou 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


                         want to die!"

They said:

        "You're 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), Shamlou's agony and loneliness in the role of the observer emerged most clearly:

To stay


               to stay

and to sit and watch


to sit and watch

                       the lie:

how very royally

                         passes life

in the city

               where no one hides


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" Shamlou 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


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


                                not to be.

Finally, having refused to dwell upon death's inevitability, the manner of death becomes the central issue for Shamlou:

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). Shamlou, 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 Shamlou now said, "Cockroaches stare at your corpse with suspicion." Shamlou'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, Shamlou 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.

Shamlou'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.


         are standing outside


with a bitter dagger

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