Ahmad Shamlu Ahmad Karimi-Hakkak - Essay

Ahmad Karimi-Hakkak

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In his recent visit to the United States, the leading Iranian poet Ahmad Shamlu told me, with a tone of sober reflection, that he would rather be remembered and judged as the poet of collections such as "Aïda in the Mirror," "Blossoming in the Fog," "Phoenix under the Rain," "Elegies of the Earth" and "Abraham in the Fire" than as the author of the earlier and much more famous poems, particularly "The Fairies" and "Poetry that is Life." To those who have always turned and returned to Shamlu's poetry as documents of political and historical significance, this statement may be surprising. However, for those who in the past thirty years have attentively watched the evolution of this free spirit in an increasingly unfree society, the poet's estimation of his own work may come as an illuminating revelation. At any rate, all those who are familiar with the development of contemporary Persian poetry will perhaps agree that Shamlu's long and successful career, both as a poet and as an intellectual, is inseparably linked with the social and political conditions in modern Iran. His life has paralleled the life of his country, inspiring its future direction, reflecting its ups and downs and at times even caught in the middle of such extrinsic conflicts as World War II and the turbulence of the early 1950s. (p. 201)

In the past twenty years or so Shamlu's poetry has gone through many stages of development. The variety of his experiments with the language, the diversity of his poetic music, the multifariousness of his imagery and the stubborn independence of his poetic ideas demonstrate his refusal to fall into any easily identifiable category. In recent years the world of the Iranian intellectuals has come under increasingly forceful demands for conformity from the political establishment. As the possibilities of independent thought and free expression shrink more and more, only polar alternatives remain available to a living Iranian poet. Shamlu's reaction to this situation has been a grand internalization of his poetic message and a growing attitude of ambivalence toward his public. The sparkles of protest are still prevalent in his poetry, but whereas in his early poems he tended to confront the social system, in his later poems it is the healing power of poetry which soothes the anxieties of the poet and the reader.

Shamlu began his poetic career at a time when Persian poetry had been remolded and given a new dynamism in the hands of a dynasty of men who gradually broke through the stagnating traditionalism and the consequent decline into which Persian literature had fallen in the nineteenth century….

Following in [the wake of this dynasty of socially motivated poets] came Nima, a solitary man of unusual genius who, in his rustic simplicity, single-handedly challenged and systematically changed almost all the traditionalistic tendencies in Persian poetry. In his hands poetry became the most profound means of an artistic expression whose order is organic rather than plastic, imposed from within by the dictates of the poet's feeling rather than from without by the tradition of poetic precepts. The excellence of the poet is measured, according to Nima, not by the degree of his success in strict adherence to traditional ideas of diction, decorum, rhyme and rhythm, but by the sincerity of his expression…. Of all the disciples of Nima, none has put the words of the master into poetic expression as astutely as Shamlu in his "Poetry that is Life," a poem which he himself once considered his ars poetica. This is how the poem opens:

The subject of poets of yesteryear
was not of life.

Today the theme of poetry is a different thing.
Poetry today is the weapon of the masses.
For poets themselves

are branches from the forest of the masses,
not jasmines and hyacinths of someone's greenhouse.
(pp. 201-02)

What Shamlu owes to Nima above all is the ever-searching spirit of his poetry, always ready to plunge into new domains for the true poetic experience…. In [his] early collections, written before the poet could fully comprehend the message of the master, a bewildered young man constantly seems to be trying to manage the unmanageable. An uneasy language, uneven rhythmic patterns and cumbersome rhyme schemes create an enervating atmosphere in which the poet's indeterminate attitude toward his art hinders him from the noble intention of singing the suffering of the masses. By contrast, in later works, particularly in "The Fresh Air," "Aïda in the Mirror," "Phoenix under the Rain" and "Blossoming in the Fog," Shamlu is always in command. Whether in a folk-inspired work like "The Fairies" or in an entirely lyrical song such as "Aïda in the Mirror," or even in his meditative poems, the excessive emotionalism of youth has hardened into a romantic belief in man, a mature outlook on life and a genuine faith in love. The easy-flowing rhythm in these later poems follows the poet instead of dragging him along; the softened music of the lines eases the movement of the poem, and strongly visual images reveal a penetrating power of observation. Most importantly, a happy marriage between Eastern and Western mythology and symbolism often gives a universal character to his poetry. (p. 202)

Shamlu's poetry and poetic philosophy reflect an even more deeply-rooted Western influence than he can perhaps be conscious of. In many of his lines one can detect direct echoes of Lorca and Aragon. His images are sometimes as visual as Pound's, sometimes as abstract as Breton's. Like Éluard and Aragon, whom he has translated, Shamlu believes that poetry is first and foremost language, and as such nothing is more essential for the poet than to begin by trying the language on all its levels. Like Pound and Yeats, he considers the visual experience of the poet the base on which the poem is made to stand or fall. His belief in the profound will of poetry, in its deep memory and in action as the ordering principle underlying any poem links him with many of the great contemporary poets of our time such as Mayakovsky, particularly in his early poems.

Shamlu is one of the few Iranian poets who have read both the Bible and the Koran as poetry. His lyrical poems are remarkably influenced by the Song of Songs, which he also has rendered rather successfully into Persian....

(The entire section is 2689 words.)