Modern Persian Poetry: Forugh Farrokhzād

By Rob Packer

All day long I stared
Into the eyes of my life
Into two timid, distressed eyes
That always avoided my fixed gaze
And like two liars
Sought refuge in the lonely protection of my eyelids

Forugh Farrokhzād, ‘Green Illusion’

I first came across Forugh Farrokhzād in a BBC World Service documentary (‘Nightingales and Roses’: download here) that explored the central importance of poetry in Iranian culture, where lines from 11th-century poets influence slogans at street protests, rap lyrics or simply how to tell off the children.

I’d always been vaguely aware of Persian poetry through Goethe and later Orhan Pamuk: of Hafiz, Rumi and Omar Khayyam, bought, started, unfinished. Since the podcast, though, I’ve been dipping into Hafiz, Rumi and Attar and have The Book of Kings by Ferdowsi firmly on my to-read list—especially after another BBC podcast on this, the Iranian national epic.

Forugh Farrokhzād (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

However, the maverick poet, Forugh Farrokhzād (1935–1967), seemed the most interesting of all; she has also been the hardest to find. Frustrated with hard-to-find English translations and flicking through the back of my collection of Rilke, I came across a German translation called Jene Tage (Those Days) translated by Kurt Scharf and mostly selected from her later poems. But whatever the language, her poetry is a revelation.[1]

Before her death in a traffic accident, Forugh Farrokhzād was a controversial figure and remains so to this day: an outspoken divorcee who broke the metrical rules of Persian poetry, eschewing formality for Tehrani dialect and writing honestly and openly about female emotions. Of course, broken metrical and vocabulary conventions are almost impossible to translate, but her frank depiction of emotion is powerfully alive

In ‘Those Days’, the words of the title reappear rhythmically throughout the poem, charging it with nostalgia for “trees full of cherries” and “the smell of acacia blossom” and becoming almost a lament by the end as the girl of the poem “Is now a lonely woman / Is now a lonely woman”. But as well as sadness and loneliness, there is a freedom in Farrokhzād, especially a sexual one, most clearly in ‘The Couple’:

Evening comes
And after evening – the dark
And after the dark
Eyes
Hands
And breathing and breathing and breathing
And the sound of water
That drip drip drops from the tap

Then two red points
Of two lit cigarettes
The tick-tock of the clock
And two hearts
And two solitudes

This is one of Farrokhzād’s least allegorical poems, but even this has links to the imagery that recurs throughout this collection, creating threads of darkness, dead birds, crowns and colours throughout. I assume that some have symbolic value within the poetic or cultural tradition (blue candlesticks, for example are part of traditional wedding celebrations according to a footnote). But the poetry is compelling even without that context.

The references to traditional poetry were clearer for me in a poem like ‘Someone Like No Other’, where a girl imagines someone (human or divine) “whom no-one can arrest or lock in prison” coming to solve all problems. This evoked the duality of Sufi poetry that can be read as a meditation on Allah or on the Beloved. But here it seems no more than an evocation: by the end of the poem, this liberator is giving out Pepsi Cola, cough syrup and tickets to the cinema. It seems deliberately naïve and expresses both a societal despondency and scepticism of easy solutions.

From what I’ve read, there is a temptation to see Forugh Farrokhzād as a kind of Rorschach test for one’s views on Iran, whether she is excluded from official poetry anthologies within the Islamic Republic or feted as a hero in the US press because of it. The translator of this collection is more nuanced, saying in the afternoon that her work is “anything but a political pamphlet” and rather expresses social anxieties of the middle class in 1960’s Iran. I am inclined to agree.

For me, Forugh Farrokhzād is a hero because she lived as she pleased and challenged the conventions of a conservative genre and culture. But above all, she’s a hero for the clarity and freedom of her poetry, which can stand alongside Rilke, Neruda, Auden or anyone else as one of the best and most original voices of the 20th century.

Forugh Farrochsad, Jene Tage, Suhrkamp Verlag (1993)


[1] The quotations in this blog are my translations from German, so could end up quite different from the Persian originals.

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