To Be or Not to Be, That is Not the Question

12 December, 2020

Reflections on Ahmad Shamlou at 95 - photo by Hadi Shafaieh

Reflec­tions on Ahmad Sham­lou at 95

pho­to by Hadi Shafaieh

The Markaz Review is par­tic­u­lar­ly pleased to bring you this com­mem­o­ra­tion of Ahmad Sham­lou by per­haps his fore­most Eng­lish-lan­guage trans­la­tor, Nilo­u­far Talebi, who grew up in Iran at a time when Sham­lou was a fam­i­ly vis­i­tor. Last year Talebi pub­lished a unique genre-bust­ing mem­oir, Self-Por­trait in Bloom, that melds her own his­to­ry with the tra­jec­to­ry of Sham­lou and his exten­sive body of work. As a trans­la­tor, author and San Fran­cis­co-based inter­dis­ci­pli­nary artist, Nilo­u­far Talebi is sui gener­is. She’s also a gen­er­ous lover of words who ear­li­er this year gave us the com­pre­hen­sive 100 Essen­tial Books by Iran­ian Writ­ers: An Intro­duc­tion & Non­fic­tion, pub­lished by the Asian Amer­i­can Writ­ers Work­shop and wide­ly shared by LitHub, Pen Amer­i­can Cen­ter and oth­ers. This offer­ing includes Talebi’s intro­duc­tion to Sham­lou, along with an excerpt from her book and two trans­la­tions, of “Ham­let” and “Gen­e­sis,” plus their video com­ple­ments. (Ed.)

Niloufar Talebi 

Decem­ber 12, 2020 marks the 95th birth­day of the rev­o­lu­tion­ary and con­tro­ver­sial Iran­ian poet, trans­la­tor, essay­ist, edi­tor, ency­clo­pe­dist, and cul­tur­al fig­ure, Ahmad Sham­lou (1925–2000).

The great life work of Sham­lou was to cre­ate a new poet­ics for Iran. By force of tal­ent, per­son­al­i­ty, and will, he drove Per­sian poet­ry from its ear­ly steps away from clas­si­cal forms—preserved as if in amber—all the way to free verse. He had part­ners in this work, of course, includ­ing his pre­de­ces­sor and men­tor, the poet Nima, who ardu­ous­ly set this rev­o­lu­tion in motion, but Sham­lou’s great project was a syn­the­siz­ing of West­ern and East­ern canons and artis­tic move­ments to incite this cul­tur­al rev­o­lu­tion, which updat­ed both poet­ic form and con­tent to fit a post-indus­tri­al 20th cen­tu­ry. In this way, Sham­lou’s work belongs to the world. But despite gar­ner­ing sev­er­al inter­na­tion­al awards, includ­ing a 1984 Nobel Prize nom­i­na­tion in Lit­er­a­ture, Sham­lou isn’t yet a house­hold name to West­ern read­ers, the way, for exam­ple, Neru­da is. 

Ahmad Shamlou (Photo: Maryam Zandi)

Sham­lou’s genius of cre­ation and destruc­tion led him to chal­lenge nation­al­ist read­ings of clas­si­cal Per­sian poet­ry, and crit­i­cize tra­di­tion­al Iran­ian art music for mere­ly pass­ing down forms from gen­er­a­tion to gen­er­a­tion with­out intro­duc­ing inno­va­tions. And this would gain him crit­ics even amongst the intel­li­gentsia, who could not rec­on­cile the con­tra­dic­tions of what Sham­lou was—a fierce lover of Iran and its peo­ple and yet a staunch oppo­nent of crude nation­al­ism, a voice open to the influ­ence of art from the West while cat­e­gor­i­cal­ly reject­ing colo­nial atti­tudes toward lit­er­a­tures of the East, a social­ly-con­scious artist of his time con­cerned with human­i­ty’s strug­gle for lib­er­a­tion and yet a poet fol­low­ing the call to beau­ty. One thing is unde­ni­able: Sham­lou’s direct line to our col­lec­tive uncon­scious is why his poet­ry is uni­ver­sal and immortal. 

In the fol­low­ing excerpt from Self-Por­trait in Bloom, my mem­oir that defies the genre to present a bio-por­trait of Sham­lou, a selec­tion of his poet­ry in my trans­la­tion, and my mem­o­ries of a youth spent in Iran around Sham­lou who vis­it­ed my child­hood home, I delve into some of the many dual­i­ties that Sham­lou embodied.

The Rumpus calls   Self Portrait in Bloom

About the book:

“Nilo­u­far Talebi offers a lyri­cal evo­ca­tion of an Iran­ian child­hood, of a girl grow­ing into com­pli­cat­ed matu­ri­ty as an artist while bring­ing to life the great Iran­ian poet Ahmad Sham­lou, whose art became inter­twined with her own. For these achieve­ments alone, her book would be well worth read­ing. But Talebi is after big­ger game. Step by step, she lures us into a pro­found med­i­ta­tion on the pow­er of poet­ry, the pol­i­tics of lan­guage, and the art of translation–and then into the shock­ing spec­ta­cle of an artist sti­fled. This mem­oir is not just poignant, it’s wrench­ing.” — Tamim Ansary, author of West of Kab­ul, East of New York, and Games With­out Rules

A Shamlou excerpt from Self-Portrait in Bloom

SHAMLOU HAD THE UTMOST FAITH in the rich­ness of the Per­sian lan­guage and its expres­sive abil­i­ties. Recit­ing poet­ry in such an imag­is­tic lan­guage, he said, was his plea­sure. If each gen­er­a­tion’s respon­si­bil­i­ty is to cre­ate a new lan­guage, a tool that cap­tures and express­es the new needs and expe­ri­ences of that gen­er­a­tion, then Sham­lou not only accom­plished this for his own, but his shad­ow was so impos­ing that the gen­er­a­tion fol­low­ing him was chal­lenged in extri­cat­ing itself from it. 

He wor­ried that his influ­ence might have cost a gen­er­a­tion valu­able time. Dai­ly life was enough of a drain on artists’ time—not on the merchants’—and he lament­ed that cen­sor­ship had cost Iran’s thinkers much pre­cious time. 

Versed lit­er­a­ture was not nec­es­sar­i­ly poet­ry to Sham­lou. To him, the great­est dam­age to lan­guage was the inabil­i­ty of poets to inno­vate imag­i­na­tive­ly in lan­guage, per­haps from a fun­da­men­tal igno­rance of it. Sham­lou wor­ried that the absence of meter in his poet­ry had mis­led the new­er gen­er­a­tions to bypass the cru­cial step of learn­ing craft, as he had done before break­ing the rules, instead express­ing them­selves in unmetered lan­guage not built upon the foun­da­tions of language. 

Sham­lou had embarked on design­ing a new mosa­ic from old tiles. His poet­ry at once ele­vat­ed and pop­u­lar­ized poetry. 

He wrote that after a cen­turies-long peri­od of dor­man­cy, Iran­ian poet­ry had under­gone an awak­en­ing, shin­ing in the land­scape of world lit­er­a­ture on its own mer­its, owing its pow­ers to ideas syn­the­sized from both inter­na­tion­al and domes­tic aes­thet­ic and intel­lec­tu­al movements. 

And although Sham­lou’s first expo­sure to mod­ern poet­ry came through West­ern poet­ry, he resist­ed the charge of West­ern­iza­tion or “West­ox­i­fi­ca­tion” (as coined by the Iran­ian writer Jalal Al-Ahmad). 

He poignant­ly remarked that unless Ira­ni­ans count the adop­tion of var­i­ous indus­tries includ­ing tex­tiles, oil refiner­ies, air­planes, auto­mo­biles, and ele­va­tors as a West­ern­ized prac­tice, unless they lim­it their weapon­ry to swords and spears or lim­it med­i­cine to the tinc­tures and dis­til­lates of yes­ter­year, they were, in fact, par­tic­i­pat­ing in a glob­al trade of cul­tur­al col­lat­er­al in the same way that sci­ence and indus­try were trad­ed. Human­i­ty pro­gress­es in sync, he said. Any­thing short of that would be sev­er­ing Iran­ian soci­ety from the whole of human­i­ty, a self-sanctioning. 

And at the same time, Sham­lou resist­ed being “oth­ered” by the West. In May 1976, he deliv­ered a speech at the joint PEN Amer­i­can Cen­ter and Prince­ton Uni­ver­si­ty event on the sub­ject of ‘Con­tem­po­rary Lit­er­a­ture in the Mid­dle East’: 

“In my coun­try, a Mus­lim-major­i­ty coun­try, the Koran is con­sid­ered a mir­a­cle. This is easy to say, but beyond the obvi­ous lies some­thing astonishing. 

In my coun­try, there are many fig­ures belong­ing to the rank of mir­a­cle-mak­ers. Those known in the West are the prophet Mani and his mir­a­cle, the holy Book of Arjang, as well as Rumi, whose sta­tus as a prophet is cer­ti­fi­able. Hafez, the four­teenth cen­tu­ry poet of a divan of ghaz­als, is also known here in the West. In my coun­try, he is known as ‘lisan al-ghayb,’ mean­ing he who speaks of mys­ter­ies, which in my opin­ion means more than a prophet, it’s real­ly the speak­er of a ‘lan­guage of god.’ So in my coun­try, the Koran and the Divan are of the same stature. 

I know I am a poet say­ing such things about poets, but please dis­re­gard that in favor of the truth. In my coun­try, peo­ple deem poets as prophets onto whom they bestow envi­able love. If a poet has passed their ruth­less judg­ment and been accept­ed as a poet, and if the poet is not a fol­low­er of com­mon tra­di­tions, then that poet is ele­vat­ed to the sta­tus of mar­tyr. In Iran, my coun­try, a poet­ry read­ing is noth­ing short of an EVENT. The young gen­er­a­tion still remem­bers the poet­ry fes­ti­val that Khoosheh jour­nal co- orga­nized when I was its edi­tor-in-chief as an unfor­get­table mem­o­ry. Dur­ing the fes­ti­val week, 2,000–3,000 young peo­ple gath­ered at the civ­il ser­van­t’s gar­den from 6 p.m. to mid­night to hear dozens of poets who had paid their own way to Tehran from all cor­ners of Iran. So I don’t see any rea­son to waste your pre­cious time here to tell you how I see poet­ry. From a craft stand­point, it is the artistry of lan­guage, or some­thing like that. Either way, I am not a poet­ry crit­ic. I live in a ter­ri­ble world, worse than terrible—looking at the world with two open eyes, rage and des­o­la­tion eat me alive, and I, with thir­ty-two teeth, my own liv­er. The peo­ple of my coun­try expect mir­a­cles of their prophets. And let me tell you with deep pride—for even if you speak dif­fer­ent lan­guages, you still have the same heart—that your con­tem­po­rary poets in Iran have accom­plished, with­out an ounce of pride and self-pro­mo­tion, such mir­a­cles, the prod­ucts of their cre­ativ­i­ty and inno­va­tions such that rival the lin­guis­tic prowess of Fer­dowsi and Hafez. 

So let me sum­ma­rize: Poet­ry is what­ev­er it is. Con­tem­po­rary poets in Iran have accom­plished the task of bear­ing noble wit­ness to their times.”

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Near­ly a cen­tu­ry since Sham­lou’s birth, the ques­tion is not whether he can be summed up as being X or Y. The right ques­tion is a third, broad­er one: how can the mul­ti­tude lay­ers of a mas­ter­mind be gift­ed in as many lan­guages as pos­si­ble to the world? —Nilo­u­far Talebi

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Hamlet SHAMLOU-1-1200-100.jpg

ahmad shamlou's hamlet plate 2 trans niloufar talebi ahmad shamloo hamlet 3 trans niloufar talebi Genesis SHAMLOU 1200-100.jpg




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