David Biespiel’s Poetry Wire: A New Poetry Emerges from Iran


If war is a defeat for poetry, what is diplomacy? Like poetry, diplomacy involves craft and discretion, finesse and poise, skill and subtlety. It requires canniness, deliberation, presence of mind, and shrewdness, as well as providence and wisdom.

I’ve been thinking about what poetry might tell us about the landmark deal the United States and five other world powers made this week with Iran to curb its nuclear program in an effort to prevent Tehran from building nuclear bombs. I know, I know, it’s the kind of consideration W. H. Auden warns us against.

Still, something: Like a poem, the nuclear agreement is a first step toward clarity and transformation. Like a poem, it began as a secret negotiation and ended existing in a civic space. Like a poem, it has jolted those who are content not to change their world view.

That’s about where this analogy ought to be put to rest. I know the difference between a historic nuclear agreement and a villanelle. But I don’t underestimate poetry’s powers of transformation either.

All this led me to wonder about contemporary Iranian poetry. What I know about Iranian poetry I learned from the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics and Wikipedia. In a nutshell the literature of Persia “spans two-and-a-half millennia.” Two-and-a-half millennia?! That’s a lot of poetry! During the Islamic Republic, contemporary poets in Iran have lived under the same oppressive conditions as most Iranians: oppositions candidates are prohibited from elections or been placed under house arrest, social activists have been mistreated or tortured, especially writers, journalists, lawyers, and students. Iran executes more people than any other nation, especially for drug-related offenses, and ethnic and religious minorities face frequent persecution. The new poetry that might emerge from an Iranian glasnost, if that’s what this agreement brings, and indications are it might given the political pressures on the Rouhani government to improve Iran’s economy, then it’s fair to hope that poets may get the opportunity to write under more open conditions. Hope, I mean, not assume.

Social media is also banned in Iran for all but a few elites in government (including the Grand Ayatollah!). So learning about Iranian poetry requires poking around the Web generally, using a clunky Google Translate with Farsi websites, and buying up some books, such as Niloufar Talebi’s Belonging: New Poetry by Iranians Around the World, a diaspora-themed anthology that mixes the traditional with the experimental and explores Iranian identity.

Here are some interesting websites for the Iranian poetry curious among you:

Poetry International Rotterdam features articles and links to Iranian literary magazines, publishing houses, and writers, including the Iranian PEN Centre in Exile, which is a limited resource.

The Translation Project brings Iranian-inspired projects to the world in literary translation.

The Poetry Translation Centre in London includes translation of about two dozen Iranian poems that includes “The Boat That Brought Me” by Azita Ghahreman:

Behind these eyes that look like mine
old names are fading away, the past lies crumpled in my clenched fist –
a coppery bird in coppery wind,
this vast place has covered me from head to toe.

I am not stripped of word and thought
but sometimes what I want to say gets lost
like a moon smudged with cloud, or when I splutter on a drink.
My tongue trips up when I speak of that journey
though the blood in my veins felt the truth of death.
As I traced my footsteps through the tracery of my old language
Summer whispered to me
and my frozen fingers began to put out shoots
even as I began to love the cold ebb and flow of tides.

Sometimes I miss
the boat that brought me here,
now that I am witness to the icy eyes of a Swedish winter,
under these tired old clouds,
while that suitcase still holds a patch of the sky-blue me.

(The literal translation of this poem was made by Elhum Shakerifar. The final translated version of the poem is by Maura Dooley.)

I admire the way this poem, as a depiction of exile experience, moves through time and space, the way “sometimes” becomes a conduit to understand the “journey” of self and language, home and exile, and the way time is calibrated through the seasons. All of this exists in a spatial zone as well, in a clenched fist and in words and thoughts, through the blood and through the veins, across the tides and inside a boat, and finally inside a suitcase.

The poem bears with it, too, a burden of hope as the “patch of the sky-blue me” looks outward for territory that is familiar and warm.

This inhabited realm, too, is an example of how poetry and diplomacy intersect via trust and verification. We may not go into the reading of a poem with trust that the poet will carry us into a new understanding beyond the cliche ideal, but the poem is an evidentiary trial that enables us to verify that a truth has been discovered.

Should the nuclear agreement reached this week lead to a genuine thaw in relations between Iran and the US, and between Iran and the west, than poets like Ghahreman will be able to return to Iran (say, as Czeslaw Milosz returned to Poland) and open the gates wider between Iranian poetry (with its millennias-long tradition) and the various poetries of the west.

Let’s hope so. Let’s hope. Because then we will be able to learn more about the fate, lives, and trials of our fellow poets under Iran’s dictatorship. And we will be able to find common ground, as Partow Nooriala does in the conclusion of her poem, “Many Happy Returns”:

And when night falls
Hidden from the moon
I unstitch the old threads
And send my keen eye
Clad in a gilded gown
Off to tomorrow.

And here in this passage from “The Sound of the Footstep” by the late Nader Naderpour who sees the world as an expression of private and political chaos:

When I look back timorously
nobody is there except the wind and the tree,
one drunk, the other out of touch.

David Biespiel is a poet, literary critic, memoirist, and contributing writer at American Poetry Review, New Republic, New York Times, Poetry, Politico, The Rumpus, and Slate, among other publications. He is the author of numerous books, most recently The Education of a Young Poet, which was selected a Best Books for Writers by Poets & Writers, A Long High Whistle, which received the 2016 Oregon Book Award for General Nonfiction, and The Book of Men and Women, which was chosen for Best Books of the Year by the Poetry Foundation and received the 2011 Oregon Book Award for Poetry. More from this author →