At a time when literature and the arts, and just about everything else in Iran were dominated by men, when very few women were respected as poets, a young woman by the name of Forugh Farrokhzad (1935-1967) began writing and publishing poems that radiated with sensuality, pushing the boundaries of what could be uttered or put on paper by women.
Historically, women—their beautiful breasts, hair, eyes, etc.—have been the subjects of a great number of Iranian poems, both modern and ancient, but when Forugh broke into Iran’s poetry scene in 1954, she made men her poetic subjects, her objects of love and reverie, of passion and sexual desire. Her poems were autobiographical and from a clearly feminine perspective. Further, they were “modern” as opposed to “traditional,” a form rejected by Iran’s academic community at the time and not considered poetry at all.
The most scandalous of her early poems was Sin, first published in a magazine and later included in her second collection of poems, Deevar (The wall).
I have sinned a rapturous sin
in a warm enflamed embrace,
sinned in a pair of vindictive arms,
arms violent and ablaze.
In that quiet vacant dark
I looked into his mystic eyes,
found such longing that my heart
fluttered impatient in my breast.
In that quiet vacant dark
I sat beside him punch-drunk,
his lips released desire on mine,
grief unclenched my crazy heart.
I poured in his ears lyrics of love:
O my life, my lover it’s you I want.
Life-giving arms, it’s you I crave.
Crazed lover, for you I thirst.
Lust enflamed his eyes,
red wine trembled in the cup,
my body, naked and drunk
quivered softly on his breast.
I have sinned a rapturous sin
beside a body quivering and spent.
I do not know what I did O God,
in that quiet vacant dark.
In this poem, Forugh not only celebrates committing a carnal sin, but in the hearts of many commits an even greater transgression by so unabashedly expressing an intimately feminine point of view. However, at this point, not even the intellectuals grasp the taboo-breaking, empowering effects of Forugh’s “Sin” on Iran, and particularly on Iran’s future generations of women.
Here are a few samplings of her early work:
Like the disheveled locks of a woman
the Karun river spreads itself
on the naked shoulders of the shore
I’m so filled with you
I want to run through meadows,
bash my head against mountain rocks,
give myself to ocean waves
Silent and soaring, I closed my eyes,
pressed my body against the soft young rushes,
and like a woman folded into her lover’s arms
gave myself to the flowing waters
The stress of divorce, separation from her son, and the societal criticism of her mores, in addition to her own family’s rejection, were too much for the young poet to endure. At the age of twenty she had a nervous breakdown. Still, she refused to be viewed as a tragic figure. She was dedicated to poetry; it was woven to the fabric of her soul:
I believe to be a poet is a life-long endeavor. To be a poet is to be a human being. I know people whose poetry is not a reflection of their daily life. That is, they are only poets when they are in the process of writing their poems. When they put their pen down they revert to their hoarding, gluttonous, narrow minded, greedy selves. Well, how can I accept what they say? I value life more than that. When these gentlemen make fists and begin their harangues – in their poems and articles – I feel a kind of aversion towards them, unable to believe that anything they say can possibly be true. I keep wondering, are they howling like that just to earn a day’s plate of basmati rice?
By 1958, Forugh was 23 years old and had three collections of poems in print. She had a meteoric rise into fame and despite her being one of the major pioneers of modernist poetry in Iran, she was still being called a “poetess” as opposed to a more respectful “poet.”
In the fall of 1962 she traveled with four colleagues to leprosarium in the city of Tabriz and, in the course of twelve days, filmed The House is Black, a documentary about a forgotten people. The artistic merit and success of the film cast Forugh in a different light; she was seen as a serious film director. Many intellectuals viewed the film as a statement about the decaying state of their own society, where all cures for the body politic were sought through faith and prayers rather than through rational discourse. Within a year, the film won the prestigious Best Documentary Award in the 1963 Oberhausen Film Festival in Germany.
When Forugh’s fourth collection of poems, Reborn, appeared in 1964, it was immediately hailed as a major work rivaling the best in the short history of Persian modernist poetry. Finally, in the eyes of the literati and the media she had moved from being a good “poetess” to a great “poet.” Her poems are carefully and widely read, discussed and analyzed. Her work had finally reached a level of maturity in both content and form that could not be dismissed.
From the summer of 1964 through December 1966, Forugh published five poems, each more discerning and inventive than anything she had previously written. These were more political than her previous poems, scrutinizing the social injustice under the Shah’s rule, the modern Tehran with its increasingly mechanized way of life, and the hopelessness of those struggling to make a living.
She began her poem “Earthly Verses” with these lines:
the sun grew cold
and the earth became barren.
The grass withered in the meadows
and the fish withered in the sea
and the earth no longer
welcomed the dead.
The night, like a strange specter
gathered and swelled in the pallid windows,
and the roads released themselves
into the dark.
No one dreamed of love anymore.
No one dreamed of beginnings.
No one dreamed of anything anymore.
On Feb. 14, 1967 Forugh was on her way to the movie studios, where she worked. She swerved her jeep to miss an oncoming school vehicle and was thrown from the car. Her head hit the cement gutter and she died instantly. She was thirty-two years old.
P.S. I spent two years translating 41 of Forugh Farrokhzad’s poems. As a woman and a poet it was important to me to bring her poetry to life in English as living poems rather than sad corpses that only transmit information. Some say translation is a thankless job. It depends. If one is after fame or financial gain, that statement is true. But if one translates for the sake of love: love of poetry, love of readers, and of bringing cultures and people closer to one another, literary translation is a most rewarding work in the world.
In tomorrow’s blog, I will post two or three of this remarkable poet’s poems.