Historic experience of modern Iranian poetry

Mansour Khaksar is poet and critic who for more than three decades has been an active and influential member of the Iranian literary scene. In exile since 198, he has lived in Los Angeles for the past 9 years. He is currently co-editor of Dafarhaye Shanbeh, a quarterly Farsi literary journal published in the USA. Several collections of his works have been published since 1972, including Haydar and revolution (1980), The Poet’s Land (1982), Nightly Sparks (1984), With the Knowledge of the Tree of Love (1990), and the Elegy of Journey in the Mist. Los Angelions is a collection of Khaksar’s most recent works translated by Farrokh Afrookhteh and published by Dena, PO Box 3953, Seattle, Wa 98124-3953, USA.

Seventy years have passed since Nima Yushij published his two poems, Tale of pale face and The fable in 1920 and 1921 [1]. With their form totally at variance with what went before, modern Iranian poetry was officially born. Some historical background may help explain the formation of this progressive artistic development.

Iran was enveloped in the bloody, but intellectually enlightening, consequences of the First World War. A land, which for centuries had endured the domination of a worn out order, cut off form achievements elsewhere in the world, paused to grasp the realities controlling it and sank into the fire of war. The storm raging on the other side of the border pounded the enclosed world of various powers. The most serious obstacle to social growth on this side of the border was not spared the onslaught. By provoking people against the despotic monarchy and the foundations of absolutist rule, the war also questioned the rules and regulations on which people relied and had become accustomed to run their lives in the exhausted historic era. The pen, and in particular poetry with its broad popular appeal, could not remain unaffected by this historic leap, which deep inside – in the name of Constitutionalism – was fermenting a new world. The call of such a movement required a particular passion and form. The need was so pressing that even such influential and cautious of Iran’s new poet as Malek al-Sho’ara Bahar, who were enchanted with the classic inheritance, were provoked into finding a remedy.

It was no longer possible to defend traditional rules to rely on continual use of the artistic constructions of this or that earlier poet, which had corrupted Iran’s poetic realm right up to the eve of the Constitutional Revolution with artificiality and mere entertainment value. Yet a momentous and substantial innovation was needed if long established traditions were to be overturned and the new could stand up to the enduring artistic creations of old.

The socio-political model for the movement that was the backbone of this development in poetry wanted to be rid of absolutist monarchism, replacing it with a vision of a pleasant utopia of freedom and justice. Its models came form a West that had modified and elevated its socio-cultural structure in the light of an industrial and scientific revolution. Our society had for centuries been outside or on the sidelines of this development. Whatever its wish, it lacked the necessary abilities. In order to change the thousand year old principles of Persian poetry, it still needed help from Western experience. Thus contemporary the Farsi poetry that was born on the eve of a social upheaval echoed the movement’s calls for freedom and was founded on the global achievements of poetry.


There were a number of attempts by such poets as Malek ol-Sho’ara Bahar, Iraj Mirza, Aref, Mirzadeh Eshghi, and Allameh Dehkhoda, to introduce a freedom and advancement in Iranian art and literature. None could create the necessary transformation in poetry. Even such modernist poets as Ja’afar Khamenei’, Shams Kasmai’, Abolghasem Lahuti, and especially Taghi Raf’at who had repeatedly quarrelled with Bahar over the need to change old forms, did not satisfy this need.

They broke traditions, but their works did not go beyond simple playing with old rhythms, transposition of rhymes and giving identity to new expressions. Let us examine a few. Bahar suggests a new quatrain which despite the delicacy of image and rhythm remains imprisoned in the old dominant poetical meter. [2] In fact by insisting that the first and third as well as the second and fourth hemistich should rhyme he imposes even greater limitations on the poet.

Taghi Raf’at, a modernist poet, rightly criticised Bahar’s solutions, and those proposed in works by his colleagues in the Society of the College of Arts "my dear, don’t seek Victor Hugo’s red cap atop of the corpus of this College. No storm has appeared as yet in the inkpot of the Tehrani youth or the poets belonging to the Society of theCollege of Art" [3]. Yet he and those colleagues who thought like him added little to Bahar’s innovations. I will give a few examples to illustrate this. Ja’far Khamenei’ in his poem "Appeal to the motherland" [4] wrote:

Each day you appear with a bloody countenance

Every moment manifest to a heart-rending vision

Grieves each night and day my heart from the pain of your sorrow

And starts a wail of mourning with a new song

And Taghi Rafa’t again addressing the motherland:

Awake and rise to your valiant height

Rise and like the arrow Zal strung on bow with thumb [5]

Cast life and body toward your morrow

Despite the epic-social rhythm of both pieces, and Rafa’t’s poem in particular, and the use of a more natural measure, this innovation remained firmly in the realm of the prosodic poem. To reduce the poem to three pieces and freeing the second hemistitch [which does not rhyme with the other two] did not change the essence of the poem.

Abolghasem Lahuti can be set apart from the others. Here was a poet with a broad, and essentially new, vision. We can quote a few poems written at about the time of Nima Yushij’s Fable. One example is his poem Vahdat va Tashlilat (Unity and Organisation). This poem was created with a new, and extremely brilliant, meter and form in harmony with its lively and socially relevant content:

Unshaven, dishevelled, sallow faced

Thin and yellow like straw

Table cloth tied as belt, a blanket on shoulder

Clothes in tatters

Shoeless, feet wrapped in cloth

On the road to Ray [6]

Some Cossacks after him covered in dust

Which then ends with the hemistich:

Solution for toilers: Unite and organise! [7]

This was a new and accomplished poem. Or his poem Death of the Mujahed (Constitutionalist) that I believe inspired Mirzadeh Eshghi’s Three Ideal Portraits of Maryam; or the beautiful and astounding "Lai Lai" (lullaby) which comes from an independent and creative imagination.

Lai lai the light of two eyes

The world slumbers




Bird and fish too…

Lahuti, more than any other poet of the Constitutional era showed a readiness to overturn the traditions of the old poetry. By breaking up the equal hemistich, simplifying language, and turning to new subjects he made huge strides. If his abilities had not become a tool of an ideological system that turned him into a poet who took orders [7], he would undoubtedly have found a more distinguished position in Iranian literature. Lahuti allowed himself to sink to the level of party propagandist, and despite undoubted abilities, he remained on the edge of the old poetic tradition.

Yet notwithstanding their failure to present a new style of poetry, these experimental attempts prepared those stuck-in-habit minds for what was to come.

Nima Yushij

Nima Yushij planed the seed of new Iranian poetry, on the back of these experiments, with such creations as Tale of pale face and Fables [1]. He offered a totally new form that answered the need of the poetry of our time. Enlightened opinion was captivated. He rightly wrote

I know my way well

To the cracks in the cities of light

Nima consciously sprouted from inside the mighty tradition of Farsi poetry. The extensive foliage from his opus formed became the foundation of contemporary Iranian poetry. Nima made a bridge to a world without limits and thereby discovered a poetry that could no longer be imprisoned in the closed world of prosodic meter. This was a poetry that spoke of the torn ceiling of another firmament:

The enemy found the narrow passage to my house

With his look of hoarded cunning

He prepares for my bosom

arrows soaked in the poison of hatred.

Woe on me

Where on this murky night shall I hang my tattered garment?

It is not difficult to find the difference between Nima with his predecessors, or with the innovators of the Constitution era. Nima’s poetry is in its very core and essence different in form and vision. It is an honest report on the feelings of contemporary humanity.

Glow worms shine

Moonlight oozes

Sleep does not crack for one instant the eyes of any and yet

The sorrow of this long asleep

Cracks sleep in my moist eyes.

Anxiously with me

Stands dawn

Morning demands of me

To bring this devoted tribe news of his blessd breath.

But in my liver a thorn

Breaks from the road of my trip… [etc]


Nima not only upsets the three main, and restrictive, pillars of traditional poetry: balance in the length of the hemistiches, strained equality of the prosodic meter and the rhyming of the last word in each couplet; he removed all the artificial word-play and artifice from poetry restoring the poet’s natural approach to poetry.

Nima’s design, in his own words, was to return the natural order to poetry, to remove the unnatural proportions imposed on it, and to dispense with the extras that had to be imported in order to fill in for the awkwardness of these artificial proportions. These were things that killed the poem in its very first hemistich.

Nima’s poetry finds life on the bed of thought and its encounter with the liberated emotions of the poet. It rejects all ornamental and conventional prescriptions in order to recreate in language the world surrounding the poet. This poetry shuns generalisations and garrulousness. It pauses on its chosen elements and paints the internal world of the poet and the rediscovered nature surrounding him or her,thus:

My field dried up

Next to my neighbour’s sown field

Although mourners among mourners

Weep on the nearby seashore

Herald of cloudy days


When will rain arrive?

Nima lights up the emotional horizon of the poet purely in the light of his profound experimental deliberation and cleanses it from obvious emotional interference. Therefore the self of Nima, relies on the self of the poet and is thereby transformed to the self of the many. This is one of the achievements of the Nimaesque poetry. This is poetry which defines its essence in a natural and intensifying balance with the poet.

The novel experience of Nima in finding the living component of contemporary poetry rejuvenated the ancient and happy tradition of poetry of Iran. He established a tradition, which unlike what went on before, was the moving force of new traditions; one that gave birth to M Omid, Forugh Farrokhzad, Ahmad Shamlu … A tradition that does not limit the visual horizon or imaginative flight of any innovative poet. The global experience of poetry was incorporated in a tradition that became the logical continuation of the great poetry of Iran, and typified its human and social feelings.

Beyond Nima

In his "Why I am no longer a Nimaesque poet", the contemporary poet and critique Reza Barahani expresses a contrary view. Barahani is critical of Nima for being unsuccessful in realising his theorised aims, and that his works are at odds with his theory of poetry. Space does not permit me to deal with the conclusions of a respected critique’s declaration, especially since Barahani is after a new structure which gives the intellectual and emotional application of the poet a more natural elevation.

Rather than seeing Nima as a theoretician of poetry, I see him as a creative and inquiring poet trying to evolve the stagnant poetry in Iran. Moreover, to investigate the nature of a phenomenon such as poetry from the angle of the "what" and the "how" – even assuming poetry is amenable to theory – is in the realm of philosophy. The understanding of this entity and explanations of poetry’s very essence may be impossible, as in other philosophical subjects, simply by analysing its manifestations. That we can put one poem beside another, point to some common features, and then formulate a definition and a theory of poetry, on the face of which any poet can be unveiled, can only be considered as an as yet unproven proposition.

Poetry is not amenable to theories. Because the vital reason for its existence is constant escape from the well-trodden terrain, a constant exertion to advance. Nima had no other choice in breaking the mould of traditional poetry. He never claimed that his discovery was the last.


The achievement of the Constitutional Revolution was to break the tradition-struck the mould of thought in our society. Its increasing affection for contemporary poetry is evidence of a changing consciousness that accepts new horizons. This was a movement that consciously connected to the global perspective while not ignoring to look inside itself. This constitutional movement challenged tradition and ultimately lost by being unable to break with it. Yet despite failing to fulfil its promises to overturn the old order, it introduce a lasting idea that transformation is possible and desirable.

The poetry of Nima, is a poetry that came out of this movement and it is a poetry that affirms to the awakening of a people. The love of life, nature and of people is at the core of Nimaesque, or in other words, contemporary Iranian poetry. Today a large part of this poetry is being created in exile, an exile from the decayed traditionalism now ruling our land. Poets have the opportunity to can take on board the global experience. Here is a unique opportunity to take the inheritance of Nima, and the growing branches of the tree he planted, into new historic horizons. Whether this new generation of poets could keep their historic compact with the people and freedom remains to be seen.

Mansur Khaksar

1. Ghese-ye Range Prideh and Afsaneh

2. Come hither you alluring pigeons / Bodies like camphor feet as vermilion / Fly above the roof and suddenly / Alight around me like snow flakes. From Bahar

3. Saba ta Nima Teheran

4. Khatab be Vatan:

5 Zal was the father of the hero Rustam in the epic poem Shahnameh (Book of Kings) by of the 10th Century poet Ferdowsi.

6 Old name of Teheran

7 This became the rallying cry of the Iranian left for the rest of the century.

8 Lahuti was a member of the Communist Party of Iran