"To slaughter us / why did you need to invite us / to such an elegant party?"
In a an op-ed for yesterday's New York Times, Roger Cohen wrote, "Poets are the refuge of every wounded nation — just ask the Poles — and nowhere more so than here in this hour."
Here is Iran. And this hour is one of crisis.
Iran, as many reporters are noting, is home to an ancient poetry tradition that includes Hafiz, Rumi, Sadi, Omar Khayyam, and many other household names (or as household as poetry gets).
Its present is more complicated.
Poetry still plays an integral part in Iranian life, even in the midst of the protests and chaos. In a widely circulated blog post out of Tehran, a protester notes:
"Placards that people carried were different; from poems by the national poet Ahmad Shamlu to light-hearted slogans against Ahmadinejad. Examples include: 'To slaughter us/ why did you need to invite us / to such an elegant party' (Poem by Shamlu). 'Hello! Hello! 999? / Our votes were stolen' or 'The Miracle of the Third Millennium: 2 x 2 = 24 millions' (alluding to the claim by Government that Ahmadinejad obtained 24 million votes), 'Where is my vote?', 'Give me back my vote' and many others."
Can you imagine protesters in Florida after the 2000 carrying placards with quotes from Mary Oliver? Billy Collins? John Ashbery?
Clearly, poetry and politics intersect differently over there.
The "national poet" of Iran is a role not available, of course, to the wide swath of Iranian poets who live outside their home country, but it's these poets English speakers have at least a little familiarity with.
Last spring, I talked with Niloufar Talebi, director of the Translation Project, about her anthology of contemporary Iranian poets from around the world, Belonging. I asked if she thought such poetry could help foster further understanding between cultures. She responded, in part:
"My intention is always aesthetic, but we'd be shooting ourselves in the foot if we didn't recognize that this poetry has the potential to reach people and educate them about Iran and Iranian culture. The work is there—it has all the pathos and politics in it—but it's up to the audience to decide how they will use it."
Refuge, placard, or diplomatic tool, audiences are using Iranian poetry. Both the new stuff and the old.
In an interview with Al Jazeera about the disputed elections, Reading Lolita in Tehran author Azar Nafisi drove home her point about the importance of culture, reminding her interviewer, "We don't remember the king who ruled in the time of [14th century Persian poet] Hafiz, we remember Hafiz."
Travis Nichols is the author of two books of poetry: Iowa (2010, Letter Machine Editions) and See Me Improving (2010); and he is the author of two novels: Off We Go Into the Wild Blue Yonder (2012) and The More You Ignore Me (2013). He has contributed to The Believer, Paste, The...