"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."

We do.  Though the happy days of his intoxication now seem pretty far off.   From his "Ode 487":
"Well, HAFIZ, Life’s a riddle – give it up:
There is no answer to it but this cup."
Originally Published: June 17th, 2009

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...

  1. June 17, 2009

    "Clearly, poetry and politics intersect differently over there."\r

    Travis, very important to point out.\r

    Recently the reviewer of Adina Hoffman's new biography of the Palestinian poet Taha Muhammad Ali, Dwight Garner (May 5, 2009, NYTimes), failed so miserably to grasp this "difference" that I had to wonder if Horace Engdahl wasn't right after all. Not only did he show a shocking lack of interest in the poetry and the context behind it, but his whole review was gummed up with provincial condescension.\r

    As Niloufar Talebi says, "My intention is always aesthetic, but..." \r

    That's big and useful "but" these days. which reviewers like Garner do little to help us grasp. \r

    Thanks for the post,\r


  2. June 18, 2009

    'To slaughter us/ why did you need to invite us / to such an elegant party’ \r

    That has to be one of the most amazing line sequences I have ever read.

  3. June 18, 2009

    //Can you imagine protesters in Florida after the 2000 carrying placards with quotes from Mary Oliver? Billy Collins? John Ashbery?//\r

    No, but...\r

    One thing, I think, that every protester knows instinctively is that the best protest-chants rhyme or have very strong rhythmic impulses (along the lines of Mother Goose) - think meter and rhyme.\r

    Rhyme and meter are *not* Ashbery's strong suit, same with Billy Collins and Oliver. They don't write that kind of poetry.\r

    But the techniques of poetry's older traditions are very alive and very well. The last demonstration I attended demonstrated that. I'm sure if Oliver, Collins, or Asbery saw fit to write some meter and/or rhyme, folks might be carrying *their* placards and chanting their slogans.

  4. June 21, 2009

    Good blog starter, Travis Nichols. You've reminded me of a book of poetry I've had since '78. It is an anthology of four Palestinian poets, three of whom were writing in exile, and a fourth who was the mayor of Nazareth at the time: "The Ordeal: Poems of Anguish, Resistance, and Hope." I wish I could copy poems to here from the book. But I am guessing that would amount to a copyright transgression. A favorite poem is about a man without hands. "Some law ordered his hands cut off." He stands in the rain, he cannot drink, and he is thirsty. Out of his dying body spring up generations of hands which will "till and harness / the insatiable earth." Another poem is called "My Twenty Years in America." It involves the poet and his American friend who, for twenty years, argue about an object they see in the distance. The poet contends it is a swan. The American maintains it is a goat. One day they decide to settle the matter. They shoot at the object, not to kill it but to scare it. At the sound of the gun blast the object rises and flies away. The American reaffirms: "A goat, a goat, eventhough it flies." And the poet, being human, doubts his beautiful swan and marvels at the thought of a flying goat.\r

    It isn't a great book of poetry but it does bear a certain witness to events. And I am thinking now the last week of events in Iran amounts to its own "Prague Spring" just before the tanks rumbled in. I know a man, a Sovietologist, who was there that spring. He said the sound of the tanks woke him up just before dawn. He and his Finnish girl friend, a socialist who hated the Soviet Union, took a taxi all the way to the border. They got out just in time.\r

    I've not read the news yet today. But I am wondering how long it will be before someone hears 'the rumble of tanks' through the streets of Teheran. It is all the same struggle, generation after generation.

  5. June 22, 2009
     Travis Nichols

    From Niloufar Talebi:\r

    Hi Travis,\r
    Just wanted to send you this: http://www.ireport.com/docs/DOC-279025\r

    The first poem/slogan is based on a famous Rumi poem to Shams-e Tabrizi, his mentor. It's a response to Ahmadinejad's calling the protesters "dust and dirt", what I've translates as 'riffraff'. I thought it might be of interest to you since it's a nation's slogan based on a nation's poetry, but updated to the present climate.\r

    Niloufar Talebi\r

    I do recommend clicking through the slideshow--it's pretty fascinating.

  6. June 22, 2009
     michael robbins

    Robert Fisk, in The Independent:\r

    Moin, a student of chemical engineering at Tehran University – the same campus where blood had been shed just a few hours before – was walking beside me and singing in Persian as the rain pelted down. I asked him to translate.\r

    "It's a poem by Sohrab Sepehri, one of our modern poets," he said. Could this be real, I asked myself? Do they really sing poems in Tehran when they are trying to change history? Here is what he was singing:\r

    "We should go under the rain.\r
    We should wash our eyes,\r
    And we should see the world in a different way."\r

    He grinned at me and at his two student friends. "The next line is about making love to a woman in the rain, but that doesn't seem very suitable here." We all agreed. Our feet hurt. We were still tripping over manhole covers and kerbstones hidden beneath men's feet and women's chadors. For this was not just the trendy, young, sunglassed ladies of north Tehran. The poor were here, too, the street workers and middle-aged ladies in full chador. A very few held babies on their shoulders or children by the arm, talking to them from time to time, trying to explain the significance of this day to a mind that would not remember it in the years to come that they were here on this day of days.

  7. June 22, 2009
     Melissa Tuckey

    Thanks for this great post. Awhile back I interviewed Iranian poet Faridah Hassanzadeh (Mostafavi)for Foreign Policy in Focus (http://www.fpif.org/fpiftxt/4300) and she spoke about the importance of poetry in Iranian culture, a culture that celebrates both it's classic and contemporary poets, especially women poets. So it's not surprising that protesters would carry poetry in the streets. \r

    We too carried poetry in the streets here in Washington, DC at several protests against the war in Iraq. We carried quotes from American poets, as well as Iranian, Iraqi, Palestinian, and other world poets. Most recently, there were nearly 100 poets who marched together. We were well received, other protesters appreciated the thoughtfulness of our signs and the break from repetitive slogans. Some even offered to buy signs from us. To read more about this protest and see the list of poetry quotes we carried, go to \r

    From all of this sprung the Split This Rock Poetry Festival: poems of provocation and witness, a huge and fabulous four day poetry festival celebrating some of the most vibrant voices in poetry today. You can read about the next festival at \r

    As we watch the protests in Iran and we feel moved by the courage of people in the streets, may we also think about how we can show courage in the face of the continuation of illegal wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, a crisis in health care, the economic crisis and so much more. Poets too can make a difference.

  8. June 22, 2009
     Melissa Tuckey

    For some reason my links did not post-- here they are:\r

    DC Poets Against the War website-- www.dcpaw.mahost.org\r
    Split This Rock Poetry Festival website www.splitthisrock.org