An illustration of Forough Farrokhzad, poet and filmmaker.
Illustration by Naiel Ibarrola ©

British Council / Naiel Ibarrola

'I bury my hands in the garden

I will grow – I know, I know, I know

And swallows will lay eggs

In the grooves of my ink stained fingers.’ 1

The 13th of February 2017 marked the fiftieth anniversary of the death of the Persian language’s most celebrated woman poet, Forough Farrokhzad (1935–1967). Renowned for the candour of her verse and the force of her spirit, Farrokhzad’s life was nevertheless cut tragically short. She died as a result of a car accident at the age of 32. What’s remarkable to observe, half a century after her passing, is how her poetic voice has neither waned nor stagnated, but reverberates ever more profoundly with audiences new and old. What underpins the extraordinary legacy of this cultural icon?

In her life as in her work, Farrokhzad showed little deference to the conservative sensibilities of her era, meaning that for many, the memory of Forough the poet has been almost irreversibly intertwined with that of Forough the iconoclast. An outspoken, female divorcee writing candid poetry from an unabashedly feminine perspective – she became (and continues to be) a countercultural icon, earning her admirers and detractors often equal in fervour.

Consequently, Farrokhzad shares in the fate of many rebellious artistic and political figures who die before their time: a hotly contested and frequently distorted legacy, used as a prop to tell other people’s stories. Iran’s complicated relationship with what it means to be ‘modern’ has seen Farrokhzad often reduced to what she is alleged to represent, obscuring the true complexity of her creative gifts.

In spite of (and perhaps, in part, because of) the distaste felt by the cultural establishment of post-revolutionary Iran towards Farrokhzad (with much of her poetry being censored), she remains as culturally relevant as ever. Such is Farrokhzad’s tenacity in the popular memory that establishment figures – among them even the country’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei himself – have felt compelled to chime in on the question of her legacy, criticising some for praising Farrokhzad in order to belittle a more traditional Iranian women poet, Parvin E’tesami.2 Denouncements like this have only reinforced Farrokhzad’s subversive appeal. As is common with Persian literature’s greatest heroes, Farrokhzad’s grave attracts many visitors, mostly young women coming to pay their respects. Few, if any, modern poets draw as many pilgrims.

Outside Iran, too, Farrokhzad remains an important figure for thousands of Iranians living in the diaspora. For some, Farrokhzad’s perceived self-empowerment and rejection of tradition recall to their minds Iran in the 1950s and 1960s, perhaps with rose-tinted glasses. For others, Farrokhzad’s work powerfully reasserts the often marginalised or totally erased voice of Iranian women. As the poet and academic Persis Karim has written, Farrokhzad’s poetry challenges ‘the often singularized narrative of women’s oppression’, counteracting ‘the plethora of negative media representations of contemporary Iranian life’.3

Regardless of where and to what extent one locates Farrokhzad in the conflicts between ‘tradition’ and ‘modernity’, or in the struggle of Middle Eastern women to speak for themselves and be heard, the more abstract aspects her aesthetic legacy should not be underestimated or sidelined. Farrokhzad’s free verse poetry and short documentary film The House is Black (Khaneh siya ast, 1963) were groundbreaking, sophisticated contributions to the visual and literary arts of the Persian-speaking world. Her ability to create memorable, resonant, and above all human images with her words has inspired many creative artists in the decades since her death. Our understanding of Farrokhzad’s significance would be impoverished if we chose not to explore the richly imaginative territories unlocked through her innovative use of the Persian language.

Iranian artists across the world have done just that, channelling Farrokhzad into new art forms and settings. The US-based Iranian visual artist and filmmaker Shirin Neshat is one of the most notable examples of a contemporary artist drawing inspiration from Farrokhzad, making use of her poetry in her own photographs and films.4

The resonant succinctness of Farrokhzad’s distinctive turn of phrase is another key factor in her sustained acclaim. An abstract proverbial quality found in her later poetry in particular lends itself to continued artistic interpretation. So when the late, distinguished Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami took the title of a Farrokhzad poem for his celebrated film The Wind Will Carry Us (Baad mara khahad bord, 1999), he not only made reference to an image familiar to Iranian readers, but reinvigorated Farrokhzad’s figurative language for new generations and international audiences. British-Iranian composer Soosan Lolavar is yet another example of an artist taking Farrokhzad’s poetry as a point of departure and inspiration, in her recent five-piece movement, Only Sound Remains (drawing on lines from a Farrokhzad poem of the same name).

Even though more Iranian women are writing poetry now than ever before, the influence of Farrokhzad’s verse on these contemporary poets hasn’t received much attention. Elsewhere, I have explored the importance of Farrokhzad for two young poets writing in the modernist tradition today, in terms of their praxis as well as their attitude towards being a poet. For both – and many others – Farrokhzad’s disruptive and independent character was as exemplary as her poetry. Sara Mohammadi Ardehali, who has published four collections of verse, explained to me how Farrokhzad paved the way for other women to write sincere, expressive verse:

“Forough, because of extremists, because she spoke about her feelings, and about love, was rejected by society, she had a hard life, and people cursed her. So when I started writing seriously, I had to ask myself, Sara, if you also want to write honestly and sincerely, society will reject you – do you want to do this or not? And I decided that yes, I wanted to. So in this way, in terms of a [woman] poet’s position in society, Forough spoke to me. Her biography, her life spoke to me.” 5

Stylistically, too, Ardehali owes a debt to Farrokhzad. Take the poem ‘Night Ambush’ (‘Shabikhun’):

‘Seven times 

I wash 

The glasses and 

The plates and 

The pots 

How exciting this night is.’ 6

Laconic, embittered and sarcastic, the short poem recalls Farrokhzad’s wry humour and sense of domestic frustration (see for example the famous poem ‘Wind-up Doll’ (‘Arusak-e Kuki’) in which Farrokhzad likens a woman’s domestic life to that of an automated figurine, ending with a similarly sarcastic declaration: ‘Oh, I’m so lucky!’)

Forough Farrokhzad would have celebrated her 82nd birthday this year. We cannot know how her craft would have evolved or how she might have shaped her own legacy. What’s clear is that, in spite of the hostility she faced in her own lifetime and the attempts by some to marginalise her since then – or narrowly appropriate her memory for their own purposes – her voice remains as influential and affecting as ever. The extent of the creative inheritance she left has yet to be fully determined or appreciated, but the love with which her poems are still read and the creativity they continue to inspire has ensured her once lonely voice rings defiantly in the Persian literary canon.

Notes:

  1. From the poem ‘Another Birth’ (‘Tavallodi Digar’). Author’s translation.
  2. See Mehrnews Agency
  3. See Persis Karim, ‘Re-Writing Forugh: Writers, Intellectuals, Artists and Farrokhzad’s Legacy in the Iranian Diaspora’ in Forugh Farrokhzad, Poet of Modern Iran : Iconic Woman and Feminine Pioneer of New Persian Poetry, by Dominic Parviz Brookshaw and Nasrin Rahimieh (eds) (London: I B Tauris, 2010), p. 185. Karim also points to Farrokhzad and renewed interest in her work as a symbolic rebuttal of ‘New Orientalist’ tendencies among some transnational Iranian creative artists, such as Azar Nafisi.
  4. For more on Farrokhzad’s legacy in disasporic art, see Jasmin Darznik, ‘Forough Goes West: The Legacy of Forough Farrokhzad in Iranian Diasporic Art and Literature’ in Journal of Middle East Women’s Studies, vol. 6, no. 1 (2010), pp. 103–16.
  5. Ardehali’s comments echo Farrokhzad’s own words on the importance of writing authentically: ‘I believe in being a poet in all moments of life. Being a poet means being human. I know some poets whose daily behavior has nothing to do with their poetry. In other words, they are only poets when they write poetry. Then it is finished and they turn into greedy, indulgent, oppressive, shortsighted, miserable, and envious people. Well, I cannot believe their poems.’ (Source)
  6. See Sara Mohammadi Ardehali, Barāye Sang-ha [For the Stones]. 1st ed. (Tehran: Cheshmeh, 2011), p. 30.

 

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