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A Brief Note on Ahmad Shamlu's Life

Iraj Bashiri
Copyright, Bashiri, 2000

Amhad Shamlu was born on December 12, 1925, to the family of an army officer in Tehran. Like many children who grow up in army families, he received his early education in various towns including Khash and Zahedan in the southeast and Mashhad in the northeast. By 1941, his high school still incomplete, he left Birjand for Tehran. He intended to attend the Tehran Technicum and learn German. Finishing high school was relegated to the future.

When, within a year, his father was transferred again, this time to Turkmen Sahra, Shamlu remained in Tehran to contribute to the war effort on the side of the Nazis. He was arrested by the Allied Armies in 1943 in Tehran and transferred to Rasht to serve a one-year prison term. When, at the end of his incarceration his father came to Azerbaijan to bring his son home, both father and son were arrested and placed before a firing squad. They were released, however, at the last moment, when new orders arrived. In 1945, Shamlu made one final attempt at completing his high school degree in Reza'iyeh but, again. he failed. This, however, for the last time.

Shamlu was a nationalist and a staunch supporter of the Musaddiq government. After the fall of Mosaddiq, he went into hiding for six months. Thereafter, he was arrested and incarcerated for over a year. All along, he continued a rigorous program of writing, translating, and composing poetry in the tradition of Nima Yushij.

Shamlu married three times. His first marriage (1947), even though it gave him four sons, did not last long. Neither did his second marriage (1957) that ended in divorce in 1963. His third wife (1964), however, proved to be very different. She became an incredibly instrumental figure in Shamlu's life and remained with him until his death in 1999. Her name, Ayda, appears in many of his later poems.

Due to political unrest and oppression in Iran, Ayda and Shamlu left Iran temporarily in 1977. After living in Princeton, New Jersey, for a while, they left for England and lived there until 1979. When, supposedly, the Islamic revolution opened a new chapter in Iranian history, Shamlu returned to Iran as the editor of Ketab-e Jom'e.

Shamlu has translated extensively from the works of French authors into Persian and his own works are translated into a number of major world languages. He also has written a number of plays for the stage, edited the works of major Iranian poets of the past, especially Hafiz, and contributed to the resolution of artistic and philosophical problems of modern societies. His six-volume Ketab-i Kucheh (Notes from the Alley) is a major contribution in understanding Iranian folklore.

Shamlu's poetry is extremely complex. Yet his imagery, which contributes immensely to the intensity of his poems, is simple. For base, he uses the traditional imagery familiar to his Iranian audience through the works of Persian masters like Hafiz and Khayyam. For infrastructure and impact, he uses a kind of everyday imagery in which personified oxymoronic elements are spiked with an unreal combination of the abstract and the concrete thus far unprecedented in Persian poetry. To those familiar with the works of Nima, for instance, there is not a whole lot new, but those who adore the works of the masters find much that is distressful.

It is still too early to pass judgment on either the pathfinder Nima Yushij or the settler Ahmad Shamlu. There is no doubt, however, that at the end both will be recognized as founders of modern Persian poetry (she'r-i now), each contributing to a different aspect of the nascent form. A list of Shamlu's major poetic works follows:

1948 Forgotten Melodies
1954 Steel and Emotion
1958 Fresh Air
1961 Garden of Mirrors
1965 Ayda in the Mirror
1966 Ayda, Tree, Dagger, and Memories
1967 Phoenix in the Rain
1970 Dust Elegies
1971 Blossoming in the Fog
1973 Ebrahim in the Fire
1977 Dagger in the Dish
1978 Tale of Mother Sea's Daughters

(in memory of Jalal Al-e Ahmad)
Ahmad Shamlu
translated by
Esma'il Kho'i

he was thin:
slim and tall,
like a difficult message
      in one word.

And with eyes
of question
      and honey;
and with a face scorched
by truth
      and wind.

A man with the whirling of water:
a laconic man

                                   who was his own resume.
                                    Beetles stare at your corpse with suspicion.


Before being turned to ashes
      by the wrath of the thunderbolt,
he had forced the steer of the tempest
      to kneel before his might.

To test
      the faith of old
he had worn out his teeth
      on the locks of ancient gates.
On the most out-of-the way paths
      he struggled,
an unexpected passer-by
whose voice every thicket and bridge


Roads remain wakeful with the memory of your steps;
for you were going to welcome the day;
although the dawn
emitted you before
the cocks heralded the morning.


A bird bloomed in its wings,
a woman in her breasts,
a garden in its trees.

we bloom in your angry look,
in your haste.
We bloom in your brook,
in defending your smile
      that is certitude and faith.


The sea envies you
      for the drop you have drank
      from the well.


Somber Song
Ahmad Shamlu

In a leaden dawn
the horseman stands silent, and
the long mane of his horse is disheveled in the wind.

Oh God, God,
horsemen should not stand still
when things are imminent.

By the burnt hedge
the girl stands silent, and
her thin skirt moves in the wind.

Oh God, God,
girls should not remain silent
when the men, hopeless and weary, grow old.


Ahmad Shamlu

translated by
Ahmad Karimi-Hakkak

As the dark cloud passed, I
in the crimson shadow of the moon
viewed the square and the streets
an octopus stretching a languid leg in every direction
toward a black swamp.

And on the cold cobblestones
a crowd stood, so many
and in the midst a prolonged aticipation
bordering on despair and weariness.

And every time the restlessness of the waiting
crept over them, it was as if
the animal shivered under his hide
from the chill of a running water
or else an itching sensation.

I descended the dark stairway
holding the dust-covered tablet in my hands
and stood upon the dais
a half-spear higher than the multitude.

And I saw the crowd, so many
filling the cells all around the square
all over the space it extended
shaped by every passageway leading to the field
up to the borders of shade and gloom
like wet ink spreading into the dark
And with them was anticipation and silence.

Then I held up the clay tablet crying unto them:
"This is all there is, and sealed
it's an old inscrition, aged and worn, lo! behold!
however tainted with the blood of many a wound
mercy it preaches, friendship and honesty."

The crowd, however, lent no ear or heart to me
it seemed as if in the waiting itself was pleasure and profit
I yelled out to them: "You, devoid of courage
in vain you wait, this is the very last Coming."

And I cried out: "Gone are the days
of mourning some crucified Christ
for today every woman is another Mary
and every Mary has a Jesus upon the cross
albeit with no Crown of Thorns, no Cruciform
         and no Golgotha
no Pilate, no judges and no court of justice
Christs all of a destiny, clad similarly
uniform Christs, with boots and leggings alike
alike in everything,
with the same share of bread and gruel
(for sameness is indeed the dear heritage
         of the human race)
and if not a crown of thorn,
there is a helmet to wear upon the head
and if not a cross
there is a rifle to bear on the shoulder
means of greatness all at hand
every supper may well be The Last
and every glance perchance that of a Judas.

"But beware, weary not your steps
in search of the orchard
for with the tree you shall meet upon your cross
when humanity and compassion
misty as a dream, gentle and fast
will rise before your eyes,
and the savage fangs of the truth
sharp as the rays of the desert sun
         will pierce your eyes.

"And you shall know how ill-starred you are
how ill-starred you are!
for the least in you would suffice
to make you most happy
a sincere salaam, a warm hand, an honset smile
And this little you had not.

"Nay, weary not your steps
in search of the orchard
for there is no time
neither for a blessing or for a curse
neither for forgiveness nor for revenge.

"And no more, alas, does the pathway to the Cross
lead to an ascent onto the heavens
but downward to hell and a perpetual wandering
         of the soul."

In my delirious fever I kept on crying
but the crowd had no ear or heart for my words
I knew that they were awaiting
not a clay tablet but a Gospel
a sword and some constables
to ambush them with whips and maces
to drop them to their knees
before the heavy steps of the one
who will descend the dark stairway
with a sword and a Gospel.

Then I wept long and hard
and my teardrops were truths
although truth is indeed no more than a word
as if with my tears
I was recounting a desperate truth.

Ah! this crowd, seeking the horrid truth
only in legends, worships the sword
as the weapon of eternal justice
for in our time the sword is a legendary tool.

And thus is called the true martyr
only he who shields his bare chest before the sword
as though suffering, agony and martyrdom
are too ancient to happen with modern warfare.

But what of all the souls burnt in the flames of gunpowder
and what of all the souls bereft of everything
but a vague shadow of a figure
in the horrifying order of millions and millions.

Ah! this crowd seeks the horrid truth
only in legends, or else considers truth
nothing but a legend.

My words the crowd ignored
for I had said the last word about the heavens
without even mentioning the word heaven.

In This Cul-de-Sac

Ahmad Shamlu

translated by
Iraj Bashiri

Copyright ©, 2004, Iraj Bashiri

To make sure
You have not said:
"I love you,"
They smell your breath.
They even smell your heart
Trying times are these, my darling.
They flog love
Tied to the post of the cul-de-sac
We must hide love in the closet.
In this serpentine maze
This crooked cold corner
They feed the fire
With poems and songs
Thinking, too, is risky.
Those who, late at night, knock on the door,
Are there to kill the lamp.
We must hide the light in the closet.
Then there are the butchers
Stationed at all cross-roads,
Armed with a block and a bloody cleaver.
Trying times these are, my darling.
They plant smiles on lips,
And songs in the mouths.
We must hide joy in the closet.
On lilies and lilacs,
They roast the canaries.
Trying times these are, my darling.
Drunk with victory, the Devil,
Celebrates our wake.
We must hide God in the closet.

From Death

Ahmad Shamlu

translated by
Iraj Bashiri

Copyright ©, 2004, Iraj Bashiri

I have never feared death
Even though
Its hands were more fragile
Than banality.
I dread, however, to die
In a land where
The grave digger's wages
Exceed the price of human freedom.
Looking for,
Choosing freely,
And transforming one's essence
Into a fortress.
If the price of death is higher than all that,
I deny, in absolute terms,
To have ever feared death.

The Poetry That Is Life


By Ahmad Shamlu

Translated by Iraj Bashiri

Copyright, Iraj Bashiri, 2004




The theme of the traditional poet

Was not of life.


In the barren expanse of his imagination

He conversed with his mistress and wine

Living in an imaginary world

He was a captive

Held by a beloved's funny tresses.


As for others,

They held, in one hand a cup

In the other

A mistress's tresses

While they distressed

The entire world

With the intoxicating cries

They let loose.


*           *           *


Since the poet's subject

              amounted to nothing

The influence of his verse

              amounted to even less.


You could not use his poetry as a drill bit.


In the course of a struggle

Using the craft of poetry

You could not eliminate

The obstacles that confronted the masses


Put differently,

The poet's existence was immaterial

His being and not being the same

You could not use his poetry as gallows.



I have personally,

With my poems

Fought alongside "Chen Chui" the Korean


Even, at a point

Several years ago,

I strung up "Hamidi the poet"

On the gallows of my verse.


*           *           *

The situation with poetry


Is different altogether…



Poetry is

People's weapon

Poets are branches

              from the forest of the masses

They are not

Jasmines and hyacinths

Of so and so's hothouse.


The poet

Is not alien

To people's common plight


He smiles with peoples' lips

His bones

He grafts to the hopes and sufferings

Of the people.


Today's poet

Must dress well

He must wear properly polished shoes

In the most crowded parts of town

With a poet's inborn gift,

He must

One by one, from among the passersby,

Pick and choose his topic, rhyme and


"Follow me, pilgrim!

For three days now,

I have been everywhere, seeking you out."


"Seeking me out?

I don't understand!

Sir, you must be mistaken.

Are you taking me for someone else?"


"No, my dear fellow,

That would be impossible

I'd recognize the fresh rhythm of my poetry
in any place."


"What did you say?

Poetic rhythm?"


"Have patience, friend…

I have always

Scoured the alley,

Looking for rhythm, words, and rhyme.

In my verses, people form the units

"Life" (i.e., the theme of the stanza),

"Words," "rhythm," and "poetic rhyme;"

I seek all of those among the people

I prefer this method

It enhances poetry, gives it life and soul…"


*           *           *

Now comes the time

When the poet

Employing poetic logic,

Must convince the passerby

To willingly become engaged.

All his efforts, otherwise, will be futile.




Now that rhythm is in place

It is time to seek out the words


Each word (as the name indicates)

Is a witty and pretty girl…


The poet must couple

His desired rhythm with suitable words

Although a tedious task, and trying,

It must be done.

There is no way out:


Mr. Rhythm and his wife, Word:

If not compatible

If not on the same wavelength,

The outcome will be most unpleasant

Like the outcome

For myself and my wife:


I was rhythm, she was word:

The theme of our poem,

The permanent coming together

Of the lips of love…


Even though the smiles of our children

(those pleasant beats)

appeared with joy in our poem

Some cold, black words

Gave it an ominous and dark turn,

It destroyed the rhythm

And the pleasant beat.

At the end,

The poem became useless and banal

And the master became tired

Of a lack of purpose!



In any event,

More is said than intended

A painful bloody blister is opened up…


*         *             *



We explained

Is the model

For the modern poet



Following life's experiences

The poet

Employing the magic of poetry

Creates an image

That overlay an already existing plan


He writes poetry

            That is,

            He touches the wounds of the old town

Put differently,

            He tells the night

            Of an imminent pleasant morn.


He writes poetry

            That is,

            He cries out the pains of his land

That is,

            With his song,

            He revives the flagging spirits.


He writes poetry

            That is,

            He fills the cold and empty hearts with joy


That is to say,

            Facing the dawn

            He awakens the sleep-laden eyes.


He writes poetry

            That is,

            He explains the honor roll of his fellow man

            He recites the victory notes of his Time…


*         *             *


If poetry is life

This barren talk, too,

About semantics
is absurd…


*         *             *


From beneath

Its darkest verses

We feel the sunny warmth

of hope and love


Kayvan has composed

The song of his life

In blood.

Vartan has composed

The clamor of his

In silence.


But, even if

The rhyme-life holds nothing

But a prolonged accent of death.

In each poem

The meaning of each death

Is life.


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