By Heidi Noroozy
When a member of my Iranian family reaches a crossroads in life and feels in need of advice, they turn to the Persian poet, Hafez. They engage in a ritual called fal-e Hafez, where you open a book of Hafez poems to a random location and seek guidance in the wisdom you find between the lines. After all, Hafez, Rumi, Ferdowsi, and the rest of Iran’s pantheon of Persian poets occupy a special place in the Iranian soul.
As an American, I’m far less adept at drawing wisdom from between the lines of 14th century Persian verse, yet I still believe that poetry is a great source of inspiration. Instead of seeking guidance from Hafez or Rumi, I’m more likely to turn to another, more contemporary Persian poet: Forugh Farrokhzad.
Born in 1935 in Tehran, Forugh spent much of her short life breaking down the taboos and social conventions of her male-dominated world. At sixteen, she married a cousin 15 years her senior and lived for the next few years in Ahvaz, a provincial city near the border with Iraq. It was a time of great social change in Iran. The shah had banned the veil in 1936, and many women, including Forugh, were embracing their new found liberty. But not everyone was ready to accept women entering public life.
Especially not a strong-minded female poet whose work came straight from the heart and explored deeply personal themes of love, sexuality, and the struggle for balance between career and family life. Rumors of adulterous affairs followed and crushed Forugh’s beleaguered marriage. After her divorce, she lost custody of her young son, who was placed in the care of his father’s family.
Between 1955 and 1967, Forugh published four poetry collections. The literary journals recognized her great talent and solicited her work, but Tehran’s literati rejected her. They called her sha-ereh (poetess), a term that denigrated her ability to become a serious artist and implied that, as a woman, she could never be anything more than a wannabe poet. Stories of sexual encounters, real or imagined, overshadowed her literary accomplishments.
In her early work, Forugh wrote frankly about her frustrations as a woman trying to make her way in a man’s world and finding the only acceptable role as that of wife and mother. In Captive, she writes:
It’s you I want, yet I know why
I could never hold you to my heart’s content,
for you’re the bright and cloudless sky
and I am a bird captive in a cage.*
In other poems, she writes candidly about sexuality from a woman’s perspective, sometimes describing very specific experiences with lovers, as in the poem, Sin, which was considered quite scandalous at the time of its publication:
I have sinned a rapturous sin
in a warm enflamed embrace,
sinned in a pair of vindictive arms,
arms violent and ablaze.*
Although Forugh explored themes based on the female experience, she didn’t consider herself a feminist poet. She dismissed the significance of her gender and saw her role as an observer of humanity and society who happened to be born a woman. In her later work, her themes grew more complex and broadened to include injustice, social alienation, and religious intolerance.
|Forugh Farrokhzad's grave in the |
Zahir-o-Dowleh Cemetery, Tehran
In 1967, at the age of 32, Forugh Farrokhzad died in a car accident when she tried to avoid a school bus and crashed into a wall. She was buried in Tehran on a snowy February day, her funeral well attended by the literary luminaries who’d called her a mere “poetess” just ten years before. Her final collection, Let’s Believe in the Dawn of the Cold Season, was published posthumously.
Reading Forugh’s poetry is like spending an evening in deep discussion with a dear friend over a bottle of wine. I feel like I’ve gazed into the depths of her soul and seen a reflection of myself there. But her life is also a source of inspiration. She’s a woman who followed her heart despite constant rejection—and her persistence paid off in the end. Today, she’s considered one of Iran’s greatest poets, an artist who has earned every right to sit at the table with the likes of Hafez, Rumi, and Ferdowsi.
To read more of her work, check out these English versions of two poems (Sin and Reborn), translated by the Iranian-American poet, Sholeh Wolpé.
*Both excerpts are from Sin: Selected Poems of Forugh Farrokhzad, translated by Sholeh Wolpé.