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In this final chapter, I analyze Furūgh Farrukhzād’s innovative development of Nīmā’s earlier prosodic experiments and link Farrukhzād’s late modernist poetic project with Western modernist poetry. My purpose in avoiding lengthy comparisons with Western poetry up to this point in the book is to provincialize European poetic modernism and consider instead the significant links in poetic forms, themes, and politics that were more important for the elaboration of modernism in the Arab and Iranian contexts. However, I also readily admit that Western poetic influence plays a significant role in the Arab and Iranian modernists’ approaches to poetry. I thus take the opportunity in this last chapter to address Farrukhzād’s work not only in the context of local poetic connections, but also in light of the bonds she forged with Western modernist poetry. In so doing, I argue that Farrukhzād’s poetic persona is best understood as a flâneuse, the female Iranian counterpart to Charles Baudelaire’s Parisian poetic persona. I furthermore undertake a lengthy analysis of the close associations between Farrukhzād’s late poetry and T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land and “The Hollow Men,” from 1925.
Applies formal analysis to several of the early modernist poems Nīmā Yūshīj wrote in Persian in the 1920s and 1930s. I purposefully highlight how Nīmā incorporates not only premodern Arabic prosody, but also premodern Arabic literary devices – especially muʿāraḍah or “contrafaction”– into his modernist Persian poetry. Ultimately, I argue that he uses contrafaction to sublate the past into the present in a way that contrasts sharply with the Pahlavi dynasty’s use of the Iranian past (or rather, a very specific version of that past) to fabricate a new, modern, national myth. For instance, the Pahlavis built mausoleums for premodern Persian literary exemplars like Hafiz, Attar, Omar Khayyam, and the author of the Iranian national epic, Ferdowsi, highlighting their essential Persianness in opposition to the rich history of Islam and Arabic in the region. I read poems like 1926’s “The Swan” and 1938’s “The Phoenix” to show how Nīmā develops the planetary modernist theme of death and rebirth (perhaps best known as the thematic engine of Eliot’s The Waste Land) to his own ends. I argue that by treating poetry as a craft we can better understand how Arab and Iranian modernists resisted nationalist mythmaking by deploying the past differently.
Chapter 3 focuses on the poetry of the Iranian Aḥmad Shāmlū and his pioneering imagination of what would eventually come to be called the Third World in his second collection of poetry, The Manifesto, from 1951. Shāmlū’s committed poetry goes beyond Nīmā’s prosodic innovations to reach past the borders of Iran in a bid to build solidarity with, for instance, a Korean soldier fighting against the United Kingdom and United States in the Korean War. The Manifesto, therefore, represents Shāmlū’s attempt to forge a Third World literary network within the Global South that predates later moves in this direction following the Bandung Conference in 1955. However, Shāmlū’s idealism was cut short in 1953 only weeks after the Korean War ended when these same imperial powers staged their coup against Mohammad Mosaddegh on August 15–19. The 1953 coup represents a momentous turning point not just for local politics in the Middle East but also for cultural production. Shāmlū tempered his political engagement following the coup, and the Iranian Left suffered a general malaise from which it never recovered.
The Iraqi modernist poet Badr Shākir al-Sayyāb’s political positions underwent a monumental shift after he witnessed Mossadegh’s ouster first-hand while on the run from the Iraqi police in Iran. Chapter 4 traces the effects this political shift had on Sayyāb’s view of his own poetry and the worlds he imagined within it. Sayyāb was a card-carrying Communist prior to the coup against Mossadegh, but afterwards he began to support a nationalist politics informed by Western Liberalism. The changes his poetry underwent thus offer an indispensable point of comparison with Shāmlū’s committed project. After experiencing the events of 1953 in Iran, Sayyāb returned to a volatile period in Iraq’s history as a bloody 1958 revolution overthrew the pro-British Iraqi monarchy and instituted a radical military dictatorship in its stead. During the ensuing years, Sayyāb published several modernist poems, which have been hailed by critics as crucial contributions to the development of modernist forms and themes in Arabic. In this chapter, I explore Sayyāb’s development of modernist themes alongside his retention of premodern Arabic prosodic form in his 1954 long poem “Weapons and Children.”
The title of Aḥmad Shāmlū’s November 1966 collection, Quqnūs dar bārān (Phoenix in the Rain), represents the stalled project of the earlier modernist poets, the postponed dream of rebirth. Shāmlū metaphorically represents the chilling rain of authoritarianism in his title, which puts out the Phoenix’s fire and stops the cycle of death and rebirth. We can extend this metaphor beyond the Persian context to the Arabic one as well, on the cusp of the Six-Day War and the psychological trauma that was to follow. Looking further into the future, Shāmlū also prophesies the ultimate failure of the Third World solidarity movement after the emergence of neoliberalism, which reordered the world system in the 1970s as the USSR fell farther and farther behind the capitalist Western powers. Shāmlū questions the real-world use value of a poetry that had, for the most part, failed to spur the masses to revolution, forcing the poet to become much more self-contemplative and move his gaze inward. In a continuation of previous modernist invocations of Christ (regarded in both the Arab and Iranian modernist traditions as a progenitor of the death-rebirth cycle), Shāmlū – ever so humble – puts the committed poet in the place of the Messiah in his poem “Marg-i Nāṣirī” (“The Death of the Nazarene”). As the executioners torture Christ (“‘Shitāb kun Nāṣirī, shitāb kun!’”; “‘Hurry up Nazarene, get on with it!’”), Shāmlū brings us back to Nīmā’s comparison of the poet and the swan in 1926’s “The Swan.” While the ungrateful crowd, including even Lazarus, stands aside in silence, Christ looks inward for strength as he dies. “Az raḥmī kih dar jān-i khvīsh yāft / sabuk shud / va chūnān qū-ī-’i / maghrūr / dar zulālī-’i khvīshtan nigarīst” (“[Christ] found peace / from the mercy in His soul / and like a proud / swan / He regarded His own purity”).1
This chapter examines the courses modernist Arabic poetry took in Iraq following Sayyāb’s premature death in 1964. ʿAbd al-Wahhāb al-Bayātī (d. 1999) was a well-known poetic rival of Sayyāb who remained affiliated with the Communist Party even after the difficulties Communists grappled with during the 1950s. As the decade went on, fallout from the Iranian coup was compounded by nearly-simultaneous revelations about the realities of Joseph Stalin’s authoritarian rule following his death in 1953. I focus on the existential crisis Bayātī faced when the hopeful possibilities of 1950s decolonization efforts became more and more limited in the face of rising totalitarianism in the Middle East. Despite the changing political situation in the region manifested in, for instance, the rise of the Iraqi Baath and the increasing authoritarianism of Gamal Abdel Nasser’s regime in Egypt, modernists continued to use the same techniques in the 1960s that their predecessors had employed two decades earlier. Specifically, like Nīmā before him, Bayātī uses another premodern Arabic poetic device – taḍmīn or “poetic quoting”– to sublate premodern traditions into modernist poetry.
The chapter begins with a section on the Egyptian Marxist Louis Awad’s radical modernist poetic project Plutoland from 1947. The chapter engages Awad’s critical intervention to lay out the transnational roots of Arabic poetry from the premodern period to the twentieth century before moving on to address the intricacies of the Arabic prosodic rules he wanted the modernists to break. In the second section, I give technical details about how I represent poetic meters throughout the rest of the book and explain the science of Arabic prosody. Next, the chapter covers critical approaches to modernist poetry in both Arabic and Persian, paying particular attention to the critics’ positions on the possibility of composing politically committed poetry. I then transition into a long section on the history of literary commitment, its philosophical foundations, and the role it played in Arabic and Persian poetic criticism. In a brief conclusion, I suggest a way out of the debates that took shape around literary commitment and offer further details on my balancing of formalist and contextual analytical approaches to the poetry I read in the later chapters.
The early decades of the twentieth century saw the articulation of new approaches to literature in Iran and the Arab world as Arabic and Persian literary modernisms developed out of the Arab nahḍah “renaissance” and the neoclassical Persian bāzgasht movement of “literary return. Modernist poetry in Arabic and Persian, which emerges in many ways on its own and draws on this other, local history, thus stands outside and against a singular understanding of modernism as a European phenomenon and calls us to consider what it might look like if we situate the center of our modernist map in the Middle East. The introduction deploys a range of recent literary theory on modernism, transnationalism, and modernity in the Arab world and Iran to argue for a re-orientation of our perspective and to treat Middle Eastern modernism on its own terms. By relocating our modernist center to an “Eastern” geography, the chapter argues for a new way of looking at modernist poetic developments within the region and across the border between the Arabic- and Persian-speaking worlds. Considering modernism from this relativist perspective shows how Arabic and Persian poetries form a significant modernist geography within the broader movement of modernism.
Re-orienting Modernism in Arabic and Persian Poetry is the first book to systematically study the parallel development of modernist poetry in Arabic and Persian. It presents a fresh line of comparative inquiry into minor literatures within the field of world literary studies. Focusing on Arabic-Persian literary exchanges allows readers to better understand the development of modernist poetry in both traditions and in turn challenge Europe's position at the center of literary modernism. The argument contributes to current scholarly efforts to globalize modernist studies by reading Arabic and Persian poetry comparatively within the context of the Cold War to establish the Middle East as a significant participant in wider modernist developments. To illuminate profound connections between Arabic and Persian modernist poetry in both form and content, the book takes up works from key poets including the Iraqis Badr Shakir al-Sayyab and Abd al-Wahhab al-Bayati and the Iranians Nima Yushij, Ahmad Shamlu, and Forough Farrokhzad.