First few weeks of Persian poetry class

4 min readFeb 8, 2022

My dark hut lacks life and freshness
The body of my reed-flute is brittle from dryness
As the separation of lovers, who would fain meet again
The rain-messenger, Darvag, when is the rain?

In the introduction to his anthology of modern Persian poetry, Professor Ahmad Karimi-Hakkak notes that one of the hallmarks of the literary tradition, which definitively began with the literary career of Nima Yushij, is the new role of the poet as a “prophet of doom.” The poet is unable to ignore their ties to a society entangled in the tumult of modernity, and struggles to communicate a message to a confused mass.

I don’t speak Farsi, so my fascination with She’r-e Nimaa’i, poetry in the Nimaic tradition, is not rooted in the poets’ stark divergence from the traditional metrical patterns of Firdausi, Saadi, and the like. My knowledge is solely based on what I gather from an English translation, which I honestly feel to be a document of someone else’s experience of the poem. Regardless of my first-hand knowledge, however, the common motifs and metaphors that bind together this literary school are clear even in translation. She’r-e Nimaa’i makes itself distinct from other literary traditions around the world that roughly correspond with national revival through its depiction of a confused society struggling to find its footing within the absurd nature of reality.

The sociopolitical aspects of Nima’s poetry are somewhat hazy due to his reliance on nature symbolism and metonymy, but in his own critical writings he recognizes the poem as a composition that should convey its broader context. Nocturnal imagery, natural light, and water in the form of rainfall and rivers, are all recurring in the poetry of Nima, and although such motifs can be interpreted in a variety of ways, the existence of a larger social context is easily detectable.

Nima Yushij, Bahman Mohasses, Nicolas Bouvier outside Nima’s house (1952)

The most stirring poem by Nima that I’ve become acquainted with over the past few weeks is without a doubt “Makhola,” published in 1949 and named for a local river in Nima’s home province of Mazandaran. The poet presents the river as unruly and dislocated as it “thrusts its body from rock to rock, as a refugee.”

In the mute murmuring of the waters
Makhola carries a familiar message
and the word of a manifest destination
yet it flows
over what lies in its way
a stranger trampling another

Upon the first reading, I found comfort in the idea of Makhola encapsulating an entire society, one which is striving towards a destination but at present is but a “homeless vagrant tramping on its way.” Iranian society at this point in time is in the midst of chronic political instability, facing an uncertain future as the Shah begins to exert more influence over governance and the country drifts from the aspiration of a constitutional monarchy.

The concept of Makhola as a society has a particular appeal to me due to the exilic undertones of the composition. The river is a refugee, a homeless vagrant, traveling “to what home unknown,” while simultaneously carrying word of a destination that it chants to no avail. The tension between the vying of the river for its destination, and its perpetual and seemingly futile journey, profoundly resonates.

The river as society is what first came to mind, however if I were to put my own sentiments aside, it seems that Karimi-Hakkak’s idea of the poet as a prophet of doom easily pertains to Makhola. Rather than a society in turmoil, the river is instead a poet trying in vain to communicate his message, which is “fallen from all eyes in this desert’s lap.”

Water plays a significant role in Nima’s poetry outside of just “Makhola.” It is often used as a symbol of social change, sometimes revolution, as it was in “The Tree Frog” (Darvag) in which he describes the situation of neighboring Russia. Thus, the poet, a river, thrashes against his surroundings in an effort to bring about social change, which by the tenor of this poem is a fruitless endeavor.

The echoes of Nima’s descriptions of either society or the poet struggling to no avail are very much present in one of the more famous poems of Mehdi Akhavan-Saless. Akhavan’s composition, titled “Inscription” (Katibeh), depicts a group of people, chained to each other by the ankles, that witness a large stone that they come to believe holds a divine secret. One of them crawls to the stone and reads the words on the face: “He shall know my secret who turns me over!” The group struggles to turn the stone over, and after succeeding, another man goes to read the inscription on the other side, and finds that it says the same thing. It is safe to say that the mass of chained people in this poem represents a repressed society, but this mass doesn’t experience any sort of redemption in this poem. In this near-Sisyphean narrative, Akhavan manages to convey the great divide between man and the mystery of existence.

I hope to cultivate a much firmer grasp on the role of this school in its broader sociopolitical context as the class continues. From my brief experience (or experience of an experience) of She’r-e Nimaa’i, it seems as if Nima and his successors, despite the momentous change that they brought to the character of Persian literature, lament the perpetual stagnation of the world around them. The poems which revolutionized the Persian literary tradition convey a further longing, tinged with doubt that rain will ever arrive.