The first poem in our series is translated by Samad Alavi, an assistant professor of Persian civilization at the University of Washington. When Alavi sent “A Poetry that is Life” by Ahmad Shamlu for consideration, I squealed. Shamlu—a poet, critic, editor, lexicographer, filmmaker, and himself a translator—is consistently canonized as one of The Greats in modern Iranian poetry. And yet, in all the anthologies that he appears in English, I had not come across this poem, which feels like a glaring omission. This poem reads as the sort of ars poetica a poet spends their lifetime writing and rewriting. “A Poetry that is Life” is a relatively early poem, since Shamlu’s career spans over 5 decades. Written in 1957, after the 1953 coup, in the midst of social and aesthetic upheaval, the poem takes up the debate between the formal traditions of Persian poetry that extend centuries and the burgeoning free verse movement, mocking the “bygone poet” (as Alavi translates) whose poetry could not, as the day demanded, be used “in place of an auger” or boldly “a gallows.” The poetry of “today” instead “is a weapon of the masses.” Alavi’s translation of “khalq” into “masses” as opposed to “people,” both of which are justifiable translations, speaks to his own priority in highlighting the sociopolitical moment of the poem—it’s hard to hear “masses” in English and not think of Marx. Elsewhere, Alavi chooses the literal translation “city and its surrounds” instead of the more succinct translation “lands” because, as he told me in email conversation, “one of Shamlu’s major innovations was to articulate a distinctly urban experience.” Where one translator might prioritize a stylistic fidelity here, Alavi chooses a fidelity to the historical significance of the individual words used by one of Iran’s most historically significant poets.

The omission of this poem in anthologies that introduced me to modern Iranian poetry narrowed my understanding of Shamlu as a poet and political figure. Though, like any artist, this is a figure that he again and again revised, it is important to note, too, this fiery and young poem. It is one I am lucky to talk to in any language.

A Poetry That is Life

شعری که زندگیست

The matter of poetry
for the bygone poet
was not life.
In the barren expanses of his fancy
he was in dialogue
only with wine and the beloved.
Morning and night he was lost in whim,
seized in the ludicrous snare of his beloved's locks,
while others,
one hand on the wine cup
the other on beloved's tresses,
raised a drunken howl from God's earth.

موضوع شعر شاعر پیشین
از زندگی نبود.
در آسمان خشک خیالش، او
جز با شراب و یار نمی کرد گفت وگو.
او در خیال بود شب و روز
در دام گیس مضحک معشوقه پای بند،
حال آنکه دیگران
دستی به جام باده و دستی به زلف یار
مستانه در زمین خدا نعره میزدند!

Since the poet's concerns
were nothing but this
the effect of his poetry
was nothing but this:
it couldn't be used in place of an auger;
in times of battle
the handiwork of poetry
couldn't move aside
any stone demon
from before the masses.

موضوع شعر شاعر
چون غیر از این نبود
تأثیر شعر او نیز
چیزی جز این نبود:
آن را به جای مته نمی شد به کار زد؛
در راه های رزم
با دستکار شعر
هر دیو صخره را
از پیش راه خلق
نمی شد کنار زد.

Meaning its existence left no trace
being or not being made no difference
it never stood in place of a gallows.

یعنی اثر نداشت وجودش
فرقی نداشت بود و نبودش
آن را به جای دار نمی شد به کار برد.

While I
at one time

حال آنکه من

with my poetry
fought shoulder to shoulder
with the Korean Shen Chu.
Once several years ago,
I also hung
“The Poet Hamidi”
from the gallows of my poetry...

همراه شعر خویش
همدوش شن چوی کُره ئی
جنگ کرده ام
یک بار هم «حمیدی شاعر» را
در چند سال پیش
بر دار شعر خویشتن
آونگ کرده ام...

The subject of poetry
is a different matter...

موضوع شعر
موضوع دیگریست...

is the weapon of the masses
because poets themselves
are one branch from the forest of the masses
not jasmines and hyacinths
in the hothouse of so-and-so.

حربهٔ خلق است
زیرا که شاعران
خود شاخه ئی ز جنگل خلقند
نه یاسمین و سنبل گلخانهُ فلان.

The poet of today
is no stranger
to the collective toils of the masses:

بیگانه نیست
شاعر امروز
با دردهای مشترک خلق:

He smiles
with the people's lips.
He grafts
the people's hopes and pains
upon his bones.

او با لبان مردم
لبخند میزنند،
درد و امید مردم را
با استخوان خویش
پیوند می زند.

the poet
must wear nice clothes,
lace up his clean and well-waxed shoes,
then from the busiest points in the city,
with a precision particular to him,
he must extract his subject, meter, and rhyme
one by one from the passersby.

باید لباس خوب بپوشد
کفش تمیز واکس زده باید به پا کند،
آنگاه در شلوغ ترین نقطه های شهر
موضوع و وزن و قافیه اش را، یکی یکی
با دقتی که خاص خود اوست،
از بین عابران خیابان جدا کند:

“-- Come with me, dear fellow citizen!
For three whole days
I've looked for you
and knocked on every door!”

« ـــ همراه من بیائید، همشهری عزیز!
دنبالتان سه روز تمام است
در بدر
همه جا سر کشیده ام!»

“For me?
How strange!
Surely, sir, you must
mistake me for someone else.”

« ـــ دنبال من؟
عجیب است!
آقا، مرا شما
لابد به جای یک کس دیگر گرفته اید؟»

“- Not at all, dear sir, impossible:
I can spot the meter
of my new poem from afar.”

« ـــ نه جانم، این محال است:
من وزن شعر تاز ٔه خود را
از دور میشناسم»

“- What's that you say?
Meter of a poem?”

« ـــ گفتی چه؟
وزن شعر؟»

“- Consider it, comrade...
I have always sought
meter, idiom and rhyme
in alleys.
My poetic units
are all individual people.
I seek everything from “life”
(which forms most of the “content”)
to “diction,” “meter,” and “rhyme scheme”
among the people.
This way
gives poetry life and soul.

« ـــ تأمل بکن رفیق...
وزن و لغات و قافیه ها را
همیشه من
در کوچه جسته ام.
آحاد شعر من، همه افراد مردمند،
از «زندگی» [که بیشتر «مضمون قطعه» است]
تا «لفظ» و «وزن» و «قافیهُ شعر»، جمله را
من در میان مردم می جویم...
این طریق
بهتر به شعر، زندگی و روح میدهد...»

the time has come for the poet
to persuade the passerby
(with a logic particular to poems)
so that he may resume his work with relish,
if not, all his efforts go to waste...

هنگام آن رسیده که عابر را
شاعر کند مجاب
[با منطقی که خاصهُ شعر است]
تا با رضا و رغبت گردن نهد به کار،
ورنه، تمام زحمت او، می رود ز دست...

now that meter has fallen in place,
time to seek a diction:

حالا که وزن یافته آمد
هنگام جست وجوی لغات است:

Any lexeme,
as its Arabic name displays,
is feminine in form,
a lovely and jovial maiden...

هر لغت
چندانکه برمی آیدش از نام
دوشیزه ئیست شوخ و دلارام...

The poet must seek a fitting diction
for the meter he has found.
This business is difficult and draining

باید برای وزن که جسته ست
شاعر لغات در خور آن جست وجو کند.
این کار، مشکل است و تحمل سوز

If Sir Meter and his wife Lady Diction
are not matching and harmonious
then their lives will not be pleasing.
Like my wife and me:

آقای وزن و خانم ایشان لغت، اگر
همرنگ و همتراز نباشند، لاجرم
محصول زندگانیشان دلپذیر نیست.
مثل من و زنم:

I was meter, she the words [hatchets on the meter]
the subject of poetry, too,
was the eternal vow on love's lips...

من وزن بودم، او کلمات [آسه های وزن]
موضوع شعر نیز
پیوند جاودانهُ لب های مهر بود...

Our children's smiles (these joyous beats)
lay happily in this poetry,
but to what avail when the cold, black words
gave an ominous, elegiac sense?
They broke both the meter
and the joyous beats.
The poetry grew both fruitless and senseless
until pointlessness wore out the master!

با آنکه شادمانه در این شعر می نشست
لبخند کودکان ما [این ضربه های شاد]
لیکن چه سود! چون کلمات سیاه و سرد
احساس شوم مرثیه واری به شعر داد:
هم وزن را شکست
هم ضربه های شاد را
هم شعر بی ثمر شد مهمل
هم خسته کرد بی سببی اوستاد را!

In short, this discourse has dragged on
and this painful wound opened
to shed its pallid blood...

باری سخن دراز شد
وین زخم دردناک را
خونابه باز شد...

The pattern for poetry today
we said
is life!
It is from life
that the poet,
with poetry's water and dye,
renders an image
upon the designs of another.

الگوی شعرِ شاعرِ امروز
از روی زندگیست که شاعر
با آب و رنگ شعر
نقشی به روی نقشهُ دیگر
تصویر میکند:

He writes poetry
he lays a hand on the wounds of the old city

او شعر می نویسد،
او دست می نهد به جراحات شهر پیر

he weaves a tale
at night
of the sweet morning to come.

او قصه می کند
به شب
از صبح دلپذیر

He writes poetry
he cries out the pains
of his city and its surrounds.

او شعر می نویسد،
او دردهای شهر و دیارش را
فریاد می کند

with his songs
he restores
the worn out souls.

او با سرود خویش
روان های خسته را
آباد می کند.

He writes poetry
he fills
the cold and almost-empty hearts
with passion

او شعر می نویسد،
او قلب های سرد و تهی مانده را
ز شوق
سرشار می کند

with a face to the rising morning
he awakens
the slumbering eyes.

او رو به صبح طالع، چشمان خفته را
بیدار می کند.

He writes poetry
he delivers an exegesis
on the encomium
for the human of the epoch.
he recites the victory speeches
of his age.

او شعر مینویسد،
او افتخارنامهُ انسان عصر را
تفسیر می کند.

او فتح نامه های زمانش را
تقریر میکند.

This dry debate on the significance
of particular utterances
also does not serve poetry...
if poetry is life
then in each of its darkest verses
we sense the sunny warmth
of love and hope:

این بحثِ خشکِ معنی الفاظ خاص نیز
در کار شعر نیست...
اگر شعر زندگی ست،
ما در تکِ سیاه ترین آیه های آن
گرمای آفتابی عشق و امید را
احساس می کنیم:

has sung
his life's anthem in blood
his life's bellow
in the framework of silence,
but even if life rhymes
in there

سرود زندگی اش را
در خون سروده است
غریو زندگی اش را
در قالب سکوت،
اما، اگرچه قافیهُ زندگی
در آن

with nothing else but death's protracted beat
in both poems
each death

چیزی به غیر ضربهُ کشدار مرگ نیست،
در هر دو شعر
معنی هر مرگ

شاملو، احمد، زیرنظر نیاز یعقوبشاهی. «شعری که زندگی ست» در مجموعهُ آثار (دفتر یکم : شعر ، ۱۳۲۳-۱۳۷۶ ، بخش اول). تهران: زمانه، ۱۳۷۸، ۱۵۳-۱۶۱.
Ahmad Shamlu. “She'ri keh Zendegist” in Majmu‘eh-ye Ash‘âr [Collected Works]. Tehran: Zamaneh, 1378[1999], 153-161. Originally published in Havâ-ye Tâzeh [Fresh Air], 1957. Translated by Samad Alavi.