Writing as a woman for the sake of women: on the Persian poet Forough Farroukhzad

Arts & Culture

31 januari 2021
Auteur(s): Delaram Hosseinioun
An analysis of the poetic philosophy of Persian feminist poet Forough Farroukhzad, tracing the bond between the artist’s inner realm and the spectators' image of the feminine figure she depicts. ​

by Delaram Hosseinioun

Contributing Writer

The four elements alone rule me;
my heart’s charter cannot be drafted
by the provincial government of the blind.

(“Only The Voice Will Remain”; 34-42; translated by Sallée)

Forough Farroukhzad (1934–1967), the sole Persian feminist poet, is one of the most controversial artists of the nation and the pioneer of feminist poetry in Iran. Throughout her polemic poetry, not only does Forough manage to narrate women’s endeavours, but she also confronts the Otherness imposed on the feminine gender. Half a century after her tragic death in a car accident, Forough's banned voice still resonates beyond geographical borders. During her life and beyond, numerous scholars and critics have surveyed the poet’s ideologies, in their own right aside from all the controversies as well as in this context. Through her poetry, Forough narrates the hushed and outcast Other, not for the sake of art, nor to challenge the restrictions, but for the sake of "the woman". 

Farrokhzad’s poetry evolved throughout the trajectory of her short life. Her first three collections – Asir [The Captive] (1953), Divar [The Wall] (1957-1958), and Esyaan [Rebellion] (1958-1959) were written when the poet was in her early twenties. In her poem The Captive (1955), she is a frustrated woman urging for freedom, perhaps rather naively and full of rigour. As a newlywed she feels deceived by her ideal image of love and the new sets of restrictions which only changed forms from the paternal cast to the matrimonial ones. In The Wall (1957-1958) and Rebellion (1958-1959) she is aghast and resistant, and finally, in Another Birth (1963), one of her masterpieces, she is emancipated from victimization and alienation. But her redemption has little to do with what was publicly assumed. Unfortunately, due to the extensive degree of patriarchy, the embedded dogma and the concurring cultural transition, Forough’s poems became polemic. The mélange of controversy entangled the poet’s private life and overshadowed the philosophical core of her words. In reality, Forough’s poetic journey delineates the three stages of feminine, feminist, and female poetry.

Throughout her candid words, Forough confronted centuries of dogma and challenged the patriarchal canons. In an interview with the critic Sirus Tahbaz in 1964, Forough explained, “Poetry is a means for communicating with Being, with existence in its full meaning”.

Forough gains her strength from her poems. As the critic Esmai’l Nuri Ala said: “In all her poems Forough described her life, in her life she recites only one poem. The poem was her whole life” (Imagery and Technique 234). Forough confronted taboos and fought against the stigma imposed on women for which she paid a grave penalty. Confined by the patriarchy of the time and the embedded dogma against women’s expression of their throughs, sensuality and sexuality, Forough was regarded as "the harlot poet". She dealt with internal and external traumas, including losing the custody of her only child, over her scandalous poem the Sin, in which she talked about her sexual sentiments.

    Alas, those ardent eyes
    Dragged her into the embrace of sin
    Whispered to her nothing but lust
    Didn’t reflect anything except her appearance.
    Wherever she went, they whispered in her ears,
    The woman is crafted for desire (15-20)

Forough’s words were the primary expressions of such sentiments by a woman in Persian modern poetry. Her son Kami recalls his father Shapour, who was an established cartoonist, having to stay home for weeks because of the poem; so great was his shame he could not face his colleagues or neighbours, according to an interview. In the poem Sin Forough reveals the profound psychological, cultural and sentimental dilemma of this matter.

    I have sinned, a delectable sin
    In an ardent embrace.
    I have sinned, in the midst of arms
    Which were fervent, vengeful and iron-like (1-4)
    The crimson wine danced in the cup
    In the soft bed against his chest
    My body trembled with the drunkenness of love (20-24; translated by Sallée)

The literary critic Michael Hilmann notes, “Nowhere in modernist Iranian literature has sexuality proved more controversial and illuminating than in the verse of Forough Farrokhzad” (A Lonely Woman, 2). In letters to her husband Farrokhzad mentions, “I’d rather live in a burning wasteland, yet not stay here for another moment than be called a whore and sinful for any trivial matter; I swear to god, my ears cannot stand these horrid words anymore” (Primary Beats of My Heart 14). Dealing with the hoax of later scandals the poet became suicidal and underwent Electric Shock Therapies. Decades later psychologists claimed such treatments were completely unnecessary and rather harming. She even had to tolerate excruciating pain without anaesthesia, which went against the norm of the procedure in those days. Not only did Forough deal with a psychological wound, but she also carried a deep medical scar, as revealed by her sister decades after her death.

Despite the trauma, Farrokhzad’s rebellious and resilient character unveils in her poems when she writes, “I don’t repent thinking of this resignation, this pained surrender, I’ve kissed my life’s cross, on the hills of my execution”

Forough later declares, “by writing poetry a poet establishes her existence, poetry says this was my life. It gives meaning to existence” (Sallée 222). In her radio interview with Iraj Gorgin in 1956, Forough remarks: “In my view, as an indication of the artist’s utterance, the artwork resembles a medium for recreating the existence. Meanwhile the essence of life is like a flux, the path reflects a metamorphosis, a perpetual emerging and evolving. Hence the art embodies the utterance, while each feature reflects the characteristics of the era and the artist’s surroundings.” Further, she indicates “Art is not conceiving a mere image, it is an indication, indication of a Being, of human existence and its world of sensation.”

On the other hand, as a female poet and artist, Forough and her female peers were always prohibited to delve into such realms or to express any feminine sentiments. However, as the sole feminist poet of her era, by writing as a woman for the sake of women Forough shatters this stigma. For centuries, Persian women have been depicted either as the docile damsel in distress or the melancholic muse, while Forough's poems manifest the urge and the necessity to break free from this persona.

    In an Eternal Dusk
    Something must be said.
    Something must be said
    at each dawn, in the teetering moments
    when space, like the feeling of adolescence,
    suddenly mingles with something strange.
    I want to succumb to rebellion.
    I want to pour from that colossal cloud.
    I want to say no, no, no, no.
    — Let us go.
    — Something must be said. (86-95)

Many of Farrokhzad’s poems tell of physical experiences and specifically of forbidden, explicit sexual feelings she felt as a woman, a subject that had never occurred in Persian literature. Forough takes her body as the reunifying platform with existence itself, not to surpass gender restrictions, but to rejoice the feminine as the sacred root and the empowering source. Here being feminine is associated with life and creation transcending morality, as the flight or the authentic act is the everlasting deed.

    Collaboration with lead letters
    Will not save mediocre thoughts
    I am the progeny of trees
    Breathing stagnant air wearies me
    A dead bird offered me advice to bear the flight in mind (29-34)
    Why should I stop?
    I place the unripe ears of wheat
    Beneath my breast and give them milk (39-42; translated by Sallée)

In the following part, Forough becomes one with the existence and initiates the missing narratives

    I plant my hands in the garden
    I will grow green, I know, I know, I know
    And in the hollows of my ink-stained fingers
    Swallows will lay eggs.
    (“Another Birth”; 43-46)

while in the next section she delves into the abhorred womanhood. Lost in herself, Forough narrates a journey from nihilation, stating the status of women of her time and confronting the unfortunate situation of women. Hence, by deconstructing the incertitude of womanhood, first she alters the narrative of exoticism, and reunites the neglected womanhood with its root in existence. Forough then knots the wounded existential bonds in herself.

Delving into womanhood she was deprived of and merging it with her surroundings, instead of suppression Forough extends the narratives. ‘A Visitation at Night’ depicts this transition:

    Do you see
    How my skin is bursting?
    How milk is congealing in the blue veins
    Of my cold breasts?

    How the blood
    Is beginning its cartilaginous growth
    In my patient womb?

    I am you, you,
    And one who loves
    And the one who finds, suddenly,
    A mute alliance within herself
    With thousands of unknown, estranging things once more
    I am the ardent passion of the earth

In her poetry, Forough does not sympathize with or abhor the Other, instead, she confronts the taboos, rejoices and liberates them.

    Don’t say this poetry of yours
    Is sinful head to toe.
    Give me a cup of this sin and stigma,
    Eden and its angels all for you.
    Give me shelter in the core of hell
    A book, a peaceful silent corner, and poetry.
    Why be sad?
    If I have no place in heaven
    I have an eternal Eden in my heart.
    Forget the myth of name.
    This Stigma is joyful.
    The lord that gave me an ardent heart
    Will forgive me
   (“Rebel”; 25-37; translated by D.H.)

In her interview with Gorgin, Farroukhzad describes the artist’s relation with the Other as 'an interrelated harmonious cord' (1964) Hence, by embracing the prohibited female entity, and through her daring poetry, Farroukhzad regains the origin which she believed Persian women were deprived of. In her poem ‘Later’ Forough recites,

    I deliver myself of myself;
    what remains is left to rot.
    (30 -31)

According to Farroukhzad, 'the artist’s encounter with the Other is a quest towards awareness and comprehension. The Other is not a predicament. The artwork manifests a gate, leading to new means of perception. Arguably this path brings the artist and the spectator towards the realm of the unknown, while the artists’ inner realm and the spectator’s point of view shape a new narrative. In “A Poem For You”, Farrokhzad writes,

    I was the one branded with shame
    Who laughed at foolish taunts and cried:
    “Let me be the voice of my own existence!”
    But, alas, a “woman” was I.
    (trans by Sallée ll. 17-20)

On the other hand, Farroukhzad extends the narration and indicates “It is true that my poetry carries a feminine hue, this is utterly natural since luckily I am a woman. Nevertheless, if this feature is going to become a mode for assessing the art, then I believe this is not the right approach. Gender could not be regarded as a medium or an essentialist criterion. As the creator, if the artist uses his or her gender as the dominant primary core of the creation, the art will always remain in a confined level. As a woman, if I oblige myself to only write about my femininity and merely the related topics, not only as a poet yet even as a human being this would be a ceased state and rather a decay.” (Interview 1956)

Further, she states, “The most critical aspect is to promote one’s potential in a way to reach the ultimate notion of Being as a human, to seek further probabilities. The essence is to be a human being, being female or male does not matter.” Hence, through her metaphorical bond between the artist, the Other and the spectator, not only the inspiring Other could evoke a new perspective in the artist, but also embody the spectators' revelation as the witness of this narrative. Forough’s most famous poem “Only the Voice Remains” envisages her belief.

    Only the voice remains
    Voice, voice, only voice.
    The water’s voice, its wish to know,
    the starlight’s voice pouring upon the earth’s female form,
    the voice of the egg in the womb congealing into sense,
    the clotting together of love’s minds.
    Voice, voice, voice, only voice remains.
    In a world of runts,
    measurements orbit around zero.

Through her poetic realm, Farroukhzad shatters the spatial norms and mocks the dogma, while the realm of the Other becomes her wonderland. By redeeming the Other from prejudice, Farroukhzad’s poetry adheres the prohibited sensation of being a woman and renders a new perception to her audience. 

    Why must I stop?
    The four elements alone rule me;
    my heart’s charter cannot be drafted
    by the provincial government of the blind.

Forough manifests the voice of a generation who strived for their womanhood. Despite all dilemmas and obstacles, Forough retrieves the banned voice of the Other, the woman. Not for the sake of artistic canons or ideologies, but for the sake of women, Forough urges her spectators to ponder beyond stigmatised thoughts and invites the reader to seek beyond all clichés and boundaries.

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