I remember how the Persian Literature teacher held onto her black chador and shifted in her uncomfortable metal chair. She rolled her eyes and slammed on the table three of times to bring the class back to order. “She is a dirty woman!” she repeated in anger and confidence. The class knew that the discussion was over. But she continued to justify the absence of Forough Farrokhzad’s poetry from the 7th grade Persian literature book.
I was a shy student back then. I couldn’t stand up for myself let alone a poet I did not know much about–except, a framed verse which my father had calligraphed and hung in my room:
No fisherman shall ever find a pearl in an abject brook
which empties into a lagoon.
I wondered how a “dirty woman” could know the value of a pearl trapped in a dead swamp.
Born in 1935, Forough Farrokhzad was a rebellion from the beginning. As a teenager, she fell in love with a man fifteen years her senior. After finishing junior high school and spending a year in technical school where she studied art and dressmaking, she married him despite her family’s disapproval. However, two years later, she gave up her marriage and her only son, for poetry and art.
A divorcée in the conventional Iranian society of 1950s, Forough Farrokhzad attracted more attention by her controversial poems. For the first time in the history of Persian poetry, she wrote from a feminine point of view and solely focused on the experiences of being a woman. For example, in the “Wedding Ring”, she compared the ring to a band of captivity and misunderstanding.
Even though many male poets prior to her have explicitly written about sexuality and relationships, Farrokhzad was the first poetess to invite herself to the same circle of poets and write Persian poetry about love, lust and sexuality. Consequently, harsh insolent reaction followed from religious authorities, literary circles and the public.
Despite constant and cruel criticism for defying a conservative family lifestyle, for using vivid images of sexual encounters in her poetry, and for questioning the roles of women in private and public spheres, Forough Farrokhzad continued to lead an independent, unorthodox life till her unexpected death in 1967, due to a car accident.
Farrokhzad’s career can be best divided to two parts: The first period of her poetry was published between 1955 and 1958 (she published her first poem at the age of sixteen), and this was a time when she created collections of loud voices protesting gender discrimination and holding double standards against women. Yet, as her age matured, her poetry too gained a universal voice and evolved into a cry for humanity.
No longer exclusively a spokesperson for women, Farrokhzad became a poet who expressed her concern about the decline of morality. For instance, in “I Feel Sorry for The Garden”, she expresses her fear of superstitious beliefs, the superficial mentality that exists among upper-class, the rise of urban lifestyles within metropolitan cities, and the distance of individuals from nature. Thus, the fear of “an age that has lost its heart” became one of the central themes in Farrokhzad’s poetry.
The second half of her career (from 1958 to her death) consisted of her introduction to film-making. She began her film career in 1958 by editing commercial video clips and movies for Ibrahim Golestan–an acclaimed Iranian filmmaker, literary figure and Farrokhzad’s amorous lover. In 1962, she made an award-winning documentary called “The House is Black”. A film about a leper colony in Tabriz, a province of Iran. Shot in black and white, with distinguished cinematography, the documentary is a graphic picture of life for a group who seems to be forgotten. However, Farrokhzad’s sensitivity to the human side of the picture and her beautifully written narration–which is nothing short of poetry–transfers the sorrow of life in a leper colony into a serene image of faith and hope for life. In one scene for example, Farrokhzad’s soft and child-like voice reciting a verse about a pair of earrings made out of “two twin red cherries” overlaps with the image of a female leper applying kohl in her afflicted eyes.
After her divorce and subsequent “controversial artist” status, her ex-husband’s ultra-conservative family forbade her to see her son. (One reason for a nervous breakdown and attempted suicide in 1955). During the making of “The house is Black”, Farrokhzad adopted a seven-year-old boy from his leper parents in Tabriz and brought him with her to Tehran, which seemed to ease her awful pain of separation.
The last collection of Forough Farrokhzad’s poetry, “Let Us Believe in The Beginning of The Cold Season” was published after her death in 1967. The poems included in this volume along with her previous work “Another Birth” are recognized as the hallmark of her poetry career. Poems that are at times difficult to understand have found their philosophical voice and express beauty and squalor of life with exceptional imageries and control of the Persian language despite having no formal or academic education.
In despair for her society and people around her Forough Farrokhzad wrote:
One can be like a wind-up doll
and look at the world with eyes of glass,
one can lie for years in lace and tinsel
a body stuffed with straw
inside a felt-lined box,
at every lustful touch
for no reason at all
one can give out a cry
“Ah, so happy am I!”
The Wind-up Doll
But she was also optimistic enough to hope for a better society:
Someone is coming,
someone is coming,
someone who in his heart is with us,
in his breathing is with us,
in his voice is with us,
someone who is coming
cannot be stopped.
Some One Who is Like No One
Half-a-century later, her poetry stands unchallenged and timeless. Some criticism on her defiant lifestyle or refusal to censor herself despite the taboos of society continues to this day–the very same reason for my 7th grade teacher’s anger. However, the interest in her poetry and her message as a pioneering feminist continues to grow. Iranian society–partly resulting from the more recent women’s movement–has come to value her messages about women and humanity.
In an interview with Bernardo Bertolucci–an Italian filmmaker who made a fifteen-minute movie about the poet–Farrokhzad said, “being a poet means being human,”…She truly lived her own message: It bothered her to preach or to see that other intellectuals exhort a message yet live in hypocrisy. In her poetry Farrokhzad talked about living a simple life with love for humanity and nature. In her life she lived her poetry and once said, to her, “poetry is as important as a religion for a religious person.” One, however, might wonder if she ever regreted devoting her life to art and poetry.
She might have suffered greatly from not seeing her son and being criticized for breaking boundaries, but in exchange, she left an unforgettable legacy for generations to come.
I sometimes regret not knowing Forough well in class that day. I regret not defending a woman whose exemplary endurance and munificence have inspired many. But when I see the growing popularity of her poetry and her simple yet deep philosophy among Iranians and international circles, I know that she no longer is the “dirty woman” who doesn’t deserve to be mentioned in literature class.