Poetry and Memory: the Case of Iran

Patricia Almarcegui

Writer and lecturer in Comparative Literature

In Iran, poetry is a very rich and unique intangible heritage, a beautiful legacy that its inhabitants are aware of from childhood. Poetry is a way of existing, a way of relating to and conceiving the world, a political action and an act of power. Within Persian tradition, we must emphasise the figure, swathed in mystery, of the poet Hafez (1320-1389), whose work Divān, through its tensions, contrasts and ambiguities, reflects the day-to-day life experienced by Iranians for some time. Hafez’s poetry also contains a mystical reading, in the sense that it seeks union with the divine. This reading feeds from the Neoplatonic tradition, shared by the three major religions. Therefore, it is easy to find parallelisms between the verses of Hafez and those of the Spanish mystics, such as Teresa of Ávila or Saint John of the Cross. Neoplatonic poetic language is based on allegory and aspires to make the conceptual visible, as an exercise in self-knowledge that is re-created time and again through memory.

There is no greater love for poetry than that professed by Iran. You do not need to know Persian poetry in depth to see this. Anyone travelling to Iran knows it. The mausoleums of the poets, open from eight in the morning to eleven in the evening, are full of Iranians. Omar Jayyam’s and Farid Un-Din Attar’s in Nishapur, Ferdusi’s in Tus, Al-Saadi’s and Hafez’s in Shiraz, etc. Iranians from all parts of the country go there to recite the verses of the poets, to remember them with music, to walk in couples, to eat or drink, to sing their poems together as a family, to see the moon and reflect on life and death. At the age of three, children begin playing a game. An adult says a word and, using its last letter, the child begins the verse of a poem; another uses the last letter and recites another verse, and so on endlessly until they remember nothing else. Sometimes they use isolated words. Rend (bohemian) was the word I chose in a school for them to play, and over ten children recited poems by different Iranian poets using this word.

Iran has a very special relationship with poetry. The reasons are various. First, poetry is a way of existing. Iranians live with it, recognise each other and update it, thereby generating a certain sociability. Life and poetry resemble each other. Poetry is the original language of society, a channel and tool of communication that represents passion and sensitivity. Hence it is the language of revolutions and revelations thanks to its social and revolutionary principle. Poetry is a political action, an act of rebellion and a form of power.

Poetry is a cultural emblem of contemporary Iran and of its social problems. By studying how citizens relate to it, we know how the country’s imaginary has been shaped. Since the revolution, classical Persian culture has represented a constellation. Culture or farhang[1] is a dominant discourse in the crossing-over of practices, spaces and temporalities between religion and politics. Thus it becomes a hegemonic articulation that escapes the administrative initiatives of the state and produces aesthetic effects in readers and listeners that amplify the emotional impact.

In East and West, poetry is characterised by a series of singularities. The origin of language could be poetic. When it emerged, everything was expressed in verse. Much easier and more profitable than prose, it did not need connections or long articulations, as what had to be “spoken or communicated” were transcendental facts. “Rain”, “food”, “fire”… concepts that did not need more than one or two words to be enunciated.

As several religions agree, the world was not created by a God, but was spoken. Things are words. A mountain is a word, a river is another, a landscape is a sentence

If poetry was the first language of men, and if language is in its essence a poetic operation that sees the world as a network of symbols and relations, then society is built upon a poem. All poetry needs interpretation and is perceived through aesthetic appreciation. The world is not a set of things but of signs. As several religions agree, the world was not created by a God, but was spoken. Things are words. A mountain is a word, a river is another, a landscape is a sentence. The world is the metaphor of a metaphor[2] that becomes a figure of speech. Hence one of the functions of poetry is to show the other side of things, the every day wonder. In other words, how reality is accessed through metaphors and symbols.

The poem is an act. The poet speaks and, by speaking, makes and makes himself. Poetry is an exercise in self-knowledge and self-creation. The reader repeats, in turn, the poet’s experience of self-creation. Poetry and magic; the poet as the transmitter of a religious spirit; poetry as an intervention in reality. These are ideas that come from Antiquity and the Middle Ages and were recovered in the 19th and 20th centuries to form part of the future of today’s poetry. The poet goes from transmitting a revealed knowledge to being a revelation himself.

The coherence of poetry cannot be understood through arguments, reasons or logic. Its primary explanation comes from the rhythm. Closer to the origin, closer to the heart impulse, it finds a natural analogy with the reader, who becomes a listener to words. The notion of rhythm replaces that of matter and form. Poet, reader and listener pay attention to poetry because they listen to a rhythm, a vibration. They receive something by listening and transmit it.To listen, we must relax, pay attention to the flow of words, to the sonorous intensities. The lapses, the silences and the repetitions do not make poetry incomplete but rather speak of the incomplete. It is difficult to talk about what we do not know.[3] Thus, poetry has, since the origin of language, been closer to mystery and enigma.[4]

Poetry suggests; it evokes latent and dormant feelings. The reader recognises himself in the other through what he shares with him and recovers experiences distant in time and space. The poem transmits something universal, just like philosophy. Hence, wise men in ancient cultures expressed themselves through poetry because it is wisdom.

Poetry is intimately linked to memory. For centuries, it survived thanks to oral transmission. Rhyme, rhythm, repetitions, refrains, cadences, enumerations, climaxes and anticlimaxes were some of the melodic formulas inherent to the genre, but also absolutely necessary for its transmission. It was preserved because it was remembered and it was remembered because it had sonorous elements anchored in memory, which provided the basis for words and meaning.

Memory acts through images. We do not only remember because we listen but also because we see. In this sense, Persian literature is one of the greatest iconographical powers of East and West

Moreover, memory acts through images. We do not only remember because we listen but also because we see. In this sense, Persian literature is one of the greatest iconographical powers of East and West. Images are also created from words. Therefore the image, along with the metaphor, is one of the most important rhetorical figures. If Iranian photography and cinema have had the development and quality they have had it is because they come from an exalted visual tradition that has organised Persian poetry since the 10th century.

The prohibition by Islam of portraying the human figure demands greater attention to words. Iranians are linked to them. They create their visual imaginary based on words. Therefore, their world is more subjective and imaginary than others. They construct reality thanks to poetry and this becomes tradition and history. The greater the shortcomings, the more you have to imagine, and the more you imagine, the more intense perception and, with it, memory, become. For example, a flower in the arid landscapes of Iran is so infrequent that it has to be imagined and, when it is, it is all the more loved.

Hafez (1320-1389) is the Iranian poet par excellence, because he embraces this visual tradition to the extreme. His work with the word is unique. He strains all the possibilities of figures of speech to the maximum. Each word contains so many interwoven worlds, such symbolic power, such evocation and suggestion that the reader and listener find what they are looking for in them. It is said that when you open his book, the Divān, at random, the poem that emerges predicts your destiny. It could be no other way, as there is such hermeneutics in the words that each one conceals at least two meanings.

Very little is known about the poet from Shiraz. There is no proof he was a copyist, teacher or reciter; we only know he stayed close to the Sufi court and circle and that he was a learned citizen trained in theology, law and spirituality. These affirmations are extracted and deduced from a careful reading of his Divān. Hafez is the indisputable teacher of the ghazal; with this strophic form he sings to love, wine, nature and the enigma of destiny. Until then the ghazal had dealt with only one theme, but Hafez expanded it and made room for his great poetic imagination, introducing more themes and idealising the previous ones. It is impossible to know exactly if his inspiration is mystical or profane. This uncertainty, the extreme musicality and harmony of his language and style ‒ which comes from the origin of the ghazal, conceived to be sung ‒ and its spiritual subtlety are the great secret of his poetry, as well as the extreme difficulty, almost impossibility, of a precise translation, owing to the symbolic complexity and plurality of meanings of the words.

Iranians learn his great Divān (500 ghazals) from childhood. The consonantal rhyme of the hemistichs (mesra) and the distichs (beyt) help to memorise it, just like the visual analogy of calligraphy that allows them to be memorised graphically. Each distich works as a poem and each one must make the figures echo each other; often the first and last distich responds to each other. Added to this is one of the main characteristics of its verses: the alternation of themes, which are neither fully developed nor have a logical conclusion. Extreme difficulty for a rational reading, but a simple image of the very impossibility of resolving the mystery and enigma of life. The tense harmony of Hafez’s poetry is the image of the dualities and bipolaralities that have coexisted in the day-to-day of Iranians for centuries. Thus, poetry is full of expressions of opposites, ambiguity in images, rhetorical circumlocutions and wordplays that result in dualism, contrast and tension.

While the great mystic poet Rumi represents perfection, Hafez instructs his readers about how to live. He refers to the quotidian, and to the city of Shiraz and its inhabitants, and they recognise themselves in it. During the life of the poet, the population had to experience the political and religious variations of the Inju kingdom (Mongolian invaders of Iran) and the fanatical government of Mubarez ud-Din, fanatical Sunni, and Hafez’s poetry sowed optimism. Wine, love, roses, intoxication, garden… are themes that are repeated and ways to enjoy the ephemeral and the fleetingness of life. But they are also elements that conceal, thanks to the plurality of meanings of the words and to the figures of speech, a hidden criticism of society. In Hafez’s tomb there is no visitor who does not recite his verses by heart; in Shiraz, in Iran, no one forgets his poetry. Through the memory of his poems and their constant updating, it is clear how Persian culture is a culture of memory. Words possess an aura and lead to situations and eventualities. This mnemonic updating raises several questions. Just as happened in the 14th century, how far does this defence of poetry conceal a criticism of current society? Is love of poetry a search for the Iranian past, a national narrative, a poetics of memory? Is the updating of the poet a return to the past, a way of fleeing from the present?

Hafez’s poetry has and admits a mystical reading. The foremost specialist on his poetry in the West, Charles-Henri de Fouchécour, already discovered that the poet from Shiraz was not a Sufi although he had moved in Sufi circles. It is in the sense of the search for union with the divine, personified in love, that this mysticism can be interpreted. A love, argues Fouchécour, that covers Hafez’s whole vision and to which he is predestined. Love bestows the word on him and makes him a poet and lover. The beloved does not exist in body but in image: “Like Hafez, we are satisfied with an image of you.” An imago that comes and is constructed from something real, but that also acquires the status of a ghost.

The tense harmony of Hafez’s poetry is the image of the dualities and bipolaralities that have coexisted in the day-to-day of Iranians for centuries

The desire to reach the beloved assumes the function of converting things into mental objects, the task of the poet and his trade with words, which through evocations and suggestions refer to him: “Let us see, it may be that, in his girdle, one’s hand one can fix / Seated in the heart’s blood, like the red ruby, are we,” “At dawn I came into the garden to catch a breath of the roses / To cool my head for a little, like the nightingale sick with love”. In all objects the trace and beauty of the supreme emerges.

The connections between western and eastern culture are infinite. Several works have compiled the research. The most obvious refer to the shared historical past and centuries of coexistence of Muslims and Christians in the same European space and time. From a literary point of view, the most understandable proposal comes from the Hispanist María Rosa Menocal: literature in medieval Europe was marked out based on “accidents and coincidences.”[5] Menocal cites the argument of the Arabist Julián Ribera, who suggests that the interaction between Romance and Arab cultures was substantially produced in the poetic-musical context.[6] Courtly love and Provençal poetry would thus form the ancestor of European literatures.

Decades ago, Miguel Asín Palacios associated Spanish and Muslim mysticism in his Hispano-Arabic comparative work. In short, Dark Night of the Soul by Saint John of the Cross is related to the work of the Sufi theologian Ibn Abbad from Ronda, and the rest of his poems, with Ibn Arabi. The Mansions or The Interior Castle by Santa Teresa of Ávila, with the works of the philosopher Abu Hamid al-Gazali and the anonymous text of the Nawadir. And the 16th century alumbrados (Illuminati) with the Hispano-African sect of the Sadilies.

However, if there is a coincidence, a shared place between medieval and Renaissance Spanish poetry and Muslim poetry, it is Neoplatonism and, beyond, its most important ancestor, Plotinus. Thanks to these eventualities, the difficulty and distance involved in reading Hafez grow weaker and signs and tools appear for unravelling his allegorical thought and style. Inevitably, in that exercise in comparison, the voices and echoes of Spanish Neoplatonic Renaissance poetry come to light. Garcilaso de la Vega, Fray Luis de León and Saint John of the Cross; but also Francisco de Aldana, Fernando de Herrera, and so on. The same poetry that the poets of the Generation of ’27, Jorge Guillén and Luis Cernuda above all, would focus on to seek in the Neoplatonic verses musicality and harmony, drivers and receptacles of memory, and transfer them to their verses.

The clearest similarities and resonances are found between Saint John of the Cross’s Spiritual Canticle and Hafez’s ghazals. In both, the verses could be the consequence of a mystical or spiritual experience, above all in the first, an ordained priest. The wait for the presence of the beloved, the nostalgia of separation, the intoxication with his beauty are symbols common to the three monotheist religions. But, above all, they are poems that emerge as an expression of love and, as such, adapt to the vocabulary and rituals of courtly love. The lover and the beloved maintain a social relationship just like the servant and master. The lover has been seduced by the beloved, who for this reason grants years of virtue and knowledge to the poetic subjects. The poems speak of love, the soul, the spirit and are tinged with contradictions, paradoxes and metaphors, as whenever one speaks of love and religion, the aim is to translate the unattainable or ineffable.

Neoplatonism is based on the spiritual and cosmological teachings of Plato and earlier Platonists, such as Plotinus, who drinks from the fountain of the teachings of Greek, Persian, Indian and Egyptian philosophy

Neoplatonism argues that the beauty of the supreme, the manifestation and driver of love emanates from all things. “Where is the initiate who understands the language of the irises / who can ask why he left and why he has returned?” “The breeze of the beloved’s curl lightens our eyes / so that, oh God, this meeting does not succumb to a rough wind.” Although Hafez is very pious and knows the Koran by heart, it will be love that comes to his aid and makes him a poet. Love as irradiation and reflection of the One or of everything.

Neoplatonism is based on the spiritual and cosmological teachings of Plato and earlier Platonists, such as Plotinus, who drinks from the fountain of the teachings of Greek, Persian, Indian and Egyptian philosophy. In the Middle Ages, Neoplatonism was revived and defended by al-Gazali, Avicenna, al-Kindi, al-Farabi and Maimonides, among others. In the Renaissance it was revived with the acquisition, translation and dissemination of the Greek and Arab Neoplatonic texts.

Neoplatonic language is that of allegory, continued metaphor, which seeks to provide an image to that which lacks one, to make visible what is conceptual. In short, to find in objects and human experiences a mark of what Plotinus calls being or One. To this end, the soul must first pass through a kind of spiritual curriculum from lower stages to upper stages. Based on the contemplation of corporeal things in their multiplicity and harmony, it withdraws into itself and into the depths of its own being, remaining in a state of calm, and passes from there to the world of ideas, even further from the superior, the One. “A thousand graces diffusing / He passed through the groves in haste, / And merely regarding them / As He passed / Clothed them with His beauty,” writes Saint John of the Cross in Spiritual Canticle.

According to Fouchécour, Plotinus’ influence on Iranian poetry and philosophy is fundamental. His idea of procession and ascension towards the One was revived by Avicenna, as an emanation of an influence or luminous power. Light and dark are divine emanations. All objects and experience are an emanation of One or God.

Beloved that does not exist in body but does in image that must be constructed from the master of words who is Hafez, whose Divān, just like memory, allows infinite readings. Images that evoke, images that suggest, the task of the poet, whose meaning is updated through the centuries because beneath the ghosts that haunt these images and which are alluded to in absentia everything we do not know can be identified.


[1] Setrag Manouukian, “Culture, Power and Poetry in Shiraz”, Isim Newsletter, 14, 2004, pp. 40-41.

[2] Octavio Paz, Los hijos del limo, Barcelona, Seix Barrral, 1974, p. 106.

[3] Domingo Ynduráin, “Introducción”, in San Juan de la Cruz, Poesía, Madrid, Cátedra, 1987, p. 25.

[4] Clara Janés, interview by the author of this article on 1st September 2014.

[5] María Rosa Menocal, The Arabic Role in Medieval Literary History, Yale University, 1987, p. IX.

[6] “Ribera had suggested that trovar may have come from the Arabic taraba mean to sing poetry”, Ibid, p. XI.