Forough Farrokhzad: mirror, thread and innovator

ECHO librarian Becka talks a little about the evolution of poetry in Iran and one of its most powerful 20th century voices

Forough Farrokhzad is known as one of the most talented, innovative and controversial poets of 20th century Iran. In a tremendously short period Farrokhzad changed poetry, even literature, in Iran forever. Farrokhzad, repressed and controlled by the society she was born into, fought back through her art. People listened and were entranced by a new, courageous literary voice that refused to be silenced.

In her poetry Farrokhzad took a traditional, revered form of expression (evocative of a golden age of Persian civilisation) and subverted the classical tropes within for more earthly concerns. Where the great skill of the classical poets had been in manipulating the complex structures and metres of poetry, using sophisticated literary technique to convey their message, Farrokhzad took this structure apart and spoke directly, unfiltered through pre-approved, accepted poetic form.


We can see this fusion of past and present in Farrokhzad’s poem ‘I pity the garden’. In the twelfth and thirteenth century patronage came from wealthy rulers. These same rulers manifested their wealth and power, but also piety, in constructing gardens out of symbolic elements that connected the earthly to the celestial. Every design aspect was related to the cosmos, to God in a way deeply intertwined with the mystic, or Sufi, aspects of Islam. Poets of the day, including Sa’adi (whom we have in the ECHO mobile library) used this connection of nature and the garden to the divine in their poetry. Sa’adi’s two most famous works are even called ‘Bustan’ (orchard) and ‘Golestan’ (rose garden).

The poetry of this age reflected a strong sense of hierarchy and place, not just for the divine, but also for society in general. In Farrokhzad’s time, that rigid societal structure was coming apart. In ‘I pity the garden’ Farrokhzad speaks of a polluted, dying space and how different members of her family react to it. Every part of the garden is neglected, from the dead fish, ‘rotting beneath the sick skin of shallow water,’ in the pool, to the parched flowers. That liminal space between the earthly and the divine, that microcosm of the earth, is sick. Whilst the poem can be read as social critique of Farrokhzad’s time, it can also be understood more widely as depicting a shattered connection between humans and nature and the resulting climate breakdown that we are witnessing now. It is a garden afflicted by drought, ‘it’s mind drains slowly of its lush memories.’


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The imagery that Farrokhzad uses is present in a completely different form in classical literature. For example, the famous taverns of Hafez and Rumi, where poets would be drunk on the love of the divine are re-imagined instead as places of oblivion. The character of the brother in the poem, ‘carries his despair everywhere, just as he carries his birth certificate,’ and yet, ‘his despair is so small that each night it is lost in crowded taverns.’ This fusion of classical and contemporary forged a new role for poetry; no longer limited to pleasing sultans and wealthy patrons the new patron of poetry was ordinary people.


Some still use the fact that Farrokhzad spoke from a personal and clearly female perspective to undermine her literary achievements. I remember being told authoritatively (by a man) that it was her brother who had introduced Farrokhzad to most of the ideas that had inspired her writing, as if somehow her poetry were guided, governed by men. In translation, Sholeh Wolpe was the first woman to translate Farrokhzad’s works, and it was revealing what had been left out, consciously or otherwise, by previous male translators.

In Iran, Farrokhzad’s poems were banned for many years due to their sensuality. Pouran Farrokhzad, Forough’s sister, speaks in an interview about the reaction to Forough’s emerging poetic voice as ‘fear born of weakness’. Forough’s words, unapologetically from the female perspective are raw, sincere. They shattered not only the poetic conventions of the time but also taboos about what could and could not be spoken of in contemporary Iranian society. Her voice challenged so much of the established world of patriarchy, religion and hegemonic male control and gives us a glimpse into the huge pressures women were placed under at the time.

Just like Hafez, Farrokhzad’s favourite poet, Farrokhzad succeeds in exploring so much in so few lines: mysticism, multiplicity of meanings, love, struggle, the search for meaning in a changing world. Pouran said of that era in Iran and her sister’s role within it that, ‘it is always under the most pressure that growth takes place.’ We can dare to hope that, because of her poetry, the garden of Farrokhzad’s imagining is not beyond saving.

Forough Farrokhzad was born in Tehran in 1935 the third of seven children. She was married at sixteen, had her first child at 17, only to lost custody of him when she and her husband divorced when she was 20. Shortly afterwards in 1954 she released her first volume of poetry ‘The Captive.’ In 1958 she travelled to Europe and in 1962 she released her film ‘The House is Black’ about people afflicted with leprosy living in marginalised communities in Iran. It won much international critical acclaim. She also continued to write her poetry.

 In 1967, to avoid hitting a schoolbus, Farrokhzad swerved her car into a wall. She died before reaching hospital, aged 32.

To watch a trailer from ‘The House is Black’ on youtube click here


I pity the garden

No one thinks of the flowers.
No one thinks of the fish.
No one wants to believe the garden is dying,
that its heart has swollen in the heat
of this sun, that its mind drains slowly
of its lush memories.

Our garden is forlorn.
It yawns waiting
for rain from a stray cloud
and our pond sits empty,
callow stars bite the dust
from atop tall trees
and from the pale home of the fish
comes the hack of coughing every night.

Our garden is forlorn.

Father says: My time is past
my time is past,
I’ve carried my burden
I’m done with my work.
He stays in his room from dawn to dusk
reads History of Histories or Ferdowsi’s Epic of Kings.

Father says to Mother:
Damn every fish and every bird!
When I’m dead, what will it matter
if the garden lives or dies.
My pension
is all that counts.

Mother’s life is a rolled out prayer rug.
She lives in terror of hell, always seeks
Sin’s footprints in every corner,
imagines the garden sullied
by the sin of a wayward plant.

Mother is a sinner by nature. She prays
all day, then with her “consecrated” breath
blows on all the flowers, all the fish
and all over her own body.
She awaits the Promised One and
the forgiveness He is to bring.

My brother calls the garden a graveyard.
He laughs at the plight of the grass
and ruthlessly counts the corpses of the fish
rotting beneath the sick skin of shallow water.
My brother is addicted to philosophy
he sees the healing of the garden in its death.
Drunk, he beats his fists on doors and walls
says he is tired, pained and despondent.
He carries his despair everywhere,
just as he carries his birth certificate
diary, napkin, lighter and pen.

But his despair is so small
that each night it is lost
in crowded taverns.

My sister was a friend to flowers.
She would take her simple heart’s words
—when Mother beat her—
to their kind and silent gathering
and sometimes she would treat the family
of fish to sunshine and cake crumbs.

She now lives on the other side of town
in her artificial home
and in the arms of her artificial husband
she makes natural children.
Each time she visits us, if her skirt is sullied
with the poverty of our garden
she bathes herself in perfume.
Every time she visits she is with child.

Our garden is forlorn
Our garden is forlorn

All day from behind the door
come sounds of cuts and tears
sounds of blasts.
Our neighbors plant bombs and machine guns,
instead of flowers, in their garden soil.
They cover their ponds, hiding bags of gunpowder.

The school children fill their backpacks
with tiny bombs.

Our garden is dizzy.

I fear the age that has lost its heart,
the idleness of so many hands
the alienation in so many faces.

I am like a schoolchild madly
in love with her geometry books.
I am forlorn
and imagine it is possible to take the garden to a hospital.
I imagine I imagine
And the garden’s heart has swollen in the heat
of this sun, its mind slowly drains of its lush memories.

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