Fatemeh Shams, A Revolution in Rhyme: Poetic Co-Option Under the Islamic Republic (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2021).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book? 

Fatemeh Shams (FS): This book grew out of both my personal experience, as a poet growing up in Iran, and my academic life in the United Kingdom and the United States, as a student and now professor of Persian literature. It began as my doctoral dissertation at the University of Oxford. The relationship between literature and politics has a long history of scholarship in the West—I was inspired by studies of Soviet writing, for example—but I was surprised to discover that very little had been explored about the role that literature, particularly poetry, played (and still plays) in the Islamic Republic.

As a practicing poet, born and raised in Iran, the ideological cooption of literature was a phenomenon with which I was deeply familiar. I discovered so many lacunae in existing scholarship, not just in terms of analysis of the regime in post-revolutionary Iran, but beyond that, too—the layered complexities of literary patronage, which underpins the Persian poetic tradition. And so my passion for writing this book was stirred.

Although it remains very much an objective, academic text, my understanding and insights could be infused with my first-hand experience of the official literary narrative of Iran, from my early exposure to poetry in school textbooks, to watching official televised poetry nights hosted by the leader (himself a poet), discovering banned books, and hearing accounts of life before the revolution and the poetry that was used as propaganda in the past.

All of this led me, even at a young age, to fixate on one crucial question: why and how have only some poets made their way onto school curriculums, poetry festivals and national broadcasts, while others (of a much higher caliber) have been rendered invisible? No answers came back. This silence is what drove me to write this book.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

JS: Attempting to produce a scholarly enquiry into a subject for the first time brings its challenges. There is so much that needs to be said about the evolution of modern Persian literature and its relationship with politics and power, that it took time to decide where to begin and what to leave out. As the title suggests, the 1979 revolution is the central pivot for the topics and issues I chose to explore, embedded within the context of a malleable timeline that is essential for demonstrating how the present has been shaped by the past.

As with any new area of study, terms and nomenclature have to be explained and defined. What do we mean by “official literature” and “official poets”? How can the official canon be explored and recalibrated in a more representative and useful way? After opening the lid on this so-far closed subject, I was keen to express the nuance and mutability of the poets and poetry in the canon—that there was conformity, but also resistance; continuity, but also rupture—and that the state itself has been riddled with political turbulence and U-turns. The chapters in the book chart the surge of revolutionary tides; the establishment of the new ideology; the Iran-Iraq War (a crucial turning point for official poetry); the death of Khomeini; and the subsequent conflicts within both literary and political circles.

From a literary perspective, the book offers a comprehensive overview of the tenets and traditions of Persian literature, from classical forms and themes through to patronage, publication, and performance. I selected ten major poets from the official canon and mapped their creative and personal journeys, before and after the revolution, to illustrate the shifts and schisms in both power structures and verse. I chose to open and then end the book with two contrasting contemporary odes (qasideh) by two poets of conflicting ideological backgrounds and fates, to show the enduring relevance of classical poetic forms in modern Iran.

The issues examined in the book place the Islamic Republic alongside China, Soviet Russia, and other authoritarian states as an important example of “thought management” and “linguistic engineering,” worthy of scholarly attention. Within that, however, there are many fascinating layers of friction and division, with respect to the ideological commitment and individual styles of each poet. It is more accurate, therefore, to position them on a spectrum, with those closest to the seat of power at one end and those who sometimes question or subvert the hegemony at the other. 

Overall, the book seeks to demonstrate that poetry was not a reactionary by-product of the revolution; the revolution itself was driven, and won, through poetry. The way that poetry is so deeply entrenched in the Persian psyche—how pernicious and present it is in ordinary life—has allowed it to continue to be a crucial state tool and edifying political force.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

FS: The book is, in a way, the product of ten years immersed—both academically and creatively—in exploring the relationship between literature and power. As a poet in Iran, I was always interested in this observation that power dynamics shape and transform the literary field and vice versa and I wanted to explore this relationship between literature and politics, poetry and power, poetry and society, which for decades had shaped my personal and professional career. Literature and politics are so deeply intertwined in today’s Iran that thinking or writing about one, without thinking about the other, is almost impossible. My research prior to writing this book has been centered around the question of cultural control and its impact on the literary field—so, similar themes and questions as this book, but pushed into other directions. 

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

FS: The book is written primarily for an academic audience: students and scholars of literature and modern Iran with an interest in literature, politics, and cultural studies. It presents a multidisciplinary approach to tackling the intersection of literature and politics—sociology, history, and political science alongside literary theory—which allows readers’ interests to go beyond pure literary criticism. My hope is that anyone with a general knowledge or interest in Iran, poetry, and the socio-political and literary developments of the past four decades may benefit from this work. As the first book of its kind, I also hope that it inspires other academics, researchers, and journalists to enrich this area of study with their own work and explorations. Thus I hope it to be a foundational book that provides new ground and opens up the topic for broader enquiry and discussion.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

FS: I am currently working on my second book, which has grown quite organically out of this one. As I said before, I had to decide how to delineate this first book, and I chose to focus on the official poetry scene with little reference to writers who turned against the state. In this second book, we move into the murkier margins of literary production in the Islamic Republic to explore precarious and exilic modes of writing. I want to explore the ways in which censored, marginalized, imprisoned, and exiled poets have written about the space and liminality of their existence over time. What modes of writing have “non-official” and “non-conformist” poets used to tackle the reality of their life? How do factors such as gender, sexuality, religion, ethnicity, and language (mother tongue versus the official lexicon) play in this poetic liminality? I will be spending fourteen months in Berlin as a Humboldt scholar (May 2021 to July 2022) to embark on this new project. I am currently collecting and translating Persian prison poems of the past and present to further investigate exilic and precarious modes of writing in the tradition.


Excerpt from the book (from Introduction, pp. 8-9, 14-15)

While the appetite for poetry in many modern cultures has dwindled into antiquity, poetry remains at the core of Iranian life and governance. The people of Iran encounter poetry every day—in newspapers, classrooms, religious sermons, political broadcasts, advertising billboards, television and radio, as well as in the home. Poetry is so embedded within Iran’s ruling structures and political thought that it has become almost impossible to separate it from the rhetoric of power over the past four decades. Both leaders of the Islamic Republic, Ruhollah Khomeini and Ali Khamenei, are poets in their own right. Much is yet to be written about the influence of poetry on the romanticization of political thought in Iran, as has been explored in other cultures such as Soviet Russia, Franco’s Spain, Castro’s Cuba or Italy under Mussolini, where the role of the “poet-tyrant” has been critically investigated. The intersection of poetry and politics in the Islamic Republic can be quickly and pragmatically evidenced, however, by a glance at the directory of state-sponsored literary institutions, the presence of an elegy-making industry (sanʿat-e nowheh-khāni), indoctrination programs in schools and universities, and the leader’s annual poetry ceremonies, broadcast live across the nation. Why does poetry, one might wonder, remain at the heart of everyday life for Iranians?

[…] The use of language and literature to legitimize authoritarian control throughout history in regimes around the world is, of course, nothing new. Neither is the notion of state-sponsored literature; plenty of studies have been written about this concept in other settings. Existing definitions of the term “official literature” position it as a literary trend within modern authoritarian societies. The literary critic Dominic Thomas describes official literature as a genre “which is inseparable from the course of the state and the imperatives of ideological utility.” Moreover, in studies of literature and ideology in China, for example, scholars use terms such as “thought management” and “linguistic engineering” to reference “the activities geared toward making people’s thinking conform to the dominant ideology to describe government efforts…” Dariusz Tolczyk’s important study of Soviet literature, for instance, presents constructions of the camp experience in official Soviet literature to show how “Soviet camp literature as a series of efforts inspired by Soviet ideology” could “challenge, redesign and control moral perceptions of the camps by the Soviet public. Applying the label “official poetry” to the Islamic Republican context makes it possible for the genre to exist in its broadest and most utilitarian form, avoiding such misleading and restrictive classifications as “Islamist poetry” (sheʿr-e Islāmgarā), “Islamic poetry” (sheʿr-e Islāmi), or “revolutionary poetry” (sheʿr-e enqelābi), each of which brings its own set of subtexts and all of which suffer from flawed and oftentimes misleading conceptualization of religion.

[…] From Chapter 3 (pp. 124-125)

“Sideways” is a fitting description of the dissemination of pastoral motifs in Islamic Republican poetry, which radiate out laterally to the provinces from Tehran. From the outset, Khomeini sought to awaken a rural revolutionary spirit, with charismatic rhetoric about empowering the dispossessed and the poor of the rural and urban contexts, at a time when a large number of the country’s population lived in rural areas. The “rural” (rūstāyi) and “downtrodden” (mostazʿaf) often appeared in Khomeini’s revolutionary rhetoric for regime change, leveraged by his religious sentiments of authenticity and social equality in order to undermine the Shah’s monarchic aristocracy; agriculture and farming were in fact rebranded as sacred duties. After the revolution, it was the rural world that reaped a substantial reward; as the political economist Djavad Salehi-Isfahani states, “improvements in the quality of life in rural areas have been particularly impressive, potentially removing an important source of overall inequality.” He observes that “addressing the poor as the inspiration for the revolution greatly helped rural Iranians begin to feel like real citizens.”

[…] From Chapter 4 (pp. 183, 200-201, 214)

To achieve effective, widespread dissemination of this Shiʿite militant ideology, appropriate poetic forms had to be deployed to win the hearts and minds of the Iranian public. As one of the oldest folkloric poetic forms in the Persian tradition, the eulogy (nowheh) gained currency in the wake of the war as a way to venerate dead soldiers. Many of these eulogies were mass produced and distributed through official TV and radio channels, particularly in war documentaries made by the Howzeh. For many Iranians who lived through the war, the tortured voice of a man called Haj Sadegh Ahangaran (b. 1957) is a vivid reminder of the collective trauma of war. Although not part of the canon of Islamic Republican poets, Ahangaran’s voice played a key role in the canonization of a significant number of official war poems, propagating the Shiʿite militant poetic discourse…

[…] In a documentary interview about the production of “war music,” musician Hosein Alizadeh (b. 1951) recalled his visit to the Front with another famous musician, Mohammad Reza Lotfi (d. 2014), describing the atmosphere as spiritual and transformative: “When we came back, we were no longer the same as before.” The mystic sentiments in war poems seemed inclusive enough to respond to an ideologically diverse range of attitudes toward the war. Even those who rejected the concept of “holy war” or Jihād, remained open to the mystical interpretation of martyrdom and produced songs which revered martyrs as “lovers” in the path of the “Divine Beloved.”… The resemblance between death and love lies in their sudden arrival with no anticipation. The well-grounded mystical metaphor of the truth-seekers as lovers that has been recurrently used in the works of Sanai, Attar and Mowlavi has been fully appropriated here in reference to the war veterans who have been killed in the field in order to reach salvation.

[…] Writing in the style of free verse allows the poet to pause for silence when necessary. The violent and brutally honest depiction of war scenes goes hand in hand with the freedom and flexibility of the form. The poem becomes as messy and chaotic as the war landscape, with lines of different lengths. The violence is, therefore, depicted organically rather than artificially, as it had been in previous iterations of tightly structured and mysticized portraits of violence. Here, the fragmented structure of the poem resembles the fragmented memory of a population traumatized by war. In his analysis of the war poem, entitled “The Assault,” by the British war poet Robert Nicholas (d. 1944), Howarth argues that “the free-verse lines and telegraphic syntax convey the white-hot urgency of the situation, without any attempt to steady the pace.” This formalistic observation also applies to Aminpur’s “A Poem for War,” where in the final lines of the second part and also in what follows in the third part of the poem, Aminpur succinctly conveys a sense of forced silence that is imposed on his “tied tongue” through the syntactic features of free verse…

[…] From Chapter 5 (p. 227)

The poem appears in stark contrast with the “poetic evocation” of mystic-militant discourse explored in the previous chapter and refuses to follow Žizek’s reading of Adorno’s famous statement about the barbarity of writing poetry after Auschwitz. Instead, Saffarzadeh seems in agreement with Adorno’s position, not just on the failed impact of poetry and language in the aftermath of human tragedy, but also in the anti-ekphrastic belief that “art does not recognize reality by reproducing it photographically, but by voicing that which is veiled by the empirical forms of reality.” Saffarzadeh’s sensory poem voices the bitter reality of war in the recklessness of the alphabet, which later in the poem becomes a contagious disease and attacks the body too:

This bruised bone

This pain in the bone

That is caused by enduring life with the unfaithful

Has crushed us down on this soil

You fly higher than any flight

You are the flight itself

[…] From Chapter 6 (p. 267)

The large number of neoclassical ghazals and other classical forms in the collection of 300 elegies written for Khomeini is surely not accidental. Khomeini’s preference for the ghazal as a poetic form was already a known fact to many poets. With direct borrowings from classical poets such as Hafez, Khomeini’s ghazals—not published until a year after his death—converged erotic longing with mystical themes. The presence of these ghazals indeed mirrors a paradox in the life of an individual who, at times, seemed to feel entirely at odds with his authoritative role as a revolutionary statesman.

[…] From Chapter 7 (p.301)

During the Nowruz of 1990, Khamenei called an official meeting of a small group of like-minded poets, including Hamid Sabzevari, Ali Moʿallem-Damghani, and Mehrdad Avesta. It was the beginning of a new direction for Islamic Republican poetry, sowing the seed that would grow to become the leader’s official annual poetry nights. At first, the number of poets in these official gatherings did not exceed forty. By the end of the 1990s, however, this intimate circle of poets grew larger, and the organization of the poetry nights became more complex. By 1998, it had evolved into an increasingly elaborate ceremony with Khamenei at its center. He launched a nationwide performative media platform, with the goal of promulgating the cultural and literary principles of the Islamic Republic, to repeatedly broadcast his official poetry night at a set time and location—an event that remains central to the state’s cultural calendar to this day. The explicit purpose of this ceremony, I will argue, has been to cement Khamenei’s authority over three realms—political, religious, and cultural—in order to hold on to his leadership of the Islamic Republic.