Ahmad Shamlou


The dawn and dusk of Ahmad Shamlou


“I prefer poetry to be a clarion
and not a lullaby.”[1]
-Ahmad Shamlou


Ahmad Shamlou, also known under pen-names of A. Sobh (A. Morning) and A. Bamdad (A. Dawn), is one of the most influential people in contemporary Persian literature, or perhaps, in Persian literature as a whole. His innovative free verse known as she’r-e sepid (white poem) revived Persian poetry, which had been constrained by the classic rules of Persian poetry for centuries, plays an important role in its transition to the modern era. His many followers and poets who are under influenced by his new poetic form are enough to prove his lasting presence in the literature of Iran. His borderless worldview has created international admiration, as well as a vast poetry-reading audience.

Above and beyond his revolutionary influence on poetry, Shamlou was a skillful and successful journalist, researcher, writer, translator, and critic. He did a great service to preserve the slang and colloquial culture of Iran in his series of research books Ketab-e Kuche (Street Book). He opened the gates of literature to the world to Persian speakers by his notable translations of writers and poets such as Octavio Paz, Langston Hughes, Federico Garcia Lorca, etc. By publishing a research book on haiku, the Japanese form of short poetry, he pioneered a new form of poetry known as Persian haiku. He was a prominent figure in journalism publishing several successful literary magazines and by participating with and writing for many other journals. He was also active in children’s literature; he wrote and translated some poems and stories for children. The most famous of them are Paria (Fairies), which is a long narrative poem, and the translation of The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. Shamlou’s other activities include producing and directing films, dubbing and narrating, as well as writing plays and screenplays.

Let us now look together at an abstract of the life, works, and achievements of Ahmad Shamlou as one of the most notable figures in Persian literature. We believe it is beneficial for students of English literature to have knowledge about the literature of different countries because we believe literature is borderless; especially when it comes to English literature since English is the major international language of communication, study, and research. Certainly, for Iranian English literature students, it is a necessity to have knowledge about the literature of Iran. The connections made by such studies help to open the paths to a deeper understanding of literature and humanity on a personal and global level.

Ahmad Shamlou

Childhood and Youth

Ahmad Shamlou was born on December 12, 1925,[2] in Tehran. He was the only son of a rather impoverished family. His father was an army officer, and his mother was a housewife. Because of his father’s occupation, he had to serve in remote places of the country; therefore, they constantly had to migrate from one city to another. Thus, Shamlou’s childhood was spent in different remote cities of Iran. As he said in a brief autobiography of his childhood[3], they never lived long enough in a certain city so that he could find a real close friend. This may have had a negative influence on him as a child, but on the other hand, living in various provinces of Iran where people spoke different dialects and had distinct cultures and traditions, may have opened his mind to different cultures and initiated his research on Iranian folklore, which he began later in life.

He was a studious student until he was acquainted with music; since then he had to be pushed to study. He found a great taste in music after he heard his affluent neighbor’s daughters practicing the piano. Since his family was too poor to afford a music instrument, and the fact that music, especially western music, was very unfamiliar to the people of the cities where he lived, he could never study music. But, as he wrote in his autobiography, his passion for music was so strong that he would have definitely followed music if it had not been for his family’s issues (always having to move from one city to another, not having a good financial status, living in remote small cities, and not having the freedom to decide for himself) and living in a society that did not approve of playing and learning music.[4]

“Without a doubt even today the repressed obsession for music resides in me. As I believed (and perhaps I still do), the dance-like patterns on [Iranian] carpets imply the enthusiasm for dance and music over which the [Islamic] traditions have put a No-Entrance sign.”[5]

Perhaps this passion and this repressed enthusiasm for music is revealed in his poems later on and made him look for music within the words in poetry.

Later, when his grandfather came to live with Ahmad Shamlou’s family, he found an alternative to quench his thirst for music, and that was his grandfather’s library, which he brought along with himself. He began writing his own childish writings at the outset of this important event. Sometimes his compositions were admired by his teachers at school, but usually, he was punished (beaten) by his principal for writing “gibberish” instead of studying.

Learning French and German at high school opened a vast domain of literature to him. At the same time, reading Iranian newspapers and literary periodicals acquainted him with modern Persian poetry, which was in its infancy.  It was during this period that he started writing his early poems.

The time of Shamlou’s adolescence coincided with World War II, and the Allied invasion of Iran in the summer of 1941. Like the majority of Iranians, Ahmad Shamlou despised the Allied troops who occupied his country. Therefore, he joined a group of young people who sabotaged Soviet troops. But he was captured and sent to a Soviet POW camp in the north of Iran and was imprisoned for more than a year. While he was in prison he realized that he had made a childish mistake and did not belong there[6]. This event of imprisonment at the rather young age of 17 or 18 seems to have been a turning point in his life. After he was released, he did not go back to school, and he never received a formal academic education during his life following this traumatic event.

Early Adulthood and Early Works

After his release from prison and withdrawal from school, he settled in Tehran and found a job in a bookstore[7]. One year later, in 1947, he was married for the first time (this marriage did not last longer than ten years, and he had another unsuccessful marriage afterwards, until he was married for the third time to Ayda Sarkisian in 1964, with whom he lived for the rest of his life); his 4 children are all the result of this marriage. In the same year, he published his first book of poetry Ahangha-ye Faramoush-Shode (Forgotten Songs) under the pen name A. Morning. This volume included some classic and modern poems as well as some prose poems.

Forgotten Songs contained Shamlou’s earliest poems, and perhaps nobody expected this collection to be among his best works; but nonetheless, for some reasons Shamlou himself was so critical about it to the extent that later on he called the poems in this book “a bunch of naïve, sentimental, and worthless poems” and considered their publication “a childish error” and was “ashamed” of them to the extent that he did not put this collection in his bibliography.[8]

Modern Poetry and Nima Youshij

By the time Shamlou published his first poetry book, Ali Esfandiary (commonly recognized under the pen name of Nima Youshij) who is considered to be the “father of modern Persian poetry”[9] had published his manifestation of she’re no (new poetry). He introduced a new form of poetry that broke the traditional rules of Persian poetry which had been remained more or less untouched for centuries. Traditionally Persian poems had been limited by fixed metric schemes and fixed patterns for the placement of end rhymes, as well as some other strict rules that further defined the physical structure, themes, and subjects of a poem. But what Nima Youshij did was to break down the traditional form and physical structure of classic Persian poems and to scatter the end rhymes on different long and short lines, as well as expanding the domain of the subjects of his poems to issues and things that never before were thought to be used in poetry. But he is wrongly considered to be the father of Persian ‘free verse’ by some people, because he did not put aside the traditional regular metric schemes and end rhymes, and he did, in fact, use an especial rhythm in his poems as a necessity, and therefore his poems were not totally ‘free’. Later this style of poetry he pioneered received the title she’r-e Nimayi (Nimaic poetry), and the term she’r-e no was used to refer to any kind of modern Persian poem as opposed to the classic ones.

From left to right: Morteza Keivan, Ahmad Shamlou, Nima Youshij, Siavash Kasraei, Houshang Ebtehaj.
From left to right: Morteza Keivan, Ahmad Shamlou, Nima Youshij, Siavash Kasraei, Houshang Ebtehaj.

White Poem

Not long after the publication of The Forgotten Songs, Shamlou met Nima Youshij and mastered Nimaic in his presence, and wrote some poems in this form. It was not until after he became familiar with western free verse that he wrote his “own poems”[10]. In the year 1951 he published his second collection of poetry named Ghat’nameh (Manifesto) which was different from his previous book in the sense that he used a new poetic form that not many poets before him had used (those who had, were not very successful at it), and there was a shift in his thoughts and worldview. This volume containing four poems: the first one titled She’r-e Sefid-e Ghofran (White Poem of Absolution), which later was renamed to Ta Shokufe-ye Sorkh-e Yek Pirahan (Up to a Crimson Blossom on a Shirt), was an ‘absolution’ from his previous book, and a manifestation of his new form of poetry, white poem, as well as a statement of a dramatic change in his ideology and worldview. These lines are from that volume:

I killed him
_my own self;
And in his forgotten songs wrapped,
I buried him
Under the ground
Of my memories.

This form of poetry was different from Nimaic form in the sense that it did not contain a regular meter and rhythm, and rhyming words were not used as an obligation (although Shamlou did sometimes use rhymes in different places of his poems for different reasons), the lines had varied lengths; some were as short as a word and some were long enough to contain complete sentences. Other than changes in the physical structure, the subjects of Shamlou’s white poems did not have any limitation, whereas Nima Youshij’s poems usually had some sort of mystic themes. In sum, Shamlou’s white poem was more similar to the western concept of free verse, and thus they may be considered equivalent.  We may understand why Shamlou chose the word white to refer to this form of poetry by listening to his explanation:  “[…] and we have called the other one [free verse form] white poem because (if you like) it is clear of any adulteration; the adulteration of rhythm, rhyme, and so on and so forth.”[11]

Although Ghat’nameh was a step forward in Shamlou’s poetic style, it had not yet achieved its full maturity and development, and as Mr. Mohammad-Taghi Javaheri (aka Shams Langroudi) claimed in his Analytical History of Modern Persian Poetry: “If Ghat’nameh was written by any poet other than today Shamlou, without a doubt nobody would have even recognized its title.”[12]

Marginal Modern Poetry

Despite Shamlou’s groundbreaking white poems, he cannot be considered the first person to write free verse poetry in the Persian language. Mr. Esmaeil Nouri-a’la in his book, The Theory of Poetry, explains that prior to Ahmad Shamlou, poets such as Mohammad Moghaddam, who was an Iranian scholar who had traveled and studied in the United States and was familiar with western modern poetry, was the first person to write free verse poems in Persian[13]. Esmaeil Nouri-a’la classified Mohammad Moghaddam alongside with other poets who wrote similar poems during or before the time Nima Youshij was manifesting his new poetry, and the younger poets such as Houshang Irani, who was active during 1950s, in a group that he called “marginal modern poetry”[14], because they never received the attention that Nima Youshij and Ahmad Shamlou did, and they were almost forgotten after a few years.

Different reasons have been proposed for why these people did not become as famous as Ahmad Shamlou and Nima Youshij: Their works were generally naïve and lacked aesthetic elements despite the fact that they pushed aside prosody and rhymes in their poems, they did not contemplate on the essence of poetry, which seems to be a fundamental element in the modern poetry that lacks poetic meter, and they did not propose any alternative to make their poems distinct from prose[15]; they wrote poems leisurely and they did not pursue this form of poetry seriously and perseveringly[16]. Another theory is that the transition from classicism to modernism in Persian poetry needed to pass through Nima Youshij’s Nimaic poems to be accepted by the majority of readers, and therefore the grounds for acceptance of such poems was not yet established[17].

The reason for Persian free verse being tied to Shamlou’s name, and his being recognized as the pioneer of this form of poetry, is because of his perseverance and determination in developing this form of poetry that  preceding poets such as Mohammad Moghaddam, Golchin Gilani, Fereidoun Tavalloli, Sheen Parto, and etc. who wrote some prose poems and non-rhythmic poems had pioneered; and that he was not deterred to write white poems despite receiving discouraging feedbacks from poetic societies, and continued doing this until it gradually become a recognized poetic form in Persian literature.[18]

Journalism and Social Activism

While working on his poetry books, Shamlou was active as a journalist, social activist, and translator. He translated some short stories, which were published in literary periodicals. His first position at a journal was in 1946 when he became the editor in chief of Adib, a weekly literary journal. Afterwards, he became the managing editor of different literary and art periodicals such as Sokhan-e No and Khandaniha between the years 1948-1951. In 1952 he became the managing editor of Atashbar newspaper, which was an Anti-Imperialist leftist journal. During this time he became a member of the Tude party, a very popular leftist political party. Subsequently, wrote his most political poems, such as a long poem named 23, written in the memory of the protesters who were shot by the guards in an anti-imperialist rally on July 14th (Tir 23rd) 1951 in Tehran[19].  But on 1953, during the time of the military coup d’état of the Shah against Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh, when the imperial government of Iran felt this party was becoming too powerful, they began prosecuting its members. As a result of Shamlou’s activity in this newspaper, he was also prosecuted, captured, and imprisoned for more than a year. Concurrently, he was printing his new poetry collection Ahanha va Ehsas (Irons and Sentiments), but the police destroyed all the printed copies of his book in the print office, as well as all of his notes and unpublished works at his home. Among those notes were the sketches of Street Book on which he had been working for months. Five out of eight poems in Irons and Sentiments appeared in Shamlou’s next poetry collection Hava-ye Tazeh (The Fresh Air)[20], but the book was never republished (the remaining 3 poems of Irons and Sentiments, which were not republished in Shamlou’s later works appeared in his posthumous Complete Works).

During the time of his imprisonment, he witnessed the top leaders of his party betraying those lower rank members who were imprisoned and tortured by the police. He realized this party was not honest with their vows and slogans and began despising them.[21] After his release, he never participated in the party again, but the label of his leftist activities remained on him for the rest of his life and was sometimes used against him by his foes.

He wrote many poems and stories during the time of his imprisonment, most of them were destroyed after the guards searched his cell, but some he managed to save were later published in his later books such as Hava-ye Tazeh.

After his release from prison, he went back to his work as a journalist, always being monitored by the police. On the whole, there was more surveillance on the media and publishing books and journals after the coup. As a result, Shamlou had to be careful about everything he wrote. He always had to change the names or remove some parts of his works he thought might be detected as inappropriate by the regime. But despite this self-censorship, his works were often once again censored by the government, and sometimes they did not receive permission to publish at all.

Ahmad Shamlou

Publication of The Fresh Air

In the year 1957, he published The Fresh Air which made him more acknowledged in Iran. This collection which included 75 poems ranging from classic rhythmic poems to Nimaic and finally to free verse form, with most of them being in free verse, was innovative in many aspects; for example, one of the poems of this collection, Paria (The Fairies) _which was one of the poems he wrote during his imprisonment, was a long allegorical narrative poem originally written for children, and used a simple and childish language, but deep inside it had a social theme, and hopes and sorrows of a nation who longed for freedom. Such a poem was completely new in Persian literature, and it is still considered to be one of Shamlou’s most read and most inspiring poems.

As he became more famous, he attracted more critics too. Surprisingly one of his most important critics was Nima Youshij, a pioneer of modern poetry in Iran. Shamlou believed that: “Paying attention to the music and the sounds of words, and as a result to the rhythm and rhymes stops the mind from discovering and observing, tightens the natural flow of the poem, and diverts it from what it must achieve… I believe in silent poetry; a kind of poem which flows out of a poetic mind. Although, once the poem comes on the paper, one can trim and burnish it.”[22] In response to Shamlou’s claims, Nima Youshij proposed that it is not a demerit of a poet to limit his thoughts through using prosody, and the readers of a poem do not prefer to read a poem that has no rhythm: “Rhythm is the sound of our feelings and thoughts. People will feel closer to us through sounds.”[23] Some others claimed that what Shamlou wrote was not poetry, but prose. Shamlou had an answer ready for them: “I have found poetry and I do not want the prosody and rhymes to ruin its purity.”[24]

His unconventional style of poetry might have faced controversy at first, but gradually it became appealing to his contemporaries and the younger generations. Today she’r-e sepid is regarded as an established form of poetry in Persian literature and the most popular among the poets and readers of poetry. In fact, its effect on modern literature of Iran was so phenomenal that Mr. Niaz Yaghub-shahi, a critic and essayist, called Shamlou’s white poem “a revolution within a revolution” in his review of Shamlou’s style:

“If we call the great work of Nima a revolution in the Persian language, thus the great work of Shamlou would be called a revolution within a revolution. He [Shamlou] put aside the Nimaic rhythm, rhymes, and prosody very early, and without any barrier of this kind which pours the thoughts of the poets in a premade frame and form _and therefore what is produced is not exactly what the poets desired_ used the entire potential and capabilities of Persian language to express his thoughts.”[25]

After The Fresh Air, until the revolution of 1979, Shamlou published 10 more volumes of poetry. He continued his other activities, such as translating different stories and novels, writing poems and stories for children, writing essays on the Persian language, and collaborating with literary journals.

Founding Literary Journals

Shamlou was very much interested in publishing journals and had a lot of experience in writing for different journals and working as an editor-in-chief and managing editor at some of them. He always wished to found and publish a journal which was more to his preference. In 1958 he finally printed his own journal named Ashena; in the introduction of the first issue he wrote:

“It has been many years that I have been thinking about establishing a large and serious art magazine which would be published seasonally; 4 issues each year. Making such a magazine needs adequate funding, especially in the form of donations. The aim of Ashena is to produce this fund. And for making this fund, your support is more effective than anything else.”[26]

But in order to gain more audience, he abandoned it after a few issues were printed and joined Etela’at-e Mahane, which was a renowned monthly magazine. He could not work there long and was forced to quit after publishing only 2 issues because he had some disagreements with the authorities regarding the magazine.

One year later, in 1961 in collaboration with Mohsen Hashtroudi and financed by Kayhan newspaper he founded Ketab-e Hafte. He was not the proprietor of this magazine, but he was its first managing editor and its main theorist. Ketab-e Hafte was not just a literary journal; it published articles on a variety of subjects including arts, science, socials issues, and entertainment. Every once in a while a section of this journal under the title of Street Book was given to Shamlou’s folklore researches, which were, for the first time, being published. They tried to include a combination of articles on various subjects that would make a vast range of audiences interested, rather than focusing on serious and specialized literary or artistic subjects. Perhaps, that was the reason behind its exceptional success in attracting many readers. Ketab-e Hafte, under Shamlou’s management, is considered to be a great achievement in the history of journalism in Iran: During the rather short time that Shamlou worked with Ketab-e Hafte, the circulation of this journal reached twenty-four thousand copies for each issue.[27] This circulation figure was a record for journals with literary subjects, and it is still considered to be very hard to reach such figures in Iran even after more than half a century, despite the population of the country increasing by 3 times and the literacy rate increasing substantially since 1961. Although Shamlou was very successful at Ketab-e Hafte, he quit his position after printing 24 issues. The reason for this is not totally clear, but it seems to have been due to his having some disagreements with its proprietor, Mr. Hashtroudi. After he left Ketab-e hafte, his successors could not maintain its quality and circulation figures, and it was abandoned in 1963.

In 1966, in collaboration with a friend of his, he founded his second journal named Baru. But after printing only three issues they had to close it down due to receiving an ultimatum from the government. After that, he became the managing editor of Khushe literary journal. It was a more serious and specialized journal compared to Ketab-e Hafte. He was successful at that magazine too and worked there for 2 years until it was again closed down by the government. He did not try again to publish another journal until after the revolution of 1979 when he published Ketab-e Jom’e, although during this time he worked and participated in different journals.

Ahmad Shamlou

Collaboration with the Cinema and the Media

Shamlou’s first experience in filmmaking was in 1959 when he made a documentary about the climate and the people of Sistan-Baluchestan province in the southeast of Iran. Thereafter, during the 60s and 70s he wrote several screenplays and dialogues for popular genre films (also known as Film Farsi) which were not considered valuable from an artistic point of view, but financially speaking, they were very profitable and he could write one of them in a matter of days. He was not proud of these screenplays at all, and he did not want any credit for these films, and he always demanded the producers of the films not to include his names in the credit lists of these films[28]. In an interview he said, “My collaboration with the cinema was a sort of breadwinning through writing, indeed writing for money”[29]. Shamlou also participated in cinema as a narrator, as well as directing a film, Dagh-e Nang (The Brand of Shame) in 1965 (which was not a successful film from both artistic and financial points of view), and also acting in minor parts in a few others.

Gradually, by the mid-1970s he stopped writing for filmmakers, seemingly because he was busy with his other activities and as he had become a renowned poet and writer, he did not want to have the brand of shame of writing cheap screenplays anymore. Only after the revolution of 1979 did he write another screenplay named Miras, which seemingly was a serious one as it was planned to be filmed by a renowned Iranian director Masoud Kimiayi. Unfortunately, it did not receive the filming license from The Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance.

During the 60s and 70s some Iranian filmmakers preferred to work with the national television or governmental institutions rather than producing films for the cinema; and that was because the production of Iranian cinema in this era was predominately popular films for the common people _who constituted the majority of moviegoers_ which lacked aesthetic elements, and were made for the sake of gaining profit (with the exception of a few artistic films that were made sporadically). It was during this time that Shamlou made some documentaries about Iranian folklore and the customs and ritual of people from different provinces of Iran for the national television in the late 60s. He also dubbed and narrated TV programs, produced radio programs for children, and narrated poems by renowned classic Persian poets such as Hafez and Khayyam on LP discs and cassettes, during the 60s and 70s.

Speeches, Conferences, and Academic Activities

Gradually, as more and more of his works were published, Shamlou grew more prominent and renowned as a man of letters among both scholars and readers of literature. Beginning from the middle of the 1960s, he was invited to several poetry gatherings and conferences by different societies and universities in different cities of Iran. One of these conferences was at Babolsar College of Economics and Social Sciences, which is now known as the University of Mazandaran.

In 1965, for the third time, he began compiling his Street Book from square one. He had lost all of his sketches and notes once in a police raid to his home in 1953, and the second time, he left them alongside with many other unfinished works to his second wife when they divorced. In 1971 he was invited by the Academy of Persian Language and was given financial aid and the equipment available at the academy to continue his research for this book.

In 1967 he, alongside with a group of recognized men and women of letters, founded Iranian Writers Association, to fight against the censorship of the former regime of Iran, and to defend the freedom of speech for authors. Despite this association being almost always monitored by both the former and the current regimes, which led to its suspension and prosecution of its members (by both regimes), Ahmad Shamlou remained as a fixed member of this association until his death.

In 1972 he was given the Forough Farrokhzad Literary Prize for the best poet of the year. This festival was held for the second year to honor Forough Farrokhzad, the female Iranian modern poet who had died in 1967.

In 1973, he was given a chair at Aryamehr University of Technology (currently known as Sharif University of Technology: SUT) to teach Laboratory Studies of Persian Language[30]; he taught this course for 3 semesters. In 1976 he was invited by Bu-Ali Sina University in the city of Hamadan to supervise its research center. By this time he was known beyond the borders of Iran; and in 1977, invited by the Penn Club of New York and Princeton University to give speeches and read his poems he took a trip to the United States. While he was in America, he also attended San Francisco International Poetry Festival, and he met some notable international poets there. He also gave speeches and participated in poetry gatherings and conferences at different universities in America, such as Massachusetts Institute of Technology: MIT, and University of California, Berkeley.

Ahmad Shamlou

Years of Revolution

Shamlou returned to Tehran in the same year, but in less than a year after that, in protest against the policies of the former regime, and the lack of freedom of speech, he gave up his chair at Bu-Ali Sina University and departed Iran again. He traveled back to America and stayed there for a year. In 1978, he traveled to London, invited to become the managing editor of Iranshahr, a weekly journal in Persian published in the United Kingdom. He was hoping to create an atmosphere in which Iranian intellectuals could express their views on the situation in Iran at the time. Meanwhile, the tension inside Iran was rising, and it seemed to be too late for intellectual debates in journals. He left after 3 months of working with Iranshahr because of having disagreements with the owner of the magazine. In a few months after that, as soon as the revolution of February 1979 took place, he returned back to Iran.

The first literary activity Ahmad Shamlou did after the revolution was to found Ketab-e Jom’e, a literary, social, and scientific weekly journal, with hopes of fighting with extremism and chaos that was tearing the country apart at the time. In the introduction of the first issue he wrote:

“Dark days are ahead of us… This age will inevitably not last… But our generation and the generation to come will receive vast damage during this sorrowful conflict… One can sneak into the vaults of silence, one can drop his head down and hide his tongue in his cheeks until this unremitting storm passes him by. But the ancient duty of intellectuals does not approve of taking shelter. The army of committed intellectuals, fearless of death, has come to fight in an unfair contest.”[31]

By taking so much trouble to publish this journal, he was positive that he could reflect the ideas and needs of Iranian intellectuals, and to do his share in improving and correcting the society, and also to publish literary and artworks freely without fearing the censorship or being suspended by the government. But his hope was in vain and he could not publish more than 36 issues; the journal was closed down in less than a year by the order of the revolutionary court. After Ketab-e Jom’e being suspended, he never again published or participated directly in any journal, although a few of his moderate articles, interviews, and poems were published sporadically.

In this same year, while he was working on his journal, he published a collection of poems that he wrote while he was abroad under the title of Taraneha-ye Kouchak-e Ghorbat (The Little Songs of Homesickness). Practically this became the last poetry book he published for more than a decade. He did not/could not reprint his old poetry books either, and some of his research books that were published before 1979, could be republished only by omitting some sections.

Front cover of the first issue of Ketab-e Jom'e

Research Works

As the proverb goes, “April and May are the keys of the year.”: After the suspension of Ketab-e Jom’e, and especially after the 1981 suspension of Iranian Writers Association which was reactivated after the revolution, which resulted in much-restricted freedom for intellectuals, and a ban on reprinting Shamlou’s earlier publications, Ahmad Shamlou turned his attention to research works; especially to his lifetime project of Ketab-e Kouche. After many years of researching, he could finally print the first volume of his research work on Iranian folklore, in 1979. Ever since, assisted by his wife, Aida Sarkisian, he worked earnestly on it and published 2 more volumes until the publication of the 3rd volume was suspended in 1982[32]. Although Shamlou could not receive the license to print the 3rd and the later volumes until more than 10 years later, he nevertheless continued his research for this project.

Meanwhile, with the assistance of A. Pashayi, he published “Haiku – Japanese Poetry from Its Emergence until Today”. In this volume, Shamlou presented numerous translations of Japanese Haiku (a short poetic form with a fixed syllable structure) from different renowned classic and modern poets. Sohrab Sepehri, a well-known Iranian poet and painter, who became familiar with this form of poetry on his trip to Japan, had already translated some Japanese Haiku to Persian some years before the publication of Shamlou’s Haiku, but this volume was the first research book on Haiku ever printed in Persian. This book actually played a great role in introducing Haiku to the Iranian audience who gradually found an interest in it and started writing their own Haiku in Persian.

On top of his research work, he was very active as a translator and narrator; he translated several poems, plays, stories, and novels from different authors. Among these are selections of poems by Langston Hughes and Margot Bickel, which he also recorded on cassettes with his own narration mixed with music by Iranian artists. He also narrated the children stories he had written or translated before, as well as narrating a selection of his own poems and some poems by established Iranian classic and modern poets such as Omar Khayyam, Hafez, Rumi, Nima Youshij, and Forough Farrokhzad.

According to different unofficial sources, Shamlou was one step behind winning the Nobel Prize for literature[33] some years during the 1980s (probably in 1983[34]). Shamlou never won a Nobel Prize, but we cannot verify if he was indeed nominated for the Noble literature prize because of the fact that the names of the nominees for the Noble Prize of each year are not officially published until 50 years later.

Trips Abroad

            In 1988, Shamlou was invited to the second World Literary Congress – Interlit 2, in West Germany. There he gave a speech under the title “I am a mutual pain; scream me out!” Then he gave readings in cities of Berlin and Giessen in Germany, and also in Vienna, Austria. Then invited by the Swedish PEN Club he took a trip to Sweden to give readings in Stockholm. In the very year, a complete collection of his poems was printed in Germany.

In 1989 he returned back to Iran and settled in the city of Karaj, near Tehran. One year later, he traveled to America, invited by the University of California at Berkeley. He gave numerous readings and speeches at UC Berkeley, and at UCLA. During his one year stay in America, he visited many cities of America and gave speeches at several notable universities such as Harvard University, Columbia University, University of Washington, University of Michigan and etc. Two of his lectures at UC Berkeley on the history of Iran and Iranian mythology with references to Shahnameh (or the Book of Kings), a long epic poem written by the Persian poet Ferdowsi in the 11th century, were very much criticized by some Iranian scholars inside Iran when parts of them were published in Iranian journals, because he challenged some historical issues that were/are taken as unquestionable facts by the Iranian people.

After undergoing two successful critical surgeries on his spinal column during his stay in Boston, he traveled again to Berkeley to teach a course on modern Persian literature at UC Berkley for one semester. Before he returned to Iran in 1991, he received the Human Rights Watch Free Expression Award in New York City.

He stayed in Iran until 1994 until he was invited by the immigrant Iranians in Sweden when he took another trip to Stockholm. In 1992 a collection of his poems titled Madayeh-e Bisaleh (Panegyrics sans Boon) written between 1979 to the date were published in Sweden. These poems could not receive a license to be printed in Iran until some years later.

Final Years

Ahmad Shamlou suffered from diabetes and he had been receiving treatments for it. He was also a heavy smoker, and this complicated his condition. But in 1997 his illness progressed and, as a result, he developed foot complications. He went through two surgeries on his legs arteries, but doctors finally had to amputate his right leg.

Although Shamlou spent the rest of his life in a wheelchair, he was active nevertheless; he worked on his Street Book tirelessly, he printed 7 more volumes of it in just 3 years. Shamlou’s project of Street Book was expected to be covered in 40 to 50 volumes, although he lived long enough to publish 14 volumes of them in sum. Meanwhile, after the reformist government coming into power there was more freedom for intellectuals and authors; hence, the ban on his poems was raised and his earlier books were reprinted; including Panegyrics Sans Boon that was first published in Sweden. In 1999 he was awarded Stig Dagerman Prize, a Swedish award named in honor of Swedish author Stig Dagerman. But because of his health deterioration, he could not receive it in person. He published two more poetry books; the last of them Hadis-e Bigharari-ye Mahan (The Tale of Mahan’s Restlessness) was printed less than a month before his death.

Ahmad Shamlou’s illness deteriorated during the last year of his life and reached a critical stage during the final days. He was in constant pain for the last 3 days of his life as reported by his wife[35]. Finally at the age of 74, on July 23rd, 2000, about dusk he took his last breath in his wife’s arms at his home. He was buried in Emamzadeh Taher graveyard at Karaj five days later—thousands of people attended his funeral.

Ahmad Shamlou and his wife, Ayda Sarkisian

Ahmad Shamlou’s Legacy

“I have no fear of death and the finishing of life by any means; as Camus said ‘this is a step one must take’. But all together, death is an ugly thing. There are many duties we have not yet fulfilled; many works we have not finished. And suddenly, they knock the door and say it is time to go.”[36]

Ahmad Shamlou’s service to the Persian language and the culture of Iran is vast. Despite all of his achievements, he never stopped working even in the worst moments of his life. Ahmad Shamlou was a true humanist who screamed the common agony of humanity. And while like many people he could also sneak into the vaults of silence he stood and resisted the storms during different stages his life. Despite some critics and jealous people who tried to devalue his works, isolate him, spread false rumors about him, ban his books, and so on and so forth, he survived; and his survival proves the mediocrity, despicableness, and exiguousness of his enemies.

Nevertheless, Ahmad Shamlou is among the most read and most favored Iranian modern poet, and he definitely inspires many people. Hundreds of poets who write white poems support this claim. As agreed by scholars, he was in his prime for most of his life until his death. Despite everything he has done, we believe he is still not known and honored in a way worthy to him, and we hope we have taken a tiny step to introduce this beautiful giant[37] to the world. We believe Ahmad Shamlou has done a great service to humanity and has a plethora of achievements making him a prolific literary figure in the history of Iran, and perhaps the world.


  • Sahebekhtiari, Behrouz, Ahmad Shamlou: The Poet of Nocturnes and Romantics (Original Title: Ahmad Shamlou: Shaer-e Shabaneha va Asheghaneha), (Tehran: Hirmand, 2008).
  • Asgari Pashayi, Siavash, The Names of All of Your Poems: The Life and Poetry of Ahmad Shamlou (Original Title: Nam-e Hmae-ye She’r-ha-ye To: Zendegi o She’r-e Ahmad Shamlou), Volume 1 (Tehran: Saless, 1999).
  • Asgari Pashayi, Siavash, The Names of All of Your Poems: The Life and Poetry of Ahmad Shamlou (Original Title: Nam-e Hmae-ye She’r-ha-ye To: Zendegi o She’r-e Ahmad Shamlou), Volume 2, (Tehran: Saless, 1999).
  • Deutsche Welle in Persian, dw.de/persian.
  • Shahrvand, shahrvand.com.
  • Shamlou, Ahmad, Complete Collection of Ahmad Shamlou’s Works, Volume 1: The Poems (Original Title: Majmou’e Asar-e Ahmad Shamlou, Jeld-e 1: Ash’ar), (Tehran: Negah 2009).
  • Farheekhtegan News Agency, farheekhtegan.ir.
  • Shams Langroudi (Javaheri Gilani, Mohammad-Taghi), Analytical History of Modern Persian Poetry (Original title: “Tarikh-e Tahlili-e She’r-e No”), Volume 1, (Tehran: Markaz 1991, 4th reprint in 2002).
  • Shams Langroudi (Javaheri Gilani, Mohammad-Taghi), Analytical History of Modern Persian Poetry (Original title: “Tarikh-e Tahlili-e She’r-e No”), Volume 2, (Tehran: Markaz 1998, 3rd reprint in 2002).
  • Esmaeil Nouri-a’la, Theory of Poetry: From Moj-e No to She’r-e Eshgh, (London: Ghazaal, 1993).
  • Shahrvand: Largest Farsi Newspaper in North America, shahrvand.com.
  • Ketab-e Jom’e: A Weekly for Literary, Social, and Scientific Issues, No. 1, July 1979, Tehran, Iran.
  • Shamlou’s Official Website, shamlou.org
  • Mehr News, mehrnews.com


With many thanks to the creators of the free world (World Wide Web and the Internet), and also to the entrepreneurs of google.com, wikipedia.com, wordreference.com, and answers.yahoo.com, without whom writing this essay would have been nearly impossible. And special thanks to Prof. Martin for reviewing and editing this essay.


[1] Nasser Hariri, Darbare-e Honar va Adabiat, “A talk with Ahamd Shamlou by Nasser Hariri”, (Babol: Avishan & Goharzad, 3rd edition, 1993). Cited in Behrouz Sahebekhtiari, The Poet of Nocturnes and Romantics, p. 385.

[2] We have used The Timeline of Ahmad Shamlou prepared by Ayda Sarkisian (Shamlou’s wife) in the year 2000 (cited in Behrouz Sahebekhtiari, The Poet of Nocturnes and Romantics, pp. 26 – 40.) as a major source for the dates and important events in Shamlou’s life. Therefore, note that most of the dates you will read in this essay are originated from that timeline.

[3] “Thus I was born in the forest of beasts and stones”, Kayhan Newspaper, No. 8853, 10 January 1973, pp. 6 – 8. (Cited in:  Behrouz Sahebekhtiari, The Poet of Nocturnes and Romantics, p. 40 – 55.)

[4] Ibid, p. 42.

[5] Ibid, p. 43.

[6] An interview by Mohammad Mohammad-Ali, Adineh Magazine, Issue 15, August 1987. Cited in Behrouz Sahebekhtiari, op.cit., p. 121.

[7] “ترجمه‌ها و بازنویسی‌های بحث‌برانگیز احمد شاملو”, Behzad Keshmiri-pour, Deutsche Welle in Persian, 11 July 2010, http://dw.de/p/OGOF. Retrieved on September, 2013.

[8] “[…] a childish mistake of printing a bunch of naïve, sentimental, and worthless poems in a book under the title of The Forgotten Songs, which I [later] thought I was going to be ashamed of it as long as I live.” Cited in: Complete Collection of Ahmad Shamlou’s Works, Volume 1: The Poems, (Tehran: Negah 2009), pp. 1057 & 1058.

[9] “Manifestation of Nimaic Poetry”, Hassan Golmohammadi, Cited in: Shahrvand: Largest Farsi Newspaper In North America, January 17, 2013, www.shahrvand.com/archives/35504, Retrieved on August, 2013.

[10] Nasser Hariri, op.cit., p. 101. Cited in: A. Pashayi, The Names of All of Your Poems, Volume 2, p. 629.

[11] از مهتابی به کوچه, (Tehran: Tous 1978), p. 113. Cited in A. Pashayi, op.cit., Volume 2, p. 1050.

[12] Shams Langroudi (Mohammad-Taghi Javaheri Gilani), Analytical History of Modern Persian Poetry, Volume 1, (Tehran: Markaz 1991 reprinted in 2002), p. 477.

[13] Esmaeil Nouri-a’la, Theory of Poetry: From Moj-e No to She’r-e Eshgh, (London: Ghazaal, 1993), p. 57.

[14] Ibid, p. 55.

[15] Esmaeil Nouri-a’la, op.cit., p.57.

[16] “رویكرد نیمایی در رویارویی با سنت”, Farheekhtegan News Agency, 3 January, 2011, farheekhtegan.ir/content/view/18750/64/. Retrieved on 21 September, 2013.

[17] Esmaeil Nouri-a’la, op.cit., p. 56.

[18] Shams Langroudi (Mohammad-Taghi Javaheri Gilani), Analytical History of Modern Persian Poetry, Volume 2, (Tehran: Markaz 1998, 3rd reprint in 2002), p.387.

[19] Shamlou, Complete Works, (Printed in Germany), Volume 1, p. 593. Cited in A. Pashayi, The Names of All of Your Poems, Volume 2, p. 630.

[20] A. Pashayi, The Names of All of Your Poems, Volume 1, p. 81.

[21] “The poet talks about life”, A. Pashayi, The Names of All of Your Poems, Volume 2, p. 608 – 613.

[22] Ferdows Magazine, March 1966, and Ayandegan Newspaper, March 1969, p. ?. Cited in: “Words of the poet”, Behrouz Sahebekhtiari, The Poet of Nocturnes and Romantics, p. 85.

[23] Nima’s Letters, (Tehran: Negah 1997). Cited in: ibid, p. 133.

[24] Ferdows & Ayandegan, op.cit., p. ?. ibid, p.91.

[25] Nasser Hariri, op.cit., p. 14. ibid, p. 250.

[26] Ashena, Issue 1, 17 February 1958, p. 3. Cited in Daftar-e Honar: Exclusive Issue on Ahmad Shamlou, 4th year, Issue 8, March and April 1997. Cited in ibid, p. 295.

[27] “احمد شاملو؛ صدا و هوای تازه‌ی روزنامه‌نگاری”, Behzad Keshmiri-pour, Deutsche Welle in Persian, 1 July 2010, http://dw.de/p/O8ZP, Retrieved on 17 September 2013.

[28] “شاملو و سینما”, Deutsche Welle in Persian, 8 July 2010, http://dw.de/p/OEWS. Retrieved on 19 September, 2013.

[29] “Shamlou and the Cinema”, Behrouz Sahebekhtiari, ibid, p. 67.

[30] “The colloquial dictionary and teaching”, Ferdowsi, No. 1104, 25 February 1973. Cited in A. Pashayi, op.cit., Volume 2, p. 730.

[31] Ketab-e Jom’e: A Weekly for Literary, Social, and Scientific Issues, No. 1, July 1979, Tehran, Iran, p. 3.

[32] “میراث پردردسر احمد شاملو (بخش دوم و پایان)”, Behzad Keshmiri-pour, Deutsche Welle in Persian, 17 July 2010, http://dw.de/p/OO0t, Retrieved on 17 September, 2013.

[33] “We will not have another Shamlou”, Kourosh Hamekhani, Behrouz Sahebekhtiari, op.cit., p. 428. And also: “غروب بامداد, Hamid Jafari, Shamlou’s Official Website, http://shamlou.org/?p=559. Retrieved on 19 September, 2013.

[34] Mohammad Mohammad-Ali, An interview with Ahmad Shamlou, February 1987, (Tehran: Ghatreh, 1993). Cited in A. Pashayi, op.cit., p. 891.

[35] Hamid Jafari, loc.cit.

[36] Ferdows & Ayandegan, op.cit., p. ?. Cited in Behrouz Sahebekhtiari, op.cit., p. 82.

[37] “I am a beautiful giant who is standing on the equator of the night / swimming in the lucid waters of the whole world, / and whose extent of mischiefs is / as far as the birthplace of a star.” From Punition by Ahmad Shamlou.

Ahmad Shamlou

Derafsh-e MehrI wrote this article back when I was an undergraduate English literature student. It was first published in Derafsh-e Mehr, a literary student journal that I published at the University of Mazandaran. You can still download and read the digital issues on Derafsh-e Mehr weblog _as well as here on this website.

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