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Review: Six Vowels and Twenty Three Consonants: An Anthology of Persian Poetry from Rudaki to Langroodi, ed. Ali Alizadeh and John Kinsella

Ian Brinton, online review: 06 Jan 2013

Alizadeh and Kinsella's selections are, of necessity, somewhat skimpier than Bunting's; though, interestingly, Alizadeh and Kinsella miss out Manuchehri altogether, a poet Bunting rated as one of the very greatest. Their translations are also of also a selection of modern and contemporary Persian poets, including Mimi Khalvati, whose work will be well known to many readers. Their translations are, if anything, slightly more mellifluous than Bunting's, although their selections from the classical poets do not overlap with Bunting's, which means that, reading the two books together, you get a really strong introduction to Persian poetry.

Ali Alizadeh makes the point that Persian poetry in the twentieth century swiftly broke away from the classical ghazal form and into a much freer writing, influenced by the modernism of the west. This latter, perhaps slightly ironic, given Bunting's position as one of the high priests of modernism. With the move from the classical forms to free verse, there is, on the evidence of this volume, an analogous move from the epic to the political. The editors trace this move to Nima Yushij, the first poet in the second half of their collection. Yushij, they maintain was influenced by the French Symbolists. Eagleton suggests that In some mysterious fashion [the Romantic symbol] combines the individual and the universal, setting up a direct circuit between the two which bypasses language, history, culture and rationality. Here, I would suggest, Persian poetry finds a way actually to discuss 'history, culture' and thence the political, with Yushij's parable The Phoenix addressing how culture might re-emerge through all the pain of surrounding conflagration. A later poet, Forough Farrokhzad, also uses the image of the bird to show women's position in Iran,

The bird, airbourne over
the warning lights
was naively soaring higher
and ecstatically knowing
the blue moments

The bird, alas, was just a bird.

And, yes, the political surges through the selection of contemporary poets in Alizadeh and Kinsella's book. But what also surges through so strongly is an immense verve and absorption of what Bunting teaches us, a need to address the world as is in all its depth and richness.