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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

Di Cousens, Melbourne PEN Quarterly Spring 2012

Through poetry we jump the wall of our separateness and through this translation we can make that jump into the walled garden of the poets writing in Persian. The many strengths of this book include its commitment to traditional forms, its vast scope-writing from the 9th to the 21st centuries-and the service done by the presence of two poets sharing the nuances of meaning embedded in the original text.

The usual analogies for such a vast anthology would be a banquet or a patchwork quilt or a bouquet. What these analogies don't capture is the limitation in being given only one or two pieces from each writer. A better analogy would be a tasting menu, the sort of meal that leaves you wanting more, both of particular writers and periods but also more in terms of context. While the work is beautifully rendered in English, without a cultural or historical background much will not be understood. The world views that gave rise to these poems, whether of 11th to 15th-century Sufism or revolutionary Iran, operate through imageries and codes that require either pre-understanding or explication. On the other hand each poet is given dates and a brief biographical introduction. The texts are in Persian.

This book is the first of its kind to sample such a huge time span and spectrum of Persian poetry. In that singular achievement it is a significant and important book. Additionally the translators have worked closely on providing a text that honours words, meaning and form. While I do not read Persian it is enlightening to compare translations of identical texts. For example, Gertrude Bell's translation of The Divan of Hafiz, first published in 1897, offers a highly interpreted reading of the text which does not conform to the shape of the ghazal.

Traditionally a ghazal is composed of a number of two-line stanzas that stand as independent poems, but which speak to each other.

Last night I dreamed that angels stood without
The tavern door, and knocked in vain, and wept;
They took the clay of Adam, and methought,
Moulded a cup therewith while all men slept.


Last night angels were at the tavern door and I saw them knocking
They took a cup and measured the clay of humanity they kneaded


And again

That, that is not the flame of Love's true fire
Which makes the torchlight shadows dance in rings,
But where the radiance draws the moth's desire
And sends him forth with scorched and drooping wings.


Fire is not real when it only makes the candle smile
Fire is real when a pyre of moths is scorched.


The tendency of nineteenth century English translators - and the same can be observed with a comparison of the Fitzgerald translation of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam - is to overly poeticise and interpolate meaning into the text. While the 19th-century English translators are still widely circulated and read, it is a relief to see fresh translations of these authors and others such as Rumi and Attar. Another important point is that the texts are translations, unlike the best-selling paraphrases of Rumi by the American author Coleman Barks. Barks does not read Persian and his books are entirely based on his own interpretations of pre-existing translations in English.

In addition the book provides a taste of modern Persian poetry, and it is a vivid and haunting field. For example, see this extract from Fereydoon Moshiri's The Nights of Karun.

Dark nights
stifling nights
hushed nights.
Nights beneath the umbrella of grief
other nights
nights of prison
nights of shackles
nights without the lamp of moonlight
nights of swamps
cold nights of falling leaves
nights of pain for those escaping themselves
nights behind the ninth curtain of darkness
nights of estrangement
nights of driving isolation, without a shred of light
nights of compulsion
nights of fear of death
nights of wakefulness
nights of the scream.

Other poems speak of the Iranian experience of exile such as High Above Tehran by Sholeh Wolpe, who writes in English.

We are exiles, children of the dead
who melted into the earth without a trace.

And I, even at ten thousand feet see
this land as my home; bound. But look
the shadow of this plane flees too.

In 2005, PEN published an anthology of contemporary Iranian literature, Strange Times, My Dear. While there are 21 poets published in this volume, only one of these poets is also represented in Six Vowels, and that is Ahmed Shalu. Clearly there are many gifted poets writing in Persian or writing in English and who come from an Iranian background. The translator, Ali Alizadeh, is also in this category. The themes of war, revolution, love, social constraints, longing for freedom and the search for meaning are all represented with insight and originality in Six Vowels.

Six Vowels and Twenty-three Consonants is a significant contribution to world literature. Its new interpretations of ancient writers provides a valuable service in updating earlier readings, and its spectrum of modern poets introduces the English-language reader to a new poetry with ancient roots. These modern poets deserve to be widely known and it is hoped that this anthology may serve as a precursor to full translations in English of their books. A tasting menu is not enough.

Bell, Gertrude Lowthian, Poems from the Divan of Hafiz, William Heinemann, London,
Mozaffari, Nahid, Editor, Hakkak, Ahmad Karimi, Poetry Editor, Strange Times My Dear,
The PEN Anthology of Contemporary Iranian Literature, Arcade, New York, 2005.