Forugh Farrokhzad: A Landmark Iranian Artist, Revisited

Read a sample of Farrokhzad's work here.

Ahmad Karimi-Hakkak
Professor and Founding Director of the Center for Persian Studies
The University of Maryland

Forugh Farrokhzad (1935-67), Iran’s most innovative and pioneer woman poet in modern times, was born on January 5, 1935 in Tehran, third of seven children born to Mohammad Farrokhzad and Turan Vaziritabar. Her father was an army officer and her mother a homemaker. Farrokhzad’s formal education was limited, as she never finished high school. At age 16, she fell in love with and, against family sentiments, married Parviz Shapur, a distant relative fifteen years older than she was. The couple moved to the southwestern city of Ahvaz where he worked in the provincial office of the Ministry of Finance. The marriage ended in acrimonious divorce three years later, leaving her with her only natural child, a son named Kamyar. As was common practice in Iran, the court awarded custody rights to the father; in this case, Farrokhzad also lost visitation rights because the court judged her unfit to raise a child. The pariah status was to turn into a haunting force in Farrokhzad’s life and poetry.

Farrokhzad began writing poems first in the form of ghazal, the most central lyrical genre in the classical tradition and later in charpareh, a ballad-like poetic form consisting of a number of stanzas each made up of four hemistiches where at least two rhyme. The themes of her early poems are youthful love, pangs of separation, particularly from her son, and a desperate search for true love. Three collections of poems were published successively, Asir (Captive) in 1955, Divar (The Wall) in 1956, and Osyan (Rebellion) in 1957. By and large, the poems in these collections are in a confessional tone and articulate the poet’s penchant for self-expression, most evident in themes of physical and emotional intimacy. While making her poems manifestly refreshing in the millennium old tradition of male Persian lyricism, these qualities worked against the poet’s status as a genuine poetic voice in the highly normative culture of Iran in mid-twentieth century. The response from poets, critics and readers was generally negative. The very community that could have welcomed the audacity enshrined in such expressions reacted with repulsion or derision or both, earning the poet the totally undeserved reputation of a loose woman and a threat to Iranian women’s sense of modesty.

The effect on the aspiring poet’s fragile psyche was immediate and devastating. Farrokhzad suffered a nervous breakdown in September 1955 and was hospitalized for about a month. What sustained her was, at least in part, a new interest in filmmaking, which would lead to her close association with Ebrahim Golestan, a leading intellectual filmmaker. Meanwhile her poetry, still largely in traditional verse forms, began to take on social issues. This tendency became evident in Osyan, and, along with the themes of love, forms the twin strains that dominate the poems that followed. In 1956 Farrokhzad took the first of several trips to Europe, an experience that helped restore her to health; it also infused her poetry with the kind of cosmopolitanism hitherto absent from all female writing, including her own early works. She also kept a journal, which was first published under the title Dar Diari Digar (In Another Land), and posthumously in Javdaneh Zistan, Dar Owj Mordan (Living for Eternity, Dying at the Peak).

Farrokhzad’s 1958 friendship with Golestan led to the last most productive phase of her life, to the expansive vision she brought to bear on her art and the uncanny aesthetic quality she instilled in her work. She made at least four documentary films through Golestan Film Studio, Yek Atash (A Fire, 1959), Khastegari (Courtship, 1960), Ab va Garma (Water and Heat, 1961) and Mowj va Marjan va Khara (Waves, Corals and Flintstones, 1961). Some of these films were featured and won prizes at various European Festivals. Still, the 1962 film Khaneh Siah Ast (The House is Black), a poetic treatment of the life of lepers, which she made during the twelve-day sojourn in Baba Baghi lepers colony, remains her best film by far. During the same period, she adopted a boy from his leper parents. In 1964 the publication of Tavallodi Digar (Another Birth) awakened Iran’s literary community with Farrokhzad’s true poetic genius, and the feeling has only growing through the decades. While many of the 33 poems in this volume had been published in the leading literary journals of Tehran, the book revealed the coherence of an evolving vision that had gone largely unnoticed.

There is reason to believe that in the last three years of her life Farrokhzad was increasingly fascinated by the potential of film to make poetic statements and with the aesthetics of filmmaking. Certainly, her meager poetic output provides some evidence: she wrote only a few new poems, all published posthumously in a slim volume titled Iman Biavarim beh Aghaz-e Fasl-e Sard (Let Us Believe in the Beginning of the Cold Season). Even so, the collection’s title poem, a long poem of tremendous sophistication, and of a coherent vision of beauty, more than makes up for the meager output. Farrokhzad’s untimely and tragic end came abruptly on Monday February 14, 1967, when the car she was driving collided head-on with another vehicle and threw her onto the asphalt.

Through her lamentably brief poetic career, Farrokhzad moves toward something very rare in the 1100-year old tradition of Persian poetry: the wholeness of the human life. Hesitantly at first, far more self-assuredly in her last two collections, she approaches the vast mysterious space where dichotomies disappear and poetic meditations assume a fresh wholeness. Many of her last poems emit the feeling that the poet stands poised at the edge of an essentially unfathomable, yet curiously harmonious universe extending from the innards of the earth to the burning heart of the sun, intent on engaging the rich texts of life and holding communion with utter solitude.

Selected Bibliography:

I. Works:
Asir, Tehran: Amir Kabir, 1955.
Divar, Tehran: Amir Kabir, 1956.
Osyan, Tehran: Amir Kabir, 1958.
Tavallodi Digar, Tehran: Amir Kabir, 1964.
Iman Bivarim beh Aghaz-e Fasl-e Sard, Theran, Morvarid, 1974.

II. Translations:
An Anthology of Modern Persian Poetry, Tr. Ahmad Karimi-Hakkak, Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1978.
Another Birth: Selected Poems of Forugh Fasrrokhzad, Trs. Hasan Javadi and Susan Sallee, Emeryville, CA: Albany Press, 1981.
Bride of Acacia: Selected Poems of Forugh Farrokhzad, Tr. Jascha Kesler with Amin Banani, New York, Caravan Press, 1982.
A Rebirth: Poems by Forugh Farrokhzad, Tr. David Martin, Lexington, KY: Mazda, 1985.
Remembering the Flight: Twenty Poems by Forugh Farrokhzad, Tr. Ahmad Karimi-Hakkak (Third Edition), Los Angeles: Ketab Corporation, 2004.

III. Biography and Scholarship:
Hillmann, Michael C., A Lonely Woman: Forugh Farrokhzad and Her Poetry, Washington, DC, Three Continents Press and Mage Publishers, 1987.
Milani, Farzaneh, “Forught Farrokhzad,” in Persian Literature, Ed. Ehsan Yarsahter, New York, Bibliotheca Persica, 1988.
Milani, Farzaneh, “Farrokzad,” in The Encyclopedia Iranica, Volume IX, 1999, pp. 324-327.