Ahmad Shamlu, leading Iranian poet, died in Tehran on July 23, 2000 at the age of 74. In many ways, he embodied the Iranian intellectual movement of his generation: an adept adapter of Western ideas, yet often unfamiliar with their underpinnings; steeped in his native tradition, yet poised uncomfortably against it; wielding immense influence, yet subjected to censorship and harassment throughout his career.
Born in Tehran in 1925, Shamlu was exposed early on to local interpretations of Marxian ideas, and his system of thought was ineluctably affected by them. He was catapulted to the first rank of Iran’s poets with the publication of his fourth collection, Fresh Air, in 1957. In him, the movement known as “the new poetry,” a verse type that did not lend itself to classical scansion and genre classification, had found a solid adherent. Shamlu’s notion of lyric — which owed much to Vladimir Mayakovsy, Lois Aragon and Federico Garcia Lorca — was his most influential innovation in Persian, and remained the hallmark of his work throughout his life. Shamlu earned his living through translation and journalism, although the latter career was often marred by squabbles with editors and publishers, as well as constant confrontations with censorship.
In 1962, after two unsuccessful marriages, Shamlu fell in love with Aida Sarkisian. Aida in the Mirror, published in 1965, was the first of several collections in which Shamlu composed love lyrics at once universal and very concrete. Aida gradually became the strongest force in Shamlu’s life and his most steadfast supporter. A series of small collections — Elegies of the Earth (1969), Blossoming in the Fog (1970), Abraham in Fire (1973), Dagger in the Dish (1977) and Little Songs of Exile (1980) — firmly established Shamlu as the “modern” poet in whom lyricism and political dissent congealed most effectively. His depiction of the persona’s mood became a barometer of the intellectual community’s response to sociopolitical events.
In 1976, Shamlu and Aida traveled to the United States for a voluntary exile that lasted until the eve of the Iranian Revolution. Shamlu was adamantly opposed to the rise of the Shi‘i clerics to political power, and rejected all pleas for unity, which to him meant unity on terms established by the clerical leaders. In the summer of 1979, he started the most noteworthy opposition journal of the time, the weekly Ketab-e Jom‘eh (Book of Friday). He also continued to write poetry; one poem, “In This Blind Alley,” achieved the status of an aphorism on life in the Islamic Republic of Iran. An encyclopedic work on Iranian folklore and popular beliefs entitled Book of the Alley occupied the rest of his years.
Through the 1980s and 1990s, Shamlu took several more trips abroad, primarily to read his poetry to Iranian migrant communities, but also to seek medical help for diabetes, an ailment that had dogged him since the 1970s. In these trips, his controversial views on Iranians, on Iranian history and on the tradition of Persian poetry, especially the Shahnameh (Book of Kings), stirred up a soul-searching debate among migrant Iranians. He also read his recent compositions, but none rivals his earlier output. His death marks a millennial event in the history of Persian literature. He will be remembered as an avant-garde poet who never ceased his quest for new ways of making poetic sense out of life, his own as well as his fellow human beings.