Sunday, 2 November 2014


"Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world" - discuss.  I once struggled to write an undergraduate essay on this quotation from Shelley.  I found the claim extraordinary, even arrogant, and I doubt if I understood what Shelley meant.

In the latest PN Review I read of the death of the Iranian poet, Simin Behbahani, who died this year at the age of 87.  When I looked her up on the internet I felt awed by the descriptions of this wonderful writer and ashamed that I had never heard of her before.

Born into a  family of Iranian intellectuals in 1927 Simin Behbahani wrote her first poetry at the age of twelve.  She took the Persian ghazal and transformed it by writing from a woman's viewpoint.  She was known for her adaptations of traditional Persian poetic forms for contemporary subjects.

Simin Behbahani lived through the British deposition of Mohammad Mossadegh, the rule of the Shah, the 1979 Islamic revolution which brought Ayatollah Khomenei to power, the Iran-Iraq war, and the protests after Ahmadinajad's disputed election victory in 2009.

Her poetry tackled women's issues and social and political injustice and, not surprisingly, she tangled with the police.  Her work was banned for 10 years in the 1980s, she was the subject of harassment, and, even in her 80s, she was roughly treated by security officers at Tehran airport.

Although she travelled abroad several times to read her poetry she was not one of the Iranian intellectuals who live in self-imposed exile - though she must surely have had the opportunity to do so.  She loved Iran:
   "My country, I will build you again,
     if need be, with bricks made from my life.
     I will build columns to support your roof,
     if need be, with my bones."

Her words are translated into English by Farzaneh Milani, an eminent professor and scholar, who teaches Persian literature and women's studies at the University of Virginia.  Farzaneh Milani herself was born in Tehran.

Simin Behbahani was known as the "Lioness of Iran" and was twice nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature.  Her face has appeared on placards and T shirts - in the Middle East poetry is not a minority interest.

After I had read about her, Shelley's quotation came into my head, with a little more insight.  "Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world".  Simin Behbahani was one such poet - the world has lost a great writer.

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