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The Poet’s Dilemma: Spirit of Culture and Body of Language | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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[inset_left]Child: New and Selected Poems 1991–2011
Mimi Khalvati
Carcanet Press, 170 pages
Manchester, 2011[/inset_left]

By all accounts, poetry is the most intimate form of literary self-expression.

So, it is no surprise that poets constantly look for a cultural “backbone” around which to build an identity; it is this and only this that allows intimate self-expression to be possible.

But what if you happen to be in one place while your cultural backbone, what Mimi Khalvati calls “chine,” is somewhere else? This is the problem that many poets in exile have faced across cultural frontiers.

One of the most interesting poets writing in English today, Khalvati is not comfortable with being described as a “Persian poet,” and, in a sense, she is right because, as far as we know, she does not write in her mother tongue. And, yet, anyone who journeys through her five collections of verse, published by Carcanet, is inevitably struck by her Persian-ness.


Her mental landscape, her imagery, the core of her cultural references, and even the literary devices—not to say clichés—overwhelmingly belong to the Persian universe.

To be sure this is not a question of nationality or ethnic origin. Nor is one concerned here with the complex concept of home—mihan in Persian. In fact, in one long poem written in Iowa, a state in the American Midwest, Khalvati cries: “England, London, I am homesick for you.” This is not surprising, if only because Khalvati spent much of her childhood and, later, many decades of her life in England. I have a feeling that if she were to return to her native Tehran—a city which she had to flee—she would feel an outsider.

This is how she expresses her feeling of dividedness:

Without my love there is no song
Without my love there is no silence
A carousel without a pole
Two apple halves without a whole
No center, no circumference.

These lines echo, almost word for word, a ruba’i by Athireddin Axsikati, a Persian poet who wrote almost 1,000 years ago.

Khalvati’s poems are populated by images of her childhood and scenes of Iranian life over may decades. She writes of cherry rice and meatball dinners, saffron, roses, hubble-bubble pipes, carpet shops, polygamous households, the “stone of patience,” and the symphony of mountains, deserts and forests that shape the Iranian landscape. There are chenar trees, Persian blue skies, birds of the high plateau and walled-in gardens. She sings of grand-dad “baba Mostafa,” the servant “Ma’mad,” and the taciturn Persian mother keeping her daughter’s letters for years, unread, but as talismans.

Khalvati offers what looks like a self-portrait of a little girl from a middle-class Tehrani family:

There is nothing I like more than childhood
In viyella, scarved in a white babushka,
Frowning and impenetrable childhood
Swing your little bandy legs, take no notice
of worldliness.

Khalvati’s Persian-ness is best manifested in a number of ghazals and ruba’is she has composed in English over the years. Although not all her attempts at composing Persian ghazals in English are successful.

The adventure is not new. Many Western poets, starting with the great Goethe, have tried their hands at writing ghazals. As for ruba’i, Edward Fitzgerald’s reworking of Omar Khayyam remains a reference.

However, Khalvati deserves praise because her ghazals are more than clever imitations of Saadi, Hafez, Khaju, and other masters of the Persian genre. In several ghazals she even manages to use classical Persian meters such as “bahr–raml” (The Sea of Sand) and observes strict rules of refrain (radif) and rhyme (qafiayah). Thus, one has the impression that one is reading Persian poems written in English words.

In many cultures and at different times, many poets have composed verse that belongs to one language in literary and cultural spirit and to another in terms of language and vocabulary.

What were Ovid or Virgil doing? They wrote poetry that was Greek in cultural spirit but Latin in vocabulary.

I also think that some Elizabethan poets, for example, Sir Thomas Wyatt, and Sir Philip Sydney, wrote Latin poetry in the English language. Lovers of Sir Thomas Browne’s work, for example The Garden of Cyrus, may also wonder whether they are reading French literature in the English language.

In 10th-century Iran, poets such as Asjodi, Muezzi, and if I were not afraid of being lynched by Iranian nationalists, I would add even the great Manuchehri, wrote pre-Islamic Arab poetry with a Persian vocabulary. The words and the syntax they used were quintessentially Persian, but the spirit was the Arabic of the glorious Jahiliyah poetic tradition.

There were, of course, poets who worked in the opposite direction: writing poems that were Arabic in body and Persian in spirit. One notable example is the great Abu Nuwas, not forgetting the unjustly underestimated Mahyar Al-Daylami.

Khalvati is not alone among poets who lived away from her spiritual home in Iran. Jalal Al-Din Rumi, one of the greatest of all Persian poets, spent most of his life in regions where Persian, though lingua franca, was a minority language. And what about the great Persian poets of the Indian Subcontinent such as Amir-Khosrow of Delhi, Ghalib, and, more recently, Muhammad Iqbal. I was surprised to find, thanks to Iqbal’s son, that the great poet of Lahore had never set foot in Iran.

A few years ago when I interviewed former Indian prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, I was also surprised to find out he wrote a number of ghazals in Persian, a language he could read and write but did not speak.

We know of quite a number of Arab poets and novelists who belong to the sphere of Arab literature in spirit but to English, French, Russian, Dutch, and, more recently, even Danish in terms of language. And that is not to mention imitators and plagiarists.

In other words, language alone cannot explain a work of literature. For me Khalvati is a Persian poet writing in English.

But let us not get entangled in problems of identity. Anyway, who but the police are interested in identity?

Well, then, Khalvati is a great poet; to miss out on her work would be a great loss for lovers of poetry.