Where poetry lives: In Iran

  • Updated: July 3, 2014 - 5:59 PM

It provides a point of reference for residents there that’s shamefully lacking in today’s America.


Worshippers sit at the shrine of the Shiite Saint Abdulazim during Muslim holy fasting month of Ramadan in Shahr-e-Ray, south of Tehran, Iran.

Photo: Vahid Salemi • Associated Press,

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Poet William Logan wrote recently in the New York Times that poetry in the United States is “loved by some, loathed by many and bought by almost no one.” As a professor of English at the University of Minnesota, where I’ve taught for more than 40 years, I agree that poetry is disregarded and considered irrelevant by most Americans as they struggle with the challenges of their daily lives.

Yet poetry lives in a rather unexpected part of the world — in Iran.

Recently, I made a trip to Iran with a friend — out of curiosity, and because we could (with the help of U.S. and Iranian travel agencies). Not only did we discover very friendly people, many of whom smiled at us and said “hello,” asking us where we were from and adding “Welcome to Tehran” — or Esfahan or Shiraz — but we also encountered a culture that respects and reveres poetry.

Our guide, who spent five years of his childhood in the United States as the son of a Navy officer who chose to return to Iran after the 1979 revolution, explained to us how important the works of Iranian poets are in the lives of ordinary people. He introduced us to the Shahnameh, the epic Book of Kings by the poet Ferdowsi, which established Farsi (Persian) as a national language — not unlike Dante’s use of vernacular Italian when Latin was the lingua franca of the Holy Roman Empire.

He also described the visionary journey of Rumi, the Sufi mystic whose experience of ecstasy, he claimed, finds expression in the exquisite tile work of the central dome of the Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque in Esfahan. At the Hasht Behesht Palace, he narrated fables of the poet Saadi, such as “The Experience of the Wolf,” “The Merchant and the Parrot” and “The Praying Cat” — cautionary tales about human greed, frailty and hypocrisy that provide a shorthand reference for modern-day Iranians. “When you talk about a ‘praying cat,’ ” he said, “everyone knows what you mean.”

At the tombs of Saadi and another poet, Hafez, in Shiraz, he recited verses by heart and translated them on the spot. One of the verses of Saadi translated into English adorns the Hall of Nations of the United Nations building in New York. It reads:



Human beings are members of a whole,

In creation of one essence and soul.

If one member is afflicted with pain,

Other members uneasy will remain.

If you have no sympathy for human pain,

The name of human you cannot retain.



For Iranians, poetry not only forms an inspiration for their art, architecture and music but also permeates their understanding of everyday life.

Isn’t it a shame that we as Americans turn our backs on our rich heritage of poetry in English, not only on such “greats” as Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton and Wordsworth, but also on our own unique poetic voices — for example, Anne Bradstreet, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, H.D., Hart Crane, William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, Langston Hughes, Robert Lowell, Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, Gwendolyn Brooks, W.S. Merwin, Adrienne Rich, Amiri Baraka, Sonia Sanchez, and on and on?

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