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6. Towards a New Prosody
As was said before, the first poem which Nimâ published after three years of silence is called “Phoenix” (Chicness) in which the story of a phoenix, the mythical bird, is told. The use of phoenix in this poem is very meaningful and it has a symbolic significance for Nimâ's work. According to the Egyptian mythology, Phoenix was a lone bird who lived in the Arabian desert for 500 to 600 years, singing a variety of melodies. When dying, the bird consumes itself in fire, rises anew from the ashes and starts a new life. Nimâ himself points to this legend:
Phoenix, the good-singing bird, well-known in the world
Wanderer from the blowing of the cold winds
Is sitting alone
On the branch of a bamboo-tree.
Around it, birds on each branch
Then, the poet notices Phoenix's capability of multi-melodious singing in which the reader finds the story of the poet himself:
It sets together the lost moans
From the torn-off threads of hundreds of sounds afar
And builds the wall of a fantastic edifice
On the clouds, resembling a dark line on the mountain.
Here, the reader, for the first time, gets to know the political symbolism of what I call, “Night Poetry”, in Nimâ's work, in which “night” represents poetical evil and the sun symbolizes freedom and happiness. Also notice the significance of the word khalq, meaning the people, which in this period begins to find a special political flavor implying a Marxist overtone, differentiated from the word mellat (nation), which has a nationalistic nuance.
In the past, the word khalq did not carry this overtone and was used equivocally to mean people, the ordinary crowd, mob, or nation. For example, in the works of Mirzâ Malkom Khan, one of the writers of the years that led to the Constitutional Revolution, the word “khalq” was used to imply “nation”. Nimâ in his first poem of “The Tale of Pallid Color/Cold Blood” uses the words “nation” (khalq), “folk” (qowm), and “people” (mardom) interchangeably. This poem was written much earlier than the time that the Soviet regime became dominant in Tajikistan, where people speak Tajiki, which is close to modern Persian, and the word khalq was used in a Marxist sense to distinguish “people” from “nation”. Later on, as will be discussed, the word khalq bloomed to a whole social and literary discourse, and its use in the poem, “Phoenix”, undoubtedly shows a sign of this momentum. Nimâ continues,
...the yellowness of the sun on the wave
Has faded, but on the shore it is rising
Jackal's howling, and the man of the village
Has lit the hidden fire in the house
A little flame, red to the eyes
Draws a line beneath the two big eyes of the night
And far away
The people are passing
The phoenix symbolizes hope for “a white dawn”, in which all birds will become free. That is why, like the villager, who is lighting his “hidden fire”, it has to consume itself in fire and, by sacrificing itself, cast light on the other people's life. Is Nimâ referring to Taqi Erâni and his associates, so called, “the fifty-three”, who were arrested exactly at that time? Is Nimâ foreseeing the mysterious death of Erâni three years later in prison?
It throws itself on the fearful fire
A heavy wind blows, has it burned?
The bird has preserved the ashes of its body!
So its chicks come out of its ashes
In spite of the fact that the poem, “Phoenix”, has political overtones and implies a social uprising in the last years of despotic rule in Iran, it is clear that it primarily denotes the development in the personal and literary life of the poet, himself, since three years had passed before Nimâ composed poetry again. The best sign of this revival is the new form, or, to be more precise, the new metric, which Nimâ employs for the first time in poetry; it is breaking the equality of line's length and releasing the yoke of rhyme. The English reader can surely realize Nimâ's first innovation in the translation of the poem.
By the beginning of the Second World War and especially after it was over and a political climate more open to free debate and action came about, Nimâ published poems which were not only new in diction and language, but also modern in terms of metrics and outlook.
The question as to what elements influenced Nimâ to take a step forward and break the yoke of classical metrics still needs to be investigated. Yet one fact is clear: that when in the late thirties in Tehran he joined the editorial staff of a magazine called Musiqi, affiliated with the State Bureau of Music, a productive time in Nimâ’s life began. He published a long essay in that magazine called Arzesh‑e ehsâsât (The Value of Feelings), which contains his new ideas on art and poetry. At about the same time, he also started a project writing short pieces in the form of letters called Harfhâ‑ye hamsâyeh (A Neighbor's Words), addressing an imaginary character, perhaps the poet's shadow or a young poet, and in which he eloquently elaborated on his literary revolution. Posthumously, 178 pieces of this sort were collected by S. Tâhbâz in 1989. The earliest piece dates from 1939 and the last from 1955, but the majority of them were written in 1944 and 1945. Here he calls his new style of poetry she‘r‑e âzâd or “free verse”, which is perhaps a misreading of the French “vers libre”, as shall be seen later on.
Persian prosody came into being in the eighth century, under the influence of Arabic prosody, ‘aruz, in which meter is quantitative and the lines are rhymed. In quantitative verse, two criteria come into play: the distinction between long and short vowels measured in feet, and the number of feet in each line. The poet has to follow a metric pattern throughout his piece, and the number of feet in each hemstitch should be equal. Nimâ relaxed this last restriction (the length of the line), so creating poems with variable line length and irregular rhyme patterns. At the same time that he was experimenting with his loose meter, there were poets who, not only did away with equal line length, but also dispensed with any foot pattern, once and for all, and created either “prose poems” or “free verse”, at the time dubbed, she‘r‑e sepid or “blank verse”, (incorrectly so, since it is distinct from the unrhymed meter of the same name used in Elizabethan theater). Nimâ, himself, in Value of Feelings points to "blank verse" and mistakenly calls the “free verse” of Walt Whitman “blank verse”. Nevertheless, in his analysis of Whitman's poetry, one can find insight to Nimâ's own innovation in metric:
For this reason the American poet, Walt Whitman, under the influence of life in that country has not copied the regulations of European rhythm and rhyme, which are reminiscent of simple and primitive periods. He rather created a new style in his poems called ‘blank verse' that is a poem free of the yoke of rhythm and rhyme.
He finds, in one hand, a parallel between the old monotonous tool, such as a sewing machine, and the old metric, and on the other hand, a harmony between modern life and the new rhythm:
As is the case with the works of the futurists, in the works of this poet, we primarily find the same dynamic and speed which signifies movement and labor; so that the poet does not become a captive of meter and rhyme and does not limit the horizons of his feelings and ideas and does not put together unnecessary and senseless words. Then, in his works we encounter other poetic beauties. The point is that the classical artificial rhythm and rhyme during its monotonous repetition, like a sewing machine, take our attention to everywhere and nowhere. This is the characteristic that is not found in Whitman's poetry because his prose-like poems provide their attractions by other means.
“Free verse” in Iran was probably introduced by Mohammad Moqaddam, who graduated in linguistics from a U.S. university and came back to Iran in the 1930's. He became very active in a movement for the purging of Arabic words from the Persian language and did not continue writing poetry. Nevertheless, Nimâ mentions his name in the Value of Feelings and finds him a poet who had outgrown the values of his society:
Of course the short work of The Midnight Mystery (Râz-e Nimshap) by Mohammad Moqaddam, which is a type of prosed poetry in American style, is an exception. This work goes beyond the public's comprehension and feelings.
In a book called Two Letters (Do nâmeh) published in 1946 which contains two lengthy letters between himself and Shin Parto, Nimâ writes about the poems of the latter, like Zhinus, which are in free verse, calling them nathr-e âhangdâr, meaning “rhythmic prose”. Nimâ, himself, never wrote prose poems or free verse, yet this work shows that he was not critical of either, and he speaks very highly of them in this book.
By the time that Nimâ began to write his unrhymed verse with variable line length in the late 1930s, he threw away his romanticism, though not the discourse of nature. To the contrary, he uses it as an ideological device alongside the catchword “the people” that he picks up from this time onward. In A Neighbor's Words he calls himself “a natural poet” and compares the ripples of a pond before him to the variable line length of his poetry and adds, “My main point is that I want to give a natural organization to the form of poetry.” He says, “The poetry of today must be close to the natural state of speech.” But what is this “natural state of speech”? Is it “the nature of speech” that Nimâ repeats so often in his argument? He clearly shows that it is the ordinary speech of the people and the closest literary form to it, i.e. prose:
...breaking the artificial barrier that the versification of words has created in poetry and has deprived poetry from a natural mood. Poetry from the view of form must be a rhythmic prose.
The naturalness of speech makes “connection” and “impression” possible, lest one lament for meter and rhyme, “Neighbor! Is connection dearer to you or people's craving for symmetry?”
There is another aspect to Nimâ's concept of “natural state of speech” which should be mentioned. That is the change of the rhythm of the language, from classical Persian, in the 8th and 9th centuries, when Persian prosody began to flourish in Iran, and continued to modern Persian, in our times. Finn Thiesen who has written A Manual of Classical Persian Prosody in English surveys this change in detail. First, he defines the basis of this metrics as follows:
The basis of Classical Persian prosody is the division of syllables into short and long (and overlong) syllables. In order to perceive the rhythm, and appreciate the different meters, one must, therefore be able to distinguish between long and short syllables.
Classical Persian had three short vowels: a, i, u, five long vowels: _, _, _, _, _, and two diphthongs: ai and au.
By native grammarians _ and _ are termed y_ e ma‘ruf and v_v e ma‘ruf respectively; _ and _ are called y_ e majhul and v_v e majhul; _ and _ are called ma‘ruf “known” because they occur in Arabic and thus are known to the Arabs; _ and _ do not occur in Arabic; hence they are majhul “unknown” (to the Arabs).
The so-called “long diphthongs” _i, _i, etc. are better treated as combinations of long vowels plus consonant: _y, _y, etc.
Then Thiesen describes the change of two vowels in the language:
In Modern Persian a distinction of vowel quality has taken the place of the Classical Persian distinction of vowel quantity and the number of vowel phonemes has been reduced....
In fact there is a connection between the sound system of a language and the prosody which is used by poets in that language. If the basis of the sound system changes but the prosody remains the same and does not reflect this development, it will become more artificial to the ears of people who speak in that language. Then, there comes a time that language and its related literature are pregnant with innovative poets like Nimâ who want to return the rhythms of poetry to the original “natural” sound system. Thiesen, himself, explains this connection in his manual:
The rules of prosody are not invented by the prosodist any more than the rules of grammar are invented by the grammarian. The rules of prosody are all deduced from observations of the language of the poet, and if the poets do follow these rules, it is because the language itself compels them to do so. In other words, the rules of prosody are innate in the language; each and every rule and exception reflects some fact in the language.
In Do nâmeh, Nimâ advances his arguments against the followers of traditional poetry. He sarcastically writes, “When I was in Tehran, I was asked whether the reform of meter and rhyme did not ruin the foundation of our nationality.” He hopes that his opponent “understands that these devices that he uses are not ordained by a ruler, but that the real and more judicious ruler is a person's living nature.” Nimâ returns to his main argument again:
In my view, the essence of this [new] meter is related to the nature of speech and differs according to the mood of the composer. It is acquired in the same way as natural speech. The singer must get away from singing for a few minutes in order to find pleasure in the meter of this poetry.
He elaborates the same thought:
In ordinary speech you see the same principal, that is, you see that the pitch of the words goes up or down depending on the speaker.... Therefore, all forms have a rhythm, and it is wrong to say that a poem does not have rhythm, but rather it should be judged on the basis of whether or not the rhythm adopted suits one's taste.
Nimâ then points to the “prose poems” of Shin Parto and writes,
Rhythm in your poems is not [like rhythm] in music..., but it is musical. The reader's living and moving nature urges him to read the poem naturally and like a human being.
Finally, Nimâ refers to Gâthâ, a collection of hymns composed by Zoroaster and says,
I have considered the material and objective relations and have taken Gâthâ as a starting point for my work, because it has the original rhythm of our poetry.
The problem of metrics in Persian poetry before the advent of Islam is even today, not resolved. In Gâthâ, which is written in the Avestic language, we cannot distinguish between short and long vowels. So, although the number of syllables is the same in all the lines of each piece, we are not sure of the prosody in these religious hymns, because we do not know the correct reading of the vowels. Equal line length does not in itself constitute a meter, and other factors should be included. Was meter in Gâthâ quantitative as it was in Vedâ? Or was it accentual, as suggested by scholars for some poetry from the time of Middle Persian, such as Drakht î Asûrîg and Manichaean hymns? Ehsan Yarshater says,
From the little written poetry that remains, it is clear that Middle Persian meter, like the Parthian, was governed by stress, the quantity of syllables being flexible within limits.
Jes Asmussen says about Manichaean literature of the same period,
These unrhymed hymns followed the ancient Iranian poetical tradition of meter based upon stress rather than quantity.
These facts show that Nimâ's references to the pre-Islamic prosody of Gâthâ is only ideological, employed (unnecessarily) to justify his innovation >>> Chapter 3-G