Untimely Poiesis: Persian Poetics and the Making of Literary Modernity

As part of a series of three panels and a roundtable session on the topic of Iranian literary modernity, this panel’s central theme is poetic modernity in Iran from the “classical” era to the present time. It focuses on various moments of poetic modern making within the Iranian poetic tradition. These moments and their location within a specific historical context displace stock notions of literary modernity as a teleology or an ontology bound to a specific period (or location) and instead highlight innovations resulting from negotiating literary traditions and contemporary experiences.
Drawing upon Suhravardī (1154-1191/549-587 gh.), Mullā Sadrā (1571-1640/979-1050 gh.), and Sā'ib Tabrīzī (1601-1677/1009-1088 gh.), Henry M Bowles' “Linguistic Realism or Literary ‘Modernity’?” argues that universalist and onto-theological accounts of periodicity obscure the possibility of non-European "modernities" whose existence is indebted neither to the Reformation nor the Enlightenment. The paper seeks to explicate the transhistorical consistency of literary "modernism." In “The Cold, Quiet Dream of Phoenixes: Temporality and the Annihilation of the Absolute Subject in Furūgh Farrukhzād’s Poetry,” Saharnaz Samaeinejad focuses on the demythologization of the biblical/Quranic story of the Garden of Eden in Farrukhzād’s poem “Conquest of the Garden.” The paper shows how Farrukhzād’s (1935-1967/1314-1346 sh.) poem mimics and manipulates the story’s structure, infusing it with new meaning, and reflects on the consequences in the poem of the loss of transcendental certitude with regard to temporality and the emergence of a modern lyric subjectivity. Through an examination of the underlying notions of modernity in Suhrāb Sipihrī’s (1928-1980/1307-1359 sh.) art and worldview, Pranav Prakash's “Setting Sail in Sipihri’s Qāyiq” reflects on the historical relationship between religiosity and poetic art in Persian literature and subsequently looks into how changes in their relationship may be integrally linked to the emergent notions and influences of modernity at a given point in history.


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Neither temporally nor spatially specific, the formal consistency of literary “Modernity” consists in what I will call “linguistic realism.” This “realism” entails a second-order perception of language as truth-producing event, one conscious of “la langue comme puissance infinie ordonnée à la présence” and “comme aptitude à présentifier la notion pure du ‘il y a’” (Badiou). Persian letters and philosophy, I will show, possess a rich history of precisely such a “Modern” realism.

My analysis turns on three moments—each wholly independent of European “Modernity”—of precisely such linguistic realism in Persian literary and intellectual history. First, I examine Sohravardî’s transformation of the peripatetic and neo-Platonic apparatus into one where language emerges as the key to turning “az ẓolomât-i jahl beh nûr-i ma‘âref va ḥaqâ’iq.” Against the Platonic resistance to poetic discourse—one continued in Aristotle’s refusal of (poetic) “πλεονασμάς” and (poetic) tropes that do not “ποιεῖ πως γνώριμον τὸ σημαινόμενον διὰ τὴν ὁμοιότητα”—Sohravardî makes “al-mutakhayyila,” “al-kalâm al-ʻaẕb,” and “al-lisân” the bridge between “al-nufs wa-‘âliman qâdran.” I turn, secondly, to Mollâ Ṣadrâ’s "Kitâb al-mashâ‘ir" and "Al-Ḥikma al-muta‘ālīy," both of which present us with a picture of “al-wujûd” as necessarily delimited by linguistic predication—or “‘ufuq al-bayyân.” Ṣadrâ points the way for a poetics exceeding the “shawb tarkîb” of naïve (apophantic) predication, bringing us nearer “shams al-ḥaqiqa min maṭla‘ al-‘irfân.” Turning finally to the Ṣafavid lyricists and focusing especially on Ṣâ’eb’s dîvân, I demonstrate that the “sabk-i hendî,” especially in exploiting "ḥosn-e ta‘lîl" and the poetic syllogism, is the legatee of precisely the “realist” and “Modern” conscience of language found also in Sohravardî and Mollâ Ṣadrâ.

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The issue of discontinuity, the formation of the corporeally delimited self, the innovation of a feminine poetic subjectivity, and the opposition between religion and secularism have dominated much of contemporary scholarly discourse on Furūgh Farrukhzād's (1935-1967/1314-1346 sh.) poetry. However, this paper focuses on the centrality and implications of prophetic enunciations as they appear in her poetic career. Particular focus is placed on Farrukhzād’spoem “Conquest of the Garden” and its reliance on a hyperbolic rhetoric of prophecy and argues that her poetic metaphors and allusions to theological topoi puts into doubt the possibility of any form of absolute subjectivity that is fixed, autonomous, and infinite.

Through a series of movements, Farrukhzād achieved a unique form of poetic expression in which the temporally specific, immanently historical, and socially turbulent forcefully penetrated the perennial and timeless mode of prophecy. In this respect, Farrukhzād should be properly situated in her historical conjuncture where there was a keen interest in creative, idiosyncratic, and even iconoclastic reconfiguration of religious and prescriptive prefigurations.

This essay traces the demythologization of the biblical/Qur'anic story of the Garden of Eden at the heart of “Conquest of the Garden” and shows how Farrukhzād’s poem mimics and subverts the story’s structure, infusing it with new meaning, and reflects on the consequences of poem's commentary on the loss of transcendental certitude with regard to temporality and subjectivity.

Concerning temporality, Farrukhzād uses the “I” of subjective utterances to persistently negotiate the moments of immediacy and infinity that revolve around the poem's theological topoi. However, the presence of this opposition between corporeally finite and infinite spatio-temporal spaces does not lead to a linear progression or a simple transcendental synthesis in Farrukhzād’s poetic assemblage. Rather, through a movement of negotiation and negation, Farrukhzād’s “I” enters the genre of the fragment, whose virtue is that it rejects the dominance of any authoritative discourse. While the aesthetic forms present in “Conquest of the Garden” resists teleological progression, where there is no sense of directing or orienting utterance itself, this paper reflects on the consequences of a loss of transcendental certitude with regard to the emergence of non-synchronous forms of temporality.