Sohrab Sepehri - The Lover Is Always Alone

The translations have been retrieved from the book The Lover is Always Alone by Karim Emami.

A self-selected anthology of his poems, Hasht Ketab (Eight Books) has been a perennial bestseller ever since it was published in 1976. Karim Emami, the translator of Sepehri’s poems, “The lover is always alone”, states that,

“In the land of poetry, the immortals - Hafez, Saadi, Rumi, Ferdowsi, and Khayyam - always top the list of most frequently reprinted titles, but the modernists are not in this league, except perhaps for Sepehri (1).”

The most avid readers of Sepehri's poems are the younger generation-high school and university students of both sexes. Both men and women graduates look up to Sepehri almost as a spiritual mentor and guide. The number of articles written regularly about him in the popular press is simply staggering. Unlike so many other contemporary Iranian poets, Sepehri does not have a political agenda. Emami states that, “He is not sloganeer preaching, overtly or covertly, the downfall of the autocratic regime (1)”. He is apolitical. His poetry is a reflection of his deepest personal feelings and reflections on the smallest incidents of his daily life. Sepehri does not use the formal language of Persian literature or formal metrics. His poetic medium is free verse. The vocabulary offers everyday speech! Sepehri’s poems are very simple and understandable. His style of poetry amazes its readers because within the simplicity of his words, he offers so much beauty, and pays so much attention to simple and almost forgotten events that happen around him. Emami states his view on Sepehri’s poetry, “He praises life and God's myriad creations - everything, animate or inanimate, that he encounters under the sun. He is communion with nature, and wants us all to love it and respect its laws. His poems are full of aphorisms that he passes to us as pieces of advice, or as recommendations or even commandments (2)”.

Here are a couple of Sepehri’s poems that people often use as pieces of advice:

  • Let's not muddy the water!
  • Eyes should be washed to see things in a different way...
  • Let's be simple everywhere.

Sepehri demonstrates his skills in his powers of observation, his imagery, and his expression of feeling. A part of his appeal must be that he is not like any other poet. In his own ways, he is unique. Sepehri was born in Kashan in 1928, in the first decade of Reza Shah Pahlavi’s reign and of the rapid modernization of the country. Kashan is located some 250 kilometers (160 mi) south of Tehran, built on the edge of the Kavir, the great salt desert. It is an old city, imbued with age-old traditions of Persian life. When Sohrab had finished 9th grade, he moved on to Tehran to attend a two-year teacher training course. He intended to become a primary school teacher, move back to his town and help support the family. He did so for a while; however, it did not last for more than two years as he then moved back to Tehran, to attend Tehran University's school of fine arts. Emami, translator of “The lover is always alone” states that, “He simply could not suppress his love for painting, which has become an all-consuming passion (3)”. To help support himself while attending the university, he found a job in an oil company, and later on in the public health organization. Emami says, “He was a restless soul and could not stay in one job for long (3).” At the University, he was attracted to the modern art movement, both in his painting and his poetry. The pioneering efforts of Nima Yushij, the father of modern Persian poetry in forging a new and liberated style of poetry appealed to him, and he soon gave up the old style of formal metrics which he had been practicing in Kashan. He went on to publish all the collection of his poems, "Eight Books" in 1976, which took thirty years of his life.

In 1979 he became ill with leukemia, and traveled to England to seek cure, but the treatment proved of no avail, and he eventually died after returning to Iran, in Tehran in the spring of 1980. Sepehri was buried according to his will in the village of Mashhad-e Ardahal, in the vicinity of Kashan. Although, he can no longer continue writing poetry, he is seen as the leader and a mentor to the new generation of Iranians. He is still very much alive within his works which have inspired too many people over the last two decades to convert to the new style of poetry, and to begin a new life style. The poem below, from “The Lover is Always Alone” appears on Sepehri’s gravestone, where he is buried in Kashan, Iran.

If you are coming to see me,
pray step gently, softly
Lest the thin shell of my loneliness
Should crack (Sepehri 154)."

The Lover is Always Alone is a collection of Sepehri’s poems translated into English by one of Iran’s finest translators, Karim Emami. The purpose of this book has been to introduce Sepehri’s poems to English speakers. It has also offered a deeper understanding of poems to its bilingual readers. This essay demonstrates the influence of Sepehri as poet, the social signification and it also demonstrates his political life.

Sepehri's poems offer different looks, and yet very simple ones, which separates him from other open-minded poems. He regards the nature phenomena and events which occur everyday and have been considered trivial by all on account of repetition, with a vision full of surprises and wonder. Pirouz Sayar, the author of "paintings and drawings of Sohrab Sepehri", states that, “He gazes at the sun as it rise, at the bird as it sings far away, at a bud which blossoms, at a plant which is growing in the pot, at the life which is going on among the trees in the valley, and the red rose which plunges the onlooker into its enchantment (249)”. Sohrab Sepehri had a significant vision, in both his poetry and painting. Mostafa Valiabdi who has made a movie about the poet’s life states that, “He is one of the few poets in Iran that had looked at West and its culture with open eyes and awareness (5)”. Some poets had rarely traveled outside of Iran and had little idea of the western culture. On the other hand they were some others who converted to the Western culture and changed their entire credos, life style and style of poetry. Sepehri had been inspired by Western countries, India, and Japan, but eventually he would go back to his hometown, Kashan, where his spirits and roots had always been. Sepehri's magnificent vision and poetry had made him more of a world citizen than an Iranian Poet per se. That is the way he introduces himself in the “Water’s footsteps”:

I come from Kashan
But Kashan is no longer my town.
My hometown has been lost.
With feverish effort, I have built myself a house
On the far side of the night (Sepehri 50)."

The "Wayfarer" demonstrates Sepehri’s vast vision in his poetry even more, and as a world citizen, someone who would see, notice, and appreciate beauty and art anywhere on the earth. That is a huge part of Sepehri's character and poetry, a restless soul that just wants to live as close as possible to the nature, where he is able to find God. Here is a part from Sepehri’s “Wayfarer”:

Wherever I am, let me be!
The Sky is mine.
The windows, the mind, the air, love, earth, are all mine.
What does it matter
if mushrooms of nostalgia
grow from time to time? (Sepehri 58)"

Sepehri’s love affair with Kashan and its plains did not keep him from traveling and exploring the world, which inspired his Poetry, painting, and vision toward life. The journey began in 1957, when he departed for France to study lithography, and was enrolled in Paris school of Fine Arts. In the following year, he settled in Rome, Italy for some time and took part in the Bienniel of Venice. He later returned to Iran resumed his work of painting. In the year 1960, he left for Japan to study the technique of wood engraving. During his stay in Japan, he visited several centers of Art, and became familiar with the work of Japanese artists. Thenceforth, Sepehri devoted all his time to creative art, and he held many exhibitions in Iran and abroad. In 1963 he took part in the Biennial of San Paulo in Brazil and a little later a group exhibition of Persian art at the museum of Le Havre, France. In 1964, he traveled to India and paid visits to the art centers of the country. In 1970 he traveled to the United States and during his few months of stay there he participated in a group exhibition in Bridgehampton city, and in 1971 in an individual exhibition in Cyprus Gallery in Paris, he went back to France and Paris at the invitation of the Art International Quarter. In 1976, he participated in the exhibitions of the Persian Contemporary art in the Art Bazaar held in Basel of Switzerland. Pirouz Sayar states that, “Sepehri is an artist who has been profoundly influenced by Oriental intellectual ideas and his particular vision and thought should be evaluated in this context. His deep understanding of the Persian Art and culture, combined with his familiarity with thoughts and art of the Far East and India, resulted in flourishing of his vision in a particular manner (249).”

New generation of Iranians, Sepehri's most avid readers, are more liberal and less prejudice, than the last generation. They are very eager to explore the world around them, and that leaves no doubt why Sepehri's characteristics in his poetry appeal to them very much. His poetry has become the language of the new generation, a generation that seeks new ideas, the generation that wants a bloodless revolution in many aspects of the old fashioned Persian life. In the last two decades, religion has been ruling Iran in all aspects of social and political life. Iranian youngsters encounter a paradox between their personal life and their social life. With the introduction of computer and internet, a huge wave of western culture has penetrated to Iran; however, the old fashion side of the society seems to remain unchanged. Still people have to fake their religions and beliefs, and there is no tolerance toward people who want to choose a path outside of the religion’s box.

Sepehri’s ideology of religion matches the new generation’s ways of thinking. He believes in faith, dignity, and truthfulness, and yet he is not religious in his poetry. Sepehri's god is not Allah, his god lies by the water, his god is among the trees, his god lives nearby! He creates a free and open environment in his poetry; he gives people the right to doubt anything before believing in it. According to Fahimeh Rastkar, the poet's close friend, “Sohrab was not a religious person, but he would set himself a limit for everything in life based on his own credos and values (8).” This poem, a part of “Water's Footstep”, describes Sepehri's mentality towards religion:

“I am a Moslem.
My Mecca is a rose.
My mosque is a spring, my prayer stone the light.
Fields make my prayer rug.
I make ablution with the heartbeat of the windows.
Moonlight flows through my prayers, the spectrum too.
My Kaaba lies by the water,
My Kaaba lies under the acacias.
My Kaaba travels like the breeze,
From one garden to the next,
From one town to another (Sepehri 28).”

When Sepehri was twenty three years old and had just written his first collection of poems, Iran was a monarchy under Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. The highlight of that era would be the Coup of 1953, an operation planned by CIA to remove Mohammad Mossadegh, prime minister of the time who passed the Oil nationalization act that led to British and Americans losing control of Iran’s oil industry. The coup of 1953 left behind some ugly memories from the American government in Iranian’s minds.

With the United States gaining more control in Middle East, they helped the Shah to re-install himself back into power by creating one of the most tortuous secret polices in the world, Savak.

Many artists and poets expressed their feelings toward the unelected Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, and his dictatorship by making their works do the talking. Poets reflected the problems of the society in their poems. They criticised Shah for letting the United States dominate in Iran. However, the society had very little capacity and patience toward those criticisms. Khosrow Golsorkhi, a journalist and a poet, became one of the victims of the government’s intolerance behavior. He was mysteriously killed by the secret police in 1974. Many chose to stay silent and stay away from politics, but others did what they could to better the society. With early efforts of Nima Yushij, Sepehri and his contemporary poets began a new era in modern Persian poetry, which was a dramatic revolution to the Persian literature. Sepehri did not have a political agenda, and he was never interested in getting involved in politics. He would keep himself busy by spending his entire time studying different kinds of arts, painting, and writing poems. This is precisely why he was disparaged by his "political conscious" fellow poets that he paid too much attention to his inner life too little to the social-political circumstances around him. Shamlu, one of Sepehri’s contemporary poets and a very successful one too, believed that poets must reflect their era in their works. “An innocent person is dying nearby, and Sepehri is standing by a tree and saying ‘Don’t muddy the water’, his poems reflect beauty, but that is not enough, beauty is not enough for me (Shamlu 108).” Sepehri’s poems do not reflect an era in time, and it is very hard to be able to recognize a specific period of time in his works. However, he offers innocence, beauty, freedom, purity, love, and faith in his poems. Sepehri’s poems reflect the stages of seeking perfection and ascension in the poet’s life. That is why his poems now stand on the peak of the modern Persian poetry, and have become ever lasting. Most of all, Sohrab Sepehri was a poet of the people.

In conclusion, the staggering number of articles that have been written about Sohrab Sepehri is the symbol of new generation’s attempts to find the ideal ideology and view toward life and to become familiar with who they are. Sepehri lived for fifty two years, and in his prolific life he visited many countries and spent all his times toward his passions, poetry and painting. The collection of his poems, “The Eight Books” is now one of the most popular books in Iran. Sepehri’s vision has been a vital key to his success. Although; he is apolitical and does not reflect his time in his works, the concepts that he demonstrates are truly timeless. He talks about being "simple", having a fresh attitude toward life, and living as close as possible to the nature. The English translation of Sepehri’s poems, “The lover is always alone” is a very successful beginning in introducing his poetry to the world. Hopefully Sepehri's poetry, will one day, become the language of our world, as Emami says, “In the age of rapid travel and communication, books still have their own magic means finding their way around the world (22).” The world that Sepehri lived in twenty seven years ago may have changed, but hope still very much exists. Yes, “One must live, as long as the poppies bloom”, as Sepehri had always said.

Read more about this topic:  Sohrab Sepehri

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