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Spotlight | 'One Arrives and One Departs': The Poetry of Bijan Jalali


08 Dec 2011 01:48Comments


Elegance in concision, eloquence in simplicity.

[ spotlight ] Bijan Jalali was born in 1928 in Tehran, where he received his elementary and secondary education. For several years he studied physics at the University of Tehran and natural sciences in Paris and Toulouse. Ultimately, his passion for poetry led him to obtain a bachelor's degree in French literature from the University of Tehran. Over the course of his professional life until his retirement in 1981, Jalali taught English and French, consulted with the Ministry of Culture's Museum of Anthropology, and worked for Tehran's Petrochemical Organization as a translator. In 1999, he passed away in the city of his birth.

my poems

have not stepped

further than joy

and sorrow

the same joy and sorrow

that bring me to


Jalali's first collection of poetry was published in the early 1960s, later than most of his contemporaries. Nine volumes of his work have been released: Days (1962), Our Hearts and the World (1965), Color of Waters (1971), Water and Sun (1983), Play of Light: Selected Poems (1990), Dailies (1995), About Poetry (1998), Encounters (2001), and Verse of Silence: A Selection of Unpublished Poems (2002).

I have something

to say that I have yet

to write

for it is whiter

than paper

Poetics and lyricism developed simultaneously in the Persian literary tradition. Consequently, poetry has been conceptualized and described to Persian readers as lyrical. Simin Behbahani (b. 1927), a distinguished voice in Iranian literature, has credited Jalali with changing the mode of perception of traditional poetry readers toward sher-e sepid ("white," or free, verse), an evolving tradition in Persian poetry that does not adhere to regular schemes of rhyme and meter. In terms of composition, Jalali's poetry bears no similarities to classical verse and very few to sher-e no (modern verse). The reader does not encounter dazzling diction or complicated verbiage, but an unadorned, straightforward phraseology expressed through a lighthearted and unpretentious voice. Jalali's eloquence resides not in complexity and sophistication but in simplicity. His verse is filled with lifelike, unemphatic narratives.


in the sound

of waves

the sea

for long appears

in uproar

and I am

a pebble

resting on seabed

In his introductory essay, "On the Components of Rhetorical Analysis," the prominent poet and scholar Mohammad Reza Shafi'i Kadkani (b. 1939) asserts that classical literary critics did not examine the overall structure of a poem, but rather focused on each beyt, a metrical unit in Perso-Arabic poetry more or less equivalent to the line in English poetry. In contemporary Persian poetry, poems are not assessed on the basis of each line. Kadkani further argues that a poem may not employ any literary devices, yet still masterfully convey a message that both resonates meaningfully with the poet's readers and transcends their time and place. Jalali's verse departs from qualities of the classical tradition. There is no reliance on figures of speech or literary devices such as hyperbole. Jalali skillfully makes use of a great body of imagery, strengthened by his sharp observations and brevity. His body of work has redefined the role of aesthetics in Persian poetry by placing an elegantly simple and brief form of expression at the heart of the poetic process.

how much of a poet

does one need to be

to see

or to recite

a flower

An extension of his personality, Jalali's imagination is gentle and peaceful. "When you met him, and if you did not know he was a poet, you would never be able to find out. He never talked about it; although he always engaged you in a deep discussion about many things," writes Goli Emami, a distinguished writer and translator. Jalali has dealt with enduring despair, largely due to the heartbreaking death of his adopted son, a tragedy from which he never recovered. Remarkably, Jalali's poetry is profoundly at peace with the world.

looking at it

carefully -- a flower

is everything

and it seems

that the world is big

staring at us

with its astonished

bright eyes

All the same, his pain remains tangible and heartfelt, which gives the serenity of his verse more depth. For instance:

I entrust my sorrow

to words

that ripple

like a sea

that drowns me

One of the most dynamic elements of Jalali's verse is the place of dialogue and the absence of authority, the latter defined as the poet's lack of judgment. Readers are given intellectual space to freely probe their unique points of view. In Encounters, published posthumously, Jalali writes, "There exists in my poems a continuous dialogue, at times with God, the world, or nature. In this regard, these poems always possess a dark and a bright side, but their common factor is the continuation of thought at large." Jalali turns his thoughts and observations into short narratives; many of his poems would work perfectly as the beginning or concluding sentences of a novel: "only possibilities smiled / and passed me by / leaving me / befallen / to impossibilities." Another example:

It was for you

my long-enduring silence

and it is for you

now that I disclose

the silence of my past

History is not at all present in Jalali's verse. His disregard for historical developments and events sets him apart from many of his contemporaries who adhered to the poetry of commitment (littérature engagée). The theory of commitment, which declares that the artist has a responsibility to society, was circulated before and after the Iranian Revolution -- prevalent in the works of Kadkani, Ahmad Shamlu (1925-2000), Saeed Soltanpour (1940-81), Mohammad Mokhtari (1942-98), and others. Labeled as gheyr-e moteahed (noncommitted), poets such as Sohrab Sepehri (1928-80) and Jalali were dismissed by some for their disregard of the anxieties of their era. Jalali was uncontroversial and quiet. He did not make headlines or receive much media attention at all. He was weary of geopolitical history. The history of the human struggle to achieve happiness and reconcile with the forces of nature -- this is what preoccupied his mind and shaped his artistic imagination.

the world begins

where I end

where i am no more

tall mountains rise

and roaring rivers flow

i begin where

the world ends

where mountains are flat

and roaring rivers no longer flow

it is there

where my heart -- in its emptiness -- beats

like a volcano

Describing his poems as dialogues with the world, Jalali wrote, "It means that they express an idea and further provide a background that ignites a passion for thinking and ruminating. These dialogues always remain interrupted, unfinished, which creates a sense of anticipation. They do not have a logical form, whether outwardly or inwardly, and thus they are not an impediment to the reading process; the path for continued thinking is wide open thereafter."

Jalali was a devout animal lover and shared his home with many dogs and cats. Devoted to his mother, he never married. The Bijan Jalali Literary Award was established in memory of his lasting accomplishments.


one arrives

and one departs

and their sweet

smiles turn bitter

pity the myth

that we weave

every time

like cobweb

a housewife,

one unfamiliar to us

freely tears

rubs and

throws it all



should someone ask

for me tell them

he has gone to watch

the rain

if they insist

tell them he has gone

to see the storms

if they prove

adamant tell them

he will not return

All translations by Aria Fani. Comments af@ariafani.com.

Copyright © 2011 Tehran Bureau

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