A review of The Political Aesthetic of the Medieval Persian Prison Poem, 1100-1200, by Rebecca Gould.
Rebecca Gould’s dissertation traces the Persian prison poem (ḥabsiyyāt) from its beginnings in early twelfth-century Lahore with the poetry of Mas‘ud Sa‘d Salman to its florescence in the poetry of Khaqani of Shirvan in northern Azerbaijan. Its central argument is that the literary genre of Persian prison poetry arose and developed in response to changes in literary, rhetorical, and political structures that swept through the twelfth-century Eastern Islamic world.
It is best, right at the start, to say that this work is groundbreaking on some fundamental and some more judiciously exacting levels. To understand the importance of prison poetry within a culture, it is also necessary to understand the paradigm of punishment as prescribed within that culture: not an easy task! Understanding imprisonment and the many cultural anxieties that embrace its particularities – and at times peculiarities – requires first and foremost an understanding of the existential experience of individuals whose individual anxieties were influenced by a touch – or more – of an Aristotelian notion of poetics: this requires a deep understanding of culture as it pertains to its literary past. Gould has firmly grounded herself with this work as someone who understands literature within the rubric of imprisonment and imprisonment within the rubric of literature. Nowhere else is poetics better utilized and solemnly pondered than in prison and by a poet in prison to boot. And no other genre in the impressive corpora of Persian literature touches on the intersection of politics and poetics in quite the same way as does the Persian prison poem.
That said, for those who are not familiar with the specific subject at hand, the texts that comprise this corpus are impenetrable at best. Substantial temporal, cultural, and narratival nuances and linguistic barriers have to be overcome. I will begin with a thematic outline of this dissertation. The first chapter treats the prison poem in the context of comparative poetics, with specific attention to global theories of genre. The second chapter covers the emergence of the prison poem under the Shirvanshahs, in the poetry of Khaqani and other poets who graced this court. The third chapter treats the relation between the poet and the prophet in relation to the prison poem. The fourth chapter offers a detailed exegesis of one poem by Khaqani. The fifth chapter brings the arguments in the preceding chapters concerning the poetics of imprisonment into conversation with the theory and practice of medieval sovereignty.
The thematic development slowly introduces the reader to the cultural mindset of incarceration long before we are introduced to the hero of the prison poem genre: Khaqani Shirvani. It should be noted that this poet is the most difficult in all of classical Persian literature, and his Christian Qaṣīda, which Gould parses eloquently and very painstakingly, is among his most formidable poems. The Christian Qaṣīda was treated judiciously by the great Russian Orientalist Vladimir Minorsky in his seminal study from 1945 (“Khāqānī and Andronicus Comnenus,” The Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 11.3 (1945), 550-578). For the first time in the history of Khaqani studies, we have now a chapter that completes, if you please, Minorsky’s theory. Minorsky treated the inner workings of Khaqani’s language like no other; however, Gould adds a social, geo-political, and cultural-philosophical nuance to each and every argument Minorsky made. Dealing with Khaqani’s prison poetry means more than dealing with the decadence of everyday life under the Shirvanshahs.
In keeping with her intention to frame the Persian prison poem broadly within contemporary literary theory, Gould leaves the Khaqani chapters for the middle of her book, and reserves discussions of sovereignty and Persian political theory for the end. Khaqani, if not the most rigorous, is at the least one of the most formidable poets and writers of the Persian-speaking world, and his habsiyyāt are among his most difficult poems. Before going into more detail, Gould should be commended for undertaking such a task and for bringing it to fulfillment in a groundbreaking manner. The scholarship therein implies several important factors, one of which is that Gould is extremely versatile in ability to maneuver among theories of genre, comparative poetics, and the period‐specific cognitive and poetic nuances of her texts. Gould’s dissertation seems to have been a task tailor-made for her.
Gould has made a very difficult subject accessible to a wide readership in part by limiting the number of Persian prison poems in her study. A profusion of examples – as one finds for example in the Persian-language monograph by Zafari, the only book length study of the subject (Valī Allāh Ẓafarī, Ḥabsīyyah dar Adab-i Fārsī: Az Āghāz-i Shi‘r-i Fārsī tā Pāyān-i Zandīyyah (Tehran: Amīr Kabīr, 1364/1985) – would have militated against the author’s goal of addressing a broad, comparative, readership. Her method of selection is one consequence of her intended audience. If Persian Studies is to matter in the academy at large, however, comparative work such as this dissertation, as well as the book that is sure to emerge from it, must hold a central place within its scholarship.
In sum, this dissertation is seminal in every aspect of its scholarship. It offers a timely account of an understudied, yet monumental, poet, and of a genre that has long merited closer attention within the annals of scholarship. The difficulty of not only the theoretical aspect of this research but also the sheer madness of the language entailed in this corpus has deterred other scholars from venturing into Gould’s chosen terrain. The dissertation that is a result of this venture sheds light on a subject that remains radically undervalued within Persian Studies, while opening new horizons within the broader world of literary scholarship. While crossing borders in her treatment of the Persian prison poem, Gould has brought twelfth-century Persian poetry and poetics into dialogue with the latest advances in European literary, cultural, and political theory. In doing so, she has offered new ways of seeing both the Persian corpus and world literature as such. This work is filled with lucid reflections, based on close readings of Persian texts, concerning liberty, power’s materiality, sovereignty, and the role of the poet’s creative and prophetic utterance in enabling him to judge his rulers from within the cells of solitude. In line with the meandering enigmas so wonderfully presented by the author, I will leave you with a quote from Foucault: Visibility is a trap!
University of Virginia
Selected Primary Sources
Bahār, M.A.S. Muḥammad Taqī. Dīvān-i Ash‘ār-i Shādravān Muḥammad Taqī Bahār [Malik al-Shu‘arā’]. Tehran: Ṭūs, 1989.
Farrukhī Sīstānī. Dīvān-i Ḥakīm Farrukhī Sīstānī. ed. Muḥammad Dabīr Siyāqī. Tehran: Zavvar, 1992.
Jabalī, ‘Abd al-Vāsi‘. Dīvān-i ‘Abd al-Vāsi‘ Jabalīʼ. Tehran: Dānishgāh-i Tihrān, 1962.
Khāqānī Shirvānī. Dīvān-i Afḍal al-Dīn Badīl b. ‘Alī b. Najjār Khāqānī Shirvānī. Edited by Ḍiyā’ al-Dīn Sajjādī.Tehran: Zavvār, 1388.
———. Tuḥfat al-‘Irāqayn. Edited by Yaḥyā’ Qarīb. Tehran: Amīr Kabīr, 1978.
Sa‘d Salmān, Mas‘ūd. Dīvān-i Mas‘ūd Sa‘d Salmān. Edited by Rashīd Yāsimī. Tehran: Ṭab‘-i Kitāb, 1939.
Vaṭvāṭ, Rashīd al-Dīn. Ḥadā’iq al-Siḥr fī Daqā’iq al-Shi‘r. Edited by Abbās Iqbāl, reprint: Moscow: Nauka, 1985.
Columbia University. 2013. 321 pp. Primary Advisors: Sheldon Pollock and Muzaffar Alam.
Image: Chahar Suq Cistern, after restoration (Herat), Aga Khan Historic Cities Programme.