Classic Persian Poets

  March 08, 2022   Read time 3 min
Classic Persian Poets
A rich minstrel tradition fulfilling various functions at court as well as in broader layers of society existed in Persia long before the coming of Islam. It is more difficult to find evidence for the presence of poets as we know them from Islamic times.

Apparently, the pre-Islamic Persian tradition lacked a proper term for them, and such a term had to be borrowed from the Arabs: shâ’er (plural sho’arâ), a word known from the ancient Arabic poetry of the desert as well as from the Qur’an. When Arabic poetry was transferred from Bedouin society to the urban civilization of early Islam, the function of the shâ’er also changed from that of an oral soothsayer to the writer of poetry for rulers and learned audiences in the cities of the Caliphate.16 In Persian, the common word for poetry became she’r, the poet was known as a shâ’er, and all that was connected to his art was subsumed under the heading of shâ’eri. These terms also point to decisive changes in literature itself, which signified that “the concept of separate, literary composition came to develop.”

In the social context of the courts, which in many respects was paradigmatic for the position of a poet in the traditional sense, his part was first of all defined by the services that he could render to his patron. Nezâmi-Aruzi stated that the first duty of the poet is to immortalize a name (which could be taken to mean his own name as well as that of his patron) by making such good poetry that it … would be written on the pages of Time and be cited by the tongues of the noble, be recorded in albums and be read in all cities.

In order to live up to this high standard the poet should have a careful education, including not only the rules of prosody and rhetoric, but also general knowledge which he could use to enrich his poems. He should above all make himself familiar with the tradition by “memorizing a thousand distichs by the earliest poets and ten thousand distichs from the works of later poets.” These masters should teach him how to deal with the difficulties and subtleties of composition. In addition he is advised to seek the guidance of a living master (ostâd) until he will have earned that title himself and he has established a lasting reputation.

The social role that the poet had to fulfill also entailed demands on his personality and his behavior. Basic requirements were, according to Nezâmi-Aruzi, “a good character, an open mind, a sound nature, and a sharp wit.” In his chapter on the requirements of the poetical profession Key-Kâvus also stresses the importance of the poet’s behavior in public.20 He should take care of his clothes as well as his manners: If you are looking for a patron and when you are in business, do not look dejected and do not wear dirty clothes. Show at all times a fresh and smiling face. Memorize a lot of funny stories and jokes that make people listen, for in company and in front of the patron … you cannot do without them.

The emphasis on the practice of poetry as a craft in these descriptions does not mean that poetry was only a matter for professionals. Poems were written also by amateurs, among them kings and sultans, ministers, dignitaries and officials as well as scholars. This proves that, already in the early centuries, being able to write poetry was part of the normal training of an educated person. It was in particular a prerequisite of the secretaries in the offices of the state, whose letters and other writings needed embellishment by poetic inserts. Moreover, the improvisation of short poems was greatly appreciated in social settings.

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