In terms of economic strength and versatility, no other country is even close to the USA. It is currently the most affluent nation and the economic power house of the world. Thinking about this country, reminds me of the countless number of entrepreneurs, innovators, thought leaders, movers and shakers, go-getters, risk-takers, dealmakers—talented individuals who are considered pivotal to the economic flourishing of this nation. They have invested their talent and their resources into establishing successful business entities, utilizing productive inputs to create innovative products that have elevated not only the nation’s standard of living, but also the overall level of welfare of the people by generating wealth and jobs.
Thinking about Iran, however, reminds me of a country known for its thousands of years of civilization and recorded history and one characterized by well-known philosophers and especially poets. These poets have published voluminous books that are replete with rhetorical harmonious expressions, metaphors, fictional romantic stories, and stories about paying homage to saints and religious leaders. Iran is a nation best known for its poetry. The sense of pride and admiration most Iranians have for poets is beyond belief, and their love affair with poetry is highly intense. Poetry and poets have influenced every aspect of their lives, often exaggeratingly so. They revere poets and take their words sometimes as if they are God’s revelations. In public debates, for example, poetry often holds the final word on what should not be challenged or disputed. What is the secret behind this deep love affair with poetry, especially poetry written in the distant past, is the question I hope I can address here.
Many of us, especially Iranian immigrants new to the U.S., hold on to and staunchly keep promoting our poetry in the U.S. Social media sites, for instance, are inundated with lengthy threads of heated discussions about poetry and exchanges of ideas among poetry enthusiasts. When a person posts a poem on Facebook, there is a barrage of “likes” and complementary comments that follow immediately, while most other more informative posts focused on other things scantly get any attention. There are also regular gatherings in most major cities where Iranians reside that are devoted to poetry reading and analysis.
I know it is unfashionable to express something that even has a slight connotation of criticism of Iranians’ obsession with poetry.
I know it is unfashionable to express something that even has a slight connotation of criticism of Iranians’ obsession with poetry. What I am trying to learn and understand here is why there is such a deep attitudinal divide between the two nations, Iran and America, regarding the merit of poetry? I myself am inclined to think that this difference is a reflection of the history and the prevailing cultures that overshadow the two nations. Iran is an ancient country with a long-standing cultural heritage that its people are profoundly proud of and obsessed with and work to preserve; as a result, they are less concerned with their present political and economic plight and their overall material well-being. America, on the other hand, gained its independence in 1776 and thus it is a newer country with only two and a half centuries of history. It is best known for being the land of opportunity, entrepreneurship, quality of Life, and its materialistic culture and hedonistic value system. American consumers are typically concerned about their material welfare and standard of living and their aspirations to attain the best of everything. America is also seen as the great “melting pot” of immigrant cultures where one culture does not dominate and shape the identity of the nation.
Historically, almost all of our economic and technological progress has occurred over the last two and half centuries since America was born, following the Industrial Revolution and the founding of capitalism and the free enterprise system. This economic progress was initially stimulated in 1776 by the publication of Wealth of Nations written by Adam Smith who laid out the foundation of a market economy. Prior to that time, we all used to live similarly without much dip in divisions and gaps in the standards of living in different societies. We had, therefore, not much to think about except humanities like poetry and philosophy. The current gap in standards of living between households in different countries, particularly developed and less developed countries, is the result of the economic, political, social, and cultural systems that have evolved and prevailed in different countries as well their institutional settings, such as their political and belief systems.
In the modern democratic societies of today, poetry has lost its traditional merit and appeal simply because democracy allows free and unbridled expression of thoughts and views.
Even though people who lived in ancient eras in old countries like Iran lived in a primitive stage with respect to material standards, they were, however, quite advanced in the fields of humanities, especially poetry. The most renowned and pioneering Persian poets like Ferdowsi, Rumi, Saadi, and Hafez lived in those eras. There was a natural attraction to and a number of possible explanations for the popularity of poetry in those early times. To begin with, serious aspirations for a higher standard of living and wealth accumulation were lacking; people seemed content with what they had and were unaware of or oblivious to higher levels of materialistic living. They mostly considered their life in this world as a prelude to life in the next world. Unwillingness to further advance their standard of living allowed them to devote intellectual resources to immaterial matters such as spirituality, philosophy, and of course, poetry. Additionally, the dictatorial system of governance and strict censorship of the time did not allow people to express their views openly and straightforwardly. As a result, they had no choice but to wrap their self-expression in the language of metaphor and euphemism. Even those in power, rulers and politicians, utilized the power of poems to dodge their responsibilities or silence their opponents by reciting powerful, well versed poems that were held to be infallibly correct.
In the modern democratic societies of today, poetry has lost its traditional merit and appeal simply because democracy allows free and unbridled expression of thoughts and views. Therefore, there is less need to camouflage personal thoughts and beliefs or resort to poetry to present ones views. The popularity of social media and the growing interconnectedness of nations have also increased global awareness, especially about how opulently people live in secular modern nations like America. The aspiration to emulate the better way of life that people enjoy in advanced nations exists even in the least fortunate societies of today. People are thus becoming less concerned with traditional mental engagements like poetry.
I am not arguing that we should or will abandon poetry in any near future. However, it seems like for most of us, the purpose behind why poetry was so popular in the past no longer exists, except perhaps for citizens of Iran and Iranian immigrants who cannot let go of the supposedly “good old days.”
Cover photo: Rumi