Totalitarian regimes take poetry and literature more seriously than democracies: Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, founder of the Islamic Republic, famously wrote excellent mystical odes, published posthumously. More infamously, he issued Salman Rushdie's death sentence because he disliked the author's novel, The Satanic Verses. His successor, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, a failed poet turned head of state, courts "revolutionary" poets and assassinates Iran's non-conformist men of letters. As a result, the Islamic Republic has developed a vast bureaucracy to nurture "state sanctioned" poetry and literature as a means of "moral purification" and "surgery of the soul" of the Iranian nation.
In her dissertation-turned-book, Shams, assistant professor of modern Persian literature at the University of Pennsylvania, asks how the relationship between poetry and power affects "the aesthetics, form, and content of the works of those poets who adhere to the regime's ideology." The author, however, appears more interested in poetry than in power.
The book provides superb analysis of the works of ten "state sanctioned" poets and the political and social circumstances under which they worked. Selection and translation—along with reprint of the Persian originals—provides non-Persian-speaking readers with excellent insights into the form and content of Iran's approved poetry since 1979.
However, the book's discussion of political decision-makers and bureaucratic institutions nurturing this poetry is limited to a survey of Khamenei's statements on the political role of poetry and literature and an excellent case study of The Center of Islamic Art and Thought (Howzeh-ye Honar-va Andisheh-ye Islami). Apart from short passages on the political programs of presidents Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami, there is scant discussion of political priorities of Iranian presidents and prime ministers. Cabinet ministers at the helm of culture and education ministries are hardly mentioned, and budgetary issues and parliamentary debates are largely ignored. Instead, the author makes ample references to theoretical works, which may satisfy a Ph.D. committee, but hardly matter to the reader.
But these shortcomings are not important. What counts is emergence of a scholar who takes "state sanctioned" poetry as seriously as the oppressive regimes nurturing it, and the publication of a book that deserves a readership far beyond those interested in Iranian affairs.