The Persian Prison Poem

Sovereignty and the Political Imagination

Rebecca Ruth Gould

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The first English-language study of the Persian prison poem

  • Develops a new approach to genre, based on the political status of the prison poem
  • Offers an unprecedented account of the interrelations of poetry and power in pre-modern literature
  • Sheds new light on Muslim–Christian relations by documenting the multi-confessional orientation of many prison poems
  • Relates the trajectory of the prison poem genre in pre-modern poetics to Iranian literary modernism, including the prison poems of Muhammad Taqi Bahar
  • Find out more on Rebecca Ruth Gould's website dedicated to The Persian Prison Poem

Through a series of insightful and sophisticated readings, this book reveals the worldliness of premodern Persian poetry. It traces the political role of poetry in shaping the prison poem genre (habsiyyat) across 12th-century Central, South and West Asia. The emergence of the genre is indebted to the increasing importance of the poet, who came into increasing conflict with Ghaznavid and Saljuq sovereigns as the genre developed. Uniting the polarities of perpetuity and contingency, the poet’s body became the medium for the prison poem’s oppositional poetics.

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Maps, Tables, Illustrations
A Prison Poem Lexicon

Introduction: The Persian Poet’s Bodies: Towards a Corporeal Poetics

  • The Prison Poem as a Transgressive Genre
  • The Corporeal Poetics of the Lyric Ode
  • Borderland Conflicts, Cosmological Complaints
  • The Prison Poet as King and Prophet
  • Crucifixion as Critique
  • The Sovereign and the Poet’s Body

Epilogue: Incarceration, Metonomy, Modernity

Appendix I. Khaqani’s Six Prison Poems


This book is a masterful study of the rise of an age-old Persianate literary genre that is at the same time profoundly scholarly in its use of sources, boldly comparative in the deployment of critical theory, and humanistic in its exposition of the interplay of power and politics with the experience of being a prisoner and creating poetry. It should appeal to anyone who is interested in new approaches to world literature.

Sunil Sharma, Professor of Persianate and Comparative Literature, Boston University

With eloquent translations of key medieval Persian poets into English for the first time, the book is an important addition to the field of not just Middle Eastern literature, but medieval and comparative literature as a whole. [...] In writing this book, Gould has, herself, shaken up the genre of literary scholarship [...].

Fatemeh Shams, Iranian Studies

Enriched by several astonishingly creative and meticulous translations and by numerous fresh interpretations, this monograph will be an indispensable reference point for scholars of Islamic literary cultures and specialists of the multi-lingual and multi-confessional empires of the Ghaznavids and Shirwanshahs.

Kristof Szitar, Acta Via Serica

Gould draws on history and political theory alongside comparative poetics to offer a brilliant new way of reading classical Persian poetry as a mode of political critique. This first-ever study of Persian prison poetry in English opens new frontiers within Persian studies through its lucid translations and refreshingly insightful analysis. The Persian Prison Poem will change how the prison poem genre is read - indeed, how genre in general is read - within Persian and world literature.

Muzaffar Alam, Professor of South Asian Languages and Civilizations, University of Chicago

With its delicate aesthetic sensitivity, piercing linguistic acumen, and sophisticated theoretical framework, The Persian Prison Poem is a triumph in world literary studies. Rebecca Gould invites us to a captivating conversation between giants of Persian literature – figures like Nasir-i Khusraw, Masʿud Saʿd, and especially Khaqani – with revered masters of the Western canon. Readers will come away enriched with fascinating insights into the development of political theologies, the rivalries of worldly and spiritual power, and poetry as a powerful tool of social transformation. The Persian Prison Poem is a book of scholarly sophistication and literary beauty.

Shafique N. Virani, author of the Ismailis in the Middle Ages: A History of Survival, a Search for Salvation
Professor of Islamic World and Comparative Literature at the University of Birmingham. She is author of Writers and Rebels: The Literature of Insurgency in the Caucasus (Yale University Press, 2016).

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