PublicationNotes #10

Notes #10

A Journey to the Solitude of Things:
Sohrab Sepehri’s Poetic World in the Light of Phenomenology

What is the relationship between poetry and philosophy? This is an old question that has elicited varied responses from philosophers, poets, and others. Some view this relationship as a rivalry, others as a kind of kinship and proximity, while there are those who see it as a form of alienation or even hostility. Based on the notion that art, including poetry, contributes to our understanding and knowledge of the world and the human being in a unique and original way (a view sometimes called aesthetic cognitivism), this essay delves into the possibility of an affinity and companionship between poetry and philosophy through what will be referred to as the phenomenological attitude. Here, one side of the relationship is phenomenology as a way of philosophizing, and the other is the poetic world of Sohrab Sepehri (1928–1980), a modern Iranian poet and painter.1

Sohrab Sepehri, Poet and Painter, (1928–1980). Photo by Karim Emami, Source: Maryam Zandi, Chehreha (Portraits), Mahnaz Publishers, Tehran, 1998. — © Photo by Karim Emami, In: Maryam Zandi, Chehreha (Portraits), Mahnaz Publishers, Tehran, 1998.
Sohrab Sepehri, Poet and Painter, (1928–1980). Photo by Karim Emami, Source: Maryam Zandi, Chehreha (Portraits), Mahnaz Publishers, Tehran, 1998.

The Meeting of Phenomenology and Art

Phenomenology, as a significant movement in continental philosophy, offers an approach to the world and things. Without ignoring the other ways to characterize it, here I give a brief description of this approach: Phenomenology is a primarily first-person investigation into what appears in lived experience and how it appears. Suspending (or putting in brackets) our unexamined assumptions and preconceptions and relying on observation and intuition, it goes to the things themselves to describe (and interpret) the essential structures of the phenomena in the light of their modes of appearance and givenness.

Given phenomenology’s emphasis on moving toward the things themselves, observation, lived experience and lifeworld, and a sensitivity to the ways things appear and are given, it is not surprising that many phenomenologists perceive an affinity between their work and that of artists, viewing the arts, particularly literature, as inspiring and rich sources of lived experience and avenues for exploring it. For instance, it has been remarked that Marcel Proust’s masterpiece, In Search of Lost Time, which displays a profound sensitivity to lived experience and a nuanced and meticulous description of phenomena and their modes and variations of appearance, paved the way for the migration of the phenomenological movement to French philosophy.2 Jan Hendrik van den Berg, a Dutch phenomenologist, underscores this affinity by arguing that, due to their familiarity with the language of objects, “poets and painters are born phenomenologists.”3 In his pertinently titled book Aesthetics as Phenomenology, German phenomenologist Günter Figal states that “art is vision” and that “it is a relation to the states of affairs and things of the world, and aims to make these accessible in a way that is different from the manner that we are accustomed to: it makes them accessible in the work alone.”4 He shows that aesthetic objects, particularly works of art, have a special advantage over other objects: “An artwork is essentially phenomenal; it is an appearance that is not to be taken as the appearance of something, but instead purely as appearance. Accordingly, aesthetics essentially is phenomenology.”5 In other words, “Artworks are phenomena par excellence because they are evidently phenomena for their own part. In this way, they evince the possibility of phenomenology.”6 In the same vein, many artistic movements such as impressionism and cubism have been interpreted in some respects as endeavors to explore and capture the degrees, modes, and variations of the appearance and givenness of things. These instances highlight potential connections between art and phenomenology. It is through this perspective that I wish to establish the connection between the poetic world of Sepehri and phenomenology.

Sohrab Sepehri, mid-1970s. — © Source: Wikipedia
Sohrab Sepehri, mid-1970s. In: Wikipedia

A Poet Concerned with and for Things

Sohrab Sepehri has created a unique poetic world in his collection of poems, The Eight Books. This world has emerged from the poet’s lived experiences within the broader context of his lifeworld as the horizon of his existence. At the same time, this poetic world rejoined the lifeworld, transforming it in ways that contribute something new, so that we might speak of a “Sepehrian” manner of inhabiting and perceiving the world. Sepehri’s poetic world is also a call to take a different approach to our lifeworld. (The exhortative tone in some of his poems can be understood in this light.) Through his poems, the poet repeatedly asks his audience to see the world and things differently by transforming their habitual perspective. As I will show in some detail, this change of perspective is closely related to what phenomenology asks us to do. From a phenomenological point of view, what is so remarkable about Sepehri’s poetry is its concern with and for things, particularly natural entities, and the world as the totality of things and their relations: “My soul flows in the fresh direction of things.”7* In Sepehri’s poetic world, things often hold value and importance for the poet as things in themselves and not merely as reflections or expressions of his emotions and states of mind. He wrote in a letter, “A single poppy flower has its unique place in my life.”8 The poet discovers the world as his home. He can “dwell” in things in the deepest sense of the word, filled by and even merged with them, like the sense of oneness he writes of experiencing with a poplar tree.9 The poet wistfully remembers “a time when man was a relative of a branch,”10 when “his pulse was beating with the tree’s pulse.”11 This profound connection with things extends to those phenomena that usually go unnoticed, those seemingly insignificant things that our human value judgments push to the margins of perception: “Where is the place of arrival / where one may spread a rug / and lounge upon it free of care / and listen to the sound of a pan being washed under a nearby faucet?”12 In this way, there is a poetic return to the things themselves in Sepehri’s work, an endeavor to approach things in their thingness, in their pre-thematic and pre-reflective pre-givenness, in what French phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty called their “wild being.”13 The poet wants to find a way toward “all the pure things,”14 as he speaks of “the pure sparrow”: “It is morning / the pure sparrow / is singing.”15 In this relationship between the poet and things, sometimes things overflow and overwhelm him: “The door panes were trembling from the onrush of light.”16 In such a poetic world, one might be “overwhelmed by the conditions of the poppy flower.”17

Sohrab Sepehri, House of Kashan, circa 1978-1979. Oil on canvas, 80.5 x 130cm. — © Private Collection.
Sohrab Sepehri, House of Kashan, circa 1978-1979. Oil on canvas, 80.5 × 130cm. Private Collection.
Sohrab Sepehri, Untitled (From the trees series), circa 1970. Oil on canvas, 100 x 150 cm. — © Private collection.
Sohrab Sepehri, Untitled (From the trees series), circa 1970. Oil on canvas, 100 × 150 cm. Private Collection.

Sepehri’s Poetic World and the Phenomenological Attitude

Phenomenology, as a first-person exploration, brings the existence of the phenomenologist to the fore and requires their engagement and participation. As many phenomenologists, such as Edmund Husserl, Max Scheler, Eugen Fink, and Martin Heidegger, have said in different ways, this exploration necessitates a particular attitude, which Max van Manen refers to as the pathic aspect of phenomenological work.18 If we agree with Max Scheler that the goal of phenomenological investigation is to participate, through knowledge, in the way things are (their So-sein),19 such as grasping “the tone of the water and the earth,” as expressed poetically by Sepehri,20 then what are the prerequisites for this communion? What conditions pave the way for a journey toward things that allows us to open doors to things and things to open doors to us? In other words, what characterizes the phenomenological attitude? Phenomenological literature offers insights into the nature of this attitude. In what follows, I emphasize some of its key elements and illustrate how Sepehri, in his engagement with the world and things through poetry, adopts something comparable to a phenomenological attitude, which he invites his audience to embrace. The phenomenological aspect of Sepehri’s poetic world seems to become clearer in the light of this comparison. The pivotal facets of the phenomenological attitude I will underscore include wonder, openness or receptivity toward things, and reverence and love for them.

Sohrab Sepehri, The Hanging Clothes, 1970. Oil on Canvas, 120 × 80 cm. — © Private collection.
Sohrab Sepehri, The Hanging Clothes, 1970. Oil on Canvas, 120 × 80 cm. Private Collection.

From Wonder to Reverence

Let us start with wonder: wonder at the world, at the phenomenon and the phenomenality of the phenomenon, at the fact that things are the way they are, and beyond this, wonder at the sheer existence and presence of things, at the fact that there is something instead of nothing. Wonder as a mood is familiar to phenomenologists. According to Eugen Fink, “the prime task of philosophy” is “combating the naive indifference (Naivität) of our everyday consciousness in the face of the fact of the world”21 — a world we have become so accustomed to that we are rarely surprised by it. As a result of this habituation, our senses have become so dulled that we see as if we do not see; we smell as if we do not smell … According to Fink, fundamental philosophical experience is “the shock of amazement at the fact of the world, a stunned (fassungslos) wonderment to which he assigned the function of converting the trivial into what is worth questioning.”22 Heidegger is also of the opinion that “phenomenological thinking compels us into the basic disposition of wonder … a disposition that has a dis-positional effect: it dislocates and displaces us.”23

Wonder is a familiar state of mind in Sepehri’s poetic world. In this world, we encounter a poet who wants to cast off “the dust of habit” that “hangs forever in the path of vision,”24 a poet striving to observe as if for the first time — and let us not forget that observing has an important place both in Sepehri’s poetic world and in phenomenology. Us Nil, Us Gaze, the title of the last volume in The Eight Books, is indicative of this central position. It is why the rising moon causes wonder to rise in the poet’s body and soul: “And open our mouth when the moon rises.”25 It is why the presence of a bird is not experienced as something ordinary and mundane but as an event: “The stork / like a white event / was by the pond.”26 In a similar atmosphere, we read: “For instance, I saw a poetess / staring so intently at outer space / that the sky laid eggs in her eyes,”27 and “My wonderment was merged with the tree.”28

Sohrab Sepehri, Untitled, from the Trees series, early 1970s. Oil on canvas, 200×200 cm, Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art. — © Courtesy of Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art.
Sohrab Sepehri, Untitled, from the Trees series, early 1970s. Oil on canvas, 200×200 cm, Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art. Courtesy of Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art.

Another fundamental aspect of the phenomenological attitude is openness and receptiveness toward things. Phenomenology seeks to put aside the barriers, veils, and mental clutter that hinder deep observation in an attempt to access the visible and hidden dimensions of phenomena to the fullest extent possible. “Phenomenology begins in silence.”29 This approach lets things show themselves and speak to us and this is why some phenomenologists interpret phenomenology as the logos (language) of phenomena. This act of letting is closely tied to being open to things. According to Scheler, this openness toward the world and things is a form of self-transcendence30 and creates an authentic encounter with the other. Humility, including epistemological humility, toward things can also be viewed as another facet of the phenomenological attitude that paves the way for openness. Scheler further emphasizes that in a genuine philosophical encounter with the world, “the natural self and ego must be humbled.”31

Sepehri’s poetic world reveals a poet who embraces openness toward the world and things, inviting his audience to join him in this receptivity on “a journey to the luminous vibration of the solitude of things.”32 The poet addresses himself and his audience: “Let’s stand at the threshold of the dew / Let’s land in the leaf,”33 and “Let’s appreciate the warmth of a stork’s nest.”34 With humility, the poet remains open to seemingly small things: “Let’s pick up a pebble / to feel the weight of being.”35 And in another poem: “Let’s try to understand, you and I, something of the nature of the stone.”36 It is thanks to this openness that he can declare: “I can hear the flower beds breathing / … I am close to the beginning of the earth / I take the pulse of the flowers / I am familiar with the wet destiny of water / and the green habit of the tree / … just like a flowerpot, I listen to the music of growth.”37 When describing a “friend,” he portrays her as someone who “was related to all the open vistas / and how well she appreciated the tone of the water and the earth.”38

Reverence toward phenomena is another cornerstone of the phenomenological attitude. Spiegelberg points out that phenomenology “calls for … reverence rather than for subjugation.”39 Therefore, the phenomenologist endeavors to avoid, as much as possible, any form of violence toward phenomena (such as imposing oppressive and dogmatic frameworks), opting instead to respect things as they are and allow them to reveal themselves. Some phenomenologists go beyond mere respect for phenomena to speak of embracing love for the world and things. Scheler believes that love is the motive and prerequisite for true philosophical inquiry and that a true philosopher is a person who loves being.40 This expansive love extends beyond the human realm to encompass animals, plants, and even inanimate objects, an approach echoed in the renowned quote attributed to American poet Wallace Stevens: “A poet looks at the world as a man looks at a woman.”

Sohrab Sepehri, Stones, circa 1974. Oil on canvas, 200×200 cm, Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art. — © Courtesy of Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art.
Sohrab Sepehri, Stones, circa 1974. Oil on canvas, 200 × 200 cm, Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art. Courtesy of Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art.

In numerous poems, Sepehri’s poetic world radiates a similar reverence and affection toward the world and things: “Wherever there are leaves / my enthusiasm blossoms.”41 The poet challenges our value judgments that elevate some things while diminishing others: “I don’t know / why it is said that the horse is a noble creature / that the pigeon is a beautiful bird. / I don’t know why nobody keeps a vulture in a cage. / I don’t know why clover flowers are considered inferior to red tulips. / Eyes should be washed to see things in a different way.”42 In another poem, he voices: “An old donkey on the road, I’ll whisk his flies away.”43 And sometimes, like Scheler, the poet considers love to be a precondition for entering into the realm of things: “And love, love alone / can let you feel at home in the warmth of an apple,”44 “And love / is a journey to the luminous vibration of the solitude of things.”45 In a different poem, he laments: “Never did I see an eye gazing lovingly at the earth. / Never did I see anyone enchanted by a flower bed. / And never did I see a magpie in the fields taken seriously.”46

Let us return to Figal:

For an observational philosophy concerned with objectively oriented clarification, the question of art is no simple issue among others. It concerns philosophy itself. Art approaches the observational attitude, and thus philosophy, in a peculiar way. Art awakens observation; it even opens up the attitude essential to philosophy in prephilosophical life.47

In this perspective, it seems that Sepehri’s poetic world serves as a testament to a profound connection between art/poetry and philosophy/phenomenology, and shows how we can speak of the possibility of a kind of affinity and companionship between poetic discourse and phenomenological discourse without reducing one to the other.

Sohrab Sepehri in front of a painting from the Trees series, mid-1970s. — © In:
Sohrab Sepehri in front of a painting from the Trees series, mid-1970s. In:
* The lines from Sepehri’s poems quoted in this text are from two sources: Sohrab Sepehri,هشت کتاب The Eight Books (Tehran: Tahoori, 1990) and Sohrab Sepehri, The Lover is Always Alone: Selected Poems, trans. Karim Emami (Tehran: Sokhan, 2005). The first source is Sepehri’s collection of poems in Persian, and the second is a selection of his poems in both English and Persian. When I have used Karim Emami’s English translation, I have included page numbers separated by a slash that locate both Emami’s translation and the original Persian version published in The Eight Books. In the remaining cases, I have translated the quoted lines using the Persian edition of The Eight Books, which the page numbers refer to.

1 I will not explore Sepehri’s paintings here. I only note that the visual counterpart of the phenomenological attitude found in Sepehri’s poetic world can also be more or less seen in his pictorial world.

2 The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Summer ed. (2018), s.v. “Phenomenology,” by David Woodruff Smith,

3 Quoted in Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, trans. Maria Jolas (New York: Penguin Books, 2014), 13.

4 Günter Figal, Aesthetics as Phenomenology: The Appearance of Things, trans. Jerome Veith (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2015), 10.

5 Figal, 3.

6 Figal, 73.

7 Sohrab Sepehri, The Lover is Always Alone: Selected Poems, trans. Karim Emami (Tehran: Sokhan, 2005), 45/287, with slight change in translation.

8 Sohrab Sepehri, هنوز در سفرم I Am Still in Passage (Tehran: Farzan Rooz, 2001), 86.

9 Sepehri, 93.

10 Sohrab Sepehri, هشت کتاب The Eight Books (Teheran: Tahoori, 1990), 431.

11 Sepehri, 424.

12 Sepehri, The Lover is Always Alone, 78–80/311.

13 Quoted in Max van Manen, Phenomenology of Practice: Meaning-Giving Methods in Phenomenological Research and Writing (New York: Routledge, 2014), 17.

14 Sepehri, The Eight Books, 415.

15 Sepehri, 426–27.

16 Sepehri, 379.

17 Sepehri, 424.

18 Van Manen, Phenomenology of Practice, 100.

19 Max Scheler, On the Eternal in Man, trans. Bernard Noble (London: Routledge, 2017), 98.

20 Sepehri, The Lover is Always Alone, 177/399.

21 Herbert Spiegelberg, The Phenomenological Movement, 3rd ed. (The Hague: Martinus Nojhoff, 1982), 246.

22 Spiegelberg, 245.

23 Van Manen, Phenomenology of Practice, 37.

24 Sepehri, The Lover is Always Alone, 84/314.

25 Sepehri, 53/293.

26 Sepehri, The Eight Books, 453.

27 Sepehri, The Lover is Always Alone, 169/392.

28 Sepehri, The Eight Books, 415.

29 Spiegelberg, The Phenomenological Movement, 693.

30 Scheler, On the Eternal in Man, 92.

31 Scheler, 95.

32 Sepehri, The Lover is Always Alone, 74/308.

33 Sepehri, The Eight Books, 173.

34 Sepehri, The Lover is Always Alone, 53/293.

35 Sepehri, 57/295.

36 Sepehri, 173/295.

37 Sepehri, 40–45/286–88, with slight change in translation.

38 Sepehri, 177/399.

39 Spiegelberg, The Phenomenological Movement, 680.

40 Scheler, On the Eternal in Man, 95.

41 Sepehri, The Lover is Always Alone, 45/288.

42 Sepehri, 51/291.

43 Sepehri, 121/340.

44 Sepehri, 70/306.

45 Sepehri, 74/308.

46 Sepehri, 167/391.

47 Figal, Aesthetics as Phenomenology, 8.

Masoud Olia, “A Journey to the Solitude of Things: Sohrab Sepehri’s Poetic World in the Light of Phenomenology,” in NOTES #10 (April/May 2024); published on, April 5, 2024.