Poet Hovhannes Shiraz, one of the most popular names in Armenia and the Diaspora during Soviet times, was born in Alexandropol (later Leninakan, now Gumri), in 1915. His birth name was Onik Karapetian. At the age of five, he lost his father, who was killed in the Turkish invasion of Armenia that followed the Armenian-Turkish war of 1920. He grew in poverty. He went to work at the textile factory of Leninakan in 1932. He published his first poems in the factory newspapers. Apparently, he first signed them with the pseudonym Hovhannes Shirak (Gumri is located in the plain of Shirak).
One year later, he was hired as teacher in the village of Haji Nazar (now Kamo), in the district of Akhurian. He published his first book of poetry, “Spring Initiation,” in 1935, with the pseudonym Hovhannes Shiraz. According to his testimony, writer Atrpet (1860-1937) gave him the pseudonym of Shiraz (a city in Iran, well known for its flowers), saying: “The poems of this young man have the perfume of the fresh and dew-covered roses of Shiraz.” In the same year, Shiraz became a member of the Writers Union of Armenia.
He attended the Faculty of Philology of the Yerevan State University between 1941 and 1947, where he studied Armenian language and literature. Afterwards, he lived from his pen. He also followed the courses of the Institute of Literature Maxim Gorky of Moscow from 1952-1954.
Shiraz’s most important collection of poetry was “Lyre of Armenia” (three volumes, 1958, 1965, and 1974). He won the State Prize of Soviet Armenia in 1975 and the Hovhannes Tumanian prize in 1982.
Although the press run of his books was over half a million copies and his poems were translated into 58 languages, Shiraz ran into many problems with censorship. His patriotic poetry, particularly his evocation of the historical injustice suffered by Armenians and the lost territories of Western Armenia and, at the time, Gharabagh, was forbidden several times. In 1974, when the well-known literary critic Suren Aghababian told Shiraz about receiving the Lenin Medal, the response was: “And what do they want from me in exchange? To buy my silence?”
He was never allowed to travel outside the Soviet Union, but many of his unpublished poems were smuggled outside the country and published in the Diaspora press. For instance, the first draft of his poem “The Armenian Dante,” about the Armenian Genocide, was written in 1941. Only a few excerpts were published in Armenia during his lifetime and a few chapters in Beirut and Tehran. The entire poem was posthumously published in 1990. His poem “Ani,” about the medieval capital of Armenia, written in 1950, was also published in excerpts in the Diaspora, and the final edition only appeared in 2012.
Shiraz first married poet Silva Kaputikian (1919-2006). They had a son, the future sculptor Ara Shiraz. Shiraz and his second wife, Shushan, had seven children, including poet Sipan Shiraz (1967-1997).
Shiraz, who had become a living legend, passed away in Yerevan on March 14, 1984. He was buried in the pantheon of Komitas Park, where many famous Armenians are buried.