I have some Iranian friends who love poetry. (I think all Iranians love poetry. They take poems in from birth. They speak to one another in poems.) Sometimes they’ll have me and one or two other Americans over for a poetry reading. The rules are simple: bring a poem, read it, say why you like it.
Someone makes black tea with cardamom and sets out a plate of saffron sugar cubes. I bring a good-sized block of feta cheese. Someone else opens a bag of nuts or dried fruit. There are cookies. We start eating, and then we begin to argue.
Of course we don’t aim to argue, we aim to read poetry. But the Persians tend to read Hafiz poems, in Farsi. God bless ’em, I know they don’t mean to. But honestly, they do it every time. And consequently they have to explain Hafiz to the rest of us, in English. Their explanations lead to vigorous disagreements between them. I’ve learned to join in even when I don’t have a clue what Hafiz was trying to say. No one walks away from these arguments satisfied; no one wins. But we all have a good time of it.
Well, I do think Hafiz walks away from these arguments satisfied, because we don’t shut him down. We don’t reduce him to one meaning. Billy Collins tells about his students tying a poem to a chair and beating a confession out of it with a hose. We have yet to do that to Hafiz. Instead we sneak into his study, and pull down all of his books, and spread them on the floor with our eyes white. We tear pages out of them and put them into our back pockets. We steal paintings from the wall. He knows all of this is going on and he’s just fine about it.
I walk away from each poetry evening impressed with Hafiz’s love. We all of us read him differently, but we all read love. Love for a woman, for a man, for a friend, for his spiritual teacher, for all of creation, for humanity, for the wine in his glass, for the farting camel. Hafiz is in rapturous love with all of these, and through them he is in love with God.
I’ve become a convert. Honestly, I didn’t like him at first. He is full of difficult images like John Donne, or like John’s Revelation–both of which confuse hell out of me. Plus I thought he was hacking one theme to its godawful death. Every damned poem is about love.
But the more I read of him (in English), the more I think his images speak a universal religious language. And for Hafiz, his one theme, love, is also a name for the whole world. There is nothing he can’t touch with that one theme.
Granted, I am a new reader of Hafiz, and I don’t have the cultural perspective to read his poems like my Persian friends. But even so I’m beginning to approach translations with more confidence and satisfaction. If you want to do the same here are some random facts that might help.
1) Hafiz lived in the middle ages. When Hafiz was about 20 he saw a woman who filled him with longing, and he kept a 40 day vigil. This was somehow to attain her love. I’ve heard conflicting stories about what happened next. Some say that during the vigil he fell so deeply in love with God that he completely forgot the woman and began writing religious poems. Others point out that most of the poems he wrote are addressed to this woman.
2) Some images recur again and again. I’m told they mean things. Wine and drunkenness can mean ecstatic love, or it can mean wine and drunkenness. Nighttime can mean the unknowable nature of God. The beloved and the friend can stand for Hafiz spiritual teacher, Attar, it can also mean God. Spring and flowers can represent an awakening to new understanding or hope.
3) For a good part of his life he was disfavored (maybe even exiled?) by the orthodox Muslim leaders for what he said in his poems.
4) He signs most of his poems by saying his name in third person in the last line. Imagine a modern poet doing that!
I think a good way to enjoy Hafiz is through Daniel Ladinsky’s I Heard God Laughing. This is a collection of Hafiz “renderings”. Ladinsky calls them renderings rather than translations because he takes extreme liberty. I think he even writes several different poems from subsequent readings of a single Hafiz poem. But this book really captures the joyful spirit and wide embrace of the Hafiz translations I have read. (In the interest of full disclosure, my Iranian friends think it’s crap.) If anyone knows of a good English collection of Hafiz poems, I’d love to hear about it.
Here’s a Hafiz poem translated by Robert Bly, the poet who wrote that best-selling man book about the Grimm Fairy Tale Iron John. (That’s a good book, by the way. I recommend it.)
The garden is breathing out the air of Paradise today,
Toward me, a friend with a sweet nature, and this wine.
It’s all right for the beggar to brag that he is a king today.
His royal tent is a shadow thrown by a cloud; his throne room is a sown field.
This meadow is composing a tale of a Spring day in May;
The serious man lets the future go and accepts the cash now.
Do you really believe your enemy will be faithful to you?
The candle the hermit lights goes out in the worldly church.
Make your soul strong then by feeding it the secret wine.
When we have turned to dust, this rotten world will press our dust into bricks.
My life is a black book. But don’t rebuke me too much.
No person can ever read the words written on his own forehead.
When Hafiz’s coffin comes by, it’ll be all right to follow behind.
Although he is a captive of sin, he is on his way to the Garden.