#125: AN EXUBERANT SANCTITY. Blessed be the poet who ever achieves the household-god familiarity still enjoyed in his native Iran by the great Sufi master Khwaja Shams-ud-Din Muhammad Hafez-e Shirazi, known to us as Hafiz. (“Hafiz” is a title reserved for those who can recite the entirety of the Qur'an.) An Iranian household without his poems would be like an English household without a Shakespeare (or maybe a Dickens); he is still commonly read aloud and set to music; his burial site in Shiraz, beneath a mausoleum handsomely rebuilt in the 1930’s, is still a subject of pilgrimage. On New Year’s and the winter solstice the works of Hafiz are thrown open and the verses are scanned as a harbinger of things to come. (Imagine some poor European town doing this with Baudelaire or Celan. Whoof.) We know little of his life: he was apparently born in the early fourteenth century, enjoyed a wide range of patronage and, says the legend, blarneyed his way out of an argument with Tamberlane. As with the Sikh poet Kabir, his texts are a jumble: the number of his ascribed poems range in various editions from six hundred pieces to almost a thousand. October 12th in Iran is Hafiz Day, which seems to produce the riot of promiscuous recital and celebration of a Burns Dinner in a heavily Scots-populated city. Few poets are loved as passionately.
What type of poet is Hafiz? What are the poems’ themes and obsessions? Even in translation, we are hearing something at once unfamiliar and yet immediately accessible, all drawing on the varied roots of Persian poetry. Zoroastrianism, Indian thought, perhaps even the sacrificial wine of Christianity, may account for the insistent presence of wine in Hafiz’s poems as an intoxicant and liberating force, in the face of Islam’s distrust of alcohol. Provencal verse may in some way explain the erotic mystical element, and Neo-Platonism the image of the beloved as a beautiful youth—here again in a tradition unfriendly to homosexual experience. Sufism’s relationship to exoteric Islam and its origins are debated; rather than being a separated sect, it is characterized as an interiorization and intensification of Islamic practice. Its Qur’anic text is “We created man, and we know what his soul whispers within him; and we are nearer to him than his jugular vein.” Together, these elements lead to the lush and romantic tone of Hafiz—the lover in search of the divine, the divine as the erotic. What creeps into Hafiz’s poems is the teasing suggestion, much like that of Kabir’s, that God is so close, so much in front of you, that our loneliness, our longing, is a tragicomic game of self-deception. We’d hear the music if we’d just shut up long enough to listen.
The translations of Hafiz into English and European languages trail back into the nineteenth century, and gained the enthusiasm of both Emerson and Goethe. A good number of the older English versions have been growing respectably moldy for a while; some of the more recent have been readable, if a bit stilted; but now Daniel Ladinsky has come along and laid claim to Hafiz as thoroughly as Coleman Barks has land-grabbed Rumi. I was a bit suspicious at first of the centered-line format, but Ladinsky really does make it work, though his approach disguises the technical and formal marks of the ghazal; for that, the translations of Peter Avery and John Heath-Stubbs may be better (in Hafiz of Shiraz: Thirty Poems, Handsel, 2003). But if the tone of Hafiz is indeed colloquial, Ladinsky wins. The best of his versions, gathered into the 1999 collection The Gift and published by Penguin Compass, give Hafiz speed, cheek and a wondrous, almost breath-taking immediacy. There are missteps here and there, and when Ladinsky stumbles he gets perilously close to producing a New Age Hafiz; but his successes generously outweigh his failures, and his successes have a giddy, dervish energy and conviction, the cumulative effect of which is thrilling. Open the book anywhere and start reading. It’s going to be a great year.