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Scholar reflects on poetic odyssey to bring medieval Persian verse to the West

December 31, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
The works of 14th century Persian poet Hafez are iconic in Iran. Poet and scholar Dick Davis has spent years bringing the medieval writer's words to the West. Jeffrey Brown talks to Davis about his experiences with Persian culture, the challenges of translating and his new book, "Faces of Love: Hafez and the Poets of Shiraz."
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TRANSCRIPT

HARI SREENIVASAN: Finally tonight: a reminder that Iran was once the center of the remarkably sophisticated Persian civilization, one that produced some of the most enduring poetry in the world.

Jeff Brown talked recently with the man responsible for making much of that poetry, written in the 14th century, accessible to Western readers.

JEFFREY BROWN: “However old, incapable and heartsick I may be, the moment I recall your face, my youth’s restored to me” — the first lines of a new collection titled “Faces of Love” of the work of Hafez, the medieval Persian considered one of history’s greatest lyric poets.

Translator Dick Davis is a leading scholar of Persian literature and himself a poet. “Faces of Love” is the latest in an extraordinary undertaking by Davis of translating many of the masterworks of Persian civilization, including, most recently, Ferdowsi’s “Shahnameh: The Persian Book of Kings.”

And welcome to you.

DICK DAVIS, “Faces of Love: Hafez and the Poets of Shiraz”: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: I want to set the scene a little bit, 14th century Persia, in the city of Shiraz that you compare in your introduction to Venice.

DICK DAVIS: Yes.

It was a trading city. It was the center of a very flourishing aristocratic civilization. Because it was a trading city, it had a very wealthy upper class, as it were. And this upper class was able to provide the money for a lot of artistic patronage.

And so there were a great many poets in Shiraz during the 14th century and in the previous century as well, the 13th century.

JEFFREY BROWN: And the greatest of them came to be Hafez.

Now, tell us about who was — who was he? What do we know?

DICK DAVIS: Hafez was a poet who was at the court which ruled Shiraz at the time. He was one of the court poets.

He’s a poet who — he’s a bit like Bach. People say that Bach sort of gathered together everything that — that had gone before him in music and brought it into — into a new kind of stage. Hafez did the same with the conventions of lyric poetry.

And, so, the lyric poem is seen to reach its highest point in Hafez. One of the great things about Hafez’s poetry is that it’s extremely ambiguous often and that it can be read in different ways. And his poetry can be read in a secular way or in a religious way.

And this has meant that he has become sort of all things to all people who are interested in Persian poetry.

JEFFREY BROWN: But, of course, there’s love, there’s enjoyment of life, there’s a lot of drinking. The wine flows.

(CROSSTALK)

JEFFREY BROWN: There’s mentions of the heart, and, of course, there’s sorrow and loss.

DICK DAVIS: There’s a great deal of sorrow and loss, true — yes, true. And the wine is the thing that makes you forget the sorrow and loss.

JEFFREY BROWN: People in our audience who would know Persian poetry, they think of — the most famous is Rumi.

DICK DAVIS: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: And yet I understand that Hafez is — in Iran itself is by far the most famous and popular still to this day.

DICK DAVIS: That’s true.

JEFFREY BROWN: Why is that? What explains his appeal today?

DICK DAVIS: He speaks to almost all the possibilities of one’s emotional and intellectual life, too, whereas Rumi speaks to one side of life, very emphatically, very strongly, very persuasively.

And he has a — he has his own very strong following. But Hafez is a much more universal poet than Rumi is.

JEFFREY BROWN: And what role does he play in contemporary Iran? I mean, these are lines that are memorized by people, used all the time?

DICK DAVIS: Oh, he’s absolutely canonic. I mean, he is like Shakespeare and Milton and Wordsworth and Tennyson rolled into one.

JEFFREY BROWN: Really?

DICK DAVIS: Yes. He is the major great poet.

And almost everybody who has any pretensions to an interest in poetry at all, which is most of the population in Iran — it’s a very poetry-loving culture.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, but, see, explain that, because that is not the Iran that we usually talk about on a program like this. Right?

DICK DAVIS: That is true. I’m aware of that.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.

DICK DAVIS: But different cultures seem to put — they put their energies into different arts at different times.

In the medieval period, I mean, for example, you can think of painting in Italy or music in Germany, that kind of thing. But in the medieval period, the artistic energies of Iran went largely into poetry.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.  

DICK DAVIS: And poetry has become part of the Persian cultural identity in a way that is true of very few other cultures. Even English culture, which prides itself on its poetry so much, poetry is not so central to the identity as it is in Iran.

There are very few literate Iranians who can’t quote off by heart poems or at least many lines of Hafez to you.

JEFFREY BROWN: I mentioned in the introduction that this is one of a number that you’re doing.

Is — I mean, is — it sort of feels like a mission that you’re on. Is that a right way to do it? And, if so, what is it that you’re trying to convey, especially to a Western audience?

DICK DAVIS: Well, I went to Iran in my 20s.

And I went for two years, but I finished up staying for eight years, and then — and I married — my wife is Iranian — whilst I was there. And we had to leave Iran because of the Islamic Revolution, and the place where I was teaching was closed down and so forth.

When I got back to England, I realized that I had had this extraordinary privilege of getting to know to some extent this culture, which is almost unknown in the West. I had begun to learn Persian seriously. When we came back to England, I did a Ph.D. in medieval Persian.

And I thought, there is all this marvelous literature. And, as you said in the beginning, I’m a poet myself. And there’s all this wonderful poetry, most of which is unknown in the West, or, if it’s known, it’s known in very obscure scholarly translations that very few people read.

And I thought, I have the opportunity to bring something of this culture, which I really fell in love with utterly. I had this opportunity to bring it over to a Western audience. And, so, that’s what I have done with the past 30 years of my life, really. And I’m very happy to have done it. It’s been a wonderful sort of odyssey, going from poet to poet.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right.

Well, the latest collection is “Faces of Love.”

Dick Davis, thanks so much.

DICK DAVIS: Thank you.

HARI SREENIVASAN: You can watch Dick Davis read a selection of Hafez and other Persian poets’ work on our Art Beat page.