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Translator's Note: "For years my heart inquired of "

by Dick Davis


The fourteenth-century Persian poet Hafez is considered to be the greatest lyric poet the language produced.

English poetry has historically had many forms and only two relatively common meters; Persian poetry has many meters and only two relatively common forms—the couplet for narrative verse, and monorhyme for lyric verse. What to do about monorhyme is the biggest challenge a translator of Persian lyric poetry faces. To ignore it is to ignore one of the most important things about the poems (it would be like ignoring the fact that Shakespeare's sonnets are sonnets); to attempt to reproduce it is, almost always, to wrap oneself in knots of clumsy and impenetrable English, simply because of the paucity of rhymes in English as against Persian. The accompanying poem is one of the few ghazals by Hafez that I have been able to translate into monorhyme and have the English stay recognizably English. Each two lines of my translation represents one line of the Persian. Because the lines fall into fairly well defined groups I have arranged the lines in stanzaic groupings.

The poem invokes four religions: the Magian sage is a Zoroastrian priest; Moses and Jesus invoke Judaism and Christianity, and both figures are of course revered by Islam. It also invokes religious heterodoxy in the person of "that friend they hanged"; this refers to Hallaj, a Sufi martyred in the eighth century for saying, among other things, "I am the truth." Jamshid is a pre-Islamic Persian king; in his cup the secrets of the world could be seen. Sameri means "the Samaritan" and refers to the person who led the Israelites astray with the golden calf when Moses ascended Sinai. In its mixture of various religious groupings, and its mingling of references to both secular pleasures (the wine, the beauties of the last stanza) and mystical insight (Jamshid's cup, Hallaj's martyrdom), and in its recommendation that one look inward for the truth (the pearl one has lost) the poem is typical of Hafez's polyphonic/polysemous poetic strategies. As can be seen, the poem is very culturally embedded while at the same time drawing on many different cultural traditions; this too is true of Hafez's poetry generally, and tends to make his work the despair of any would-be translator.'

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This poem originally appeared in the April 2008 issue of Poetry magazine

April 2008

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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