Hafiz, oh, my love, Hafiz! Last month, I wrote about stories that were so beautiful that I could not bear to write in the margins of my book. Today, I hesitate to write anything at all—in the margins, on this blog, anywhere!—about such wondrous poems as I have found.
In the Islamic tradition, I understand, there is a centuries-long idea called aniconism. Icons—that is, pictorial representations of anything living or holy—are avoided. This, as I understand it, is to avoid dishonoring the sacred creations of God.
My reluctance to write in, or about, my copy of The Gift by Hafiz (translated by Daniel Ladinsky) feels similar to the impulse not to draw God’s creations. Sometimes it’s better to let things be. It’s one thing to enjoy your personal reactions to what you encounter in life. It’s another to muck it all up by trying to communicate something uncommunicable. Art and language are, as a friend of mine recently proclaimed to me, blunt instruments.
But, in fact, my impulse not to write represents the antithesis of Islamic culture. Due partly to the tendency toward aniconism, poetry and language are very highly regarded in the Muslim world.
And one of the most highly regarded poets, by Persians of the past and today, is Hafiz. Hafiz lived in Shiraz (in today’s Iran) in the 14th century. In his lifetime, he became known as a great poet and Sufi master.
Sufism is Islamic mysticism. The word mysticism, no matter what religion it is attached to, refers to the search for direct experience with holiness and spirituality. Historically, mystics have been sometimes embraced by other religious practitioners for their insights, while at other times shunned for bucking traditions. Hafiz himself experienced both of these responses to him and his poetry.
I would like to share with you one of Hafiz’s poems. Notice how mystical the poem is—how uncommonly direct in spirituality.
GOD JUST CAME NEAR
In need of love
Can sit with my verse for
And then walk away without carrying
And feeling that God
Oh, I cannot write about this! But I will try. Since I always read introductions last, I entered into Hafiz’s poems without prior knowledge or expectations. And what I kept thinking, over and over, as I read more and more of his poems, was, “He’s copying off Walt Whitman! Whitman is the poet who claims to be everything and everyone—in a spiritual sense—and who stakes out his poetry for all to glory in!”
Of course, it was Whitman who was the copycat. When I finally read the introductory sections, I learned that Ralph Waldo Emerson (a contemporary of Whitman) was a fan of Hafiz, and in fact translated his poetry into English. Whitman surely had access to Hafiz, then, . . . and, yes—I just did a Google search—this is confirmed. Also confirmed: people have documented many similarities between the two poets’ works.
And with that, good day, God has come near. Hafiz, oh, my love, Hafiz! I can write no more.