A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
There is no other way of putting it. I was expecting mysticism and intricate illusions to hidden truths in the Everyman anthology of Persian Poems. Instead I found myself in the company of poets from close to a thousand years ago who liked a drink, fell in love, laughed at themselves and, yes, also made allusions to hidden truths. Any one of these poets would have been great company, if a trifle domineering in their conversation. But boring? Never.
The anthology opens with an extract from The Ruba’iyat of Omar Khayyam, one verse of which has entered into common parlance:
A Book of Verse underneath the Bough,
A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread – and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness –
O Wilderness were Paradise enow!
Depending on how you count them, there are anywhere between one and two thousand quatrains attributed to Omar (Ruba’iyat simply means quatrain) and as far as I can see the selection is not linked in any form that could be called a narrative. So, a love poem or poems about love – take your pick. Having said that, these quatrains are more than a romantic examination of love. They are a heartfelt call to ignore the admonitions of the wise and powerful, both secular and religious, and follow the poet instead. He sees more than any Sultan that life is fleeting and hard so enjoy it to the last drop before your time comes:
O come with old Khayyam, and leave the Wise
To talk; one things is certain, that Life flies;
One thing is certain, and the Rest is Lies;
The Flower that once has blown for ever dies.
What a sentiment! It might not put food on the table or get the kids onto the school bus, but by the stars above, it is tinged with glory.
It is a rollocking poem with which to open the anthology. This also means, however, that much of what follows runs the risk of bobbing somewhat aimlessly in its wake. But the other poets give as good as they get. Omar is followed by Sanai – Abul-Majd Majdud ibn Adam Sanai to do full justice to his wonderful name – and he is a horse of a very different colour. Inviting him to dinner would be a challenge. What to serve a man who could write as an opening verse:
Once one is one,
no more, no less:
error begins with duality;
unity knows no error.
Put away the red wine, the marmalade-glazed roast and select a different playlist from Spotify. Sanai’s message is an austere one based on faith, philosophy and honesty. He brooks no dissent. But I listened as closely to him as I did to Omar Khayyam and his images, much more abstract than Omar’s, lie as deep if uncomfortably so in my psyche. It’s something in the tone as much as the words themselves and it leaves a confusion that lends itself to slow but meaningful thought. Sanai is not against drink per se. However, as he writes in The Walled Garden of Truth:
If you drink wine, keep quiet about it:
a milk drinker says nothing, so why should you?
Burn, as I believe the younger generation puts it. Many of his aphoristic phrases – Until you throw your sword away, you’ll not become a shield – are saved from slipping into twenty-first century new ageism by what I can only call his robust sense of masculinity. Call him a mystic or a Sufi but do not call him wishy-washy. As he says:
As long as your desire is pleasure,
and you cherish your desire,
carry on playing like a child:
you are not man enough for this.
There are seven poets in this anthology. Omar and Sanai are in many ways the two extremes of the Persian poetry represented here. Between the two flows a river broad and deep. Rumi’s mysticism shows itself in a poem written from the point of view of a reed flute; Saadi’s gentle warnings remind us to be good; Attar’s great poem The Bird Parliament is a masterpiece of symbolism; Jami takes us through a tale of carnal love to repentance and acceptance of death. My favourite poet, however, is Khwāja Shams-ud-Dīn Muḥammad Ḥāfeẓ-e Shīrāzī or Hafez for short. How could you not warm to a poet who puts himself into many of his own poems? Yes, he drinks – Now that I have raised the glass of pure wine to my lips, The nightingale starts to sing!; he falls in love – I said, ‘Become my moon.’ She said, ‘If it comes to pass.”; but he has no illusions about himself:
You have grown old, Háfiz, so come out of the tavern.
Revelry and the rend’s life are better suited to the
days of youth.
Here is a guest to invite, again and again. He will entertain and even show off and we will forgive him, again and again. His tomb in Shiraz is a place of pilgrimage for many Iranians and his poems memorised and recited by all generations.
There is much of which I cannot write. I cannot write of the works of art into which these poems were transformed through intricate and colourful calligraphy; I cannot write of the Persian women who also wrote poetry because there are none in this anthology and I cannot write of the quality of translations because I do not speak Persian. But I do hope I have been able to write of the joyful surprises that came with every page in this anthology.
Peter Washington (editor): Persian Poems (Everyman’s Library, 2000). ISBN 9781841597430. RRP £9.99.