Review: The Gift: Poems from Hafiz the great Sufi Master

Note Dick Davis' The Faces of Love: Hafiz and the Poets of Shiraz has now been published, and a review of that excellent book is currently in the works. 

Review of: The Gift: Poems from Hafiz the great Sufi Master
By Daniel Ladinsky

Every now and again, I get an email from a reader asking why I only review books and translations that are good, or at least passable. What would deserve a grade of F? And it is a fair question. The answer is that I don't see the point, most of the time. Badly done translations are usually recognized as such after a decade or so and eventually fade into obscurity. The test of time is a remarkably solid one, as far as literary translation is concerned (though hardly a perfect one, as Robert Bly's undeserved acclaim will attest.) Plus, for me to review a truly bad translation would require me to actually read it again, a pain I am utterly unwilling to endure for the sake of so utterly undeserving an artist. Moreover, for reasons of personal disposition, I'm more interested in pointing out things that people ought to read, rather than warding them away from things they shouldn't touch with a ten-foot blowtorch while wearing a HazMat suit.

But there are exceptions; unfortunate, unforgivable exceptions to this rule: works that are so bad, so absurdly passed off as good by critics who don't know any better, and so lamentably popular for all the wrong reasons that explaining to people why they shouldn't touch them is the literary equivalent of warning one's best friend not to date the suave, good-looking con-man. Such works which the critical apparatus should have long ago round-filed but have, due to some perversion of fate, some anomaly of chance, or some flatulence of God, managed to remain on various favorites lists, are just asking for an unmasking. So let the unmasking begin.

Dan Ladinsky's The Gift: Poems from Hafiz the great Sufi Master is perhaps the most inexcusably excruciating book bearing the name "translation" I have ever had the displeasure to read. For absurd reasons, it is still widely popular and seen as successful, despite a decade's worth of hindsight since its first printing in 1999. So let me do my part to call this book what it really is: an awfully-written, narcissistic, colossally unintelligent act of charlatanry which derives its success largely from exploiting (and grossly perpetuating) some of the most shameful traits of the American public: ignorance of Islam and Islamic languages, unbridled consumerism, poor literary sensibility, stereotypes of "The East" and reviewers' reticence to say anything negative. This is why, in case you were wondering, I have not dignified Ladinsky's textual excretions with the the customary link to the corresponding page on Amazon.com.

The rest of this review will indeed be about the book, but it will also be an act of revenge for what I went through while reading it.

***Translations? What translations?***

Normally, my reviews of translations take the translation in question and then compare parts of it to the original (I do not do reviews of translations whose original language I am not competent in.) However, in the case of Ladinsky's work, this is not possible because there really aren't any originals being translated! Ladinsky's passages do not correspond to anything Hafiz wrote in Persian. At all. As I perused the volume, I could reasonably have expected to at least recognize some of what Ladinsky was translating. I didn't.

And it's not that these translations are just so free that I didn't recognize which Persian text they corresponded to. For example, Coleman Barks' Rumi translations (to which Ladinsky's work is often unjustly compared) and Edward FitzGerald's versions of Omar Khayyam (which are often misguidedly underrated by modern critics and scholars) are both very free and sometimes take incredible liberties with the original Persian. But, although they often leave me wondering what original Persian lines they're supposed to be translating, EVEN THEY don't disfigure the text so consistently that I never once recognize a single line or stanza as corresponding to any specific counterpart in the original. The closest you get is the occasional Hafiz-like motif or image, usually so vague it could probably refer to any one of a few dozen original Persian lines.

What makes this even more appalling than it already is is the sheer hypocrisy and egotism that Ladinsky shows in his introduction, once one takes into account that these poems are really his and not Hafiz's. When he says that Hafiz's poetry contains a "music that comforts, empowers, enlightens," or that there is a particular line from it that he wants "to inscribe these words of Hafiz on every flag, church bell, temple, mosque and politician's brain", he's actually praising himself. The portions of the introduction where he cites some verse or other to make some insipid point or other aren't actually citing Hafiz. He's citing his own work and then saying essentially "wow, whoever wrote this stuff [A.K.A yours truly] was a frickin' Genius." As if that weren't gross enough, within this selfsame introduction, he characterizes this book as a selfless labor of love, trying to "impart his [Hafiz's] remarkable qualities." This guy has actually taken his own self-aggrandizement and pawned it off on the reader as devotion and dedication to another artist he admires! HOW SHAMELESS CAN YOU GET?

Ladinsky just might be deluded enough to believe his own statement (the only one that comes within vomiting-distance of the point I just raised) in the book's introduction that "once in a while I may seem to have taken the liberty to play a few of these lines through a late-night jazz sax instead of from a morning temple drum or lyre." I can tell you that it is, at best, a grotesque low-balling of what's really going on here. At worst, it's probably just a half-assed attempt at discrediting unfavorable reviews like this one. In the same paragraph, he further answers readers who object to what he calls "a few contemporary expressions" (read: outright fabrication) in the poems with the following crack-pottery:

To that I say- nothing doing. The word translation comes from the Latin for "to bring across." My goal is to bring across, right into your lap, the wondrous spirit of Hafiz that lifts the corners of the mouth. I view this goal as a primary, no-holds-barred task. And I apologize for any language that may stop the beguine and not let the reader remain in Hafiz's tender strong embrace.

First off (pedantry alert) actually, the word trānslātiō in late Latin didn't mean "bring across" at all. It meant "translation" in a sense more or less congruent with the modern English word (though in many contexts its meaning was a bit closer to "metaphor.") The classical word trānslātus on the other hand, from which the late Latin word derives, as the passive participle of transferō (whence English "transfer") did mean "carried across" as well as "translated." Which isn't that odd, really. Not all languages resemble the modern European ones in having a dedicated word that means "to translate." Many, like classical Latin, just use other verbs metaphorically to express the same concept. Anyway, all this goes to show that Ladinsky just typed "Translation" into Dictionary.com and used the result to feign erudition, and just revealed himself as an even bigger poseur in the process.

Moreover, the logic is completely blinkered. A word's etymology doesn't determine its present-day meaning AT ALL, and it certainly can't be used to argue semantics, otherwise "hussy" would mean "house-wife." Words do not have discreet ontological properties independent of speakers' perceptions. For example, when I call Ladinsky's book pathetic, it is obvious that I do not mean that it is "sensitive, moving" (even though that is the word's historical meaning in earlier English, as well as that of the Greek word from which it derives) so much as "laughable in its failure." Justifying an argument of semantics by resorting to etymology is one of the many ways the ignorant and inept try to masquerade as sagacious and skilled.

But, Dear Reader, it gets worse. Way worse. Behold:

I feel my relationship to Hafiz defies all reason and is really an attempt to do the impossible: to translate Light into words — to make the luminous resonance of God tangible to our finite senses. About six months into this work I had an astounding dream in which I saw Hafiz an an Infinite Fountaining Sun (I saw him as God), who sang hundreds of lines of his poetry to me in English, asking me to give that message to ‘my artists and seekers’.

I don't even have a joke here. There's nothing I can say that would be more hilarious than Ladinsky's own statement. How? HOW did Penguin think that it was sane to publish the work of an ostensible translator who claims that the original poet literally gave him the "translations" from beyond the grave?1. I don't care how stupid the editor was. NOBODY is that brainless. Even if you have no brain at all and just a spinal cord, you should still pause over this paragraph and say "hey, something's a little off here."

At any rate, if Ladinsky has, as he seems to imply at times, taken literal translations and just rephrased the message contained therein so as to make it accessible to a modern audience, then the Spice Girls' "If you wanna be my lover" is just a more accessible retelling of Shakespeare's sonnet 116 because, after all, they're both about love, kinda. That's not hyperbole. The difference in quality and subject really is about that vast.

***Just Plain Old Bad "Poetry"***

This brings us to the second part of why this book is so diesel-chuggingly bad. The poetry contained is at best mediocre, and at worst it is either outright plagiarism or sounds like a sixth grade choirboy writing something because his English teacher made him. Take a look here:

Where is the door to God?
In the sound of a barking dog,
In the ring of a hammer,
In a drop of rain,
In the face of
Everyone
I see.


Upon reading these lines, a friend of mine said: "I wrote better poetry in kindergarten, and I suck at poetry." Telling the reader you're about to say something profound and then listing a bunch of clichés (thereby leaving it up to the gullible reader to imbue the text with something that wasn't even there just to justify the its existence) is not poetry. It's something to be ashamed of. This "eastern" pseudo-mystical Sensei schtick is not at all Hafizian, Persian, Sufi or even Islamic. It is utterly contemporary, utterly American, and utterly ubiquitous among "spiritual" poets today who want to sound profound but don’t really want to put forth a true artistic effort: God is everywhere! Whoop-dee-doo, Mr. Ladinsky, your readers sure never heard that one every other day at Sunday-school.

Or take another little eructation:

Now
That
All your worry
Has proved such an
Unlucrative
Business,
Why
Not
Find a better
Job.


If this is Hafiz "revealing God with a billion IQ" as Ladinsky says in the introduction, then John Donne or George Herbert must have a God-IQ of a billion quadrillion each. What this is is bad allegory with even worse line-breaks, which the editor of any literary magazine (even in shoddy days like these) could only respond to with rejection and pity2. Seriously, Dear Reader, let me know if you find anything in the above-mentioned lines that could be anything other than an enjambed fortune-cookie.

Granted, not all of the poems contained herein are quite that appalling. But, even if you discount the true howlers, this is still a generally bad book which would never have risen to prominence without the name "Hafiz" appended to it (but more on that fact later.) Ladinsky's poems (for they are not in any sense Hafiz's) usually insult the reader's intelligence by telling him/her what he/she already knows (or knows to be false,) passing off the obvious for the profound. Neither of these things would matter at all if the poems themselves were compelling in terms of language (which matters more than ideas anyway in a poem) but they just aren't. Take this excerpt, which is actually a more representative specimen of Ladinsky's work:

Love
Is the great work
Though every heart is first an
Apprentice

That slaves beneath the city of Light.

This wondrous trade,
This magnificent throne your soul
Is destined for-

You should not have to think
Much about it,

Is it not clear
An apprentice needs a teacher
Who himself

Has charmed the universe
To reveal its wonders inside his cup.

Happiness is the great work,
Though every heart must first become
A student

To one
Who really knows
About Love.


Okay, not as nauseating as the previous bits, but completely joyless nonetheless. And a bucketful of clichés: great work, wondrous trade, city of light, magnificent throne, your soul is destined, an apprentice needs a teacher, reveal its wonders. All yawners. Oh and yes, Ladinsky, we all know how amazing love is. As if that weren't bad enough, the rest is more Sensei-posturing about how you have to learn about Love from a real Lover. Only "charmed the universe" and "slaves beneath" are at all interesting as phrases or in context here. And Ladinsky doesn't build on them at all or use them to develop what ideas he has. He is the Bad Poet par excellence- too talentless to write consistently well, and too stupid to take what good ideas he does have and build on them. "Reveal its wonders inside his cup" is the only bit that sounds remotely within throwing distance of Hafiz' lines, and even then the connection is so vague that it could be any one of a dozen verses, and has a whopping cliché anyway. Yawn.

Of course, since Ladinsky thinks Hafiz was a "Sufi poet" (which he probably wasn't- but it doesn't really matter) this poem (like all the poems in this book containing the word "love") is really supposed to be about love for the divine. This is ostensibly the side of spirituality that Ladinsky wants to show us benighted Westerners (as if we're too stupid to just Google it.) Unfortunately this just makes Ladinsky come off even worse. As an idea, it is nothing new to Western readers, and anyone with more than a cursory awareness of western literary history or culture would know that (how else could "God is love" or "Bride of Christ" become such mammoth-clichés.) The notion of the Lover and Beloved as a metaphor for Believer and God (or Christ and the Church, or Soul and Heaven- pick your favorite poison) is actually one of the oldest. It appears in the Christian and Hebrew Bible several times. For example, for most Jewish and Christian schools of thought, it was the canonical (read: only acceptable) interpretation of the Song of Songs well into the 20th century, a fact which lead western mystical poets (such as St. John of the Cross, whose most famous such poem I have translated here, by the way) to construe their faith in amatory, quasi-conjugal terms. (In fact, the radical interpretation in vogue today is a reading of the Song of Songs as simply a description of carnal cravings.) There is NOTHING NEW for an educated Westerner about any of this. The fact that Ladinsky assumes otherwise is an insult not just to the Western reader's intelligence, but to his/her literary tradition as well.

However, for all my writing about how there isn't any Hafiz in these pages, I do recognize another Persian poet. It's actually Rumi. Or, more precisely, Coleman Barks' extremely free translations (but at least they can still be called translations) of Rumi. Now and then, Ladinsky reveals himself to be not just a charlatan and bad poet, but also a pretty brazen plagiarist to boot. Here's another snippet from this book:

I
Have
Learned
So much from God
That I can no longer
Call
Myself

A Christian, A Hindu, a Muslim,
A Buddhist, a Jew.

The Truth has shared so much of Itself
With me

That I can no longer call myself
A man, a woman, an angel
Or even pure
Soul.

Love has
Befriended Hafiz so completely
It has turned to ash
And freed
Me

Of every concept and image
My mind has ever known


Once more, the first few lines have same lazy trick of enjambed prose with a little capitalization thrown in for good measure. The rest of the poem is just uninspired tripe. But what I want to call your attention to, Dear Reader, is the following translation of Rumi3 by Coleman Barks:

Not Christian or Jew or Muslim, not Hindu
Buddhist, sufi, or zen. Not any religion

or cultural system. I am not from the East
or the West, not out of the ocean or up

from the ground, not natural or ethereal, not
composed of elements at all. I do not exist,

am not an entity in this world or in the next,
did not descend from Adam and Eve or any

origin story. My place is placeless, a trace
of the traceless. Neither body or soul.

I belong to the beloved, have seen the two
worlds as one and that one call to and know,

first, last, outer, inner, only that
breath breathing human being.


It is hard for me to believe that Ladinsky hasn't plagiarized Coleman Barks' translated poem (which, though hardly a masterpiece, is infinitely superior to Ladinsky's own perfume-drenched dreck.) As usual with this book, Hafiz doesn't say anything in Persian like what Ladinsky would have us believe. But Coleman Barks' Rumi very much does, here anyway. Ladinsky, here, has not only plagiarized the work of a translator of a different poet than the one he purports to be translating, but, it seems, would have the reader believe that Hafiz, and not he, is the real plagiarist, or perhaps that any similarity is pure accident because Rumi and Hafiz are supposedly oh-so-similar4.


***And Bad Scholarship***

Anyway, as if all this weren't horrid enough, that isn't all the ways in which this book fails. It also fails because Ladinsky, like so very many others, fundamentally misapprehends the nature of medieval Persian poetry in general, and of Hafiz in particular. He is under the impression that Hafiz was primarily a Sufi poet (à la Rumi) because many of the poems can be read as a kind of mystical code. The truth, however, is somewhat more complicated than that. I know of no better summary than the one given below by the scholar Wheeler Thackston, originally printed in A Millennium of Classical Persian Poetry (which, by the way, I heartily recommend to Persian students who want an introduction to classical literature):

One of the major difficulties Persian poetry poses to the novice reader lies in the pervasion of poetry by mysticism. Fairly early in the game the mystics found that they could "express the ineffable" in poetry much better than in prose. Usurping the whole of the poetic vocabulary that had been built up by that time, they imbued every word with mystical signification. What had begun as liquid wine with alcoholic content became the "wine of union with the godhead" on which the mystic is "eternally drunk." Beautiful young cupbearers with whom one might like to dally became shāhids, "bearers of witness to the dazzling beauty of that-which-truly-exists. After the mystics had wrought their influence on the tradition, every word of the poetic vocabulary had acquired such "clouds" of associated meaning from lyricism and mysticism that the two strains merged into one. Of course some poets wrote poetry that is overtly and unmistakably mystical and "Sufi." It is much more difficult to identify poetry that is not mystical. It is useless to ask, for instance, whether Hāfiz's poetry is "Sufi poetry" or not. The fact is that in the fourteenth century it was impossible to write a ghazal that did not reverberate with mystical overtones forced on it by the poetic vocabulary itself.

For this reason among others, to call Hafiz a "Sufi Master" as this book's title does makes little sense. It is about as ludicrous as assuming a Renaissance sculptor must have only kept the company of attractive people because his sculptures only depict their subjects as having ideal bodies (when, of course, in reality, that was simply the result of the artistic tradition, not of the artist's own tastes or experience.) This misunderstanding of Ladinsky's is compounded by the fact that he uses H. Wilberforce Clarke's literal translation of Hafiz as a jumping-off point for his own work. Although Ladinsky seems to be under the outlandish impression (in the introduction) that Clarke's version is "the most respected English translation of Hafiz," the truth is actually football fields away from that notion. Clarke's versions are regarded by modern scholarship as absurd if not irrelevant in terms of the "mystical" commentary supplied liberally on every page in the "vast footnotes" which Ladinsky admits to using as fodder for his project. In fact, the poet-scholar Dick Davis has referred to Clarke's work as "goofy-Sufi."

***How Could A Just And Loving God Let This Happen?***

That such a grotesque fraud/misprision could be perpetrated on American readership is made possible by a curious constellation of facts: Hafiz, although he has immense name-brand value, tends not to be read much by modern Westerners. We hear of him as the "great Persian genius" but few of us actively go and look for his work in translation and, to make matters worse, there hasn't really been a very successful English translation of Hafiz since Gertrude Bell's in the 19th century, which probably strikes modern readers as overly formal and poetick with its "thou" and "knoweth" etc.

Then there is the fact that, in America today, "the East" is still seen, at least somewhat and in certain circles, as the land of great seers and men of spiritual bounty. Unsurprisingly, none other than Dan Ladinsky himself fell prey to the mystique of The East as a follower of Meher Baba. (Does anyone seriously think that Meher Baba, had he been born in New York instead of India, wouldn't just be one of those lunatics on the metro?) This mysticization of The East and Islam is often especially encouraged in liberal circles as an antidote to the outright demonization engaged in by the political right. In fact, that's probably why Coleman Barks' versions of Rumi were so successful.

However, Hafiz was not a mystical sage, but a frickin' human being. True, he was and is a spiritual poet whose faith often transcended the narrow boundaries imposed by religious authorities. However, he was also a carnal lover, a drinker of very real (and very non-spiritual) wine and a man deeply attached to his hometown. I cannot overstate just how big of an Asshole/Microbrain Ladinsky is to claim that he's somehow doing Hafiz a service by portraying him as some New Age guru.

Either Ladinsky really is that much of an idiot (which wouldn't surprise me, actually) or he is simply capitalizing on the name "Hafiz" by appending it to his own work as a way to sell books. Indeed, I see no reason to think that this is not the case. In fact, his utter silence when critics mistook his work for his translations, his unwillingness to divulge the true nature of the texts contained in this volume, and his insistence (online and elsewhere) that the book's sales somehow justify his swindle -all suggest that he knows what he's doing, and it ain't pretty.

***Critics***

Now, because critical acclaim and scholarly silence played a significant role in getting this book disseminated so widely, the critics who praised this book (and most especially the ones who really should have known better) deserve to be discussed, their claims refuted, and their sins made known to all, because what's just as appalling as the book's quality is the fact that this and other Hafiz books by Ladinsky have gotten favorable, nay fawning, reviews from literally all but one critic5 who wrote about it. The favorable reviews are nothing more than the products of ignorance compounded by the usual circle-jerk of modern American literary criticism and the fact that most critics who could have seen through this book simply didn't review it, which is typical in an age when nobody wants to give a bad review to something that calls itself literature. But, as the Yiddish saying goes, a halbe eymes iz a gantse ligen "a half truth is a whole lie."

I repeat that not a single specialist in Persian literature reviewed the work when it first came out. Almost all of the reviews came from people whose claim to fame (and now shame) ties into spirituality or philosophy. Lets take a look at some of the typical critical commentary that the book has received:

First off, Brian Bruya, who is currently an associate professor at Eastern Michigan University (and is known mainly for his work on East Asia,) though my guess is that he only had an M.A. when he wrote this, gives us the following bit of embarrassing blurbery:

Hafiz, a secret Sufi, came to prominence in his day as a writer of love poems. That love transformed into an all-consuming passion for union with the divine. In The Gift, Daniel Ladinsky bestows on us the impassioned yet whimsical strains of Hafiz's ecstasy. Never forced or awkward, Ladinsky's Hafiz whispers in your ear and pounds in your chest, naming God in a hundred metaphors.

I once asked a bird,
"How is it that you fly in this gravity
Of darkness?"
She responded,
"Love lifts
Me."

Like Fitzgerald's version of Khayyam's Rubaiyat, the language of The Gift strikes a contemporary chord, resonating in the reader's mind and then in the heart. Ladinsky's language is plain, fresh, playful--dancing with an expert cadence that invites and surprises. If it is true, as Hafiz says, that a poet is someone who can pour light into a cup, reading Ladinsky's Hafiz is like gulping down the sun.


Bruya manages to not only tell a pack of absurdities that reveal his lack of taste, but make outright errors of fact that anyone who'd so much as read the Wikipedia article on Hafiz could tell you. Hafiz was not a "secret sufi" and, his poems don't give us any evidence one way or another. Since most of them were probably recited in public in his day, we can be certain that Hafiz wasn't telling any secrets in those. Other than the poems, all we know about Hafiz comes from legends of much later provenance (even the most cursory survey of the critical literature could tell you that.) As we have already discussed, poems with apparent mystical content are not necessarily mystical poems, and Hafiz in particular loved to play with the multiple resonances of the poetic vocabulary. Hafiz gives us no indication that his poetry, to the extent that it was religious, is evidence for an "All-consuming passion for union with the divine." It is true that there are certain poems which describe a speaker in throes of longing for the divinity/beloved, and in certain of those poems there's enough evidence to say that they're probably mainly religious in message. Such a poem, for example, is the one that begins with the following lines:

Muzhda-yi vasl-i to k'ū k'az sar-i jān barkhēzam
Tāyir-i qudsam o az dām-i jahān barkhēzam

(Where is the news of Union with you? For it would let me rise and give up the soul,
I am a holy bird and from the cage of the world I will arise.)

However, we've already established that it is foolish to assume that Hafiz is the speaker of the poems, and that this is not some poetic avatar. Moreover, even if we were to assume that this poem (and others like it) are autobiographical, Bruya's statement still falls flat on its face since modern scholarship has almost no access to the relative chronology of the poems. We don't know which ones were written early in life and which ones were written later. (All we have is certain clues from certain of the poems due to references made to events and places during the poet's lifetime.) We cannot say how "that love transformed" into anything, because his poems don't offer much of a timeline by which to gauge what is transforming, where, when, and into what.

So much for Bruya's historical claims. As for his discussions of the translation, the excerpt he chooses to cite is pretty trite and cliché-ridden with the one exception of the phrase "gravity of darkness". A bird lifted on the wings of love? Really? C'mon, my 10th grade P.E. teacher could do better than that. An "expert cadence that invites and surprises?" I don't need to insult your intelligence, Dear Reader, by foisting yet another excerpt on you to refute that claim. "Hafiz says, that a poet is someone who can pour light into a cup,".... No, Hafiz doesn't say that. Anywhere. Ever. That's Ladinsky's invention.

At this point it should be clear that Bruya doesn't even know the least thing about Hafiz scholarship, and hasn't even bothered to, say, ask one of his Persian-speaking colleagues if this sounds anything like the Persian poet. If one of his students turned in a paper with this many howlers, I doubt he'd give it a second thought before flunking the student.

Here's another little blurb by Patricia Monaghan:

Less well known in the U.S. than his Sufi predecessor, Rumi, Hafiz (Shams-ud-din Muhammad) is also worthy of attention, and Ladinsky's free translations should help see that he gets it. Hafiz is so beloved in Iran that he outsells the Koran. Many know his verses by heart and recite them with gusto. And gusto is appropriate to this passionate, earthy poet who melds mind, spirit, and body in each of his usually brief pensées. Ladinsky has deliberately chosen a loose and colloquial tone for this collection, which might grate on the nerves of purists but makes Hafiz come vividly alive for the average reader.

"You carry
All the ingredients
To turn your life into a nightmare-
Don't mix them!"

he advises, and

"Bottom line:
Do not stop playing
These beautiful
Love Games."

Nothing is too human for Hafiz to celebrate, for in humanity he finds the prospect of God. In everything from housework to lovemaking, he celebrates the spiritual possibilities of life. A fine and stirring new presentation of one of the world's great poets.


Lets tackle these claims one by one, shall we?

The assertion that Hafiz outsells the Qur'ān is often tossed around. It probably isn't true, though. But I'll give her the benefit of the doubt on this one.

"Many [Iranians] know his verses by heart and recite him with gusto..."

Actually, you'd have a hard time finding an Iranian of whom this isn't true. She could have just as easily said "Almost all know..." and made an even stronger case. But the fact that she went for the weasel-wording suggests that, like Prof. Bruya, she's talking out of her ass.

"And gusto is appropriate to this passionate, earthy poet who melds mind, spirit, and body in each of his usually brief pensées."

This statement could literally apply to anyone/thing. And in any event, as is the case with Bruya, we find no indication that Monaghan knows/knew anything about Hafiz other than what the book's introductory material told her. She is eminently unqualified to comment on the quality of the translation as she does:

Ladinsky has deliberately chosen a loose and colloquial tone for this collection, which might grate on the nerves of purists but makes Hafiz come vividly alive for the average reader.

Actually, most of Hafiz' 20th century translators have gone for a somewhat colloquial tone in English. Peter Avery, Elizabeth T Gray (whose collection of Hafiz translations I have reviewed here) and most others have used a good deal of colloquial English. There is nothing new or exciting about this. (Actually, one could make a good case for not making Hafiz sound completely colloquial, but that's beside the point.) And what grates on the nerves of this purist isn't the colloquial tone, so much as the fact that THESE AREN'T TRANSLATIONS AT ALL. Both of the excerpts she cites are almost completely artless, and both contain whopping clichés. The rest of her review is more of the same sad drivel which shows that she hasn't so much as typed "Hafiz" into google.

There are other fellatious reviews like the ones mentioned above, including a ghastly blurb by Alexandra Marks of the Christian Science Monitor, a vapid specimen of ignorance by Andrew Harvey and, most preposterously, a strange pair of sentences from Coleman Barks which suggest that he hadn't read the damn thing to begin with.

Here I should mention that Parvin Loloi (one of the few scholars of Persian to actually try and describe what is really going on) in his Hâfiz, master of Persian poetry: a critical bibliography states that

Ladinsky has composed a great many texts which have clearly attracted (and perhaps even inspired) a particular audience. What is less certain is the relevance and propriety of attaching the name of Hāfiz quite so prominently to the whole exercise...while Ladinsky's "Hafiz" may have done much for Ladinsky's own standing, it is hard to see that it has done much for the memory of the persian poet

Whew. Good to know that someone at least looked at the proverbial banana peel on the floor before slipping like a doofus. Thank God for small flavors.

*******

And if, now, at the end of this long review, if you're left saying to yourself, "it's easier to tear down than to build," your point is well-taken and you're welcome to take a peek at my own Hafiz translations and see an attempt at actually communicating some of what the poems are like in Persian. Or, if you like, wait around a couple months for Dick Davis' The Faces of Love: Hafiz and the Poets of Shiraz which, if the pre-publication drafts I've seen are any indication, promises to be a refreshing moment for Hafiz in English. As a reward to you, Dear Reader, for haven gotten through this review of mine, have a look at one of Dick Davis' translations of Hafiz.

This one is a rendering of the one beginning Yārī andar kas namībīnam yārānrā che shod. While not perfect, it is (a) a solid poem, (b) solid in the same ways as the original is great and (c) actually a translation:

I see no love in anyone.
Where, then, have all the lovers gone?

And when did all our friendship end?
And what's become of every friend?

Life's water's muddied now and where
Is Khizr to guide us from despair?

The rose has lost its coloring.
What happened to the breeze of spring?

A hundred thousand flowers appear
But no birds sing for them to hear.

Thousands of nightingales are dumb.
Where are they now? Why don't they come?

For years no rubies have been found
in stony mineshafts underground.

When will the sun shine forth again?
Where are the clouds brimful of rain?

Who thinks of drinking now? No one.
Where have the roistering drinkers gone?

Now no one says "to love's to be
Enamored of life's mystery."

What's happened to our lovers who
know and delight in what is true?

This was a town of lovers once,
Of kindness and benevolence.

And when did kindness end? What brought
The sweetness of our town to naught?

The ball of generosity
Lies on the field for all to see.

No reader comes to strike it. Where
Is everyone who should be there?

Silence, Hafiz! Since no one knows
The secret ways that heaven goes,
Who is it that you're asking how
The heavens are evolving now?


Final grade: F-

Notes:

-1- Also, I think that the same thing that happened to Ladinsky happened to me. Just as he had a dream where Hafiz spoke his lines to him in English, so I have had a dream wherein Hafiz spoke to ME in LATIN from beyond the grave. I don't know why it happened in Latin. Maybe it was because Ladinsky used the Latin etymology of "Translate" to justify his ventures. Maybe it was to jab at Ladinsky for his monolingualism, or maybe it was just for irreverence' sake. But it happened. And these were the 8 lines of ecclesiastical Latin which Hafiz, like unto a martyr, spake unto me from beyond:

Danielis fatum est in meschita mori
Proximis facticiis morientis ori
Tunc cantabant futile angelorum chori:
"Deus sit propitius huic proditori"

Istiusque codices cadent ad infernum
Unde surgent sanctius fumi ad supernam
Surgam ex sepulchro tunc, requirens tabernam,
Cantans improperio "Requiem aeternam"


Here's a literal translation:

It is Daniel's fate to perish in a mosque/ With his fetishes near to his dying mouth/ And a choir of angels shall sing in vain/ "May god have mercy on this traducer!"

Yea his very books shall fall to Gehenna's flame/ Whence their smoke, more godly, shall rise to the heavens/ Then from the grave I shall arise in search of a wine-tavern/ Singing "rest eternal" out of sheer scorn.

-2- Speaking of literary magazines, it would appear that Ladinsky hasn't published any of his "translations" in any periodical, online or in print. Most translators of collections of short lyrics "try out" isolated poems in literary journals before the book (usually, I suspect, before they had any idea for a book.) However, the only previous publication listed on the copyright page is in previous Hafiz books by Ladinsky. Wanna bet every journal rejected this joker's submissions outright?

-3- Actually, the poem which Barks is translating here (che tadbir ay musalmānān ke man khwad-rā namidānam) probably isn't authentically by Rumi as it doesn't appear in the earliest manuscripts. But that is beside the point.

-5- If you're curious, the only literary critic who saw this book for what it was is Murat Nemet-Nejat whose review can be found here.

30 comments:

  1. Thanks. I read the whole review. Looking forward to the Davis book.

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  2. Thank you so very much. It is relieving to read someone's thoughtful critique of Mr. L's work ... I have often felt that this is a huge charade. The arrogance of claiming poems to be Hafiz's when they are so clearly one's own is shocking. Funny how they all start to sound alike after a while. Readers may like the poems, but they should be told the truth: this is not Hafiz, dear ones (as Ladinsky often says in his poems). It angers me that there is not more critical reaction to his posturing.

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  3. Here's an interesting thing to look into: I have been told by people who know this author, Dan Ladinsky, that even the bio on the back of the books isn't true - he never lived in India for six years, as he implies (my friends, who are part of that community, say he came often, ... but never "made his home there for six years"). And he states he "attended several universities" ... but there's no record of that.

    Why does no one check these things? How can publishers just put whatever they want on the books without truly researching an author's claims? All of this seems to support your review's take on this guy. Egotistical charlatan. I read someplace that he claimed (in a blog) that he was "one of the world's greatest living poets." Oh, my.

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  4. Do you think Mr Ladinsky could also get in touch with my late grandfather? See, the thing is that our granddad had this real special stamp collection, but for years not one of us has been able to even find a trace of it.
    I'm sure the family can agree on a reasonable fee for Mr Ladinski if he could just 'translate' grandpa's hiding place back to us.

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  5. I'm sorry, but in my humble opinion, this is a perfect example of how the over-educated never understand that there are more ways to judge a book than by its contents.
    I and many others receive truly magnificent aura frequencies from D.L.'s books. Blueish with a lot of shiny white, clearly the mark of one god-touched.
    If intellectuals would only put a small part of their book-study time into spiritual practice they could confirm the shining aura that radiates from D.L.'s books for themselves.
    How can they claim to know anything, without having perceived that knowledge through the Mul-Chakra under the Lord Ganesh (universal mind), or via the Kundalini stream (astral mind).
    When knowledge is perceived via (interference of) the brain, which is an agent of Beelzebub, it is not knowledge at all but illusion at best. Which is of course why the D.L. not unlike Abraham, Moses or David, does not rely on another man's text for His own works.
    I can agree however that the word translation may be misleading. D.L's oeuvre is certainly more a Transportation of Light and Bliss from the spiritual realms, into this dark, material world rather than mere translation.
    Rabia Lotus Moon

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  6. The reviewer claims: "Ladinsky has fucked good taste in the ass without permission, and then pretended it wasn't really his fault. It is a cowardly act of aesthetic assrape."

    This mealy-mouthed academic beating-around-the-bush must stop. Please state your opinion plainly.

    :-)

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  7. I can't quite decide either. "Transportation of Light and Bliss from the spiritual realms" seems like clever self-parody, and the "shining aura that radiates from D.L.'s books" raised a titter where I live, but overall I dread to say I think he probably means it.

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  8. "... aura frequencies from D.L.'s books. Blueish with a lot of shiny white ..."
    "... the brain, which is an agent of Beelzebub ..."I can't stop laughing

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  9. But then again, he says: "How can they claim to know anything, without having perceived that knowledge through the Mul-Chakra under the Lord Ganesh (universal mind), or via the Kundalini stream (astral mind)?"

    You have to admit, he has a point there.

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  10. I asked Ladinsky about this, and I haven't gotten a response. My guess is he's too busy trying to fellate the Demons of the Great Beyond to ask them for one more favor

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  11. Really enjoyed this article , id been recommended hafiz as i love rumi but was pretty disappointed with what id read, turns out i haven't read any .With the dick davis translation at the end i felt the power of the writing immediately .hooray .

     And lotus moon thingy should do book aura reviews...(love the way that comment starts with "in my humble opinion" ) :-)

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  12. i read about 4 books a week, threw away my television a long time ago... you are incredibly sad... i have been reading this book "the gift" for about 12 years now, and still not found every kernel of truth within... you must live a sad, lonely, stuck existence... you think you have the right to critique these words of mastery? do you think you can do better? doubtful... you write like a pimply faced freshman scared of his own shadow... you are terrible, and have no right to critique the words of anyone... you are not of a level of consciousness to understand the words written, and as is often the case with those beings who cannot understand, they under-rate and make fun of those who are masters... simple answer dear brother, raise your vibration, raise your consciousness, and then, and only then could you begin, to comprehend one who is so high above you... the poems are written in a similar fashion as the way a great master speaks to his most prized student... when the one who holds mastery speaks, at first the student is confused and wants to throw darts and arrows, because it threatens everything they hold dear... when the student is ready, they might begin to understand the words of one who holds mastery... you are a student dear one, and you would be so much better off in life if you would take this book "and let it trip you... you will fall into truth"--- Hafiz

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  13. truthisonepathsaremanyOctober 10, 2011 at 9:07 PM

    Wise words 'Melkane_2000'. I once was blind and now I see. I feel relieved to learn that my anger is just a stepping stone to enlightenment, and that I too will come to learn the truth that this fraudster who has got away with these 'translations' is in fact a Great Master and Spiritual Guide to the Higher Path. But I have a question- If he's such a fucking Great Master and Spiritual Guide to the Higher Path, why can't he just say 'Poems by Daniel Ladinsky' on the cover of his book? Why does he need to involve poor old Hafiz? For that matter, why do YOU need to involve Hafiz- why not put 'Ladinsky' at the end of your quote instead of that totally unrelated poet? Honestly, if you hadn't written so passionately I might think you were Daniel Ladinsky in disguise.. 

    Seriously though, I do understand that you've found his poems genuinely inspiring, and I'm not knocking that, but please don't dismiss those of us who might be feeling a little tripped up by his truths.. 

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  14. well, my friend there is much you do not understand... that is all i can say at this point... when you develop a personal relationship with Hafiz yourself then perhaps you may... but I am guessing you think a person's consciousness ends when the body hits the graveyard... oh, my dear you have so much to learn... i know you will scoff at my words, dear one but when Hafiz jumps into your pocket and starts to whisper in your ear, then perhaps you too will understand... "How fascinating the idea of death can be... too bad it just isn't true." Hafiz--- Now let me ask you a question, why in the world would Ladinsky give credit to someone else, if he could come up with this wisdom on his own? Hafiz is one of the great masters... Do you give any validation to the idea of a "muse?" Perhaps not... you seem cerebral, and that is fine, I am just saying do not mock one of the great teachers, nor underestimate their ability to speak words beyond the grave... You have no reason to believe me or Ladinsky, but I will say that "out of a great need we are all holding hands and climbing, not loving is letting go... listen, the terrain around here is far too dangerous for that."--- try not to trouble yourself with who the credit for the words should go to... try to read the words and absorb them, and decide if they resonate with your soul... that is really the true measure of a great book... this is a great book... sorry you got so hung up on the technicalities... in fact, this is my "if i were stranded on a deserted island book"--- like i said, after 12 years it still does not get old... in fact, every time i pick it up, i notice something i never did before, even though i know most of it by heart... perhaps, it is as i accumulate wisdom, the words mean something more... they meant one thing to me when i was younger, but as i age, i can understand even more of Hafiz's true wit and wisdom... hard to explain... you will have to see for yourself... spend some time alone with the words... let them permeate you... read them aloud... don't think about who wrote them... then come back and rewrite your piece... i promise you won't be sorry... 

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  15. Wow. I guess I'll step in here. I'll try my best to take you seriously.

    Look, I'm glad you got something soul-completing out of Ladinsky's book. Really, I am happy for you. And your relationship with the cosmos, and intuition as to its occupants, are completely yours to cultivate. It does not therefore follow, however, that anyone who reads Ladinsky's book and does not have a transformative experience is somehow spiritually deficient, as you intimate. Nor, for that matter, does it justify attaching the label of "translation" to, as you would have it, a great teacher "speaking words beyond the grave" even if it were the case, and for all I know it is, that Ladinsky really did experience Hafiz as communicating with him via a spiritual hotline. Either way, it's a bait-and-switch. Countless readers are being lured into reading something by being told it's something else.

    That said, Ladinsky's poems quite simply don't seem at all enlightened or the products of spiritual awareness/communion. They function like mirrors: stating platitudes, clichés and outright word-salad and inviting the reader to imbue the text with some kind of significance of their own making. It's a different version of same trick used by horoscopes: when it can "mean" anything you want to, it can seem to be speaking to you personally.

    And I do not buy that it could only seem that way to someone of the wrong "level of consciousness" as you put it. I am aware of many works which do show an appreciable spiritual sensibility, a sense that humans are more than matter, and the experience of what might be called transcendence. Such works include: the poetry of Mawlana Jalaluddin Rumi, the verse of Saint John of the Cross, the best poetry of Emily Jane Brontë (e.g. "No coward soul is mine.") Ladinsky is not in their number.

    Hafiz himself, more than once, raked "Sufistic" frauds like Ladinsky over the literary coals. As he said in his actual verse:

    صوفی نهاد دام و سر حقه باز کرد
    بنیاد مکر با فلک حقه باز کرد

    بازی چرخ بشکندش بیضه در کلاه
    زیرا که عرض شعبده با اهل راز کرد
    ...
    حافظ مکن ملامت رندان که در ازل
    ما را خدا ز زهد ریا بی​نیاز کرد

    The goofy Sufi laid a trap and took to trickery,
    Laid the foundations of deceit against the trickster Heavens

    But the world's handball smashed the egg tucked up his sleeve
    When with his sleight of hand he tried to game those in the know.
    ...
    Hafiz, do not scorn the worldly drunkmen! For on the eve of time
    God created us free of the need for any ascetic posturing.

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  16. you must live a sad, lonely, stuck existence
    If that were true, I'd feel hurt and insecure. But as it is, I simply look upon it as evidence that you possess not a bit of awareness/insight yourself.

    you are terrible, and have no right to critique the words of anyone
    When I call people names (and I do, as my review will attest) I do so to mock them or -if I do it face to face- it is to express contempt for someone who is too far-gone to argue with, rather than in a lame attempt to convince whomever I'm lambasting. Do you honestly think that this will get me to take the advice you so kindly gifted me with at the end of your comment? Or are you just venting your own butthurt?

    Come to think of it, you're probably too far-gone yourself. So which version of stupid is this, anyway? I'm playing moron-bingo and I want to know if you complete a winning set.

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  17. Nice piece of Hafiz, thanks. If Ladinsky's drivel is a result of Hafiz communicating with him from the beyond, then the afterlife could not have been at all kind to him. BTW an editor, whose woolly thinking and tangled verbage recall the syntax of our friend DL, has again improved the Wikipedia article, to the point where it reflects much more benignly on its subject. See you there. (Rumiton.)

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  18. I did a Google search for the Dick Davis translation that you referenced but can't find anything.  Do you have an update on its release?

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  19. It seems to have been held up in the publication process. The publisher keeps pushing the publication date later, and later, and later. *shrug*

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  20. I know english and persian, but Daniel's translation are not Hafez poem at all. I couldnt match any of the Hafez poem with these translation. It is ovious that he doesnt know anything about persian language. There are a lot of other translators that are awesome, try those!

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  21. I don't think anyone here will argue with you; the Ladinsky situation just causes varying degrees of outrage. (My personal level is quite high.)

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  22. Thanks for the great review, I'm trying to find the original name of the poem called "The Warrior". After reading the review I lost my hope but if anyone can give a pointer that would be great.

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  23. I don't know the original Persian but I love the English.The Warrior, by Hafiz The warriors tame The beasts in their past So that their nightly hoofs Can no longer damage the jeweled vision Of the heart. The intelligent and the brave Open every closet of the future and evict All the mind's ghosts who have the bad habit Of barfing everywhere. For a long time the Universe Has been germinating in your spine But only a saint has the talent, the courage to slay The past-giants, the future-anxieties. The warrior Wisely sits in a circle With other men Gathering the strength to unmask Himself Then sits, giving. Like a great illumined planet on The Earth.

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  24. Russian translation of Hafiz in contrary to Ladinsky translation is very beautiful, poetically elaborated ...but with great shift of meaning, with too controversial gender identification, especially when it adresses to Beloved or God as to women. Russian language emphasizes gender almost in each word(noun,verb, pronoun ect.) and transform Hafiz into very ordinary Don Juan. Turkic languages like Turkish, Uzbek, Uighur or Bashkir more delicate in this situation, because they lack gender...

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  25. I am told by an Iranian friend that the Persian language has little grammatical gender also. This gives to Hafiz some mystery. Sometimes he is clearly talking about God; at other times about the divine embodied in a woman: at other times through a male figure, likely a boy. All this makes this sacred old reprobate even harder to translate, which does not mean one should not try and just write your own New Age babble, like Ladinsky did.

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  26. خيلي ممنون
    I just adore you.

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  27. Meher Baba AustraliaFebruary 27, 2013 at 11:06 PM

    I'm feeling really sick at the moment, very fatigued. And yet I am simply in fits of laughter reading this brilliant article! Thankyou SO much! When I first learnt of this fraud I cried and had nightmares that night. I was so upset by the manipulation. I recognise Hafiz as a Perfect Master and the greastest poet Iran has known - so greatly loved by that grand people. Everyone in Iran recites Hafiz. Can I suggest you check out Darvish Khan (not the historical Sufi) who lives in Berkeley and presents real translations of Hafiz and Rumi on his blog via his scholarly education.

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