Review: The Green Sea of Heaven: Fifty Ghazals from the Diwan of Hafiz

The Green Sea of Heaven: Fifty Ghazals from the Diwan of Hafiz
By Elizabeth T. Gray (Translator) and Daryush Shayegan (Introduction)

Click here to buy from Amazon: The Green Sea of Heaven: Fifty Ghazals from the Diwan of Hafiz (Library of Persian: Text and Contexts in Persian Religions and Spirituality) (Library of ... in Persian Religions and Spirituality)

Elizabeth T. Gray's Green Sea of Heaven: Fifty Ghazals from the Divan of Hafiz is not a bad book. It is rather decent, and infinitely saner than the deceptively marketed doggerel penned by Daniel Ladinsky. The fifty ghazals are translated into a more or less literal (but literary) English idiom, and are accompanied by the original en face along with a (somewhat one-sided) introduction by Daryush Shayegan.

First off, the selection: the fifty ghazals are chosen out of Hafiz' mammoth corpus of over 400 poems, which means that they cannot even be representative. The selection here seems, to me anyway, to be calculated to portray Hafiz as a religious, mystically inclined poet in keeping with the American image/stereotype he has acquired. Almost all the great mystically-flavored poems are here including sāqi be nūr-i bāda, dar azal partow, sālhā dil talab and others.

However, what this volume (like most partial translations of Hafiz' work today) lacks is poems displaying the other sides of Hafiz' lyrical genius: the bibulously amatory Agar ān turk-i shīrāzī," the heartbreaking lamentation for the city of Shiraz fallen to tyranny yārī andar kas nemībīnam, and more carnal love-lyrics. This is problematic. If there's one thing I find disturbing about the modern Western presentation of Hafiz, it's the idea that he was just a "Sufi poet" like Rumi (is it any wonder that people who claim to like Rumi in the west often also claim to like Hafiz?) True, he was and is a spiritual poet whose faith often transcended the narrow boundaries set up by religious legal 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. Hafiz deserves to have his full story told.

Now, about the translations: they're as good as you could really expect, given the limits that Elizabeth Gray has set for herself. In keeping with her stated goal to limit herself to "what Hafiz actually said," she does not permit herself much invention, attempts to maintain as much of the polysemy of the original as possible and relies on footnotes to supply the much-needed context for readers who don't know Persian. The result is not great poetry, or even good poetry, but (at best) okay poetry that neither fully avails itself of the resources of the English literary tradition nor expands its boundaries in the manner of Ezra Pound.

Often, Gray's Hafiz, shorn of the connective music of rhyme and meter, merely sounds like flat, plodding surrealist modernism, or simply prose with line-breaks. For example, take the following incredibly musical line

Hame kāram ze khwod kāmī be badnāmī keshīd ārī

All lovely "-āmī"s and "-ār"s with a rhythm that simply carries you on to the next line. However, for this, Gray gives us

"In the end, my life has drawn me from self-concern to ill-repute."

As an impromptu translation on a Persian test, this little (per)versification might eke out a passing grade, but, as poetry, this line is a complete waste of the reader's time and effort. In addition to failing musically, it doesn't even convey the line's meaning: the speaker (in both love affairs and art) has lead a wanton life of self-interest and this has brought him the opprobrium of others. "life has drawn me from self-concern to ill-repute" echoes the syntax of the Persian in a way that completely obscures the intended meaning. Granted, I just chose one of Gray's worst lines. There are poems where she manages to acquit herself fairly well and produce decent, unremarkable English poetry. I simply find that putting a book's flaws on display is a better way to assess it's worth than by lauding it's finer moments.

English readers do not yet have a translation of Hafiz capable of expressing the poet's musical and lyrical genius in anything approaching a satisfactory manner, without developing a dysfunctional relationship with Anglophone aesthetics. That day will come. It may in fact come quite soon: Dick Davis' "The Faces of Love: Hafiz and the Poets of Shiraz" promises to be a momentous occasion for Hafiz in English when it comes out in late 2011 (from what I've read of early pre-publication excerpts anyway.)

In conclusion:

Buy this book if you want to have an intellectual introduction to the mystical side of Hafiz. If you want to experience it as pure poetry, I'm afraid most of these poems will fail to fully satisfy1.

Final Grade: C-

(As a side note, I also noticed that, in at least one case, the text from which the English was translated seemed to have come from a different edition of Hafiz' work than the one used to print the Persian text on the facing pages. On page 89, the second half of the eighth couplet reads "the sorcerers tried before Moses." The facing Persian on page 88, however, reads "Sāmerī pīsh asā o yad-e beyzā mīkard," where "Sāmerī" translates as "the Samaritan" rather than as "the sorcerers." "Sorcerers" would be "Sāherī", instead.)


1 Alas. Mandingo they are not.

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