The Operating System

4th Annual Poetry Month 30/30/30 :: Day 2 :: Sophia Starmack on Hafiz

In the 13th century, the Persian city of Shiraz was both a center of learning and artistic achievement, and a volatile and rebellious place marked by the decline of the Il-Khanid empire and the succession of short-lived rulers who scrabbled to take its place. It was both an auspicious and uncertain time to be a poet.

Into this milieu was born the mystic composer Khwaja Shams ud-Din Muhammad Hafiz-i Shirazi, whose diwan, or collection of ghazals, survives under the pen name of Hafiz (also Hafez). After Rumi, he is in the global north the most widely known of the Sufi-related poets; many consider him the virtuosic master of the ghazal form and the greatest poet of the tradition. His verses are still read, sung, and recited in tea shops and on the radio waves in Iran. Poets, school children, musicians, and quivering souls of all varieties still make the pilgrimage to his tomb by the Ruknabad river, where they read his poetry aloud under the tiled roof of his mausoleum.

Very little is known of Hafiz’s life; he survives to the modern reader in his verse, where we look for biographical traces of his particular genius yet find again and again the trickster-poet of a thousand faces. The “I” of Hafiz’s poems loves women, he lusts after Turkish slave boys; he is fêted at court, he languishes in tattered ignominy; he keeps time in the city center, he roams the long road away from civilization, following the musky scent of the Beloved’s hair. But of the historical Hafiz we know only this: he was born in the city of Isfahan, his father was a merchant and died young, he may have worked as a baker, scribe, and a theology teacher. The rest is legend and hearsay.

He would have relied for his living on a shifting series of ruling patrons; while the traditional role of court-poet remained intact throughout the turbulent era, the religious and political tenets of each new despot shifted like the wind. Almost perversely independent, the libertine, anti-authoritarian Hafiz was not always popular with those patrons who espoused an orthodox dogma. More than once he fell out of favor due to his fondness for wine and revel, his disgust at religious hypocrisy, and his intimation that the only divinity to be found lies buried within one’s heart. Like everywhere else in the world in the middle ages, it was not a safe time to speak openly of one’s passions, politics, or spiritual seekings. The zeitgeist called for allegory and covering; as a poet one was expected not so much to invent new images as to rearrange the palette of gazelles, tightly budded roses, nightingales, caravan bells, and moon-faced beauties. Yet Hafiz reveals the divine world within the known world in a poetry of multi-tiered metaphor that resists simple interpretation and refuses to divide the world into hierarchies of mystic and mundane.

The moniker Hafiz means “one who remembers.” It is usually given to a person who has memorized the Qu’ran. Fluent in both Arabic and Persian, what we know of Hafiz’s education suggests he may well have achieved that feat. Yet Hafiz writes with the cheeky authority of one whose memory soars beyond the boundaries what has been known and written; all of time, space, and myth is Hafiz’s terrain. Consider this ghazal, elegantly translated by the polymathic Elizabeth T. Gray, Jr., in which the poet manifests himself as both Creator and witness to the Creation:

On the eve of Creation, the ray of your beauty broke forth.
Love appeared, and fire burned all the world.

The radiance of your face appeared. Incensed that the angel could not love,
it became the essence of fire and struck Adam.

With that flame, reason sought to light a lamp.
Your zeal was bolt lightning, and stirred up all the world.

The impostor came to see the secret. He was not kin,
and the hand of the invisible pushed him away.

All the others cast their lots for pleasure.
Our pain-filled heart was the one that cast its lot for sorrow.

The celestial soul sought to drink from the well of your dimple,
and lowered himself on the curved curls of your hair.

Hafiz finished his book on the joy of loving you
the day he crossed out all that describes a cheerful heart.

The ghazal takes its tension in a heterogeneous admixture of opposites that must be considered together as a glorious totality: lust and longing, religious mythos and personal complaint, the life and grief of love. The poet’s assertion that he alone will seek out sorrow is at once the mournful protest of a ravaged heart, a tongue-in-cheek commentary on the perversity of erotic love, and a deeply spiritual statement. Confronted with suffering, the ego tends either to escape in fantasies of otherworldly bliss, or to revel in gratuitous commitment to its own base existence. But Hafiz looks to uncertainty and finds there truth: to deny pain, he writes, is to deny the fullness of life. To look to the beyond is to miss the now. The unyielding attraction between what we want and what we can’t have is where enlightened awareness begins.

The Beloved of Hafiz is not either a real human lover or a metonym for the divine; the Beloved is both. A cypress tree shading the road to the Magus’ tavern is both a bark-covered, fleshly tree and the righteous sword of the angel. Thus the broken hearted lover, the pious believer, and the radical seeker—and if we are honest, says Hafiz, all three of these live in each of us—are addressed at once. Perhaps this ability to tell the truth through a veil so fine it protects without distorting is what makes for Hafiz’s enduring appeal. Everyone who opens his diwan can find herself there.

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Reading poetry at the tomb of Hafiz. (Photo: Shima Houshyar, from AJAR Media Collective)

Bio: Sophia Starmack received an M.A. in French and Francophone Literature from Bryn Mawr College, and an M.F.A. in Poetry from Sarah Lawrence College. She is currently a Writing Fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. Sophia came to us through our poet and friend Anthony Cappo, whose piece on William Blake will appear later this month.

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