From Middle Eastern Poetry to Country Western Music

As the 21st century begins, we find ourselves in a real dilemma when we try to determine what world we live in. According to a theory that was popular some years ago, there is a First World identified with the industrial powers such as America and the leading European countries, followed by a Second World consisting of the Soviet bloc, and then an unfortunate array of countries consigned to the Third World. With the demise of the Soviet Union, however, there is no longer any Second World. So what happened to the Third World? According to some, such as Samuel Huntington in his Clash of Civilizations, there is a fatal conflict taking place between something called "the West" and the rest of the world. Huntington raises the specter of an "Islamic-Confucian conspiracy" against the West.

In reality, for the past two centuries at least we have been living in a single world. For a large part of this modern period, the primary political reality was the colonial domination of Africa and Asia by European powers (and America as well), who were favored by a superior military technology, which they believed made them culturally superior. But since the end of colonial domination half a century ago, artists have been initiating new negotiations of cultural relations.

One of the most stunning examples of this new relationship is the poetry of Rumi, who has become the best-selling poet in America, according to many accounts. Rumi was a great 13th century poet of Persian and one of the outstanding representatives of the Sufi tradition of mysticism, which has long been the backbone of Islamic spirituality. Through the translations of poets like Coleman Barks and Robert Bly, Rumi has reached new audiences, who can now appreciate his brilliant wit and his uncanny directness in a distinctly American idiom.

Rumi, although a colossus, is but one of hundreds of outstanding poets who made the Persian language flow with a genius of intense spiritual power. The Persian language was the vehicle of both politics and spirituality from southeastern Europe to Southeast Asia for nearly a millennium. In this vast enterprise of literary brilliance, one other figure stands out above the rest: Hafiz of Shiraz (d. 1392), a poet whose skill at the lyric was so definitive that he still is the standard of supreme mastery. His poetry is even used to tell fortunes -- he is known as "the tongue of the hidden world," because in the clear mirror of his verse, everyone can see their most intimate aspirations reflected with astonishing clarity.

Both Rumi and Hafiz have been afflicted with translators and pseudo-translators of appallingly bad quality. In the early days of the British East India Company, Persian was still the language of administration in India, and so colonial officers had to learn the courtly tongue in order to master the art of revenue collection. Since everyone had to pass the Persian examination, there were countless examples of classroom exercises of translation that demonstrated a bare minimum of understanding without coming close to any kind of literary sensitivity.

Among these slavish demonstrations of misguided affection, one can point to the case of Lt.-Col. Wilberforce Clarke as an example of the colonial translators of Hafiz. He undertook other translations as well, including a Persian manual of Sufi practice by `Umar al-Suhrawardi, and the great Persian epic on the Alexander story by Nizami. In neither of these can he be said to have been very successful, but he was a pioneer. The great virtue of his excruciatingly literal translation of Hafiz is that it preserves the metaphors and the figures of speech with remarkable clarity (including the convention of the male beloved, which encompasses the king, the Sufi master, and God). Clarke unfortunately attempted to imitate the rhyme of the original Persian, a language which (unlike English) is rich in short words that fall into familiar rhyming patterns; the result is not even close to decent English poetry. At the time when his book was published, at the end of the 19th century, it was still possible for Rudyard Kipling to produce thousands of verses with thumping meters and simple rhymes and be recognized as a poet laureate. But in the century that followed the publication of T. S. Eliot's poetry, not to mention Ezra Pound, Allen Ginsberg, and William Carlos Williams, it was no longer possible to write serious poetry in bouncing rhyme. Scholars of Arabic and Persian did not realize this, however. Stuck in a time warp, they thought 19th-century romanticism was immune to changes of taste. Translators of Hafiz such as A. J. Arberry continued to write in a style that was numbingly reminiscent of the worst parts of Fitzgerald's Omar Khayyam.

To be sure, there have been those who took the opposite tack, who basically composed their own verses but pretended to be translating from some Oriental genius. So thin was the relationship between their versions and the purported originals that one can hardly call them translations. Uncritical readers, impressed with the reputations of the original authors, have accepted these travesties with a docile credulity. This is a distinctly postmodern problem, in which the text disappears into advertising and self-promotion.

What has been missing in this process is an authentic American voice based on a genuine engagement with music. The Persian ghazal is a lyrical poem that has been preserved dynamically in musical performance. Unlike modern American and English poetry, it is not meant to be read silently and privately. Instead, it is performed for a community on the basis of musical forms that have been honed for generations. What possible equivalent can we find in American culture?

The answer has been provided, surprisingly at first glance, in country Western music. James R. Newell, the audacious initiator of this trend, brings unique gifts to this project. An accomplished musician with strong Nashville credentials, he has a solid feel for both the instrumental and the lyrical sides. As a divinity student at Vanderbilt with a deep commitment to comparative religion in its most practical sense, he cares passionately about the truth of the texts that he sings. He has taken the bare bones of Wilberforce Clarke's version of Hafiz and transformed them into the living body of country Western music. This alchemy definitely turns lead into gold.

Amazingly, country Western music is one of the only places left where rhyming verse is still powerfully alive. Even the preservation of the Persian endrhyme, pushing the verb to the end of the line, seems somehow inevitable rather than artificial. The themes that are familiar in this style -- drinking, hangover, love gone bad, and the devastating effects of beauty -- are very much the chief topics of Persian poetry as well. There are differences, to be sure: Persian poetry was recited in the court, with kings providing poets like Hafiz with handsome financial rewards, while the singers of country Western music deal with recording companies, radio stations, and concert audiences. In Sufi parlance, wine stood for the intoxication of divine love, the tavern was the abode of the Sufi master, and the face and tresses of the beloved were the attributes of God. A lot of the principles are pretty much the same, however. This overall structural similarity has permitted James R. Newell to create what is basically a new American idiom for the great Persian poet. I am grateful to him for the directness of his appeal to the bartender, replacing the stiff and ornate Victorian summoning of the cupbearer. His musical inventiveness is graceful and inspired. He enters into the seriousness of Sufi spirituality, bringing with him an undeniably American directness that gives up none of its own individuality. If you know the Persian originals, you will recognize these, with a sense of aesthetic shock, as quintessential and beautiful. If you hear them for the first time in English, you will hear a damn good song.

I have heard a lot of bad fusion albums done by people with no sense of humor. This is good, it is funky, and if Hafiz were here today, he'd leave his beer at the bar and step to the stage to make a request. Let's drink to a world where artists like this can bring us together.
Carl W. Ernst
Department of Religious Studies
University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill



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