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
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
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