Islamic and Friendship Studies at Oberlin College

Charlize Villaseñor: The Role of Didacticism, Coffee Shop Performances, and Calligraphy in Persian Poetry

In Persian culture, poetry plays a significant role in teaching society about right and wrong. For this reason, it is used alongside music, performance, and calligraphy to be emphasized and have importance placed on it, even in the modern world. Each of these aspects has their own unique qualities; the use of didactic poetry, coffee shop performances, and calligraphy will be further discussed.

Throughout  Persian poetry, there are deeper meanings than the denotations of the words on the paper, epic poetry, and especially didactic poetry, as it serves to convey a clear moral message depicting how individuals should behave or act. Though much of Persian poetry relates to reverence of God, not all poems do, and these different poems should be analyzed to find what they are trying to teach. I have chosen to analyze Rumi’s, “Remembered Music,” and Sa’di’s, “Compassion.” “Remembered Music” considers the impact of music on people’s lives and its heavenly source. According to Rumi, music brings individuals together because it is beautiful and is one of the few things humans remember from the heavens and our ancestors. This is portrayed through the mention of Adam from the Biblical story of Adam and Eve. Although the music humans know is beautiful enough to bring people together, it is not as beautiful as the music of heaven. This gives heaven a goal-like quality, as this music would draw people to heaven. This influences people to put a stronger effort into being  good people so they may go to heaven and listen to this music, but to also appreciate the value of music and unity while on Earth. Though Sa’di’s “Compassion” does not talk about heaven or God, it still assists in teaching the qualities a good person would have; namely: compassion. “Compassion” depicts an ant and how an individual can relate to the ant. Sa’di argues that the ant is very similar to the human; both feel joy, feel pain, and work hard in life. He advises the reader to learn perseverance from the ant rather than crushing it and believing they are worth more than it because it is a bug. This poem thus teaches humbleness, perseverance, appreciation of hard work, and compassion. While both of these poems come from different poets and had different content, they served their purposes as didactic poems and helped teach societal values to the readers. 

A largely popular poem is Ferdowsi’s, Shahname. This epic poem is didactic in nature, especially as it concerns the ethics of war in a long retelling of history, myths, stories, and other poetry from throughout Persia that Ferdowsi brought together as one epic poem. Ferdowsi describes the ethics of war as being fair, dignified, and having minimalized rather than extreme effects or casualties. This particular poem is oftentimes performed in front of public crowds, especially in coffee shops, as the cultural influence of the work is that large and, because of the didactic nature, is culturally necessary to be shared. These performances were often theatrical in nature, especially as certain lines of the poem were exaggerated or emphasized, but not necessarily extravagant. A stick or staff typically served as a prop that could represent multiple objects such as trees, swords, or horses in order to fit the scene. The coffee shop musical performance is a necessary part of Persian culture in that it emphasizes the importance of poetry as a whole, but especially, didactic poetry and the lessons it teaches. This includes Shahname as a specific poem considering it includes history, stories, and myths, pertaining to Persia. The musical aspect of the coffee shop performance is important, as it brings an aural and tactile aspect to this rather visual art. Poetry is often associated with calligraphy, as many artists use their calligraphic skills in order to write lines of poetry. Poems are oftentimes set to music as a way to assist the impact of the words as well as to further spread the words of Ferdowsi, Rumi, Sa’di, and many other poets. 

As previously mentioned, calligraphy and poetry were often complementary and assisted each other as art forms; poetry lines were used in calligraphy and this calligraphy helped bring attention to the importance of poetry as it allowed for some lines to be displayed in various places. In my own experiences with calligraphy so far, I have found that it is highly enjoyable, relaxing, and something that easily attracts individuals to create. The artist, or writer, who uses pen and paper typically writes lines of Persian poetry and knows these lines have a deeper, more beautiful, meaning. Due to this, the artist will write these lines over and over to ensure that the final product is just as beautiful as the meaning of the lines, thus committing these lines to memory in the process, even if this memorization is unintentional. I feel that calligraphy is so widespread that it has definitely normalized the place of didactic, poetic lines in the majority of modern Persian society and allowed poetry to keep its relevance in a modern age. Additionally, much like other forms of handwriting or art, each artist holds their own specific style or practices that bring their work closer to themselves and add to its meaningfulness. This individuality is seen through both the calligraphic style that people use, as well as the media the artist chooses to use which can range from embroidering rugs, to engraving rings, to creating three dimensional sculptures or other items. 

Didactic poetry has left a large impact on Persian society as it influenced morals and human behavior in the region, especially due to the importance placed on it. Though these poems have the power to stand alone, they are thoroughly supported by practices such as coffee shop performances and calligraphy. As stated previously, these elements present poetry in such a way that it can be appreciated by a larger audience and have an increased impact or beautification. Conversely, both coffee shop performances and calligraphy can both stand alone, but are beautified simply through their use of lines in Persian poetry.

I affirm that I have adhered to the Honor Code for this assignment.

Arberry, A. J. Persian Poems: An Anthology of Verse Translations. Tehran, Iran: Yassavoli Publications, 2005.

“گوشه هایی از نقالی ایرانی استاد مرشد ولی ترابی.” دالفک. هنر نزد ایرانیان است. Accessed October 4, 2019. https://www.dalfak.com/w/6e4c8.

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