Islamic and Friendship Studies at Oberlin College

Anna Francis: Oral Culture and Poetry Response Paper 2

Anna Francis
Professor Mahallati
FSYP 191
30 September 2019

Didactic Poetry, Calligraphy, and Coffeeshop Musical Performance

     In my last paper, I discuss the relationship between Persian calligraphy, poetry, and music. Calligraphy represents poetry. Poetry gives music character. All three disciplines are defining aspects of the Muslim realm of art. The following will touch upon the analysis of didactic poetry, my growth in calligraphy, and reflections on coffeeshop musical performance.

“There is a Water that flows down from Heaven
To cleanse the world of sin by grace Divine
At last, its whole stock spent, its virtue gone,
Dark with pollution not its own, it speeds
Back to the Fountain of all purities;
Whence, freshly bathed, earthward it sweeps again,
Trailing a robe of glory bright and pure” (Arberry 126)

     Titled “The Spirit of Saints,” this is one of the many Persian didactic poems that draws attention to aspects of life that govern a person’s internal growth, such as purity, sin, faith, and our susceptibility to change. Translated by R.A. Nicholson, this poem in particular focuses on the characteristics of purity.
     Purity is the basis of human growth. It is the innocence with which every human enters the world. “Such innocence is taken as the promise of a renewal of the world by the children” (Bühler-Niederberger). Nicholson capitalizes the word “water” to indicate its importance as a metaphor for purity. The characteristics of water reflect the state of being pure. For instance, water is pure, but can easily be polluted. It is also a liquid that can easily take on the shape of what it’s being contained in. In this sense, purity can easily be contaminated and stripped of the freedom from immorality. It is malleable and susceptible to manipulation.
     The poem paints the image of clean water from Heaven sweeping across the earth where, after being sullied by humans, it returns as polluted water back to Heaven to be cleansed and returned to earth. The polluted water represents sin, a transgression from purity. When it is spoken of during the Catholic Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation, it is delivered to God who forgives and releases the sinner from their burden. Once sin is released, it is replaced with the state of purity, which then allows for further offense. This describes the cyclic nature of purity and conveys that it not difficult to stray from virtue.
     Another attribute of water that mirrors the characteristics of purity is its role as a basic necessity of life. Although water has the ability to sustain life, it can also take away life through drowning and intoxication. This suggests that, while purity is ideal, the state of absolute purity may be detrimental.

“Tis said, the pipe and the lute that charm our ears
Derive their melody from rolling spheres
But Faith o’erpassing speculation’s bound,
Can see what sweetens every jangled sound” (125)

     Written by Sir James Redhouse, “Remembered Music” demonstrates the qualities of faith as an integral role in spiritual growth. In the face of life’s monumental failures, faith is rooted in the hope that circumstances will improve. The phrase “Faith o’erpassing speculation’s bound” indicates that faith has a greater value than speculation. While speculation is limited by uncertainty, faith is boundless because it relies on the sustaining of trust and confidence in one’s beliefs. In the poem, faith “can see what sweetens every jangled sound” that is emitted from the pipe and the lute. This implies that faith holds a direct connection to the truth, as it can recognize the purpose and features of the instruments. In other words, faith can “see” the truth. Redhouse’s reference to faith as a superior and reliable force fuels the notion that faith is an important aspect in life.
     “Remembered Music” also brings to light our susceptibility to change. Redhouse refers to the source of the flute and the lute as the “rolling spheres.” This reminds me of the Spheres of Existence, the four stages of life through which one must pass in order to attain their true self. Coined by the Danish philosopher, Søren Kierkegaard, the spheres include the Ordinary, Aesthetic, Ethical, and Religious stage of life. Because one is free to move between these stages, the spheres are not stationary and inherently are always “rolling.” As we move through each stage of life, we accumulate life experiences that change and shape our identity.
     Learning Persian calligraphy has been an eye-opening, challenging, and meditative experience for me. The more I practiced writing in Arabic, the more focussed I became and diligently I worked as I was encouraged to pay close attention to detail. From the roundness of the letter jiim to the angle of the letter zaay, I learned to create every character with intention and mindfulness.
     I initially anticipated that the learning process for writing in Arabic would mirror the learning process for writing in Mandarin, Chinese. Similar to ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, both Arabic and Mandarin characters are pictographic in form. Most often, characters in both languages share the same body but with different embellishments. For instance, Arabic letters thaa’ and taa’ share the same concave body but can be distinguished by the number of dots placed above the curve. The standing man radical in Mandarin is associated with a variety of different characters that have different meanings, such as the word zài and xiàng. As the course progressed, I quickly realized the contrasts between the two languages. Personally, writing in Mandarin is a test of my memory and ability to write quickly with precision. Arabic, on the other hand, is a test of my patience and ability to write slowly with accuracy.
     “When we paint, we want our whole body to be involved, so that the energy is vibrant” (Fugate). I relate to this sentiment in the way that I have grown to view Arabic calligraphy as a Zen practice. In Japanese calligraphy, also known as shodō, one must acquire a state of mind called Mushin, which directly translates to “no-mind state.” In this state, one must “clear the mind and let the brush flow, without thinking about the characters being painted” (Ibid). Arabic calligraphy closely resembles painting where instead of being led and defined by colors, it is led and defined by shapes, curves, and angles. When I “paint” Arabic characters across the page with my angled Sharpie marker, I reach Mushin and am able to enjoy calligraphy through its meditative qualities.
     The tone of coffeeshop musical performances brings to life the emotions of Persian epics. For instance, the Rostam and Sohrab Opera titled “Tjeknavarian” gives a sense of remorse and loss in Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh. Set in a minor chord, the solemn melody mirrors the distressed emotions and eternal suffering of Rostam. The Haftkhan Ensemble, on the other hand, performs a joyful melody with an upbeat rhythm that paints the image of a journey being taken. Every instrument is given a solo and enabled to “speak its story.”

Works Cited

Arberry, A.j. “Classical Persian Literature,” 2006.

Bühler-Niederberger, Doris. “Innocence and Childhood.” Oxford

     Bibliographies, September 20, 2019. 

Fugate, Christine. “The Zen Practice of Calligraphy.” Bodhi Tree, January 30,       2017.
Parker-pope, Tara. “Under the Influence Of…Music?” The New York Times.        The New York
     Times, February 5, 2008.    

I have adhered to the Honor Code on this assignment. Anna Francis.

Leave a Reply