It can often be thought that the Persian verse serves primarily as a mode of romantic illumination and illustration – a vast demonstration of how one can please or yearn for the beloved in over a thousand different ways. It may appear to be equivalent to the secular, flowery miniatures and calligraphic expressions that accompany it, despite the vastness of the Persian verse as both a concept and a practice. The truth is, the Persian verse was never solely created or colorfully brought into use as some kind of sweet, fantastical indulgence. The Persian verse embodies the dialogue between Persia’s beloved cosmic pair of Khosrow and Shirin. The Persian verse embodies the melodious voice of the Sufis from East India to Khorasan. The Persian verse, above all other definitions, is especially significant for its gifts of cosmic introspection.
Whether found in Ferdowsi’s epic Shahnameh or in translations of Hafez, the Persian verse is always didactic in nature. With emotion and cosmic spirit, there is still human meaning interwoven throughout each and every phrase. In Arthur John Arberry’s compilation of Persian poems in “Persian Poems: An Anthology of Verse Translations,” one such verse of Hafez is presented as,
Give never the wine-bowl from thy hand,
Nor loose thy grasp on the rose’s stem,
‘Tis a mad, bad world that the fates have planned –
Match wit with their every stratagem
While known for being the romantic of Persia, Hafez’s work cannot simply be written off as only of that nature. In this particular verse, Hafez uses classical Persian poetic metaphors such as “wine-bowl” and “rose’s stem” to signify the intoxicating effects of human life, and the visible beauty that comes with human life, respectively. He suggests that while one can find moments of natural intoxication and beauty in one’s own life, the fate of the universe always has a different trajectory for us. According to Hafez, this absurd, unpredictable world gives humans just as much beauty as it does sorrow and terror – human intelligence (or “wit” as Hafez refers to it) is our only tool in appreciating what is beautiful and leading a life separate from what is dark, cruel, and unpredictable. Ultimately, the verse itself demonstrates the duality of life’s various gifts and poisons, through the use of romantic diction clashing with didactic reasoning.
A unique attribute of the Persian verse, which is perhaps different from all other known forms of oral culture around the world, is the cultural emphasis on its sensory manifestations – manifestations capable of connecting words with the soul. One such manifestation specific to the Persian region, is the “coffee shop” performance of Abolqasem Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh. In the tradition of Iranian coffee houses, where some type of oral performance is heard alongside an opium pipe and good Persian coffee, men called naqqal will perform their specialized rendition of a certain piece of Ferdowsi’s epic. Different naqqalis have different expressions of each verse, in which some may flail their arms to emulate a dragon that Rostam must kill, or some may speak more quietly in scenes that portray divine wisdom. Their annunciation of Ferdowsi’s verses are clear, as naqqalis have trained all their lives to carry on Ferdowsi’s epic. Ultimately, The coffee shop performance of Shahnameh is but a mere example of how the Persian verse still courses through the blood of Iran’s people.
As far as additional manifestations of the Persian verse, calligraphy still remains vital in the tradition of intellectual and spiritual expression. As far as my own work in calligraphy, I find I am able to connect even deeper with the meaning of a verse from Sa’di or Hafez when performing calligraphic impressions of their work – similarly to how a Qawwal may invoke a feeling of a higher sense of self when attaching melody to verse. There is an innate sense of selflessness with every stroke, in surrendering the will of the mind to the rhetoric and emotion of the poet, and letting the hand spin wisdom into tangible life on paper. While I did not initially hold Persian calligraphy to be as significant as the tradition of ghazal or historical performance, my recent study of calligraphic practices in class has led me to appreciate the tradition in ways that I could not have previously expected.
Arberry, Arthur John. Persian Poems: An Anthology of Verse Translations. Tehran, Iran: Yassavoli Publications, 2008.
Jain, Parul. “Hafez: Persian Author.” In Encyclopedia Britannica, by The Editors of Encyclopedia
Britannica. N.p., 2013.
Clayton, Sally Pomme. “Shahnameh Historical and Cultural Questions.” The British Library. Last
modified 2005. https://www.bl.uk/learning/cult/inside/corner/shahbground/questions.html.
Class Notes – Muslim Oral Culture 191