Islamic and Friendship Studies at Oberlin College

FYSP Second Response Paper Mary Post

A second installation of : A Response to Persian Poetry, So Far 

Epic poetry is to Didactic poetry as maps are to hidden treasure. That is, storylines, much like the Epics of Sa’di, create footholds for the audience to hold on to. With those footholds comes a full understanding of not only the context but the importance of what the poet is conveying to the audience. Didactic poetry is like a hidden treasure because the goal of this form of poetry is to inform the reader with a grander theme than the poem itself. Further, with each word written, a constellation is formed in the sky that guides the reader to see the deeper meaning of the poem. 

The purpose of didactic poetry is to educate individuals and communities through artistic and stylistic language. Further, this type of poetry is transcribable with any subject of poetry. Each poem has a moral or greater message. That is, the poet is making a conscious choice to convey an idea by way of their words, forcing the audience to dissect the poem in order to fully comprehend the message. (2) Often times, didactic poetry dovetails with perennial philosophy in that these lessons transcend eras and are applicable to all walks of life. 

An example of this is in the poet Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi’s works. Entitled The Song of the Reed, found in A.J. Arderry’s Persian Poems anthology, Rumi explores the importance of empathy in society, and when to act upon such empathy that one may feel. In this didactic poem, Rumi is teaching the intended audience to not only empathize with others but to be generous with their empathy, as it will serve them well: 

New plans for wealth your fancies would invent; Yet shells, to nourish pearls, must lie content. The man, whose robe love’s purple arrows rend bids av’rice rest, and toils tumultuous end. Hail, heavenly love! True source of endless gains! Thy balm restores me, and thy skill sustains”

In the first line, Rumi speaks to wealth. This could mean the literal version of wealth: currency. Or, in contrast, the audience can interpret the meaning of wealth to be a bounty of more abstract resources, like love, respect, resilience, etc. Further, in this first line New plans for wealth your fancies would invent; Yet shells, to nourish pearls, must lie content. ”Rumi is saying that plans for wealth are ever-changing, but to be kind to yourself, to others, you must create sustainable contentment. Further, to create wealth, and to follow through with those plans, one must acknowledge others and one’s self. One must recognize what walks of life others have walked, and how they can relate to one another. 

“The man, whose robe love’s purple arrows rend bids av’rice rest, and toils tumultuous end.” That is, the person who chooses to have little empathy for others, to refuse to connect to others, will not succeed. This person will not see their plans through. “Hail, heavenly love! True source of endless gains! Thy balm restores me, and thy skill sustains.” This is to say that love for self and others is the best tool to master in life. It is through the admiration and respect of living beings and creatures that one is able to pursue and find wealth in their life.

To be generous with one’s empathy is to recognize humility within communities and societies. It is to buy into collectivism and celebrate the hard work that community members have pursued. Further, what Rumi articulates so well, is that to respect and celebrate others is the greatest thing to know in life, as it creates a plentiful life indeed. 

An example of how Epic poetry comes to life is in live-action performances. In coffeeshop musical performances, individuals perform epic poetry, acting out each character by themselves. For example, in an earlier class in Professor Jafar Mahallati’s First Year Seminar, taught at Oberlin College, students were asked to analyze a video of an individual performing an epic poem. In this performance, the actor portrayed each of the characters in the poem. By portraying multiple characters, it forces the actor to dive into each of the roles heavily and with a full commitment. While those who do not understand Persian cannot fully comprehend the poetry, the audience is able to grasp emotions and dynamics between the roles, because of the actor’s ability to convey those aspects so well. 

The way in which any form of Persian poetry is conveyed is through calligraphy. As discussed in a previous response paper, calligraphy is considered the mother of Islamic art for its promotion of education, the use of it in religious and devout texts, the visible beauty, and the seemingly innate belief that those who were proficient in calligraphy were some of the most beautiful.  In that sense, it is quite daunting to begin to study the art of calligraphy, but yet an honor to pursue. As a student, the study and pursuing of calligraphy create a stronger appreciation of its role in Islamic culture and society. By learning the specificities in each letter, one is able to appreciate the individual beauty and the collective winsome. 

With each curve, dot, or line; the grace of this form of art is revealed. While difficult to master, one’s appreciated for calligraphy grows as does their potential to create masterpieces. Personally, writing calligraphy has been a challenge. Partially because of my left-handed orientation to the paper, I have had some difficulties in the execution stage of the writing. That being said, I now know how to hold the writing instrument and have the beginnings of the correct form for some of the more simple letters. The most valuable thing about learning a new skill, especially one that has much room for error, is gaining patience with one’s self and the environment in which they exist. 

Qu’ran Manuscript Folio, Cleveland Museum of Art
This image shows a key example of the power of Calligraphy in that it combines beauty with something holy in order to share the message with a greater population. This was often the goal of using calligraphy.

Epic and Didactic poetry are important to Persian and Islamic culture because it creates storylines that communities can hold and celebrate within their society. Coffeeshop musical performance and calligraphy are two ways in which these types of poetry are shown to audiences and further remembered by communities and individuals. It is by reiteration and reflection that Persian poetry has become so engrained by the society in which it exists. 

References 

  1. Mahallati, Jafar. “Class Discussions.” Lecture, Oberlin College, Oberlin, OH, September 2019. 
  2. Post, Mary. “A Response To Persian Poetry, So Far.” Unpublished manuscript, Oberlin College, Oberlin, Ohio, USA, September 20, 2019. 
  3. Rumi, Jalal ad-Din Muhammad. The Song of the Reed. In Persian Poetry: An anthology of Verse Translations, by A.J. Arberry. Tehran, Iran: Yassavoli  Publications, 2005. 
  4. Image found from the Cleveland Museum of Art, Public Domain

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