Leah Rosenthal: Oral Culture and Poetry
Ode Poetry, Memorization, Calligraphy, and Music
Ode poetry is characterized as being the longest type of Persian poetry in terms of the number of lines. Quatrains, or four-lined poems, are the shortest. Lyrics are somewhere in the middle, usually between four and twelve lines. If poems are longer than twelve lines, they are usually considered odes. One ode poem that spoke to me was “Message” by Naser Khosrow. Parts of this poem had attributes of didactic poetry since it left readers walking away with a moral or lesson. This can be observed in the following lines:
Be ever fearful of trouble when all seems fair and clear,
For the easy is soon made grievous by the swift-transitioning sphere.
Forth will it drive, remorseless, when it deemeth the time at hand,
The King from his Court and Castle, the lord from his house and land.
The lesson that these lines seem to teach is that you should never let down their guard, especially when it seems like everything is going well. That is when you should be the most aware of what is going on around you. This idea suggests that the world and your fate are remorseless and do not care about your current circumstances. Whatever is going to happen to you that is out of your control is going to happen regardless of whether “all seems fair and clear” in your life and you could not imagine anything going wrong. These lines almost have a pessimistic tone, as it seems to suggest that we should not take too much satisfaction in our happy moments because they are temporary. However, when looking at it from a different perspective, one can interpret these lines as saying that without unpleasant moments, we would not be able to appreciate the pleasant ones. So, we must acknowledge that it is impossible to prevent these bad moments, or else nothing will feel truly pleasurable because we would not have displeasure to compare it to.
Although these lines seem to have didactic qualities in that they teach a lesson, they fall under the category of ode poetry because didactic poetry tends to weave the morals into metaphoric stories. However, in this poem, the lesson is stated rather bluntly.
Another set of lines from the poem “Message” that I appreciated were:
Thy words are the seed; thy soul is the farmer; the world the field
Let the farmer look to the sowing, that the soil may abundance the yield.
In Persian poetry, there is so much symbolism within nature and crops, such as the metaphors of cypresses and roses. So, these poetic lines portray the farmer as the cultivator of life, words, and meaning within Persian poetry. These lines add so much beauty and significance to the farmer – a figure that, at a first glance, may seem quite simple. However, when one thinks about it form the perspective of Khosrow’s lines, the act of farming suddenly becomes quite extraordinary. In fact, it is said that everyone is given a plot of land when they are born. Every time you complete an action, you are metaphorically cultivating something new on your farm. Overall, I found immense yet simplistic beauty in these lines of poetry.[i]
I have found that memorizing poetry has become easier with practice. If I am having trouble memorizing a certain set of lines, I have found that rewriting them over and over again until I consistently write them correctly helps to make them stick in my head. Another trick that I use is recording myself saying the lines and then listening to it until I can recite the lines from memory along with the recording. I have also found that reading the lines with a meter and emphasis in the correct places not only helps during memorization, but also makes the lines sound more beautiful when they are recited because it gives them a musical quality.
Practicing our calligraphy on the chalkboard was a very helpful experience because we had a larger space to experiment with different fonts and artistic styles. It was also very beautiful to see all of our calligraphy next to each other with the contrasting colors and fonts. It made each person’ calligraphy seem very unique, even though we had all written the same lines of poetry. This experience truly exemplified the idea that Persian calligraphy is a form of art.
In the musical performance of lines from Sa’di’s poem “Bani Adam” by Ute Aminikhah-Bergmann and Vanessa Cetin, the combination of the guitar, flute, and sound of the women’s voices was a simple yet beautiful way to execute the power of the lines. This rendition felt very sincere, and in a way, the lack of other instruments and singers called more attention to the actual lines of poetry.
Some musical performances of Persian poetry are much more energetic, often having a greater number of performers. Both the “Bani Adam” performance by the Ranaei Family Ensemble and the performance of Rudaki’s poem “The Aroma of Mulian River” had many more singers and musicians than the first performance of “Bani Adam.” However, both of these performances were just as beautiful, but in a different way. The performance of Rudaki’s poem “The Aroma of Mulian River” had a more orchestral setting with a separate chorus, which created a very different atmosphere as compared to the previous two performances.
My personal favorite was the “Bani Adam” performance by the Ranaei Family Ensemble because there was an almost chant-like quality to he voices of the singers that complimented the sounds of their instruments and a very intriguing way. All of the performers sang while also playing various traditional Iranian musical instruments. For example, one performer was playing a dotar, which is a string instrument with two steel strings that comes from a family of long-necked lutes. Another performer was playing the setar, which is a four-stringed lute, with two strings made out of brass and two made of steel.[ii] The traditional Iranian sound that these instruments created made for a very beautiful performance.
Lastly, the performance of Shahriar’s poem “You came, by why so late?” was especially impactful because of the meaning behind the poetic lines being sung. Some lines (with a rough translation) are “You are the cure but you came when I was already dead,” and “My life is too short for your procrastination.” These lines stress the importance of avoiding tardiness because even being a little bit late could have drastic effects and it is better to strive to not waste precious time in the first place.
I affirm that I have adhered to the honor code in this
[i] Arberry, A. J. Persian Poems: An Anthology of Verse Translations. Tehran: Yassavoli Publications, 2005.
[ii] “Iranian Traditional Music Instruments.” Iran Chamber Society: Music of Iran: Iranian Traditional Music Instruments. Iran Chamber Society. Accessed October 18, 2019. http://www.iranchamber.com/music/articles/iranian_music_instruments.php.