Building Bridges Worldwide Through Poetry

Song of the Day: ‘I Love You’ by Hüsnü Şenlendirici


We live in a world that continuously and increasingly polarises the East from the West. The art of poetry, however, serves as a pathway of connection between these two ‘worlds’. One example of this connection can be seen through a juxtaposition of the works of two historically great writers: Hafez and Emerson

In the West, when one thinks of poetry, William Shakespeare is a name that immediately comes to mind; in the East, it is the well-acclaimed poet, Hafez. His poetry was based on Sufism, a spiritualist Muslim tradition that values the dedication of divine love and the cultivation of the heart. Hafez’s ghazals (lyrical poems) are known for their beauty because they bring fruition to the love, holiness, and early Sufi themes that had long permeated Islamic poetry. Just like Shakespeare who followed him centuries later, Hafez’s moving verses have stirred and inspired writers across time worldwide. One such writer was the eminent American poet, Emerson. Hafez became Emerson’s Shakespeare; Emerson took inspiration from Hafez’s ghazals to create his own masterpiece free-form English verse.

In 1836, Emerson published the essay ‘Nature’, which triggered a wave of Transcendentalism, a movement based on a spiritual state that would transcend the physical and empirical. Rather than believing in the dogma of established religions, transcendentalists believed in focusing on the individual’s intuition. As such, the mandates of transcendentalism correlate strongly with those of Sufism because both value the cultivation of peace through one’s inner soul. This spiritual link strongly influenced Emerson’s initial attraction towards Hafez’s work. In an essay entitled ‘Persian Poetry’, Emerson writes, ‘He [Hafez] fears nothing. He sees too far; he sees throughout; such is the only man I wish to see and be.’ Moreover, he declares, ‘Hafez defies you to show him or put him in a condition inopportune or ignoble. Here was a man who has occupied himself in an nobler chemistry of extracting honour from scamps, temperance from sots, energy from beggars, justice from thieves, benevolence from misers. He knew there was sunshine under those moping churlish browns, and he persevered until he drew it out.’

In 1876, Emerson’s notebook, the Orientalist was published. In it, Emerson expresses his belief that the East represents an imaginative power that influences his brand of idealism. Additionally, Emerson translates many poems from Hafez as a manifestation of the ‘spiritual light’. His continual adaptations of Hafez’s invigorating rhythms are re-enactments of Eastern ‘light’.

Many critics have claimed that Emerson’s poem ‘Bacchus’, was inspired by Hafez’s poem, ‘From the Persian of Hafez, I’ because Emerson imitates the general themes discussed in Hafez’s verses. One of these themes includes the depiction of wine as a symbol of intellectual freedom. For example, Emerson writes, ‘Water and bread/Food which needs no transmuting/Rainbow-flowering, wisdom-fruiting/Wine which is already man/Food which teach and reason can’. This verse directly correlates to Hafez line, ‘Wine, wherewith the Houris teach. Angels the way of paradise. On the living coals I’ll set it, and therewith my brain perfume. Bring me wine through whose effulgence Jam and Chosroes yielded light … ‘ Both passages celebrate wine because it is portrayed as the liberation of the mind and consequently the discovery of new elations to come.

Emerson’s re-enactment of Hafez’s poem was to manifest the ‘Eastern light’. Being a transcendentalist attracted Emerson to Hafez’s Sufi beliefs and his divine works. In ‘Persian Poetry’, Emerson claims, ‘that self-equality of every sound nature, which result from the feeling that the spirit in him is entire and as food as the word, which entitle the power to speak with authority, and make him and object of interest and his every phrase and syllable significant, are in Hafez, and abundantly fortify and ennoble his tone.’ In essence, Hafez opens the light for Emerson to express his celestial thoughts, and he allows Emerson to transcend the physical self, and enter the soul. Through the art of poetry, Hafez and Emerson create a spiritual haven of peace thus connecting the East to the West.

Having said that, isn’t it surprising, that despite how interconnected we are (and continue to become) with increased globalisation and the proliferation of technology, how increasingly polarised we are becoming?

So, this here is my toast to those before us like Emerson who were able to overlook the few differences among us and appreciate the many similarities we all share as members of one human race.

To more bridges …

Till Next Post!


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