Review of “Stealing Hafiz”, by Rick M. Chapman

Stealing Hafiz
Rick M. Chapman
The White Horse Publishing Company
28 Ghazals 79 pages $19.95

 

The recent publication of “Stealing Hafiz” by Rick Chapman provides a long overdue opportunity to review Hafez related material, especially as it relates to the Meher Baba community.

The title “Stealing Hafiz”, its preface, introduction and several ghazal lines provide the author an occasion to parody the work of Daniel Ladinsky on Hafez. Ladinsky has had a tremendous success in his various works purporting to be either translations or renderings of the most celebrated poet in the Persian language, the 14th century Shirazi poet Hafez, and the favorite poet of Meher Baba. That his work is not a translation is the implied argument of Chapman, hence the “Stealing (of) Hafiz”. That Ladinsky’s work on Hafez is not only not a translation, but also not a rendering or version as well, requires some explanation.

A translation of course requires a working knowledge of the foreign language in question, and must be capable of being referred back to the original text. A “rendering” is a synonym for translation, but with ambiguity attached to its usage. “Version” shares a similar ambiguity. The implication is that a work based on an existing translation could qualify as either a rendering or version, and thus be “like” a translation. But Ladinsky’s work cannot be referred back to a translation, despite his assertion that his work is based on Wilberforce-Clarke’s Victorian era literal translation of the Divan-e-Hafez. His work does not even attempt to replicate line arrangement as found in Hafez’s ghazals. It has been asserted that not even a single line of Ladinsky’s poetry can be referred back to Wilberforce-Clarke’s work (let alone the Divan-e-Hafez)! So, what then is the textual relation between the greatest poet in the Persian language and the most celebrated of his contemporary “translators”? None, absolutely none! Why this literary con has gone on for more than fifteen years is probably a matter for cultural historians (we simply don’t “get” the Middle East) and lawyers.

This is not to allege that Ladinsky has not been genuinely inspired by Hafez, but that his inspired verse in no way represents Hafez’s ghazals. It’s that simple. That Ladinsky has a genius for a witty turn of phrase with a spiritual flavor is certain, but this is not Hafez!

Chapman, on the other hand, avers that he (like Ladinsky) is stealing Hafez, but honestly so. His intention is “to be true to the inspiration that comes from the ideas and images of Hafiz…(in) a way more accessible and understandable to the general spiritual wayfarer.” His book contains 28 “ghazaleros”, out of respect for the “real” ghazal authored by Hafez. I cannot help but completely lose my patience with Chapman’s Foreword at this point, because the strange gymnastics of his self-concept as an aspiring poet, parodying another poet’s work,  seriously distorts what really should be his simple and earnest focus, namely the legacy of Francis Brabazon’s In Dust I Sing, which ironically Chapman published! Chapman adopts the very same ghazal form that Brabazon invented, which is (usually) seven rhyming couplets based on free verse. There is nothing at all complicated about the formal requirements of the English language ghazal as presented by Brabazon! Moreover, Francis freely borrowed from the ideas and images of Hafez in his treatment of the ghazal, and is clearly the single most important inspiration for all of us Baba Lovers who write ghazals. We get lost in our cleverness!

In any case, the important thing is the ghazals and Chapman writes sincere, devotional verse, occasionally adopting Hafez’s name as a rhetorical object of address and takhaloss (pen name). He often does a good job with the end rhyme, which in English can easily turn into a monster. He has a smooth, almost placid sense of rhythm. He gives each ghazal a title. Anyone familiar with Brabazon’s work knows what a high bar he set for intelligent and convincing economy of thought and image, and that anyone who gives a go at ghazals will inevitably fall short on one or several counts. In fact, those of us who try our hand at this are really asking to be slapped around, on our face, or behind our back, but probably not on our back! Chapman definitely has courage and reason to try! His work tends to be discursive and didactic but has humor and wit. He certainly has something to say. The use of Hafez’s name as a rhetorical ploy is clever. As Chapman concedes, his work has little to do with Hafez; but creating a dialogue with him is useful as a kind of foil for the fact that without knowing Persian he must rely on translations that often don’t provide what he is looking for.

One of the special problems for readers looking for the “spiritual” Hafez, the Hafez so immortalized on the placard that Meher Baba had brought into his bedroom shortly before he “dropped his body”, is illustrated by the misleading impression that those three selected couplets give about the nature of Hafez’s work. First of all, they are unrelated to each other in the Divan-e-Hafez: they are from three different ghazals. Secondly, they are freely translated to suit Baba’s purpose of boldly illustrating spiritual truths. Baba uses the same word Master to translate Sultan, People of the Heart and Magian Elder in the three instances. This is his prerogative. For translators in general, however, this would be a mistake. Hafez was in fact a court poet whose work in Persian is often famously ambiguous as to not only the object of address but also as to what he is talking about. Hafez is the perfect opposite to a poet like Rumi, who is always plainly ecstatic and metaphysical in his ghazals. The point is that the poet Hafez as characterized by Baba is not so consistently and clearly portrayed as such in his Divan. One must come to terms with the context and use of language that inform the poetry of Hafez, and which won him enduring fame for Persian speakers: what makes Hafez such a famous poet is not only stylistic genius but also a cleverly crafted persona that can change shape at will. Rumi’s persona as a poet is comparatively simple.

Ladinsky, Chapman and the rest of us are all frustrated by the representation of Hafez in (English) translation. Ladinsky, in fact, had to completely reinvent him to develop a literary relationship with him. If he had only subtitled his works, Poetry Inspired by Hafez, he would have saved himself, his publisher and his critics a lot of grief. And he probably would have established himself as a successful minor poet!

It is too bad Chapman had to spend so much money on bad Hafez translations. On the other hand, he has a warehouse of In Dust I Sing, the best collection of ghazals in the English language, which should continue to inspire him. There is no greater prize and sincere accolade to Hafez and Brabazon than to try to please the Beloved with well-written ghazals! A good start promises an even greater finish!

The book is illustrated with photo-edited variations of a portrait of Hafez by Katie Rose, which nicely fattens this slim volume.

Lastly, is it not fascinating that the Avatar of the Age’s favorite Poet who is famous to all Persian speakers for the honesty, veracity and beauty of his work should remain so elusive and difficult for non-Persian speakers to appreciate?

 

Bill Gannett translates Hafez from the Persian and writes English language ghazals at darvishkhanwrites.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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One Response to Review of “Stealing Hafiz”, by Rick M. Chapman

  1. Kendra Crossen Burroughs says:

    Good points, Bill. I agree with you in wishing that Ladinsky had given himself the byline for his inspired verse–not only because of the controversy over versions versus translations but because I believe he deserves the credit as a poet in his own right. The only thing I question is your perhaps inadvertent implication that Danny’s claim that his verse is Hafiz is dishonest. Danny honestly believes his verse is Hafiz, and he tells how Eruch encouraged him in his work, which clearly adds to his conviction. Since it’s hopeless to argue with him, I take the view that his work, like that of Barks (who also has versioned Hafiz inaccurately, according to an Iranian friend), has paved the way for English speakers to enter the world of Persian poetry.

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