Photos from Persian New Year Event

Wow. I took a chance on this event and tried something I hadn’t done before. But it was such a delightful experience and I’m so happy we went for it.

On Wednesday, March 25, we gathered in the delightful and perfectly-sized back banquet room of Village Falafel after work. We ordered food and wine, which lent a great relaxed feeling to the evening. There were about 15 of us, including two members of the Library Commission and the Mayor of Cupertino, Rod Sinks, and his wife! (Full disclosure — I’ve known Rod and Britta for many years, our children having gone to the same schools, swum at the same club, etc.). Joy of joys, there were also four people who had never attended a CupPL event before, three of whom saw our flier in the library and one who read about us in the Courier. Joy of joys, new poetry lovers in Cupertino.

To my utter delight, a lady came who studied languages and culture in Iran years ago, and she brought with her some poems by Rumi in Farsi, which she read to us, together with her own translations. It was thrilling to hear the meter of the ghazals, and to hear the repeated words at the end of each couplet, even though I didn’t understand the words. She performed with real gusto.

And even better, if possible, was the presence of three women, Iranian natives: two residents of Cupertino and their visitor from Iran. They brought their Hafez, in a bright blue and gold book, and also read in Farsi, several of the poems for which I had brought in English translations. It was so moving for all of us, to hear the poems in their original melodic language, then to read two different English translations and to all discuss together what we thought and felt. They spoke about how important Hafez was in Iran, and I was envious of the reverence the people still feel there for ancient poetry.

Hafez Roses

This is the poem Robert Bly translated as “One Rose is Enough” — the first line is translated by Dick Davis as “Of all the roses in the world.”

The photo above shows me with my Rumi reader on the left and my Hafez reader on the right. The other two photos I took from the book of Hafez’s poems my guest brought. They are the same poems I had translations of.

Hafez Angels

Bly titled this poem as “The Angels at the Tavern Door” (also the name of his book of Hafez translations). The first line, as translated by Davis, is “Last night I saw the angels.”

We talked about a lot of things that evening. About God, religion, spirit. About spring and nature. About love. About wine and food and the place poetry has in our homes. And we talked about Iran, both historically and today, while the world waits with baited breath to hear of possible movement toward diplomatic relations between the US and that great and complex country. I am so happy to say, it was a perfect evening of poetry and companionship for me, and I hope for my guests.

Rumi, Hafez and A Lot of Information About Translation

Disclaimer: I do not read Persian, so I can only comment on the English translations and versions of this poetry. I hope to find some friends who can point me toward good videos and audio recordings of these poems in their original language.

Photo credits: The image above is the inside of Rumi’s shrine, in Koyna Turkey. The image further down is the outside.

By some accounts, Mawlana Jalaluddin Rumi, a great poet who lived in the 13th century, is currently the most popular poet in the United States. (BBC (2104). An Amazon search, admittedly not the most scientific approach, turned up – in descending order – Maya Angelou, Dr. Seuss, Mary Oliver, Edgar Allen Poe, Walt Whitman, Allen Ginsberg, Claudia Rankine, Rumi, Kahil Gibran, and Homer. While I find this a fascinating subject, it’s not the purpose of this post, so I must move on. If you really want the scoop on America’s relationship to poetry, you will enjoy Kate Angus’ post “Americans Love Poetry, But Not Poetry Books” at this link. Heaven help us.

My intention here is to point you toward different translations of Rumi’s poetry. The following is a goodly sample. I also include translations of Hafez, whom we will also read at our Persian New Year event, if we have the time and/or if he is requested.

Translations and Versions

Recommended translation by Franklin D. Lewis.

  • Rumi: Swallowing the Sun (poems). At Amazon.
  • Rumi – Past and Present, East and West: The Life, Teachings, and Poetry of Jalâl al-Din Rumi (2007) — biography. At Amazon, on GoodReads. Reviewed on JSTOR.

Recommended Translation by A. J. Arberry (1968)

  • Mystical Poems of Rumi (new edition with forward by Franklin D. Lewis, 2008. At Amazon.
  • More about A. J. Arberry at Wikipedia, including a link to his translation of the Quran.

Robert Bly interviewed by Bill Moyers about Hafez and Rumi, reading his translations of their poems.

Translations by Robert Bly (including Hafez and Rumi )

  • The Angels Knocking on the Tavern Door. Thirty Poems of Hafez. (2004) Amazon.
  • Poems of Rumi (Translated and Spoken By Robert Bly and Coleman Barks) – audio recording. On iTunes and at Amazon (1989).

Versions by Colman Barks (will be most familiar to anyone who reads Rumi in English)

  • The Essential Rumi, New Expanded Edition (2004) on Amazon, on GoodReads
  • Rumi: The Book of Love: Poems of Ecstasy and Longing (2003) on Amazon, on GoodReads
  • Video of Barks and Bly reading Rumi with musical accompaniment on YouTube

Dick Davis translations of Hafez

  • Faces of Love: Hafez and the Poets of Shiraz (2013) at Amazon
  • Davis reading his translations of three poems by Jahan Malek Khatun, an Inju Princess, on the News Hour on YouTube.
  • NPR interview with Davis about his book (2013)
  • Davis’ translation of Hafez’ “For Years My Heart Inquired of Me” at the Poetry Foundation

Analysis and Commentary

If you want analysis on the different translations and versions, an excellent on-line source is the Dar-al-Masnavi, curated by the international Dar-al-Masnavi group.

“The Masnavi is the great masterpiece of Mawlana Jalaluddin Rumi who lived in the 13th century. The Masnavi consists of mainly of sufi teaching stories with profound mystical interpretations. It contains thousands of rhyming couplets (a type of poetry called, in Arabic, “mathnawî”) and is a treasury of religious mysticism of a most sublime quality — which is why it has been so famous and well-loved for so many centuries.”

The site discuss the problems of translating Rumi.

  • After more than 700 years, Jalaluddin Rumi might be the most popular poet in the United States. Largely due to US authors, such as the poet Coleman Barks, who has rendered literal translations of Rumi into free verse “American spiritual poetry” in a manner which has reached so many different sectors of American society.
  • Unfortunately, this popularization has a real price: the frequent distortion of Rumi’s words and teachings which permeate these well-selling books. The English “creative versions” rarely sound like Rumi to someone who can read the poems in the original Persian, and they are often “shockingly altered.” Few American’s realize this however, believing instead that versions are faithful renderings into English of Rumi’s thoughts and teachings (when they are very often not).

For the original essay on this subject (which I have drastically summarized above) visit the site to read about the popularization in the United States of Rumi’s poetry, and more about the difference between versions and translations. Of special note to anyone interested in the idea of translating poetry (in any language) consider the author’s comments on Ezra Pound’s scholarly translations of Li Po’s Chinese poems and Japanese Noh plays.

shrine of rumi in turkey

Biographies and More Information

Rumi at The Academy of American Poets

Hafez at The Poetry Foundation (also sometimes spelled Hafiz in English)

Robert Bly at The Poetry Foundation

Coleman Barks at The Poetry Foundation

Rabi’a, female Sufi mystic saint and poet, at The Poetry Foundation, at Sufi Poetry (blog)

Persian New Year Poetry Background

As part of my International Poetry Cantos project in 2015, Canto Number 2 is Persian New Year Poetry. Persian New Year is celebrated on March 20, 2015 — the date of the Vernal Equinox.

On Wednesday, March 25, please join me in reading poems by Persian poets, in Farsi and in English. We’ll be meeting at Village Falafel, on Stevens Creek Blvd in Cupertino, at 6:30 pm to read poems together and to eat.

To prepare for this event, I want to introduce you to Persian poets of repute, but first a little background. Persian literature is one of the world’s most ancient literatures. You can read about it on Wikipedia for a fast overview, or at the Iran Chamber Society, or Encyclopedia Britannica.  Obviously a few websites can’t do justice to this rich tradition, but if you have no familiarity, I suggest spending a few moments to orient yourself.

When we speak of Persian poetry, we mean in general, poetry written in Farsi, also known as Parsi or Persian, or poetry written by people who live in the land currently known as Iran. An interesting source is Classical Persian Poetry: A Thousand Years of the Persian Book, a fascinating look at a Library of Congress exhibit.

The most famous (to Americans) Persian art form is the ghazal, described here by the Academy of American Poets. This link takes you to a lovely example of the form, in English, by poet Agha Shahid Ali on the Poetry Foundation website. Though a Kashmiri Muslim, Ali is well known for writing in this form for American audiences. While I am not an expert, I found this website, with literal and poetic translations of some of Rumi’s famous ghazals to be very enlightening and inspiring.

The most well know Persian poets in the U.S. are Rumi and Hafez. Here are some resources.

  • Poetry Foundation video, in collaboration with The News Hour, “Bringing Persian Poetry to Western Readers” about Hafez.
  • Hafez biography



There are many books, translations, essays, fantasies about these legendary and vital poets. I’ll be pulling together a bibliography in the next week, getting us ready to read on March 25.

Stay tuned!

Prompt #21 Your Heart

Now that February is over, we can discuss poetry about the heart without succumbing to Valentine’s Day. There is so much poetry about the heart – and it’s not all about love: romantic, unrequited, historic, young, fevered, or forgotten. I’m working on a lesson plan for a group of patients with cardiac disease, and this opportunity to think about the heart in its many guises is wonderful and intriguing. Just looking up “poetry + heart” on my favorite poetry websites has been an adventure. Here are a few things I found.

  • A Birthday” by Christina Rossetti (which might be one of my favorite poems of all time). Many of you have heard me recite at the drop of a hat, “My heart is like a singing bird.” Hear it sung here.
  • Finding the Space in the Heart” by Gary Snyder, which includes this breathtaking moment:
    O, ah!
    awareness of emptiness
    brings forth a heart of compassion!
  • For years my heart inquired of me,” by Hafez, translated and with notes.
  • Heart” by Catherine Bowman, which worries about the heart in modern language of anguish, comparing it to an asp.
  • Sacred Heart” by Lee Briccetti, and speaks both of the valentine and about the heart’s physicality:
    “it was wet, like a leopard frog on a lily pad, / had long tube roots /”
  • Pericardium” by Joanna Klink, perhaps my favorite new find, which closes in this extraordinary way:
    “the way the body has always been waiting for the heart to sense / It is housed, it is needed, it will not be harmed.”

You get the picture. Many ways the heart has captivated artists, scientists and lovers throughout history. Many poems.

I’d like to encourage you to write about the heart. Try not to think about “love” per se, but of course, if it sneaks into your poem, that’s okay. Think about the heart as an engine – the miraculous things it does for your body. Think about your heart as an instrument – beating out the rhythm of your life. Think about the heart of someone else – how knowable is it? What about illnesses of the heart?

I’ll close with a sweet song I learned as a child, written (or at least recorded) by Shakespeare for The Merchant of Venice.  The little song is titled “Love” in some books, and suggests the beginning of love is the eyes, not the heart at all. There are many recordings and videos on YouTube, but this is the version I learned to sing as a teenager, though not quite like this.

TELL me where is Fancy bred,
Or in the heart or in the head?
How begot, how nourishèd?
Reply, reply.
It is engender’d in the eyes,
With gazing fed; and Fancy dies
In the cradle where it lies.
Let us all ring Fancy’s knell:
I’ll begin it,—Ding, dong, bell.
Ding, dong, bell.

The beautiful image at the top of the post is from the Spring 2014 issue of Stanford Medicine, a beautiful magazine.

Finally, here is another illustration from that magazine. I encourage you to read about “The Mysteries of the Heart” and how this most sturdy and intricate organ is “yielding to research.”

heart birds