In recent months, I have become enraptured by the poetry of the great Sufi mystic Shams-ud-din Muhammad (c. 1320-1389), more commonly known as Hafiz. The word “hafiz” refers to one who has memorized and mastered the Quran, and fittingly enough, the poetry of the enormously influential poet Hafiz has been traditionally used as a sort of holy text or guide. Whatever the malady or dilemma, flip open to a poem and receive wisdom. Stunned by the seeming modernity and irreverence of the poems, I looked more into a wider variety of translations, and discovered that my particular volume (the recent collection translated by Daniel Ladinsky) takes significantly more liberties with the text than some scholars are comfortable with, especially in his willingness to “update” topical allusions and freely break the traditional couplet scheme of the ghazals. I realized that, short of mastering medieval Persian, I would be forever distanced from the “real” Hafiz, left only to “triangulate” on the author through competing translations, biographical sketches, and my own imaginative fancy. But hermeneutical issues be damned, I could not resist the cheeky allure of Ladinsky’s translation. Fully Hafiz or not, these English poems are real, and the joy and inspiration they bring about in me cannot be denied. In a sense, then, my decision to set the poems into music has two aims: to create anew from innocent inspiration, and to further complicate the already-murky waters of authorship. Who are we to own, to label, to prescribe? Quoting Hafiz—er, Ladinsky’s Hafiz: “I could not say anything / You could not / Tell me. / Then, / What was the use of this story? / O, / I just felt like / Talking.”
These four miniatures can be performed in any combination or subset.
I. A Hard Decree
On the Tavern wall
A hard decree for all of love’s inmates
If your heart cannot find a joyful work
The jaws of this world
Grab hold of your
II. Spiced Manna
Will steal you if you don’t
And sell you as a slave in the
To the nightingales’ hearts
Hoping they will learn
So that no one will ever imprison
Your brilliant angel
Have I put enough spiced manna
On your plate
In this Tavern
If not please wait
For more light is now
Someone will steal you if you
Don’t stay near,
And sell you as a slave in
So your Beloved and I
III. A Potent Lover
The sun and the moon shiver
When I drop my pants.
Of this potent
IV. What Should We Do About That Moon?
A wine bottle fell from a wagon
And broke open in a field.
That night one hundred beetles and all their cousins
And did some serious binge drinking.
They even found some seed husks nearby
And began to play them like drums and whirl.
This made God very happy.
Then the “night candle” rose into the sky
And one drunk creature, laying down his instrument,
Said to his friend—for no apparent
“What should we do about that moon?”
Seems to Hafiz
Most everyone has laid aside the music
Tackling such profoundly useless