Paul Kane on The Green Sea of Heaven
My designated book—though it’s too annotated and dog-eared to actually swap—is a translation by Elizabeth T. Gray Jr. of The Green Sea of Heaven, fifty ghazals by the Persian poet Hafiz. Unlike many translations that are either too impressionistic and inaccurate to be authentic or too literal and stilted to be affecting, this one gets the difficult and delicate balance right between Hafiz the ecstatic mystagogue and Hafiz the blasphemous libertine.
That volatile combination produces a luminous and passionate poetry of the inner life, which Gray succeeds in rendering with genuine poetic force. I came to Hafiz initially by way of Emerson’s translations (among the first in English) and half-expected to encounter a lesser version of Rumi, that darling of contemporary spiritual avatars. But Hafiz is not Rumi, and Sufis for him are often hypocrites and zealots best avoided. Hafiz is the most popular poet in Iran, where he is officially read as an orthodox Muslim (the allegorical footwork necessary for this reading of Hafiz is dazzling). And yet that pious view is not altogether wrong, as there is clearly a religious vision at work within the ecstasy of the verse. To be dissolute and disgraced turns out to be a hidden way to the holiest of the holies. As Hafiz says, “What can I tell you but the good news I heard from the invisible world / last night when I sat, drunk and ruined, in the tavern”?