February 13, 2015, Washington, D.C. – In conjunction with an exhibit on Nasta’liq, an aesthetically refined form of Persian calligraphy developed between the 14th and 16th centuries, the Freer and Sackler Galleries of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C. hosted Dick Davis, the renowned scholar of Persian literature. Dr. Davis, an accomplished poet himself, delivered a lecture on Hafez and the Lines of Beauty on January 25th.
The main premise of the lecture was based on the fact that the 14th century Persian poet, Hafez, and Nasta’liq calligraphy are contemporaries and hence share the same aesthetics. Davis described “the line of beauty” as a graceful representation of “indirection over direction, ambiguity over straightforwardness, and opaqueness as deliberate strategy.” This measured elusiveness reflects an increased level of complexity in Persian poetry where the object of the poem becomes genderless and could even be construed as the symbol of the divine. In this way, Hafez often mixes the secular with the spiritual, leaving it up to the reader to interpret the meaning and direction of the poem.
Through an examination of Hafez’s work and life and concepts of beauty, as expressed through his poetry, Davis underscored the centrality of lyric poetry in Persian culture. While other cultures have directed their energies toward different arts, the artistic attention of medieval Iran was directed toward poetry. According to Davis, poetry has been a central feature of Persian cultural identity ever since. Whereas in the West, poetry is mainly something one reads, in Iran it has always been enjoyed communally, as an auditory experience, as well as individually, on a more aesthetic level. The performance aspect of poetry, in the form of Poetry Slams, are a twentieth century phenomenon in the West.
In response to an audience question regarding the reasons behind Hafez’s deliberate reliance on ambiguity, Davis had two responses. First, he explained that Hafez was very much part of a tradition of court poetry which was self-conscious and “operatic” in style, with the distinct goal of setting the poet and court culture apart from the masses. Second, Hafez lived during a time when Iran had experienced several invasions and religious upheavals and famines, leading to movements focused on the development of the inner world as manifested by Sufi Islam. This led to a form of ambiguous poetry that can be read in different ways, leaving room for interpretation and personal meaning. This could be one reason why Hafez is so widely accepted as integral to Iranian culture.
As for Dick Davis himself, his interest in Persian culture started when he travelled to Iran as a young man, only to return when he fell in love with an Iranian woman. As he mentioned to the audience, his wife was the first person to introduce him to Persian poetry. He is now a leading scholar of medieval Persian literature in the Western world. His new book, “Faces of Love: Hafez and the Poets of Shiraz,” Davis translated poems by Hafez, Jahan Malek Khatun and Obayd-e Zakani, all poets from 14th century Shiraz. Through his work, Davis tries to show a side of Iran that Westerners do not often hear about, and one that he feels is necessary for higher insight into Iran, its people and its culture.