Books: Daniel Ladinsky’s “The Subject Tonight Is Love: 60 Wild and Sweet Poems of Hafiz”, by Pranada Devi

The subject tonight is Love
And for tomorrow night as well.
As a matter of fact,
I know of no better topic
For us to discuss
Until we all
Die!
– Hafiz of Shiraz
The poem above does not refer to any tame notion of sweet romantic love or light-hearted companionship. The love Hafiz is talking about is the underlying life force of the universe. This is the love which shines when the ego is diminished. This is the love which gives courage and grace to all things. In this state of love, which could also be considered to be bhakti yoga, Hafiz sees the Divine everywhere, in all things.

Shams-ud-din Mohammad Hafiz of Shiraz (modern-day Iran) was a 14th-century Persian Sufi poet. His works have been translated into all the major languages. He has been hailed over the years by great writers such as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who noted, “In his poetry Hafiz has inscribed undeniable truth indelibly”. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “Hafiz defies you to show him or put him in a condition inopportune or ignoble… He fears nothing. He sees too far; he sees throughout; such is the only man I wish to see or be.”

While numerous English translations exist of Hafiz, contemporary experience of Hafiz among English speakers is often attributable to the engaging and compelling work by the poet Daniel Ladinsky to breathe more life into the sometimes stilted translations of Hafiz’s luminous and musical poetry. Ladinsky is a spiritual seeker who notes, “I believe there is a profoundly greater love, light and treasure in the eyes of Hafiz than is available in all the portraits (i.e., books and poems) of him that I have seen […] Most of what I see of Hafiz’s verse, caged in the restrictive English language, saddens me. For the verses usually appear as golden bones, sometimes stripped so bare of reality and music that some miracle of DNA reconstruction seems to be needed […] so that Hafiz might be himself again and dance.”

The Subject Tonight Is Love: 60 Wild and Sweet Poems of Hafiz is a collection of Hafiz’s poems which Ladinsky has sought to reconstruct as he has described above. These poems call to the reader to shake off the imagined limitations they place on themselves and the Divine, and join a joyous dance with all of existence.

Poetry reveals that there is no empty space.
When your truth forsakes its shyness,
When your fears surrender to your strength,
You will begin to experience
That all of existence
Is a teeming sea of infinite life.
[…]
True art reveals there is no void
Or darkness.
There is no loneliness to the clear-eyed mystic
In this luminous, brimming
Playful world.

Daniel Ladinsky’s commitment to render Hafiz into a contemporary, relatable language is obvious and earnest. Like Coleman Barks with Rumi, Ladinsky faces the steep challenge of being a non-realized soul trying to render the light shining from the words of a realized soul. Compared with Barks, Ladinsky approaches the work with perhaps a greater sense of playfulness and less honed poetic skills. Both approaches have value, but in both cases it is somewhat like shining sunlight through a stained glass window. The light is there, but it is limited and colored by the perceptions of the translators.

Hafiz himself is so playful and full of love and delight that spending long with his work can be like drinking a strong glass of wine (a frequent metaphor in Hafiz’s writing for the experience of spiritual ecstasy) that can lead to too much giggling if one is not grounded. I feel Ladinsky sometimes veers into having too much fun with his work, and adds unnecessary affectations like excessive capitalization or very short lines. This sometimes becomes a little precious and can distract the reader from going deeper into the richness of Hafiz’s poetry.

That said, the light through a stained glass window is still light, and still has great beauty and value. Hafiz’s love and wisdom shine through in The Subject Tonight Is Love, and point a thirsty spirit towards the source of love.

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Pranada Devi is a communications professional living in Toronto, Canada. She manages the Politics, Books and Activism sections for Parvati Magazine in addition to serving as Managing Editor for the magazine overall. She discovered Sufi poetry in 2000 and is grateful for the light it brought to her life. She serves as an advisor on marketing communications for Parvati’s various projects.