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Review of The Hand of Poetry: Five Mystic Poets of Persia

The Hand of Poetry: Five Mystic Poets of Persia, translated by Coleman Barks, with lectures on Persian poetry by Inayat Khan, Omega Publications.

In this “Best of Sufi Mystical Poetry,” Coleman Barks translates a selection of works by Sanai, Attar, Rumi, Saadi, and Hafiz, rendering their Medieval poems in modern free verse without losing their original paradox and charm. Along with the poetry are introductory essays which were first delivered as lectures in 1923 by Sufi master Inayat Khan. Khan focuses on the mystical interpretation of the poems and provides a valuable exposition of Sufi thinking. Barks also writes introductory pieces on each poet, concentrating on biographical details. This dual approach offers contrasting insights for the reader.

The five poets represented here offer contrasting insights of a mystical nature. Barks successfully gives each poet an individual voice despite their common subject matter and spiritual outlook. Attar celebrates mystical visions, as in “Listening to the Red Flute” in which drops of blood from a dying ecstatic spell out the holy name of Allah. Saadi writes short parables set in the domestic world and concerned with the teachings that everyday life offers to the seeker. Hafiz is the poet of sensuality and mystical joy, whose poetry skips and dances from meditation to sadness to flip humor.

One characteristic common to all these Sufi poets is a sense of humor, a trait few would associate with mystical poetry. But Rumi speaks of the soul in a whimsical manner: “Some souls flow like clear water. They pour into our veins and feel like wine. I give in to that. I fall flat. We can sail this boat lying down!” Hafiz speaks of wine and women and the love of God: “This is what I do: in a conventionally religious assembly, I am `Hafiz,’ who knows the entire Qur’an by heart, while in a tavern, I am the dreg-drinker. Notice the dazzling turn of that change!”

The Hand of Poetry, perhaps the definitive collection of Sufi poetry for our time, offers humor and wisdom and celebration of God’s mysteries.

--Thomas Wiloch