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In Honor of Franklin Lewis I: Ghazal Poetics

Panel III-19, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Friday, November 3 at 8:30 am

Panel Description
As we remember the extraordinary Persian literature scholar Franklin Lewis, one of the most striking features of his too-short life of intellectual exploration is the broad influence of his unpublished dissertation, which examined the emergence of the Persianate ghazal through a case study of the poet Sana’i, an early practitioner of that form in Persian. The papers on this panel depart from the various lines of investigation of the ghazal that Lewis initiated in his dissertation and continued to pursue in his subsequent works, especially on the mystical ghazals of Rumi. In the spirit of continuing a conversation with Lewis’s exciting and generative works on the ghazal, we will discuss the question of the unity of the ghazal; conventional personae and authorial voice; the ghazal and genre theory; taxonomy of ghazal subgenres; the ghazal as a mode of intellectual inquiry and spiritual practice; and the sociocultural life of the ghazal in performance and on the page throughout its history. Major poets under consideration in the panel include Rumi, Hafiz, Fayzi, Sa’ib, and Bidil.
  • Jalal al-Din Rumi (1207–1273) is one of the most popular and authoritative Sufi figures in the Persianate world. In the course of centuries, the unsystematic nature of his poetry and the complicated style of his presentation have given much freedom to the commentators and anthologists—from the Balkans to Bengal—to interpret his words under the light of mystical, philosophical, and religious frameworks that are not necessarily compatible with his own principles. Focusing on the practical side of Rumi’s teachings, the current paper tries to present a coherent narrative of his mysticism through the textual analysis of, and intertextual references between, his original Persian works especially the didactic Mathnawī and the voluminous Divān containing his mystical ghazals. The paper defines “practical mysticism” as a specific aspect of the multidimensional complex of mysticism which deals with stages along the path of mystical perfection and practices that should be performed in order to achieve those stages. Such a definition pays due attention to both, and distinguishes between, cornerstones of mystical ethics and can properly highlight its difference from other normative theories such as deontological ethics and consequentialism. Based on this definition, the paper argues that Rumi’s practical system incorporates two major stages and two main practices: The Sufi path begins from the point de départ of the ordinary (wo)man under the control of his/her lower soul (nafs). By means of the first practice of inferior annihilation (fana’), one can attain the first stage of the domination of the intellect (‘aql), and through the second practice of superior annihilation, one may reach the second and final stage of the domination of the heart (qalb). Such spiritual transformation accords with Rumi’s theory of the human soul presented in several ghazals and couplets throughout his poetry, which assumes the existence of hierarchical, cosmo-psychological layers within the soul. Explicating different aspects of spiritual advancement in Rumi’s lyrics also exhibits the use of the ghazal as a mode of intellectual inquiry and spiritual practice. The method suggested in this paper can be utilized in systematizing the practical teachings of other Sufis, and more broadly, other mystics from non-Islamic traditions.
  • Premodern Persian critics recognized the importance of an eye-catching opening line to a successful ghazal poem. Known as the ḥusn-i maṭlaʿ, a “beautiful opener” could both arouse the reader/listener’s interest in a poem, while also setting the stylistic and thematic tone for what follows. Order and sequencing can thus be understood as an important element of the Persian lyric poet’s aesthetic considerations. This paper investigates the extent to which the first poem in poet’s collected works (dīvān), the maṭlaʿ-i dīvān, can be ascribed a similarly considered function and thus reveal something important about a poet’s framing of his or her own literary project. There are several reasons to suspect this may be the case. First, while it true that Persian dīvāns were typically arranged alphabetically, we sometimes find that the first poem in a dīvān does not technically accord with this organizational rule, suggesting that a poet (or the managers of their literary estate) deliberately placed it in pole position for one reason or another. Second, there is some evidence to suggest that a poet’s first ghazal was often one of their best known, circulating disproportionately often in anthologies and other commemorative texts. An impressive first ghazal, therefore, might have reasonably been considered a poet’s best chance at literary survival. Finally, I suggest that a close reading of initiatory ghazals can substantiate this hypothesis further, often revealing them to be emblematic examples of a poet’s stylistic signature, spotlighting the themes, images, syntax, and approach to figurative language characteristic of their lyric style. To demonstrate this point more fully, in this paper I will discuss three different opening ghazals by poets known for their distinctive lyric style: Ḥāfiẓ (d.1390), Fayz̤ī (d.1595), and Asīr (d.1639), exploring a reading of these poems as programmatic statements on their wider lyric projects and commenting on their reception history. I will conclude with some remarks about the textual condition of Persian dīvāns, referring to discrepancies between how manuscripts and print editions have organized and ordered ghazals, to highlight how the latter sometimes obscure the canonical first poems of the former.
  • The lyric “I” of the Persian ghazal is a fictive construct. Generic and rhetorical convention provide abstract scripts for the poetic speaker to act out a set canon of performative roles, such supplicant, admirer, wounded lover, or sage. For the most part, reading the lyric voice as a representation of the author’s personal life experience confuses history and literature in ways that are detrimental to both. But as Domenico Ingenito has recently argued, this apparently closed semiotic system also opens a space for reference to external reality and the historical author’s own life experience. In the terminology of Leo Spitzer, an “empirical I” emerges from and blends with the “lyric I.” Toponyms, place names, often provide a cue to recognizing the interplay of the generic and the personal. Sā’eb Tabrizi (d. 1676) makes frequent references to cities and regions that played a significant role in his life—India (Hend), Nishapur, Kashmir, and above all his native city of Isfahan. This paper will examine two ghazals, one expressing his frustrated desire to leave Isfahan (Qahraman 5653) and another celebrating his joyous return (Qahraman 5573). Although it is impossible to give exact dates for these poems, they point to specific turning points in Sā’eb’s life story as we know it from outside sources. Examining the interplay of convention and personal experience in these poems demonstrates how the ghazal could serve as a medium for life writing and public self-fashioning and provides one example of the emergence of (auto-)biographical writing as a major trend in early modern Persian literature.
  • The Prophet Muhammad’s heavenly journey or miʿrāj, as Michael Sells notes, “was paradigmatic for Sufi understandings of their own mystical journeys.” Drawing on Sufi appropriations of the miʿrāj narrative, the Indo-Persian poet Mīrzā ʿAbd al-Qādir Bēdil (1644-1720) predominantly deploys the word miʿrāj – and etymologically and semantically related words – to refer to the spiritual ascension of the seeker. Rather than elaborating on the various stations and stages of the journey, however, in his ghazals he is mainly concerned with the idea that the ‘upward’ movement of ascension is inseparable from the ‘downward’ movement of transcending the ego-self in submission. Within the compact space of the semantically and grammatically independent couplets of the ghazal, the paradox is conveyed through a masterful juxtaposition of contrasting images, often unusual or even far-fetched. This paper examines Bēdil’s multifaceted use of the theme of the miʿrāj in his ghazals against the backdrop of his larger oeuvre.