World Views
10:05 am
Fri August 15, 2014

Khayyam And Rumi: How Ancient Persian Poems Resonate In Modern Culture

When Austin O’Malley decided to take a Persian class during his last year of college, he had no idea it would become his life-long passion.

“I got a taste for it,” O’Malley says. “And that was very exciting on a personal level, and also sort of enlightening when you start seeing how language or literature works.”

Now a classical Persian scholar and Ph.D. candidate at the University of Chicago, O’Malley says he was drawn to ancient Persian poetry because of the accessibility of the language.

“Compared to English, it's changed less over the last thousand years,” O’Malley says. “So even with just one year of Persian, you can read, for example, the quatrains of Khayyam or some of Rumi's poetry.”

Even though the poems of Omar Khayyam and Maulana Rumi are centuries old, O’Malley says their timeless themes still resonate with modern audiences.

“Khayyam is famous for having sort of Epicurean themes in his poems and meditations on mortality and death and how to live a life that is meaningful … in the face of uncertainly, really, and mortality and temporality,” O’Malley says.

In contrast, Rumi’s poems often have divine or mystical themes.

“They're describing a beloved,” O’Malley says. “And the poet is speaking as the lover, describing his love for the beloved. And in Rumi's poems, this is often sort of understood as a divine beloved.”

O’Malley says that the lasting popularity of these poets is due in large part to the role of poetry in Iranian culture.

“It's much more important to the fabric of daily life in Iran today than it is in the U.S.” O’Malley says. “People will memorize poems, recite poems at parties or gatherings.”

While Persian poetry provides a valuable look at both ancient and modern Iranian culture, O’Malley says it has a broader significance.

“It also provides some new insights to your own language and your own culture,” O’Malley says. “And you start thinking about how it's put together in a deeper sort of way.”

INTERVIEW HIGHLIGHTS

On the historical Omar Khayyam

We do know about a historical Khayyam who was a philosopher and a mathematician, but we don't really know about him as a poet. In fact, the earliest manuscripts that we have do not mention him as a poet at all. But then, a hundred, two hundred years after his death, all these compilations start appearing of these short quatrains. So, it's a little bit difficult to know if he actually even wrote them, or if he wrote a few, and he became famous for them, and then maybe people felt that these short poems about mortality and doubt and uncertainty about life and its course really resonated with them, and they started composing more poems like this and simply assigning his name to them. So there's sort of a growing corpus of these poems with these sorts of themes.

On the imagery of wine in Khayyam’s poetry

The wine jug is a very important image for Khayyam both because he often would recommend that you seize the moment, you drink wine, you enjoy your brief time here on earth before it inevitably ends and you don't know what's going to happen afterwards. And it also has another layer of meaning because he'll often like to talk about how after we die, and our bodies become dust, they might then be molded into clay, and your body might become a piece of a wine jug for someone else.

On the popularity of Omar Khayyam in Iran today

In Iran it's very common to see people memorize a number of poems by Khayyam, collections of his poems are in all the bookstores and sold everywhere. So these short little meditations on death that are not totally religious, I mean, they're not totally orthodox, and he does talk about how you should enjoy life now because you don't know if these stories of heaven are just stories, or if they're true. So he'll have famous poems where he'll talk about, "I would rather take some cash now than a loan, or a promise of some credit in the future," by which he means stories of heaven and paradise.

On the “discovery” of Omar Khayyam by the West

With Khayyam, he was sort of discovered by the West in the Victorian period by Fitzgerald, a British poet, who was interested in foreign languages, he had learned some Persian, and he found a manuscript of Khayyam's poems, and translated them into sort of wonderful English quatrains. And you can still get his copies, his translations, today. And so he was really drawn to the more agnostic aspects of them, and he became quite popular. He really resonated with people of that age. And in the U.S. as well. There were Omar Khayyam dinner clubs popping up where people would gather, you know. Omar Khayyam societies throughout that period and the period of World War I were really very popular.

-------------------------------------------

KGOU and World Views rely on voluntary contributions from readers and listeners to further its mission of public service with internationally focused reporting for Oklahoma and beyond. To contribute to our efforts, make your donation online, or contact our Membership department.

FULL TRANSCRIPT

SUZETTE GRILLOT, HOST: Austin O'Malley, welcome to World Views.

O’MALLEY: Thank you.

GRILLOT: So, in your work as a doctoral student, right, you're currently a doctoral student at the University of Chicago. And your work is focusing on pre-modern Persian religious poetry. So tell us a little about pre-modern Persian poetry. What is it about poetry from that era that is important to us?

O’MALLEY: Well, Persian has a very rich literary tradition stretching back to the 9th century, I mean, over a thousand years. And it's also very varied. We have lots of different kinds of poetry, court poetry was very popular, lots of panegyric...

GRILLOT: You say court poetry?

O’MALLEY: Yes, poetry written for a patron. So you would praise the patron, you would praise the patron's good qualities, and hope for some reward for this. And this is really where most of the more formally complex types of Persian poetry began. They began as courtly forms. But by the 12th century, they had also, a lot of poetry had come to be more mystically focused and religiously focused. And so my particular area of interest is in poetry that has some sort of mystical content or was used for some sort of religious or mystical purpose. So the figure I'm working on mostly, his name is Attar, and he wrote in a lot of different forms, and he would write very long sorts of poems of rhyming couplets that had various sorts of stories in them with moral points or religious points. There's also, some of the listeners may be familiar with Rumi, Maulana Rumi. He's very popular these days. He's probably the most famous sort of Persian poet that people might have heard of. And he's famous. He also wrote masnavis like Attar, but he's famous for these lyrical poems.

GRILLOT: So, can you give us an example of a poem from this era that would kind of illustrate what you're working with here?

O’MALLEY: Yeah, so, I have a poem I'd like to share by Omar Khayyam. And this is a quatrain, so it's a very short poem, two verses, four hemistitches. And this was originally sort of a folk form of poetry. So these would be recited orally, composed orally, and would be transmitted orally, and then later they would often be collected in written form. Omar Khayyam is famous for having sort of Epicurean themes in him poems and meditations on mortality and death and how to live a life that is meaningful, or has some purpose or direction in the face of knowing that, in the face of uncertainly, really, and mortality and temporality.

GRILLOT: And what is the translation? What does this poem mean?

O’MALLEY: The translation is:

Last night I went to the workshop of the potter, and I saw two thousand clay vases,

Which would have been used for wine, kuze, I saw two thousand kuze,

And some were silent and some were speaking.
And one of them suddenly let out a cry,
Where is the potter, and the person who sells the pot, and the person who buys the pot?

It's sort of a meditation on the fact that everyone living passes away, and we just leave these traces. And the wine jar is an especially important symbol.

GRILLOT: So that's what I was going to ask about the symbolism here of the pottery, or of the vase itself. Particularly the vase for wine, that this is somehow symbolic and meaningful in a sense and obviously tells us something about the culture of the day?

O’MALLEY: Yeah, right, so the wine jug is a very important image for Khayyam both because he often would recommend that you seize the moment, you drink wine, you enjoy your brief time here on earth before it inevitably ends and you don't know what's going to happen afterwards. And it also has another layer of meaning because he'll often like to talk about how after we die, and our bodies become dust, they might then be molded into clay, and your body might become a piece of a wine jug for someone else.

GRILLOT: So your life goes on in some meaningful or at least enjoyable way, bringing enjoyment to others through that vessel.

O’MALLEY: Well, yeah, often many of his poems have a sort of meditative quality, I would say.

GRILLOT: So, in terms of a meditative quality, what do you mean by that? Using it in some way to –

O’MALLEY: In the sense that he would recommend that you sort of approach the present in a kind of contemplative way, knowing that it will end. And thinking about the end of life that is coming can actually make the present more meaningful in a certain way. So he'll call on his readers, he'll exhort them to sort of drink wine and think about, as they're pressing the wine jug to their lips, to think about how this may have been someone else before who was also drinking wine.

GRILLOT: So in addition to the actual words that these poets create, can you tell us a little bit about the poets themselves and their lives, and the impact that they have, obviously Rumi, as you mentioned, a very famous poet, and the one you just quoted here, Attar, others? I mean, particularly in Persia, the lives that they led and the impact that they had on their community at that time, but also today. How they really resonate with the community today.

O’MALLEY: Yeah, well, sure. Well, it's very, well, for the first part of the question about their impact on their communities historically. With some poets it's very difficult to know. With others it's easier to know. So the poem that I just read was by Khayyam. And we do know about a historical Khayyam who was a philosopher and a mathematician, but we don't really know about him as a poet. In fact, the earliest manuscripts that we have do not mention him as a poet at all. But then, a hundred, two hundred years after his death, all these compilations start appearing of these short quatrains. So, it's a little bit difficult to know if he actually even wrote them, or if he wrote a few, and he became famous for them, and then maybe people felt that these short poems about mortality and doubt and uncertainty about life and its course really resonated with them, and they started composing more poems like this and simply assigning his name to them. So there's sort of a growing corpus of these poems with these sorts of themes. Khayyam is very popular today, too, though. In Iran it's very common to see people memorize a number of poems by Khayyam, collections of his poems are in all the bookstores and sold everywhere. So these short little meditations on death that are not totally religious, I mean, they're not totally orthodox, and he does talk about how you should enjoy life now because you don't know if these stories of heaven are just stories, or if they're true. So he'll have famous poems where he'll talk about, "I would rather take some cash now than a loan, or a promise of some credit in the future," by which he means stories of heaven and paradise. So these are actually very popular in Iran right now.

GRILLOT: Well, what draws people to this? Obviously contemplating and meditating, as you say, on these issues of life and death are universal in nature. Is this really what kind of what draws the community to it? And how accessible are these poems outside of the Persian world, outside of the Persian language? Are they widely known and understood and read elsewhere?

O’MALLEY: Yeah, I think so. With Khayyam, he was sort of discovered by the West in the Victorian period by Fitzgerald, a British poet, who was interested in foreign languages, he had learned some Persian, and he found a manuscript of Khayyam's poems, and translated them into sort of wonderful English quatrains. And you can still get his copies, his translations, today. And so he was really drawn to the more agnostic aspects of them, and he became quite popular. He really resonated with people of that age. And in the U.S. as well. There were Omar Khayyam dinner clubs popping up where people would gather, you know. Omar Khayyam societies throughout that period and the period of World War I were really very popular. So yeah, he does resonate with people today, as well. And of course, we had mentioned Rumi earlier, who is a very different sort of poet. He's a religious poet, he's a mystical poet.

GRILLOT: So in what way, can you describe Rumi's poetry for us a little bit in terms of the ways in which he's a mystical or religious poet?

O’MALLEY: Sure. Yeah, so Rumi's most famous for his ghazal poetry, which is a lyric, essentially. It can sort of be compared to a sonnet, maybe, in terms of form, an English sonnet. Usually there are between seven and 14, 15 lines, and they're on sort of romantic themes, let's say, or amatory themes. So, often they're describing a beloved. And the poet is speaking as the lover, describing his love for the beloved. And in Rumi's poems, this is often sort of understood as a divine beloved. So he's describing his love for God using language that was developed for earlier court poetry. But he's now deploying it for religious or mystical purposes. And he's quite popular in the U.S. today, too, especially in sort of new-age groups.

GRILLOT: In terms of his popularity in Iran, you can't help but have a conversation with anybody from that part of the world where they refer to the importance of Rumi in today's cultural context. Does this really help us understand the Persian world today, particularly the Iranian people?

O’MALLEY: I mean, poetry is still very much, I mean, I would say it's much more important to the fabric of daily life in Iran today than it is in the U.S. So, people will memorize poems, recite poems at parties or gatherings.

GRILLOT: Is that just some sort of significant cultural difference, you think, where they're still very much attached to artists of that sort, poets? Where you actually have a poetry reading in private gatherings?

O’MALLEY: Yeah, I think it's just that different cultures have different forms... this is such a lame answer, I'm sorry, but yes. Poetry, I think, is simply a more important art form in Iran than it is in the U.S. right now.

GRILLOT: Well, I have to end just by asking you how you became interested in this pre-modern Persian poetry. Where did that come from?

O’MALLEY: You know, it really first came from foreign language study. So, I started taking Persian language courses when I was in college, my last year of college. And it was really very exciting for me to see some progress in a foreign language, and to be able to speak it, even just a little bit, you know, that first year. And what's quite interesting, too, is that particularly the Persian language, compared to English, it's changed less over the last thousand years, let's say. So even with just one year of Persian, you can read, for example, the quatrains of Khayyam or some of Rumi's poetry. So very early I got a taste for it. And that was very exciting on a personal level, and also sort of enlightening when you start seeing how language or literature works in a foreign language. It also provides some new insights to your own language and your own culture. And you start thinking about how it's put together in a deeper sort of way.

GRILLOT: Well, I think that's a great point to end on, that through our studies of other cultures we become more enlightened about our own cultures. That's a great lesson to learn, I think. Well, thank you very much for that insight.

O’MALLEY: Thank you.

Copyright © 2014 KGOU Radio. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to KGOU Radio. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only. Any other use requires KGOU's prior permission.

KGOU transcripts are created on a rush deadline by our staff, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of KGOU's programming is the audio.

Related Program