Translator, poet champions medieval Persian verse

L.A. Cicero Davis

Dick Davis, a poet and translator, is visiting Stanford this quarter. He is a professor at Ohio State University.

Dick Davis, perhaps the preeminent translator of Persian poetry ever, knows a thing or two about love.

In addition to being an esteemed poet in his own right, Stanford's first Bita Daryabari Professor of Persian Letters is a passionate translator of medieval courtly epics—including classic Middle Eastern love stories that he is putting on the Western literary map.

His own poems figure in the mix, though a casual reader might miss it. "In a way many of my poems that perhaps to others don't seem like love poems are love poems for me: Almost all my poems on Iran and Persian culture, for example, are also overt or covert love poems," he said in an interview with Clive Wilmer in Three Poets in Conversation (2006).

Davis has just finished a labor of love: He has completed "four very happy years" translating the Persian epic Vis & Ramin. The book, 500 pages of rhymed couplets, was published earlier this year.

The Times Literary Supplement hailed Davis' translation as "a wonderful work" of "one of the most extraordinary and fascinating love narratives produced anywhere in the medieval world, Islamic or Christian."

Colleagues praise his work: "Dick Davis is one of the very best poets now writing in English, and as a translator of poetry, he is in a league with Chaucer, Dryden, Pope and Richard Wilbur," said Los Angeles poet Timothy Steele, '70, author of Missing Measures and All the Fun's in How You Say a Thing. "Dick's poems are multicultural in the best sense. He honors intelligence and gentleness wherever they appear."

A fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, Davis is visiting Stanford for the autumn quarter from Ohio State University, where he is professor of Persian and chair of the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures. Stanford's Bita Daryabari Professorship of Persian Letters allows a yearly visiting professor to teach some aspect of Persian letters. (The Bita Daryabari Endowment also offers an annual award for outstanding contributions to Persian literature and arts.)

"I'm supposed to be a scholar, but a scholar has a heart, too," he confessed at a dinner co-sponsored by the Hamid and Christina Moghadam Program in Iranian Studies and the Office of Development. Recalling his long labor on Vis & Ramin, he said, "I was completely transported—I do think it is one of the greatest poems ever written." He ranks it with Dante and Homer. "It's the first great love narrative in Persia—also one of the first great love narratives in the world."

Written by Fakhraddin Gorgoni around 1050, Vis & Ramin portrays "a private world, an emotional world—traditionally viewed as a woman's world," unlike the standard epic tales of dragon-slaying, politics and war. Gorgoni was writing "at a time when Persian poetry was very physical poetry," he said. It focused on "what we see, touch, hear."

Later, influenced by the Sufis, poetry became more mystical, but Gorgoni's work is "a very this worldly poem—an extremely passionate poem," Davis said. Gorgoni fails to ask ethical questions or pass judgment on his flawed heroes, as if he is simply stating "this is how people are."

"I know of no greater love poem, in any language," Davis said. "Romeo and Juliet? They are as nothing."

Vis & Ramin has the time-honored building blocks of romance: lovers' separation, parental opposition and enduring love. It even has some of the same elements of its later Western counterparts, such as the old nurse who becomes Vis' confidante. Davis also makes a convincing case for Vis and Ramin being the source for Tristan and Isolde, but there are important differences. The Persian lovers' adultery and unfaithfulness to each other is not punished; in fact, the lovers are rewarded for their poor behavior.

Vis and Ramin "don't behave well. Real people don't behave well," he said at the May dinner.

Serendipity in Iran

Davis' introduction to Persian literature was somewhat serendipitous. After earning a master's degree at Cambridge, wanderlust took him abroad. Eventually, he landed a teaching stint at the University of Tehran in 1970.

It changed his life. He returned to Britain to get a PhD in medieval Persian literature. (He also received an award from the Arts Council of Great Britain to write about Stanford's renowned poet-critic in Wisdom and Wilderness: The Achievement of Yvor Winters.) He published acclaimed poetry that received "Book of the Year" citations from The Times (London), The Daily Telegraph (London) and The Economist.

With an award from the National Endowment of the Arts, he is currently translating selections from the Divan of the 14th-century female poet Jahan Khatun.

Speaking to his Stanford students this term (he's also teaching a Continuing Studies course), Davis spoke with equal warmth of other love stories, this time from Abolqasem Ferdowsi's Shahnameh, written about a half-century before Vis & Ramin.

Although Davis' translation of Shahnameh was funded in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities and named "Book of the Year" by the Washington Post, its path to publication was not altogether smooth. As he explains, "I'd wanted to translate the whole poem as verse, because I believe that, all things being equal, verse should be translated as verse. But to have translated Ferdowsi's 45,000 couplets, the equivalent of 90,000 lines of English poetry, in this way would have taken me perhaps 30 years to complete, and who knows if I'd have lived that long? Also, I seriously doubt that it would have found a publisher. So I settled on a mixture of prose and verse, which is a form in which the stories of the Shahnameh have been popularly recited since the work was completed. Even so, the work took me seven years."

The Shahnameh, the "Persian Book of Kings," includes stories of politics, war, heroism—and, of course, love. It recounts the legendary history of Iran from the creation of the world until the seventh-century Islamic/Arab conquest. Hence, its entire subject matter is pre-Islamic, and is threaded with Zorasterian myths and motifs.

"The conquest by the Arabs, with which the poem ends, is seen as an unmitigated disaster," Davis said. "To sum up and oversimplify: Ferdowsi is not anti-Moslem, but he is quite vehemently anti-Arab."

But the Shahnameh's endurance refutes the "Islam or Death" idea of the conquest. "Ferdowsi did ignore Islam, with no ill effects," Davis said. "Things were much more nuanced and complicated, especially in Iran, which was aware of its pre-Islamic heritage and valued it very highly.

"Iran's pre-Islamic heritage was seen somewhat as the classical Greek and Roman heritage of Europe was seen by Christians in the medieval world; it might be theologically 'wrong,' or superceded, but it was still valuable, and intellectually and morally respectable, and just plain fun to know about."

As a result, the Shahnameh has "no tinge of Islamic morality," he told his class. Its lovers "don't have to suffer for their pleasure." By comparison, "Tristan and Isolde sleep together—and that's it. They're going to die." Not that these Persian characters don't worry a great deal about revenge, torture, death and separation—but it all ends well. The lovers get each other.

The resulting effect, he told the class, is "charming."

"They seem to come from a more innocent world. Later, Eros does bring terrible consequences"—but not at this early, pre-Islamic stage of the literature. "It's not prurient, either. These stories are never like that. They're sweet and gentle."

In these stories, love is the trigger for creating more clearly etched portraiture. "As soon as the subject is love, the whole tenor of the poem is interested in inner psychology," he said. "We want character consistency, but the inward life of heroes doesn't matter in epics—it's what they do."

Some criticize these tales for their misogyny; the male characters frequently comment that women are foolish, unreliable and cannot keep secrets. But Davis takes a more subtle view: "Every time one of the characters does this, he's mistaken. The woman saves him, looks after him or gives him good advice."

In one outré incident, a warrior and his confreres plan to kidnap a few local women at a festival. But the tables are turned: The warrior himself is abducted. The princess Manizheh invites him to her tent. "She takes his belt off, which I think is a bit forward," Davis added.

Although the women tend to initiate the affairs, "both are down on their knees, both begging for each other. In that sense, they're equals."

Davis knows something about taking big risks for love, too. He met his wife in a tale worthy of any Persian epic: "She saved my life," he said.

After six months in Tehran, Davis became seriously ill. He went to the hospital with a burst stomach ulcer. In the emergency room, his vital signs disappeared. A transfusion was imperative, but there was no doctor on hand to authorize one. The nurse took matters into her own hands and administered the transfusion. A doctor later told him that the woman, Afkham Darbandi, saved his life.

They became friends, and then more. In "A Monorhyme for the Shower" he recalled:

she's the girl I didn't dare

Approach, ask out, much less declare

My love to, mired in young despair.

Her father didn't approve. Darbandi made a bold move. She announced that, married or not, she was moving in with the poet-scholar—and then she did it. To save the family honor, her father capitulated. "Immediately we did marry, he was terribly nice about it," Davis recalled. "As soon as it was fact, he helped us."

They've been married since 1974. She was co-translator of his first Persian translation, Conference of the Birds. "There's as much of Afkham in that as me," he said.

Davis stayed in Iran for another eight years. "We left at the end of '78. We left before the Shah left. By that time, it was clear everything was going to hell." The young couple lived above a grocery shop, along a main street, and watched as demonstrations yielded to shootings, martial law and tanks rolling down their street.

For safety, the Davises took refuge with an Indian couple, and for two or three secluded weeks they spent their time listening to the radio, playing chess and cooking. (Afkham remains a superb Indian cook to this day, Davis said.)

Perhaps those final months offered a different lesson in love: "As a Westerner, I never got any hostility—none," he recalled. Iranians either urged him to get word out to the West about what was happening, or warned him of danger ("Don't go down that street").

A former student who worked at the national bank, when it was illegal to send any money out of Iran, urged Davis to trust him and put the couple's savings in his name. The money, enough for a down payment on a house, arrived safely in Davis' bank account.

"We lost touch," Davis said of the years since. "We lost touch with a lot of people. I suspect a lot of people disappeared. I know a lot of people who were killed on both sides. Students get caught up in things. They can't really fathom the strength of …," he said, and trailed off. "Very quickly they become victims of political violence, just on a whim."

Recalling Davis' "grippingly serious poetry on political and historical topics," the poet Timothy Steele said, "No recent poet has written more movingly than he about people whose lives have been uprooted by the terrible wars and revolutions of our time."

But hard times can sharpen the interest in the simplest pleasures of peace: "I've been, I guess, lucky in love, but that seems a very risky thing to say," Davis said in Three Poets.

"I guess another reason I write about love is to do with my lack of a secure religion, coupled with an interest in many of the things that a religion often caters to," he said. "Those emotions that might have found a home in religion spill over into love poems to people."

It's not "love" in the sense of erotic desire, he said - but perhaps it's something even deeper: "the sense of gratitude and wonder."