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From the tomb of Hafiz at Shiraz, Iran

Gurus and teachers. Having one is a given in most spiritual paths, common in many cultures and certain professions. But because I was never a good candidate for the disciple path (according to my mother, my resistance to authority was well developed at three years old), I never did the artist/mentor thing. It is probably the core reason why I have never wanted to teach and have kept my distance from any established spiritual tradition. What has worked so well for many just isn’t a fit for me.

But my library is full of advice, wisdom and insights from extraordinary minds. A book is the perfect delivery mechanism for those of us with power over issues: It neutralizes what would set us off in the flesh, and makes it easy for us to pick and choose at our own pace, on our own terms.

There are many artists in the Boston area who studied with Philip Guston while he was at Boston University. I have had extensive conversations about Guston the Teacher with Bruce Herman, chair of the Art Department at Gordon College, and more recently with David Goldman who teaches at North Shore Community College. When I hear their stories I am grateful that my exposure to Guston has been limited to his work and his writing. I am very sure I would not have fared well interacting with him directly. He was difficult. He was dogmatic. But he was also a gifted artist.

The book of his collected writings, lectures and conversations edited by Clark Coolidge is full of his koan-like art wisdom. I keep it close at hand and use it daily. This is my own version of the Persian tradition of consulting the Oracle of Shiraz, Hafiz, a popular method of divination that consists of thinking of a question and then randomly opening up Hafiz’ book of poetry. The answer is believed to be there on the page.

I am not looking for divination so much as I am in search of an operating frame for my day in the studio. The Guston book delivers again and again.

Here’s a Gustonism from the catalog for a 1958 show at the Whitney called Nature in Abstraction:

I do not see why the loss of faith in the known image and symbol in our time should be celebrated as a freedom. It is a loss from which we suffer, and this pathos motivates modern painting and poetry at its heart.

I think the only pressing question in painting is: When are you through? For my own part it is when I know I’ve “come out the other side.” This occasional and sudden awareness is the truest image for me. The clocklike path of this recognition suppresses a sense of victory: it is an ironic encounter and more of a mirror than a picture.


Philip Guston the teacher

I Wish I Could Speak Like Music

I wish I could speak like music.

I wish I could put the swaying splendor
Of the fields into words

So that you could hold Truth
Against your body
And dance.

I am trying the best I can
With this crude brush, the tongue,

To cover you with light.

I wish I could speak like divine music.

I want to give you the sublime rhythms
Of this earth and the sky’s limbs

As they joyously spin and surrender,
Surrender
Against God’s luminous breath.

Hafiz wants you to hold me
Against your precious
Body

And dance,
Dance.

–Hafiz

I just returned from a 4 day wedding commemoration for my life long friend Kevin and his partner of 22 years, Ed. The revelry just kept rolling out of us, as if none of us were willing to let this extraordinary celebration come to an end.

And of course the protracted partying included lots of dancing, literally and metaphorically. For a dancer like Kevin (who danced with the Irish Ballet) the literal dancing is emblematic of his life long love of moving his body, his limbs in motion. And the metaphoric dancing was the high spirited weaving together of a tangle of friends and family. By midlife most of us have assembled a hodge podge of connections and narratives, our own personal nest of multiple lives and identities. Sharing the crazy quilt multiplicity that is Kevin and Ed was an acknowledgment of their commitment to each other as well as a homage to the breadth and depth of their extraordinary lives.

How fitting to return home and find this poem left in a comment from poetry pal Pam McGrath. It does a better job of capturing my current state of mind than my ongoing protests of being language impaired. It deserves a spot of its own, right up front.

Pictures of the wedding and the spectacular (let me say that again–SPECTACULAR) new Renzo Piano Academy of Sciences will be coming too once my computer is resuscitated from an unexpected and disabling crash this morning. (Thank you Bryce for letting me commandeer your Powerbook for the time being.) Is this a case of a machine’s sympathetic vibration with a world that is imploding? Ray Kurzweil and others might suggest the answer is yes.

Still under the spell of my friend Andrew’s message to me yesterday (see below), I’ve been thinking about the ecstatic poets, particularly the Sufi mystics—Rumi, Kabir, Omar Khayyam and my favorite, Hafiz.

Hafiz, a 14th century Sufi poet from Persia, writes about longing for union with the divine. His work explores the nature of spiritual ecstasy with a depth that few other poets have achieved. Known as the “Tongue of the Invisible,” even Ralph Waldo Emerson was a fan, describing him as “a poet for poets.”

Here’s a sample:

I Have Learned So Much

I
Have
Learned
So much from God
That I can no longer
Call
Myself

A Christian, a Hindu, a Muslim,
a Buddhist, a Jew.

The Truth has shared so much of Itself
With me

That I can no longer call myself
A man, a woman, an angel,
Or even a pure
Soul.

Love has
Befriended Hafiz so completely
It has turned to ash
And freed
Me

Of every concept and image
my mind has ever known