Contemporary Poetry Review

As Interviewed By:

William Gibson

The Last of the Great Orientalists: An Interview with Peter Avery 

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Click here to recive news and leave comments for CPR.One of his colleagues referred to Peter Avery as "the last of the great Orientalists." I had the unique experience of talking with Mr. Avery one autumn afternoon in his study, from which a view of the river Cam and King’s College lawns added a calm, pastoral spirit to the experience. Seated behind his desk, with a perpetually lit cigarette that he frequently uses to punctuate his points with a flick of the ash or a slow, deliberate drag, Mr. Avery told me about his long standing love affair with literature. He has the easy manner of one who has led a remarkable life. In the space of a half-hour he’ll mention the time he had coffee with Susan French in Santa Monica, then bring up his friendship with Geoffrey Wooler, the eminent heart surgeon, and then casually recall conversations with notables such as E. M. Forster.
         Born in Derby in 1923, he has a vivid memory of life in pre-war England. His greatest love was watching the liners sailing from Liverpool, and ever since he has had a love of ships and the sea. Point in fact, he ran away to sea when England entered World War II, but his father, an officer in the Navy himself, made sure that young Peter came home and returned to school. At Liverpool, he studied Anglo-Saxon Middle English and literature, as well as medieval history and French. When called up, he joined the Army, but his love of the sea led him to transfer into the Navy and he spent the war in the service of the Royal Indian Navy. It was while in India that Mr. Avery first found his life’s passion of studying Persian poetry. After the war, in 1946, he attended the London School of Oriental and African Studies--a branch of the University of London. He graduated in 1949 then moved to Iran with the job of language training officer in the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company in southern Iran. He later taught English in Baghdad, then spent another stint teaching English in Iran before being appointed, in 1958, to King’s College, Cambridge, where he was made a Fellow in 1963.
         In 1964 he published Modern Iran, which traced that country's history from 1800 to the present. Then, in 1979, in collaboration with the esteemed poet John Heath-Stubbs, Mr. Avery translated the Persian master work of Omar Khayyam, The Ruba'iyat. This edition of the work, published by Penguin, remains very popular. In 1997, Mr. Avery translated and annotated the massive work of medieval Sufi literature, the Mantiqu'tair of Faridu'd-din Attar; in English, The Speech of the Birds. Mr. Avery recently finished his translation of the 486 lyric poems of Haffiz, and has a book being published called Iranian Vistas, which is a study of the continuity of art and cultural patterns in Iran from 3000 BC to the present.
         Mr. Avery has also made frequent lecture tours and held temporary teaching positions in the States. These include two separate stays at Harvard and Chicago, and visits to Troy State in Alabama, UCLA, Ann Arbor, Princeton, and NYU. Though Mr. Avery retired at the age of 67, in 1990, he still lives and works in an eighteenth-century building on the King’s College grounds--his time consumed by his passion for literature, both modern and antique.
         I asked Mr. Avery about some of his views both on the process of translating Persian in English, and on the current state of poetry in general. Regarding translation, he stressed that he was "not a poet", and makes no attempt at versification when translating. Such an attempt would, he believes, draw a curtain between the reader and the work which would destroy the "baldness" of the original Persian. He is confident that the "high order" of the original language, when translated into plain English, elevates the words above the "merely prosaic." Mr. Avery stands by a maxim that a translator’s notions of what the text might most conveniently be saying must be suppressed. The long-range appeal of his translation of The Ruba’iyat testifies to the virtue of his conception of his role as translator.
         As regards contemporary poetry, Mr. Avery finds the greatest fault is that most contemporary poets don’t read enough poetry other than their own. He questions the sort of literary circles that exist only to promote themselves; such work he finds insincere. He also, on the whole, holds “Theory” in low regard for the same reason; he says, "It is better to read the texts over what others say about them." And which of the "old guard" does he currently like the most? "Wordsworth, without a doubt." In fact, the weekend before I visited him, Mr. Avery had been in Grassmere, although whether his current interest in Wordsworth brought him to Grassmere or if being in Grassmere re-established his interest in Wordsworth he could not say. Nor, we both agreed, did it much matter. Literature, believes Mr. Avery, is a continual re-assessment of one’s self, and no matter where one is or what one does, literature acts as the enlarger of human understanding.



In the reign of the error-forgiving, sin-covering Padshah,
Háfiz has become a flagon-drainer and the Muftí¹ a drinker of the cup.

The Súfi from the chantry’s corner has sat at the foot of the vat
Ever since he saw that the police-chief carries a pitcher of wine strapped to his back.

The state of the Shaikh and the Judge and their furtive drinking
At the break of dawn I enquired of the seller of wine.

He said, "It’s not a matter to be mentioned even though you are a trustworthy confidant:
Hold the tongue and draw the veil, and drink wine".

Wine-boy, spring is coming, but no funds for wine are left.
Have a thought, because from longing the heart’s blood is on the boil.

It is love, and penury, and being young, and the fresh spring--
Accept my excuse and as an additional favour, conceal my sin.

Till how long are you going to stick out, like a candle, the tongue of eloquence?
The moth of desire has found its home. O lover, be silent.

O Pádsháh, in form and substance the likes of you
No eye has seen nor any ear heard.

Stay long enough for your youthful luck to receive
The blue gown from the old rag-clad Firmament.²




If a wine-boy in this manner were to pitch wine into the bowl,
He would plunge all the mystically knowing into perpetual drinking.

And if he placed the tress’s curve over the grain of a mole,
Ah, many the wise bird would he plunge into the snare!

O happy the state of that drunkard who at the feet of the darling,
Doesn’t know, of the head or the turban, which he is throwing away.

By day, strive in the acquisition of virtue, because wine-drinking by day casts
The mirror-like heart into the tarnishing of darkness--

That time is the moment for morning-bright wine when night
Throws the veil of evening round the pavilion of the horizon.

The raw ascetic who disallows wine
Gets cooked when on wine unadulterated he casts an eye.

Do not, Háfiz, swig wine with the city policeman:
He drinks your wine, but throws stones at the cup.




When in the morning from the chamber of the palace of novelties
The candle of the East casts its rays over all sides,

The heavenly sphere draws a mirror from the horizon’s pocket and in it
Reveals the face of the world in thousands of guises.

In the corners of the pleasure dome of the Jamshid of the heavens,
Venus tunes the organ to the refrain of the dervish chant.

The harp strums arpeggios asking, “Where has the disapprover gone?”
The bowl falls to gurgling, “Where has the prohibiter gone?”

See the deposition of the wheeling. Take up the glass of joy,
Because in every outcome this is the best of states.

The dangling locks of the darling of the world are all twists and tricks;
Those versed in the spirit seek no disputation on this thread’s tip.

If you are after worldly advantage ask long life for the Khosrau,
For he is a being munificent, liberal in doing good;

The manifestation of Eternity without Beginning’s Grace, and the light in the age of hope,
The compendium of deeds and wisdom, the life of the world, Sháh Shujá’.


¹A learned lawyer empowered to issue fatwas, legal opinions, in advising judges.

 ²The firmament is evanescent. Its blue mantle, eternal. Háfiz is suggesting that Sháh Shujá´ will receive his just reward on the Last Day.

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