Source of book: I own this. My wife got this for me for Christmas last year.
Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī, known to us in English as Rumi, was a 13th Century Persian poet, theologian, and Sufi mystic. Born (probably) somewhere around the border between what is now Afghanistan and Tajikistan, his family moved southwest to Persia, then Baghdad, finally ending up in what is now Turkey. Because of this peripatetic childhood, Rumi became fluent in multiple languages. While most of his works are in Persian, he also used Turkish, Arabic, and Greek.
Immensely influential for centuries in the Islamic countries, he was also translated into many languages, and his works became known around the globe. Today, he is one of the most read poets in the United States, a fact which surprised me. For most of us westerners, Rumi has been our introduction to Sufism, the mystic tradition of Islam.
I had read a bit of Rumi here and there, but had never really read more than a poem at a time. I mentioned my interest to Amanda, and she managed to find a (sort of) used hardback copy of Coleman Barks’ version, The Essential Rumi. This is one of four volumes. Technically, Barks does not translate the poems. He instead paraphrases them from other translations - and at least he is clear about this. There is some controversy about his work, as it isn’t the most faithful to the original. The worst offense is omitting some lines and phrases, but there is also the recurring problem of translating a text which has strong rhythm and rhyme in the original language into what is essentially free verse in English. This is the challenge of any translation, but particularly of poetry. Translation itself is interpretation, and retelling a translation is one step further away. Poetry is even harder, as many languages do not convert well. Everything ends up with some sort of a compromise. Whether the compromises are acceptable or artistic is a matter of taste, but also a matter of the skill of the translator.
(For other posts addressing this issue in a poetic context, see The Book of Hours by Rilke (Barrows & Macy translation), Inferno by Dante (Robert Pinsky and other translations), and Beowulf (Seamus Heaney). Also, the interesting case of Gitanjali by Tagore - who wrote his own English translation, which is definitely a bit...different than his Bengali version.)
I am a bit torn on what to think of Coleman Barks’ version. Since I can’t read Persian, I have no easy way of comparing. Most other translations seem to choose either rhyme or meter, but not both, and most of what was easily available online seemed similar to the Barks approach, namely free verse.
On the one hand, Barks is a poet, so the words flow pretty well. On the other, it seems as if Barks is more concerned with the content - particularly the theology - rather than the poetic essence. Some of the shorter bits cohered as true poems. But the longer passages seemed kind of like a “prose-poem” in the vein of Khalil Gibran. There is nothing wrong with this, but I do wonder how much is missing of the original music when it is prosified.
Barks also breaks up the original collections of poems, grouping them by his view of their topic. This further removes the poetic form from consideration, as one cannot compare poems within a genre. I think Barks was going for treating the collection more as an organized philosophy or theological text rather than a traditional poetry anthology.
Because of the organization, I didn’t have the chance to pick just one collection and read it. Rather, I decided to arbitrarily stop at a chapter break, which fell at 100 pages in. This seemed like enough to read of one poet in a row. I would feel worse about that random cutoff if the book wasn’t organized the way it was - since Rumi’s original organization was already mixed up, I figured I wouldn’t miss his intended flow of poems anyway.
Here are a few that I particularly liked.
Who Says Words With My Mouth?
All day I think about it, then at night I say it.
Where did I come from, and what am I supposed to be doing?
I have no idea.
My soul is from elsewhere, I’m sure of that,
And I intend to end up there.
This drunkenness began in some other tavern.
When I get back around to that place,
I’ll be completely sober. Meanwhile,
I’m like a bird from another continent, sitting in this aviary.
The day is coming when I fly off,
But who is it now in my ear who hears my voice?
Who says words with my mouth?
Who looks out with my eyes? What is the soul?
I cannot stop asking.
If I could taste one sip of an answer,
I could break out of this prison for drunks.
I didn’t come here of my own accord, and I can’t leave that way.
Whoever brought me here will have to take me home.
This poetry. I never know what I am going to say.
I don’t plan it.
When I’m outside the saying of it,
I get very quiet and rarely speak at all.
That is indeed a bit of an existential music. Who (of the poetic bent, at least) hasn’t felt like he wasn’t from the same planet as everyone else, that the soul longs for its homeland, or that someday it will return?
I Have Five Things to Say
The wakened lover speaks directly to the beloved,
“You are the sky my spirit circles in,
And love inside love, the resurrection-place.
Let this window be your ear.
I have lost consciousness many times
With longing for your listening silence,
And your life-quickening smile.
You give attention to the smallest matters,
My suspicious doubts, and to the greatest.
You know my coins are counterfeit,
But you accept them anyway,
My impudence and my pretending.
I have five things to say,
Five fingers to give
Into your grace.
First, when I was apart from you,
This world did not exist,
Nor any other.
Second, whatever I was looking for
Was always you.
Third, why did I ever learn to count to three?
Fourth, my cornfield is burning!
Fifth, this finger stands for Rabia,
And this is for someone else.
Is there a difference?
Are these words or tears?
Is weeping speech?
What shall I do, my Love?”
So he speaks, and everyone around
Begins to cry with him, laughing crazily,
Moaning in the spreading union
Of lover and beloved.
This is the true religion. All others
Are thrown-away bandages beside it.
This is the sema of slavery and mastery
Dancing together. This is not-being.
Neither words, nor any natural fact
Can express this.
I know these dancers.
Day and night I sing their songs
In this phenomenal cage.
My soul, don’t try to answer now!
Find a friend, and hide.
But what can stay hidden?
Love’s secret is always lifting its head
Out from under the covers,
“Here I am!”
I find a lot to love about the language of love in all its contradictions and messiness in this poem.
Inside this new love, die.
Your way begins on the other side.
Become the sky.
Take an axe to the prison wall.
Walk out like someone suddenly born into color.
Do it now.
You’re covered with thick cloud.
Slide out the side. Die,
And be quiet. Quietness is the surest sign
That you’ve died.
Your old life was a frantic running
The speechless full moon
Comes out now.
I am really curious how this sounds in the original. Clearly, there is a poetic rhythm of some sort going on, but it is somewhat lost in the translation. The metaphor of rebirth is a universal human (and religious) idea, although the meaning all too often is abandoned in favor of a call to give intellectual consent to dogma. This eliminates both the mysticism and the mystery of transfiguration, and reduces an experience of the whole self to a set of precepts. Here is another poem with a related theme.
Not Christian or Jew or Muslim, not Hindu,
Buddhist, sufi, or zen. Not any religion
Or cultural system. I am not from the East
Or the West, not out of the ocean or up
From the ground, not natural or etherial, not
Composed of elements at all. I do not exist,
Am not an entity in this world or the next,
Did not descend from Adam and Eve or any
Origin story. My place is placeless, a trace
Of the traceless. Neither body or soul.
I belong to the beloved, have seen the two
Worlds as one and that one call to and know,
First, last, outer, inner, only that
Breath breathing human being.
Some of the poems aren’t given titles, but are grouped together under a title, with separations marked. This next one comes under the heading of “A Great Wagon,” which doesn’t seem to match more than the first two sections. I wonder if they are drawn from different places, or if they were intended to go together. Anyway, here is a short passage that I liked.
Today, like every other day, we wake up empty
And frightened. Don’t open the door to the study
And begin reading. Take down a musical instrument.
Let the beauty we love be what we do.
There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.
As one whose experience of the Divine, beauty, and love are wrapped up in music, this one really resonates.
How about this one, which revels in the myths (true and otherwise) and the necessity to live our own stories.
Unfold Your Own Myth
Who gets up early to discover the moment light begins?
Who finds us here circling, bewildered, like atoms?
Who comes to a spring thirsty
And sees the moon reflected in it?
Who, like Jacob blind with grief and age,
Smells the shirt of his lost son
And can see again?
Who lets a bucket down and brings up
A flowing prophet? Or like Moses goes for fire
And finds what burns inside the sunrise?
Jesus slips into a house to escape enemies,
And opens a door to the other world.
Solomon cuts open a fish, and there’s a gold ring.
Omar storms in to kill the prophet
And leaves with blessings.
Chase a deer and end up everywhere!
An oyster opens his mouth to swallow one drop.
Now there’s a pearl.
A vagrant wanders empty ruins.
Suddenly he’s wealthy.
But don’t be satisfied with stories, how things
Have gone with others. Unfold
Your own myth, without complicated explanation,
So everyone will understand the passage,
We have opened you.
Start walking toward Shams. Your legs will get heavy
And tired. Then comes a moment
Of feeling the wings you’ve grown,
I’ll end with this one, perhaps the most beautiful of the ones I read this time.
The same wind that uproots trees
Makes the grasses shine.
The lordly wind loves the weakness
And the lowness of grasses.
Never brag of being strong.
The axe doesn’t worry how thick the branches are.
It cuts them to pieces. But not the leaves.
It leaves the leaves alone.
A flame doesn’t consider the size of the woodpile.
A butcher doesn’t run from a flock of sheep.
What is form in the presence of reality?
Very feeble. Reality keeps the sky turned over
Like a cup above us, revolving. Who turns
The sky wheel? The universal intelligence.
And the motion of the body comes
From the spirit like a waterwheel
That’s held in a stream.
The inhaling-exhaling is from spirity,
Now angry, now peaceful.
Wind destroys, and wind protects.
There is no reality but God,
Says the completely surrendered sheikh,
Who is an ocean for all beings.
The levels of creation are straws in that ocean.
The movement of the straws comes from an agitation
In the water. When the ocean wants the straws calm,
It sends them close to shore. When it wants them
Back in the deep surge, it does with them
As the wind does with the grasses.
This never ends.
There are many more I found interesting, including the longer stories, myths, and parables. Those are a bit like Aesop meets Robert Frost, with extended dialogs pushing the story forward. My biggest regret is not being able to read in the original groupings, but the topical organization is interesting in its own right.
I look forward to reading more in the future - and perhaps I can get a competing translation/interpretation and compare them.