Guestblogging here at VRZHUblog is Kim Roberts, author of the fine book The Kimnama. Enjoy!
Today is the 800th anniversary of the birth of a poet named Rumi, who was born in Afghanistan but lived most of his life in Turkey. Rumi was Islamic, but from the mystical Sufi tradition, and much of his work addresses his desire to attain an ecstatic spiritual connection with another man, a wandering mystic named Shams of Tabriz. There are a number of celebrations of this big anniversary in the DC area--the University of Maryland is hosting an international Rumi conference, and the Freer Gallery of Art has a day-long celebration with readings, music, tours, and family activities. My friend Michael Gushue sent me some information about the Freer events by email, and asked me how I felt about Rumi's work. I had to admit I didn't know; I'd read so little. I know that some of his poems have been adopted by new-age practitioners--not exactly a vote of confidence in my book--and that other poems have actually appeared on greeting cards. So, in my snobbish way, I'd never really paid attention. But Michael's question made me go back and look more closely. There must be a reason, after all, that we are still reading and studying this poetry hundreds of years later.
So I pulled out two books. The first book I looked at was the shorter one of the two, which seemed like it might provide a quick introduction. And the translator, Annmarie Schimmel, is considered an international authority on Rumi.
Well, the book was awful. All the poems seemed to run together--nothing was distinct or memorable. I liked the enthusiastic tone of the poems, but that was the best I could say about them. Mostly I found them sentimental and vague. There was some good metaphoric language, but most metaphors were contained within a single line (there were no extended metaphors), so they passed by too quickly. It read like a parody of bad love poetry, all this talk about souls merging.
Also, I was confused about how to interpret these love poems written to Shams. With my modern sensibility, I wondered if it was possible that this love was only spiritual and platonic, or if there was physical desire as well.
Schimmel's translation also was strange in another way. All the poems were translated into blank verse. The iambic rhythms sounded very clunky to my ear--sing-songy and poorly handled.
So now I've started reading some poems by a different translator, Coleman Barks. Although Rumi wrote in regular meter and rhyme, Barks didn't try to duplicate that--his translations are in free verse, and with vastly improved results.
From the intro: "His life seems to have been a fairly normal one for a religious scholar--teaching, meditating, helping the poor--until the late fall of 1244 when he met a stranger who put a question to him. That stranger was the wandering dervish, Shams of Tabriz." No one seems to know exactly what the question was, probably something about a mystical interpretation of Quranic texts, but "The question Shams spoke made the learned professor faint to the ground." After that, "Shams and Rumi became inseparable. Their Friendship is one of the mysteries...This ecstatic connection caused difficulties in the religious community. Rumi's students felt neglected. Sensing trouble, Shams disappeared as suddenly as he had appeared. Annemarie Schimmel, a scholar immersed for forty years in the works of Rumi, thinks that it was at this first disappearance that Rumi began the transformation into a mystical artist."
Rumi was inconsolable, but then he heard a rumor that Shams was in Damascus, so he sent his son to bring him back. "When Rumi and Shams met for the second time, they fell at each other's feet, so that 'no one knew who was lover and who the beloved.' Shams stayed in Rumi's home and was married to a young girl who had been brought up in the family." But the troubles and jealousies returned. "On the night of December 5, 1248, as Rumi and Shams were talking, Shams was called to the back door. He went out, never to be seen again. Most likely, he was murdered with the connivance of Rumi's son Allaedin..."
Rumi later had a mystical sort of realization that Shams was part of him, still inside him, talking with him still, and he believed the resulting poems were collaborations. "Rumi called the huge collection of his odes and quatrains The Works of Shams of Tabriz."
As for Rumi's forms, he appeared to have written mostly rhyming quatrains (rubaiyat) and traditional Persian ghazals (odes) and qasidas (a lyric form). He also published discourses, letters, and sermons. In the signature line of the ghazals (where the poet often inserts his own name in the final line of the poem), Rumi often substituted the name of Shams, or a reference to silence.
Here's a lovely short lyric, translated by Coleman Barks:
THE NEW RULE
It's the old rule that drunks have to argue
and get into fights.
The lover is just as bad. He falls into a hole.
But down in that hole he finds something shining,
worth more than any amount of money or power.
Last night the moon came dropping its clothes in the street.
I took it as a sign to start singing,
falling up into the bowl of the sky.
The bowl breaks. Everywhere is falling everywhere.
Nothing else to do.
Here's the new rule: break the wineglass,
and fall toward the glassblower's breath.
As for how to account for Rumi's relationship with Shams, Michael says, "Seems to me there's a lot of poems where how we interpret the love expressed is problematic and in fact hindered by our modern sensibilities."
I think he's really right about that! I wonder if marriages were seen in Rumi's time as more functional than romantic--and so friendships would take on a different emotional role in people's lives. Perhaps a total union with one's spouse, a merging, was unthinkable? Perhaps that was relegated only to a religious sphere?
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Kim Roberts at www.kimroberts.org