Sunday, October 20, 2013

One-Handed Basket Weaving

I had heard of Rumi, but not really read any of his works. I found this little volume in a second hand shop, and thought I would check it out. I was absolutely stunned. How could poems written in the middle east in the dark ages simultaneously cut to the heart of Christianity and Zen Buddhism while sounding as modern as if they were written yesterday? Consider this, for example:
Singular & Plural 
As human beings have an intellect
beyond the animals, so True Human Beings
have an intelligent soul
beyond ordinary awareness,
and it is all one thing,
their knowing and doing.
David didn't build the temple.
His son Solomon did,
but David built it too!
We speak of saints and prophets
and awakened ones in the plural,
but that's not the way it is.
Dogs and wolves are competitive and disparate,
but the lions of God have one soul. 
I mean, that doesn't sound like 13th century poetry to me. Weirder still, read The City of Saba, and try to imagine that it was not written today, but written a thousand years ago. So, how can it be? Is Rumi a time traveller? And the answer is: well, it isn't 13th century poetry, not exactly. This is a translation by contemporary poet Coleman Barks. Weirdly, Barks does not read Farsi. Rather, he'd been reading the English translations of the original poems, and felt they seemed stiff, and well, not what they really wanted to be. So he undertook to translate the literal English translations into poems that felt more true. Interestingly, he's done this with the help, approval, and encouragement of Bawa Muhaiyaddeen, a Sufi mystic from Sri Lanka who has read and studied the originals. Somehow Coleman first met Bawa in dream, and then later in real life. Anyway, I find the poems intensely thrilling. They feel alive and wonderful and clever and true and wise, everything that I seek from poetry. Rumi wrote A LOT, and Barks has gradually been working on his own versions for decades, so there is much of it to explore, and I'm looking forward to that. And while I get a lot out of the poems, I think I might get even more out of the success Barks has had with his intense boldness, and his Emersonian resolve. It is just more evidence to me that when something feels true, though the world may tell you it is wrong, you should follow it with all your heart and soul. 

1 comment: