What does it take to become a successful poet today? Basically, a miracle. Books of poetry, after all, rarely sell. A few thousand copies are considered more than respectable by most publishers. A few hundred thousand? Only the rarest and luckiest of American poets have seen such numbers. Just ask the best-selling poet in the U.S. today. Then again, don't bother. A Muslim mystic born in Central Asia almost eight centuries ago, he is no longer available for comment.
Jalaluddin Rumi was, among many other things, a lover of irony, of the odd and absurd juxtapositions that life creates. So it may be that he would have savored the fact that Madonna set translations of his 13th century verses praising Allah to music on Deepak Chopra's 1998 CD, A Gift of Love; that Donna Karan has used recitations of his poetry as a background to her fashion shows; that Oliver Stone wants to make a film of his life; and that even though he hailed from Balkh, a town near Mazar-i-Sharif situated in what is today Afghanistan, his verse has only become more popular with American readers since September last year, when HarperCollins published The Soul of Rumi, 400 pages of poetry translated by Coleman Barks. September 2001 would seem like an unpropitious time for an American publisher to have brought out a large, pricey hardback of Muslim mystical verse, but the book took off immediately. It has a long road ahead, however, if it is to catch up with a previous Rumi best seller, The Essential Rumi, published by HarperCollins in 1995. With more than 250,000 copies in print, it is easily the most successful poetry book published in the West in the past decade.
Born in a Central Asia no less volatile than that of today, Rumi spent most of his younger years as a refugee on the run from the incursions of Genghis Khan from the east, and the swords of the crusaders to the west. The son of an accomplished scholar, Rumi showed early signs of becoming one himself. But after years of study, he is said to have grown disillusioned with the ways of God as he encountered them in the texts and lectures of his masters. Spiritually, Rumi was hungry for something more than what conventional studies could offer him something that came to him in 1244, in the form of an encounter with a ragged, wild-eyed mystic named Shams of Tabriz. Rumi and Shams, legend has it, immediately recognized each other as brothers on a spiritual plane. Most Muslims vigorously deny that the relationship had a homosexual component, but whatever its exact nature, it initiated an awakening that would ultimately transform the young Persian intellectual into a mystic on the level of a St. John of the Cross or a Shankara. The legend goes on to say that Rumi and Shams became so inseparable that jealousy grew among Rumi's already considerable followers. Ultimately they acted, murdering Shams and leaving Rumi alone again, the one true and irreplaceable soul companion of his life gone.
Shattered by the event, Rumi is said to have undergone a period of profound mourning. Then, at a point of near-total hopelessness and emotional desolation, he experienced another mystical intuition. Though physically dead, Shams was in fact not gone from his life at all but more present than ever on an inner, spiritual plane. "Shams" means sun in Arabic, and in the words of Rumi scholar Annemarie Schimmel: "He who had searched for Shams, the 'Sun of Truth,' in vain, discovered that he was united with him in himself."
It was in the wake of this experience that Rumi's formidable output of poetry began: a catalog that in its surviving form runs to a dozen thick volumes. Rumi's masterpiece, the Mathnawi, is a fantastical, oceanic mishmash of folktales, philosophical speculation and lyric ebullience in which the worldly and the otherworldly, the secular and the sacred, blend constantly. For Rumi, the universe is like a tavern where people, drunk with desire and longing, collect and carouse until they finally remember their true calling: return to an Islamic God whose all-encompassing love is the core of every earthly love from the most trifling to the deepest and most passionate. "Where did I come from, and what am I supposed to be doing?" Rumi had asked. "I have no idea. My soul is from elsewhere, I'm sure of that, and I intend to end up there."
The man most responsible for Rumi's popularity in the West today is Coleman Barks, a poet and retired professor of English at the University of Georgia. Humble and soft-spoken, Barks acknowledges that his translations are often far from exact renditions of the Farsi of Rumi's day which in any case he doesn't speak. To create them, he has used literal translations provided by others. Barks' emphasis on poetic essence over linguistic exactitude owes a strong debt to earlier poet-translators like Robert Bly, Kenneth Rexroth and Ezra Pound who championed a style of direct, aggressively unacademic translation. Following their example, Barks was able to create an American Rumi: one who speaks across the centuries with a voice as direct and imperative as a tug on the shirt:
Muhammad rode his horse through the nightsky. The day is for work. The night for love. Don't let someone bewitch you. Some people sleep at night.
But not lovers. They sit in the dark and talk to God, who told David, Those who sleep all night every night And claim to be connected to us, they lie.
The God Rumi speaks of in his poems or at least in Barks' translations of them is one who seemingly has little interest in the intricacies of orthodoxy and doctrine. "Rumi keeps breaking the mosque and the minaret and the school," Barks told National Public Radio last year. "He says when those are torn down, then dervishes can begin their community. So he wants us all to break out of our conditioning, be it national or be it religious or be it gender based."
No one would disagree with Barks that, like the God-intoxicated ecstatics of other religious traditions from the Hebrew prophets to St. Francis of Assisi, Rumi was out to seriously question the spiritual assumptions of his day. By the standards of 13th century Balkh, his songs of union with the divine were rebellious fare indeed. But they were also uttered by a man who, at all points in his life, considered himself a devout Muslim. Rumi scholars like Franklin D. Lewis, author of the recent Rumi: Past and Present, East and West, are anxious to remind the poet's legions of new fans that when Rumi invited his listener or reader to leave the yesses and nos of conventional belief behind, he did so as a card-carrying member of a culture that unquestioningly accepted Muhammad as the Seal of the Prophets, and the Koran as God's last word, dictated verbatim by the angel Gabriel.
That's why, Lewis and others argue, in the New Age bookstores and yoga centers from Berlin to Los Angeles where Barks' and other modernized versions of Rumi have found such an enthusiastic following these days, a certain tension is often missing. Barks' versions, Lewis claims, "teleport the poems of Rumi out of their cultural and Islamic context into the inspirational discourse of non-parochial spirituality." Cut free from the ground of orthodox Islamic belief from which they grew, the Persian poet's lyrical reports from the outer fringes of mystical experience risk becoming mere souvenirs of a far-off time and place harmless ecstatic bonbons that soothe and mirror contemporary Western tastes and sensibilities rather than potentially enlarging or changing them.
Whether true or not in Rumi's case, it is a fate that has certainly befallen the words of many another Asian mystic imported to American shores. Having outgrown its old orthodoxies while remaining profoundly hungry for the spiritual nutrition they once provided, the Western world has for decades been culling through the most alluring and exotic blooms of Eastern poetry and philosophy in search of a "spirituality" completely unencumbered by the spiky thorns of "religion." From the Zen masters embraced by the Beats of the '50s, to the Hindu holy men momentarily adopted by the Beatles in the '60s, to that quintessentially enigmatic Chinese mystic Lao Tzu whose Tao Te Ching has been Americanized by even more translators in the past few years than Rumi's work has the message most ardently sought by the West from these Eastern visionaries is ever the same: the divine is bigger than every vessel that seeks to hold it. But what too often gets ignored is the fact that the poets and mystics making this claim were always speaking from within such vessels themselves: complex cultural worlds to which they remained deeply attached and indebted no matter how free their words, cleaned up and tweaked by modern translators, might make them seem. The New Age dream of finding a guiding ancient voice free of all orthodoxies, dogmas and cultural conditionings has remained just that.
Barks freely admits that his versions of Rumi aren't always accurate from an orthodox or scholarly angle any more than a linguistic one. But that, he insists, isn't really the issue. "How do you take a poem written long ago and far away and get it into a person's life today?" he asks. "The scholarly versions of these poems aren't the original either they're just words pointing to an original we can't reach." It's a point that even Barks' harsher critics acknowledge. An Americanized Rumi who speaks to the hearts of hundreds of thousands of people and builds bridges of understanding between the Muslim world and the West is, after all, better than an academized Rumi who speaks to no one and even those who quibble most about Barks' translations tend to admit that he has an undeniable flair for capturing the spirit of the poet's thought.
"I'm actually a little embarrassed by the New Age," Barks says. "I want people just to stay with what they love, what they really know. I don't know why my own versions are so popular, but maybe hopefully it's because something is coming through and recognized as truthful." If Rumi himself were somehow zapped, robes and all, into the present day and given a look at the vast spiritual Starbucks where he is the most popular flavor of the moment, what would he make of it all? Very likely he would echo what Kabir Helminski, a practicing Sufi and another popular contemporary Rumi translator, has said about attempts to siphon off the insights of Rumi and other Sufi sages without addressing their Islamic context: "We cannot steal the fire. We must enter it."
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