Thursday, February 23, 2006

Rumi and Writing

The best-selling poet in America remains Rumi, nearly 750 years after his death. Coleman Barks and others are well known as “presenters” of Rumi’s poetry, although I don’t know how many of them actually translate Rumi’s poems from the original. I have some doubt, as do some who are well-versed with Rumi in his own words. I would trust the translations of the late Annemarie Schimmel and (as I was reminded) Arberry.

I find Rumi’s widespread presence in America’s bookstores curious. In most of the anthologies, you read very little or nothing of the fact that Rumi was a Muslim scholar and amazing man of Islamic literature. I’ve always felt that Rumi became “Rumi Safe” because of the unconscionable disassociation between the poet and his spiritual motivation. Like others of his era (and those before and after), Rumi was informed by a dynamic literary tradition that is being swept away from popular awareness because of the effective radical Evangelical, Coulterized, al-Fox News, Talk Radio spook campaign of all things “Islamic.” Add to this the inexcusable quiet among America’s intelligentsia about the revisionist handling of Islamic civilization whose leadership for nearly a thousand years moved from a variety of “ethnic” and “linguistic” experiences: Arab, Swahili, Hindi, Turkish, Urdu, and more. What bound this civilization was the ideal of Islam and not some ephemeral geographical or political handshake.

What brought me to this subject is something that Rumi said about writing. He says: “There is an unseen sweetness in the stomach’s emptiness. . . . Be empty and write secrets.” What he means here by “secrets” are surprisingly profound insights that mysteriously come out of a writer—insights that were lodged somewhere within yet uninvited into the public realm. He then compares people to reed pens, wooden instruments that do not function unless first hollowed out.

I’ve read about some of the habits of writers that seem to be quirks, but are actually important preparatory and conditioning states that help a writer produce prose or poetry that is authentic and accessible. The habits range from clothing, diet, meditation, etc.

It is said that when Jalaluddin Rumi died (December 17, 1273) men of five religious traditions followed his bier. He is buried in Konya, Anatolia (Turkey) and his grave site is regularly visited by Muslims and folks of all faiths.

Well, here's the larger quote of Rumi (rahmatullahi alayhi) on writing. Don't get mad, but I had no choice but to get it from Barks, since my Farsi (Persian) does not exist.
There is an unseen sweetness in the stomach’s emptiness. We are lutes. When the soundbox is filled, no music can come forth. When the brain and the belly burn from fasting, every moment a new song rises out of the fire. The mists clear, and a new vitality makes you spring up the steps before you. Be empty and cry as a reed instrument. Be empty and write secrets with a reed pen. When satiated by food and drink, an unsightly metal statue is seated where your spirit should be. When fasting, good habits gather like helpful friends. Fasting is Solomon’s ring. Don’t give in to illusion and lose your power. But even when will and control have been lost, they will return when you fast, like soldiers appearing out of the ground, or pennants flying in the breeze.


Anonymous hamidm said...

A few years ago I first ran across Rumi at a Barnes and Noble, not knowing anything significant about him or Sufism at the time. Reading him, I believe I completely misunderstood his work. However, having since read William Chittick's "The Sufi Path of Love" I have only begun to understand and appreciate the spiritual greatness of Rumi.

This will come across badly, but it is my opinion that the modern multitudes that consume Rumi's works do not really begin to grasp the actual intent of his poetry at all. Rather they are uncritical, liberal connoisseurs of "cultured" eastern philosophies which they misunderstand.

2/23/2006 8:57 PM  
Anonymous hamid said...

Fromclay, you may or may not be aware of Arberry and Nicholson translations of Rumi. By the way how's your health?

2/23/2006 9:04 PM  
Blogger fromclay said...

Hamid, you're right. Arberry and Nicholson translated Rumi, and I think that they're both reliable, but Arberry more. He had more than a translator's skill but also a soul-wise feel for the texts he dived into. I think you're right too about the superficial reception that Rumi gets, but that's the way of the world. Most people who can read the original will not "get it" either. Good point you make. As for health, it's a wait and scan situation, ever few months. Thanks for asking.

2/24/2006 6:18 AM  
Blogger Faramir said...


Are you aware of Jawad Mojaddedi's
translation of Rumi (Book 1).


2/25/2006 6:49 AM  
Blogger fromclay said...

Now I do, Faramir. Thank you.

2/25/2006 11:53 AM  
Anonymous hamid said...

Just curious, but where did you find the statistic for Rumi being the bestselling author in America?

2/25/2006 9:29 PM  
Blogger fromclay said...

I've heard it said on and off over the years by sources like Publishers Weekly. Don't quote me on this. I'm going on memory. It's been said, though, many and different times. It could be they meant "spiritual" poetry. But being in publishing, I know that poetry never cracks the best seller lists, but everywhere there's Rumi's books, it seems, in the poetry and religion sections.

2/26/2006 1:05 PM  
Blogger Unconventionally_Urs said...

I have two collection of Rumi poems. Are you saying that Barks didn't translate those poems? Coz that is what the introduction to the collection of love poetry mentions.
You have raised some interesting points on how Rumi has been divorced from Islam.
Thanks for sharing the quote. It speaks a breathtaking truth.

2/28/2006 12:02 AM  
Blogger fromclay said...

People who know Rumi's works have commented that it's likely that some who "translate" Rumi take great liberty based on previous translations. As far as translating goes, it is common to see how others before you have done something, but then the question rises, how much is actual translation and how much is rewording what was done previously? I know this from my own experience in translation; one must be very careful in what he or she deems as an original translation. So I have my doubts and they are informed by those who are aware of Rumi, his original work, and popular translations of them.

Thanks for your comments.

2/28/2006 7:21 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Clay said:

In most of the anthologies, you read very little or nothing of the fact that Rumi was a Muslim scholar and amazing man of Islamic literature. I’ve always felt that Rumi became “Rumi Safe” because of the unconscionable disassociation between the poet and his spiritual motivation.

Rumi said:

What is to be done, O Muslims? for I do not recognize myself.
I am neither Christian, nor Jew, nor Magian, nor Muslim.
I am not of the East, nor of the West, nor of the land, nor of the sea;
I am not of Nature's mint, nor of the circling heaven.
I am not of earth, nor of water, nor of air, nor of fire;
I am not of the empyrean, nor of the dust, nor of existence, nor of entity.
I am not of India, nor of China, nor of Bulgaria, nor of Saqsin
I am not of the kingdom of 'Iraqian, nor of the country of Khorasan
I am not of the this world, nor of the next, nor of Paradise, nor of Hell
I am not of Adam, nor of Eve, nor of Eden and Rizwan.
My place is the Placeless, my trace is the Traceless

I found Rumi to be "Safe" because he was One with the Beloved for whom I was searching, and found, and then knew that Rumi and I are One also.

3/17/2006 6:51 PM  
Blogger fromclay said...

Azaniah, just saw your post. What Rumi echoes in what your quote is the peak of "islam," full immersion (to the point of not noticing) in the bond between created and Creator. He is more muslim, than Muslim, what the word “means” and leads to, as taught and handed down through the legacy of prophethood, with amazing rites that awaken the soul. Thanks again for sharing.

3/25/2006 7:45 PM  
Blogger Celal Birader said...

Looks to me like Rumi was simply a mystic not much different from the mystics of any tradition be it Christian, Jewish etc.

4/19/2006 8:56 AM  

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