#151. AN INHERITANCE YOU THOUGHT YOU HAD LOST. There is, famously, the letter of the law, and the spirit. In his time as an Episcopalian minister, Alan Watts thought of suggesting an annual ceremony during which all of his parishioners would burn their Bibles—and, he added, everyone who did so had to have read it. (For some reason the practice never caught on.) Offered a pocket testament once by a wandering Gideon, I thanked him but said I already had one, but was glad to have it and had made use of it. He asked brightly, “Oh! Are you a Christian?” Oh, no, sorry, I said, I’m a poet; I’m not allowed to sign any papers. I don’t think he understood.
Poets have often been corrective spirits to those enclosed by the letter of the law. The whirligig logic of some of the metaphysical poets, the simplicity of the hymnists, the billowing mythologies of Blake, can humanize, challenge, and sweeten the sterner laws of Christianity. Stories of the tzaddikim many times rebuke and correct the narrower logics of the orthodox. Even the strictly monastic traditions of Buddhism will occasionally throw up some memorable poetizing figure—the sixth Dalai Lama, for instance, who liked his bottle, wrote erotic verse, skipped out of the Potala and disappeared; or Ikkyu, the fifteenth-century Zen monk, who could drink you under the table and, if mislaid, could usually be found at the nearest brothel. The great poet-saints of India, Kabir and Surdas and Mirabai (whose vocation for poetry so affronted her parents they tried to have her killed—she spent the remainder of her life wandering the streets) are notoriously slippery at the doctrinal levels of Hindu thought. These people drive the rest of us ordinary folk batshit and recapture us unwillingly with the beauties of their verse. It’s as if you hear the stricter forms of religion unbuckling and breathing a sigh of relief.
The Sufi poets are often of this glorious order, and none of these are greater than Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Balkhi, born in the thirteenth century in what is now Afghanistan, often referred to by devotees as Mawlana (“Our Master”) but, his family having moved to Anatolia in the eastern part of the Roman empire, known to us by the nickname that that move gave him—“The Roman,” or Rumi, just as the painter Domenikos Theotokopoulis is known to us as El Greco—the Greek. He was born to a mystically-inclined father—whose writings to this day are sensual enough to alarm the milder-minded—and, after a more traditional training, fell into an extraordinarily powerful relationship with another teacher, Shams of Tabriz, the defining event of his life. After four years of an almost electrical conversational current passing between them, Shams mysteriously disappeared—murdered, the most likely theory goes. The effect on Rumi was to uncork a voluminous tide of poems, stories, parables, teachings, metaphysics, Qur’anic exegesis, and quoted table talk. The comparison, perhaps, is with the essays of Montaigne, provoked by the death of his friend La Boetie; but the tone is entirely unlike. In Montaigne, we sense the slow movement of returning from bereavement to a majestic and ruminative love of life; with Rumi, we have instead a tumbling energy, a salvific humor and a near-obsessive love of God. In Rumi the line between lover and beloved wavers, dances and disappears. He is mad to have you know what he knows, to experience a joy now lodged in his bones and tissues. The religious order that evolved from his writings, the Mevlevi, incorporated the dance that Rumi did as part of his devotions; we call them the Whirling Dervishes. No one could be surprised by this: the poems of Rumi dance on the pages as few ever do, in any language: there is a darting energy in them, a gunpowder of paradoxes and an openness of embrace that puts Rumi with the greatest of religious teachers and the wisest of poets. “He splits open the night with a sword soaked in dawn.” “A full moon and an inheritance you thought you had lost are now returned to you.”
Rumi in English is popular to the point of best-sellerdom, and there are dozens of versions and anthologies. My first exposure was Andrew Harvey’s book The Teachings of Rumi (Barnes and Noble 1999), which is marvelous, and just the size to be a vade-mecum; his selections capture the rigor of Rumi’s thought as well as his wild rejoicing. A.J. Arberry’s older translations are by all accounts accurate but a bit leaden. Both R.A. Nicholson’s older and Jawid Mojaddedi’s newer rhymed translations are, I’m afraid, pretty wretched (Nicholson’s “Why wilt thou dwell in mouldy cell, a captive, O my heart?” begs to be followed by “Because this hell of dreadful smell’s because I dropped a fart.”) Annemarie Schimmel’s book Rumi's World: The Life and Work of the Great Sufi Poet (Shambhala, 1992) struck me as diffuse and a bit breathless. Franklin D. Lewis’s study Rumi Past and Present, East and West (One World, 2000) succeeds in giving Rumi a local habitation, but it’s a welter of facts and a bit indigestible. Coleman Barks can no doubt justly claim to have set Rumi off on his American popularity. He’s worked from existing translations; I think he may have trimmed a little off the sides here and there, but he’s found a voice for Rumi, and he has selected and anthologized not for scholars but for readers, which is as it should be. The Essential Rumi (Harper, 1995) is, with Harvey’s volume, an ideal place to start. “Come, the rose garden has flowered!”
P.S.: For the poems of the Sixth Dalai Lama, both The Turquoise Bee: The Love Songs of the Sixth Dalai Lama, translated by Rick Fields and Brian Cutillo (Harper, 1994) and White Crane: Love Songs of the Sixth Dalai Lama, translated by Geoffrey Waters (White Pine Press, 2007) are good. Ikkyu’s verse is available in Wild Ways, translated by John Stephens (White Pine, 2015) and Crow with No Mouth, translated by Stephen Berg (Copper Canyon, 2000). For the Indian poet-saints, Songs of the Saints of India, by John Stratton Hawley and Mark Juergensmeyer (Oxford, 2004) is much the best introduction.