General Musings / history

The Poetic Landscape of Rumi

Inside this new love, die.
Your way begins on the other side.
Become the sky.
Take an axe to the prison wall.
Escape.
Walk out like someone suddenly born into colour.
Do it now!
You’re covered with thick cloud.
Slide out the side. Die,
And be quiet. Quietness is the surest sign
That you’ve died.
Your old life was a frantic running
From silence.

I died several years ago now. I gave up on struggling to impress an insatiable world that is never satisfied, devoting hours of my attention to futile hopes or participating in trivial social games that deceived others and myself alike all for the sake of a fleeting, transient applaud or pat on the back. I decided to become myself and for a time I hid away, closed the door as I despairingly heard the loud screams echo within that silence, the pangs of conscience merely an anxious symptom of the withdrawal from a false reality that I feverishly believed to be real. It took time, slowly but surely the sounds softened and a quietness brought within me a sense of calm that I began to actually hear myself, the still waters glistened as the sun rose over the horizon and bred warmth into my bones. A real peace came over me and with it a real happiness where I could see as things were, that I could feel as I should and no longer sensed tension against my own nature. I found the balance from within and my happiness was no longer dependent on others. I found the love for me through my love for God. The silence became music.

I have long had some trouble with poetry. When Plutarch published Quomodo Adolescens Poetas Audire Debeat where he cautioned that “[m]any the lies the poets tell” the idea that poetry used as a tool to corrupt the truth certainly resonated. Indeed, there are many from personal experience who have attained the skills of rhyme, verse and form and speak of love and wisdom, but they themselves are far from being wise or loving people as they borrow and adorn themselves with fake poetic trinkets. Language is weak from protecting itself from such corruption. However, as we filter through and separate the greats, we do find ourselves holding the works of Robert Frost, Alexander Pushkin and Rumi who use parables within their poetry, where the fictitious prose exposes a moral truth and enables one to makes sense of and reason their own subjectivity. They provide access through ones own imagination en-route toward this repository of emotions and feelings that previously never had a language.

There is no doubt that poetry is embedded in Persian culture and indeed the tradition dates back centuries, remaining a powerful influence both socially and politically that provides insight into how such symbolic allusions and mystical allegories express a unique interpretation of meaning and identity. While the influence of poetry in the region dates back to the pre-Islamic era, a cultural revival during the Seljuq Empire – while short-lived – managed to revive Persian poetry that flourished in the region for centuries to come. Works by philosopher and theologian Al-Ghazali and vizier Nizam al-Mulk set the stage for this revivification that continued into the Ottoman Empire. Nasir ibn Khusraw as well as early mystics of the Sufi order Abdullah Ansari of Herat and Baba Taher of Hamadan introduced what later became a prominent method to interpret the mystical experience and unity with God that simple language could not correctly allude to. Indeed, the great poet and writer Nizami Ganjavi wrote epic love tales including Khosrow and Shirin about the love of King Khosrow with the Princess Shirin of Armenia, but also Layla and Majnun or what has become famously known as Romeo and Juliet in the west. Such epic tales of love and tragedy was already entrenched in Persian culture at the time but became further popularised and exercised considerable influence on later poets. While I could easily add a very long list of famed poets from the region, there is no doubt that Jalaluddin Rumi stands at the forefront in popularity.

When I remember your love,
I weep, and when I hear people
Talking of you,
Something in my chest,
Where nothing much happens now,
Moves as in sleep.

All our lives we’ve looked
Into each other’s faces.
That was the case today too.

How do we keep our love-secret?
We speak from brow to brow
And hear with our eyes.

In the early thirteenth century, Rumi was born to a well-respected and privileged family of theologians and became a student to one of his own father’ disciples Sayyed Termazi that gave him learned access to the Qur’anic traditions and spiritual landscape of Sufism. While he became a scholar and teacher of Islamic jurisprudence at a very young age, it was not until his meeting with the wandering dervish Shamsuddin of Tabriz (known as Shams) that he experienced the spiritual epiphany that awoken the deeper repository of aesthetic expression in the forms of poetry. Their friendship was very unique and indeed the brotherly love, the difficulties, and even the tragedy between them inspired Rumi to write a great deal dedicated to Shams, including his masterpiece Diwan-e Shams-e Tabrizi. It is clear that this deep, spiritual awakening led Rumi to understand the universality of love, a grace given by God and this ecstasy and wonderment of the experience made him express his deep appreciation for Shams by providing with the wisdom and insight to enable access. There are layers that describe various expressions of love in objective forms that explore the ultimate union with the external world, that brotherly love, erotic love, and familial love merely deliver this euphoric power as fragments of the love of God, the very Form of Love itself, as within the first Kalima of Islam that writes ‘there is no reality but God.’

Hail Love, hail Love, because Love is divine
It is tender, it is beautiful and benign
What passion, what passion, we are burning like the sun
It is hidden and obscure, it is an obvious sign.
We’ve fallen, we’ve fallen, it is hard to rise up
We know not, we know not, this complex chaotic design.

Thus everything comes from this reality or Zikr where we remember the love of God by the variety of forms that we express one to another. While the love that is formed in friendship initiates the removal of the infantile ego and commences the conscious experience of caring for and loving someone external to oneself and to thus start experiencing reality, this capacity is clearly fortified when one experiences the longing founded in erotic love. This feverishly impassioned experience between two people solidified by the admiration for one another and a longing to unite with them inspires a state of real happiness that brings us closer to this ultimate reality where everything is God. This genuine engagement between two lovers can be seen in Rumi’ fascination for the love between Queen of Sheba and King Solomon, of how the virgin Queen changed the heart of a man who had many lovers and to finally see what genuine love meant. King Solomon represented a man of wisdom and of high intelligence, but his life had slipped as he fell victim to a world of beautiful yet intellectually lacking women that he soon gave up on his own mental gifts. Queen of Sheba’s dedication to wisdom was clear when she came to test him and they both glimpsed within one another a mirror of themselves that awoken the inspiration for this euphoric feeling in love. If a person is a book, locked away and hidden, it is clear that the genuine union between the love of two people supplants a wholeness and a euphoric happiness as though one is finally seen, unlocked and read by another.

I’ve come to take you
With me
Even if I must drag you along
But first must steal your heart
Then settle you in my soul

I’ve come as a spring
To lay beside your blossoms
To feel the glory of happiness
And spread your flowers around

I’ve come to show you off
As the adornment of my house
And elevate you to the heavens
As the prayers of those in love

I’ve come to take
A kiss you stole away from me
Either return it with grace
Or I must take it by force

You’re my life
You’re my soul
Please be my last prayer
My heart must hold you forever

For Rumi, the ultimate panegyric is reaching this honesty and awareness, to break free from the encapsulated smallness of a mind that follows convention. If I were to eliminate such environmental and epistemic influences over my thoughts and emotions, what would ‘I’ have left but a brain, which is merely a tool that vehicle my rather fleeting existence. His work Masnavi narrates powerful rhyming couplets of a spiritual and religious nature that attempts to illustrate the attainment of the love of God or the Divine, to feel the existence of God by embracing the didactic that we are inherently evil. We must overcome this immorality by welcoming the theistic wisdom founded with in the scriptures through the denial of the carnal and material in praise of moral reflection that enables one to reveal our very nature and the ecstasy that one can attain when reaching this state of wholeness with God. Whether this experience is entirely mystical is challenging as this inspiration could merely be an innate awareness that recognises our own state of nature, to transcend externally influenced perceptions and become conscious of our own capacity to think independent of material considerations.

If you want what visible reality
Can give, you’re an employee.
 
If you want the unseen world,
You’re not living your truth.

Both wishes are foolish,
But you’ll be forgiven for forgetting
That what you really want is
Love’s confusing joy.

Gamble everything for love,
If you’re a true human being.
If not, leave
This gathering.

Half-heartedness doesn’t reach
Into majesty. You set out
To find God, but then you keep
Stopping for long periods
At mean-spirited roadhouses.

While there are a number of verse forms used including Masnavi, Ruba’i, Qazal and Qasideh, it would be unreasonable to categorise Rumi as a poet of forms, indeed he transcends such distinctive rules and uses poetry as a way to express the subject or content of his feelings rather than making any calculable effort. For instance, Ruba’i are quatrains or stanzas using a particular meter that nevertheless can alternate rhythmically, the Ruba’iyyat by famed Persian poet Omar Khayyam resonates with his philosophical and mathematical background. Khayyam, rather conversely to Rumi, had a very logical approach to reality perhaps owing to his mathematical and philosophical nature where the content of his poetry takes a more material and existential approach to reality and the disillusionment wrought by the futility of existence, parallel to Epicurean thought and the poetry of Lucretius. Rumi, on the other hand, could be clearly seen as a deist and describes the importance of removing oneself from the material world. Indeed, for Rumi, freedom requires the courage to let go of all worldly attachments and become one not only with reality – reality being Nature – but by becoming one with yourself, to lose all the mental and emotional dictates that one believes is reality and to become absorbed in the nature of our very being.

Birds make great sky-circles
Of their freedom.
How do they learn it?

They fall, and falling,
They’re given wings.

Thus the use of the aesthetic is coming from an embedded song that sings the movement of his emotions, the words and meters merely the rhythm and the harmony that enables a voice and language for such feelings. It is why there is much debate and controversy relating to the translations of his poetry by Coleman Banks – author of numerous books on Rumi including The Essential Rumi – and that while having popularised Rumi to the western world, he appears to take his own subjective interpretation of this content and form it into a translation. It is difficult to ascertain whether this is merely a form of Orientalism as expressed by Edward Said where the West culturally misrepresents the Middle East. For instance, Bernard Lewis who – having the title of scholar and historian of the Middle East whereby historians require a strong understanding of culture and beliefs – has never, in fact, stepped foot into the Middle East; he has even gone so far as to advise the Bush Administration related to foreign policy in the region. It is highly unusual to read the translations by Banks for this reason as it cannot interpret the peculiarities of both the Persian language and the special use of imagery specific to the culture. Visiting a tomb in Konya or watching the Whirling Dervishes would not enable one to embrace the allusions and references to the Qu’ran, Sufism and other imagery embedded into the Persian language that provokes an emotional effect that other languages are unqualified to translate. Whatever the case, Rumi remains a poetic giant in the landscape of theistic devotion and the subject of love.

9 thoughts on “The Poetic Landscape of Rumi

  1. “Indeed, there are many from personal experience who have attained the skills of rhyme, verse and form and speak of love and wisdom, but they themselves are far from being wise or loving people as they borrow and adorn themselves with fake poetic trinkets.”
    ~ I, too, had a problem with poetry…until I met and became friends with the American poet, Angela Consolo Mankiewicz.
    ~ I love Rumi’s poetic vision.

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    • Thanks Rosaleine, indeed, I will do my best to look into A.C. Mankiewicz. I too love his vision especially in our day where I tend to think of what Robert Tillich once said: “I hope for the day when everyone can speak again of God without embarrassment.”

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  2. Love this part especially- “. However, as we filter through and separate the greats, we do find ourselves holding the works of Robert Frost, Alexander Pushkin and Rumi who use parables within their poetry, where the fictitious prose exposes a moral truth and enables one to makes sense of and reason their own subjectivity”

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  3. I like your webpage and writing a lot. I envy you your sense of purpose and audience. I don’t mean the audience out here where I am. I mean the one you seem to carry around in your head.

    The first paragraph of your essay made me think of my daughter. When she was young, she was very attracted to people in authority. She had a teacher in nursery school who was kind but stern. She let the children know what was expected of them and let them know when they had succeeded. My daughter liked that teacher very much. She liked to be told when she had done things right and hated to be told she had not. There is no doubt in my mind that she was born that way, that it was a matter of temperament, not learned. She grew up as a very high-achieving child. She always worked hard on her grades and achievements – Girl Scouts, National Honor Society, advanced placement classes. Criticizing her never went well.

    Something changed between her 11th and 12th grade years in school. Looking back from several years later, it was clear she made an active decision to change. As an act of will, of character. She decided she would no longer let her life be controlled by what others thought of her. She still got good grades, but she wasn’t the same. That was almost 20 years ago. Sometimes she seems to be fearless. She and I were talking about it when she was home at Christmas. She told me that it isn’t as if the impulse has disappeared. She still is aware of it and deals with it when she has to. She can still get very cranky when someone finds fault.

    I was going to ask if you have read “Self-Reliance,” but I found a quote in one of your other essays that shows me you have. It knocks me down and kicks me in the pants every time I read it. The most radical guide to intellectual…. well, self-reliance, I can imagine. “God will not have his will made manifest by cowards.” I think I’ll put that on a t-shirt and give it to my daughter for Christmas. Last time I gave her a shirt with “There is no Hannah, only Zuul.”

    I’d still like to comment on the rest of your essay.

    Liked by 1 person

    • To be honest, there is no audience in my mind. I seek merely to clarify my own thoughts and attempt to articulate them in some form. Sometimes we can be consumed by emotive feelings that cloud our judgements and we are unable to ascertain what the truth may actually be, or why we feel such a way. We can even do this intentionally because the hurt is just too overwhelming. Being an introverted person, writing allows me to express myself in ways that I would otherwise not be able to do. I think it is wonderful you are conscious of your daughter and there to support her, something I myself have never had and can assure you the absence of which is rather difficult. Having figures to help guide you enables this momentary epiphanies that give people like your daughter the incentive to become self-reliant. I am sure she has you to thank for that, even if she is not aware of it.

      She is also not alone when she feels angered at being told she is wrong. There is an ego within us that seeks to protect us from believing that we could possibly be bad in some way. But, once the ego dissipates, she – along with everyone else – does eventually think about what has been said.

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      • “I am sure she has you to thank for that, even if she is not aware of it.”

        Fathers are not allowed to take credit for the accomplishments of their children. If I believed what you said, which I don’t, that would only make what you have done more striking.

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  4. Persian poetry is a long walk from my usual intellectual neighborhood, but scanning down the page I saw “Robert Frost,” so I decided to read, only to be brought up short by your first paragraph, which I responded to previously. Then I was almost distracted by your second paragraph. Such contempt, resentment toward poets, of all people. I’d be interested in hearing more. Are there any posts on your website that would shed more light? Anyway, now I’d like to comment on the rest of your post.

    I enjoyed the poetry you included. I can see why you like it – a weaving together of a longing for clarity and freedom with a longing for love. More than a weaving, a conviction that the two are the same thing. That understanding is echoed in your own writing. For me, on the other hand, the search for enlightenment is very different from the longing for emotional attachment. When I think of the part of me that’s looking for understanding, I picture a dog, maybe a beagle, trotting through the woods, sniffing everything, digging under rocks, ears standing up at each sound. eyes scanning back and forth. The part of me that longs for love is a boy, fidgeting, waiting, impatient, passive.

    I found some more of Rumi’s poetry on line. I liked it, especially the philosophical parts. Some of it reminded me of Lao Tzu. I am more comfortable with the intellectual and perceptual search for clarity as opposed to the emotional and romantic. “Comfortable” is the wrong word. I guess I like being the beagle more than I do the boy.

    As for Robert Frost…. One of the reasons I love his poetry so much is the way he portrays relationships between men and women. Given that you like both poets, I was struck by the difference between how he does it and how Rumi does. In Rumi, love is a character in the story. In Frost, it is…. what? A part of the set design, the cinematography. I was going to say that Frost is down-to-earth, not romantic, but then I found this in “The Death of the Hired Man.”

    “Part of a moon was falling down the west,
    Dragging the whole sky with it to the hills.
    Its light poured softly in her lap. She saw it
    And spread her apron to it. She put out her hand
    Among the harp-like morning-glory strings,
    Taut with the dew from garden bed to eaves,
    As if she played unheard some tenderness
    That wrought on him beside her in the night…”

    A practical sort of romance, but still … Here’s from “The Generations of Men.” For me, the best love is playful.

    “I can see we are going to be good friends.”

    “I like your ‘going to be.’ You said just now
    It’s going to rain.”

    “I know, and it was raining.
    I let you say all that. But I must go now.”

    “You let me say it? on consideration?
    How shall we say good-bye in such a case?”

    “How shall we?”

    “Will you leave the way to me?”

    “No, I don’t trust your eyes. You’ve said enough.
    Now give me your hand up — Pick me that flower.”

    “Where shall we meet again?”

    “Nowhere but here
    Once more before we meet elsewhere.”

    “In rain?”

    “It ought to be in rain. Sometime in rain.
    In rain to-morrow, shall we, if it rains?
    But if we must, in sunshine.” So she went.

    It’s been a while since I’ve read poetry. I’d forgotten how much I love these poems.

    “It ought to be in rain. Sometime in rain.
    In rain to-morrow, shall we, if it rains?”

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