Apparently, Leonardo DiCaprio is being tapped to play Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī, the widely read Persian mystic poet. The choice of DiCaprio is being met with accusations of Hollywood “white-washing”, never mind that most Persians and Iranians are pale-skinned, that Rumi is historically portrayed as a fair-skinned middle eastern man and that contemporaries reportedly described him as pale skinned. That said, I’ve never been a fan of Hollywood and even if Rumi was “pale-skinned”, that doesn’t mean he looked like an Irishman. It would be refreshing if the producers or directors had actually tried to find an actor from that part of the world.
But, setting that aside, I tossed all my Rumi.
In general, I’d rather read haiku. Why do I mention haiku? Because their brevity strangles a poet’s temptation to turn poems into homiletic tracts. In the case of Zen poems, for example, brevity would otherwise prevent the usual inscrutable allusions (Buddhist tracts) that drive barn nails through the delicate butterfly that is poetry.
But even the most spiritually pedantic verse can be ameliorated, if not made transcendent, by the skill of the poet. It’s the difference, even if illusory, between verse written for the sake of its content versus content devoted to the making of poetry. Compare just about any free verse written in the last century to Keats’s odes. Modern verse is generally as utilitarian as prose and, sans lineation, indistinguishable. That’s because free verse, like prose, is a medium for communicating content and little else.
And that brings me to Rumi. Rumi’s poetry was emphatically not free verse.
“The Mathnawi is in Persian. Mathnawi (Arabic), or Masnavi (Persian), means ‘rhyming couplets’. The title is a reference to its poetic form – each line of verse rhyming with one preceding or following it. All the couplets share the same meter and there are 25,618 of them in six books.” Rumi’s Works
Also quoted at this site:
“When Rumi explains a subject, he begins by telling a story in order to clarify his point. Then in the middle of the story, he relates certain wisdom and truths. He produces such peerless couplets that the reader is astonished. These couplets that he recited in a state of ecstasy remind him of another story. So he begins a new story and then finally returns to complete the first story. This way, stories within stories follow each other.” [Italics and underlining are my own.]
[Fundamentals of Rumi’s Thought, Şefik Can]
And pertaining to the meter:
“The rhythmical patterns of his lyrics have not yet been analysed in detail, but even at first glance they reveal a predilection for comparatively simple patterns. The meters often chosen have a strong hiatus so that the two hemistiches are divided into four parts, sometimes with internal rhyme, thus resulting in something very similar to Turkish folk songs. In many cases one has the feeling that his poems need to be read according to word stress rather than quantitative meter. Whether they are written in short, light meters or in long, heavy lines, one often feels that they should be sung.”
[Mystical Dimensions of Islam, Annemarie Schimmel]
And pertaining to the many forms Rumi used, the author writes that “almost all the poems are in Persian. There are 3229 ghazals, 1983 quatrains and 44 tarji-bands”
It’s for the aforementioned “astonishment” that I read traditional poetry. Put simply, I read poetry to be astonished: astonished by the conjugation of meaning, form, rhyme, and meter into a seemingly inevitable whole. I read poetry, not just for what a given poet is trying to communicate, but how the poet does it. It’s for that reason that reading a translation in free verse by Coleman Barks, among others, turns Rumi (for me) into pablum fit for greeting cards and fortune cookies.
passion pray. With
passion work. With passion make love.
With passion eat and drink and dance and play.
Why look like a dead fish
in this ocean
The above was translated by Daniel Ladinsky and what follows by Coleman Barks.
Don’t let your throat tighten
with fear. Take sips of breath
all day and night. Before death
closes your mouth.
There’s no love in me without your being,
no breath without that. I once thought
I could give up this longing, then though again,
But I couldn’t continue being human.
Barks seems to think it’s all about the message. I’ve read that Barks accompanies readings with beating drums, dimmed lights and other theatrics meant to induce profundity and enlightenment. Those in attendance reportedly swoon. My own take is that if you put enough sugar on corn starch, any child will eat it.
And as far as these translations go, they land on the percussion-less page like sacks of flour. The verse is indistinguishable from the prose of any modern day new age hokum and I’ve read lots of new age hokum. I eventually grew out of it, preferring the mysterious and suggestive to the prescriptive; imagery that asks the reader to inquire; and, at the very least, the mundane elevated by the transcendent deceit of great poetry.
I blame translators like Barks and Ladinsky, and all the translators who think that conveying the spirit of the original only refers to the content—the message. I’ve written this before, but if modern translators can’t be bothered (and I know its hard) to capture in some measure the traditional forms in which the poems were written, they’re only translating half (if that) of the original. Consider the quote above: It wasn’t the message that reportedly astonished Rumi’s contemporaries, but the ‘peerless couplets’. Then as now readers had probably already heard much of what Rumi had to say; it’s just that, like Shakespeare, he said it so well—so beautifully.
For me, and until Rumi is translated by a poet worthy of him, his poems sound like nothing more than glib and facile greeting card homilies. There’s long been a successful market for this kind of new age fatuousness, but I don’t think it does Rumi’s poetry any justice. A translator like Barks may be credited with popularizing Rumi’s message, but he’s done nothing and worse for Rumi’s poetry. He’s turned it into the literary equivalent of elevator music, taking readers just a few flights above street level—and nowhere near heaven.
I’ll return to Rumi when he finds a poet and translator worthy of him.