The 800-year-old overnight sensation
by Sandor Slomovits
Rumi has been the best-selling poet in America for the past twenty years. Books of his poems have sold over half a million copies. Fantastic, for poetry. Fascinating, for a poet born in Afghanistan 800 years ago. His words seem to be everywhere now, quoted by celebrities, appearing in books on a huge range of subjects, and found on calendars, bookmarks, and greeting cards.
Jelaluddin Rumi was a Sufi mystic, founder of the whirling dervishes, and for hundreds of years the most read, memorized, sung, and beloved poet in many parts of the Islamic world. In the West he was unknown until about 100 years ago, when translations first became available, but it was not until Robert Bly and especially Coleman Barks, two of America's finest contemporary poets, began translating him thirty years ago that he became so celebrated.
To say that Rumi wrote spiritual poetry would be accurate but would miss much. His poems are not, as Barks says, about "cheerfulness, conventional morality, and soft-focus, white-light feel-good."
He can, by turns, be all embracing and compassionate:
| Come, come whoever you are |
wanderer, worshipper, lover
of leaving. It doesn't matter.
Ours is not a caravan of despair.
Come, even if you have broken your
vow a thousand times. Come.
and stern, even severe:
| Gamble everything for love |
if you're a true human being.
If not, leave this gathering.
He can be terrifying, and hilarious all in one poem.
| On Resurrection Day your body testifies against you. |
Your hand says, "I stole money."
Your lips, "I said meanness."
Your feet, "I went where I shouldn't."
Your genitals, "Me too."
Rumi sees no separation between the spiritual and the worldly. He teaches nothing less than how to live in this world while also inhabiting something far greater, and
ultimately understanding that the two are the same.
| Little by little, wean yourself. |
This is the gist of what I have to say.
From an embryo, whose nourishment comes in the blood,
move to an infant drinking milk,
to a child on solid food,
to a searcher after wisdom,
to a hunter of more invisible game.
Rumi was famed in his own time, and since, for drawing no distinctions between religions or nationalities.
| Not Christian or Jew or Muslim, |
not Hindu, Buddhist, sufi, zen.
He continues with other, often surprising divisions, and ends with
| I belong to the beloved, have seen the two |
worlds as one and that one call to and know,
first, last, outer, inner, only that
breath breathing human being.
Rumi's 800th birthday falls on September 30, and a weekend of celebrations is planned in Ann Arbor, highlighted by an evening of readings of his work by both Bly and Barks at Rackham Auditorium on Saturday, September 29.
[Review published September 2007]