Monday, December 17, 2007

Rumi at 800: Muslim Poet for us all

(ruminations on the poet Rumi, in translation by Coleman Barks, set to music by Christopher Theofanidas, and as discussed on the Radio Program SPEAKING OF FAITH by Fatemeh Keshavarz, professor of Persian & Comparative Literature at Washington University in St. Louis)

Across the eight centuries since his birth, and across the oceans separating his homeland Afghanistan from us, the personal voice of the poet Rumi came through a chorus and three soloists with full orchestra, in dozens of colors and textures during a memorable concert a couple years ago, at the premiere of "the Music of our Final Meeting" by Christopher Theofinidas. What I heard was tenderness, playfulness, generosity, sensuality, and a saintly focus on eternity. Theofinidas's music responded in kind, with clarity and inventive variety.

After hearing that concert, I bought selected poems of Rumi, in their popular translation from Persian by Coleman Barks, the book that had inspired the composer. Reading it, I bogged down, not least because I'm put off by Barks's choice of re-grouping Rumi's two- and four-line fragments into longer poems with made-up titles. While I often liked what I read under such titles as "At the Tavern," I wondered if this contemporary of mine was putting a spin on Rumi. I lost trust in the translator.

Yesterday, hearing the discussion of Rumi by professor Fatemeh Keshavarz, I heard some confirmation of my suspicion. She was unflaggingly upbeat in praising Barks and others for their work, while also observing that Barks has systematically downplayed the worshipful nature of the poetry. I was struck by the fact that Keshavarz never once mentioned the relationship that Barks emphasizes above all themes in Rumi's work, a friendship (teacher - mentor?) with a travelling mystic named Shams.

I'm re-reading Barks, more carefully, and finding much to enjoy. I particularly liked an image of one's shadow, which follows behind, but sometimes rushes ahead -- as a metaphor for language. Yes, words lag behind the reality, and sometimes words get ahead and shape our perceptions.

Religiously speaking, I'd say Rumi's whole theology / philosophy comports well with my favorite letter of St. Paul, that to the Philippians: "I press on towards the goal of the upward call of perfection in Jesus Christ." Again and again, Rumi is telling us that we will ALWAYS feel incomplete, and that's GOOD -- if you think you've arrived, you're dead. Our dissatisfactions are good for us: we are separated from God, and dissatisfaction is a sign of our longing for completeness in God.

Other desires are good, too, stopping-points on the way to completeness in God. One poem includes the lines, "If anyone asks how did Jesus raise the dead / Kiss me on the lips and say, "like this."

Keshavarz explains that Muslims don't have the Christian concept of original sin. Rather, we are separated from God because we "forget." Thus the first words of the Koran are about "remembering."

Finally, the conversation turned to that monkey in Hindu iconography, the one that represents our restless minds, endlessly grasping at branches and vines. (see earlier blog entry, "Gyrovagueness.") Rumi evidently writes of this a lot, and advises centeredness on a goal to counteract the enervating effect of that "onrush" of concerns.

He also breaks down compartments in our lives, always juxtaposing opposites.

I know good when I see it: Rumi is good. I shall seek an alternative translation, perhaps via this Keshavarz.

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