An Alphabet of Poets – R is for Rumi

Hangover Remorse

Muhammad said, “Three kinds of people
are particularly pathetic. The powerful man
out of power, the rich man with no money,
and the learned man laughed at.”

Yet  these are those who badly want change!
Some dogs sit satisfied in their kennels.
But one who last year drank ecstatic union,
the pre-eternity agreement, who this year
has a hangover from bad-desire wine,
the way he cries out for the majesty
he’s lost,
                 give me that longing.

Melvana Jelaluddin Rumi (1207-1273) from The Book of Love, versions by Coleman Barks with John Moyne, Nevit Ergin, A.J. Arberry, Reynold Nicholson and M.G. Gupta, HarperCollins Publishers, 2003

Like some bright constellation the words of Jelaluddin Rumi, Melvana (the master), burn as hot, as bright as ever; almost eight hundred years after they first appeared in Konya, Anatolia (in Turkey). That constellation has always been highly visible in the middle east, Rumi’s birthplace , but since the 1970’s it has become dramatically more visible here in the West thanks to a man whose name has become synonymous with Rumi’s, Coelman Barks.

Barks, now a retired English professor from the University of Georgia uses literal translations from other translators to create what he calls his versions. I find them vital; their energies can hardly be contained by the white page!


God only knows, I don’t
what keeps me laughing.

The stem of a flower
moves when the air moves.

from Unseen Rain – Quatrains of Rumi, trans. Coleman Barks and John Mayne, Shambhala
Publications, Inc., 1986


Christ is the population of the world,
and every object as well. There is no room
for hypocrisy. Why use bitter soup for healing
when sweet water is everywhere?

Unseen Rain


You reach out wanting the moon with your eyes,
and Venus. Build a place to live
with those dimensions. A shelter that can be
knocked down with one kick,
go ahead and knock it down.

from Unseen Rain


And even Barks has been astonished at the success of his Rumi interpretations – some say Rumi has become the best-selling poet in the U.S. And it was thanks to Robert Bly, the American Poet, who suggested in 1976 that Barks take Rumi’s literal translations in English and free them from their cages.

But some like Richard Tillinghast, the American poet, non-fiction writer and translator  have wondered if the “Americanized” translations have become “ a bit soft-focus and New Agey .”  Using Turkish translations and translating those with the help of  Elif Safak, a Turkish author  he translated the poem that follows to make it as true as he could to Rumi’s “uncompromising” voice: He claims that these  eighteen lines contain the essence of Rumi’s teachings. Yes, Rumi can use exquisite metaphor, and his lyric leaps with images are breathtaking, but most often  they serve his wisdom and teaching.

Listen, how this flute complains; how it tells of estrangement.
It says: Ever since they cut me from my reedy bed, men have
          cried and wailed when I cried—and women too.
I want a heart wounded by separation, so I can tell the pain of
He who is cut off from his essence looks for the time of
I wept and moaned in every gathering, with the well-off and
          the poor.
Everyone in his own way became my friend; no one wondered
          about the secrets I have inside of me.
My secret is no different from what I cry aloud; but the light to
          understand it is not found in the eye or in the ear.
The body is not hidden from the soul, nor is the soul a secret
          to the body; yet no one is permitted to see the soul.
The voice of the flute is fire, not wind; whoever does not have
          that fire inside him, let him leave us.
The fire of love has struck the flute; the frenzy of love has
          struck the wine.
The flute is one of a pair separated from a friend, and it is that
          friend; it has torn the curtains, it has ripped away our veils.
The flute speaks of a path full of blood; it also tells the love
          stories of Mejnun.
Who has seen a poison like the flute, or a cure like the flute?
          Who has seen a breath-companion like the flute, or anyone
          who yearns like the flute?
The secret of this knowing is no different from not-knowing;
          the tongue’s only customer is the ear.
The days have passed in sorrow, and become nights; the days
         of fire became my travelling companions, then burned
If the days pass and go, say this: Pass, go, we have no fear. You,
          friend, stay. Nothing matches you for purity.
Everyone gets their fill of water except the fish; for those without
          their daily bread the day lengthens and gets longer.
The unripe have no understanding of the ripe; none at all. That
          being the case, it’s best to cut words short—Fare thee well!

 trans. Richard Tillinghast, from Istanbul in Winter, Richard Tillinghast, AGNI Magazine, #65,

Tillinghast says: The reed flute, or ney, is Rumi’s emblem for the soul. Cut from its place of origin, it sings for its desire to return. This longing, this loneliness, this consciousness of separation is the essence of Turkish culture. I would add that it is the essence of Rumi’s poetry.

Rumi’s poems are found in two major collections, the Divan-I Shamsi Tabriz (42,00 lines!) and the Mesnevi which is more than 50,000 lines! The Divan, passionate poems of heart and soul longing, came as a result of the astonishing mystical friendship between the wandering mystic ascetic Shams, and Rumi, between 1244 and 1248.

Before Rumi met Shams he was a renowned teacher and theologian – not the ecstatic poet we think of today. When Shams disappeared, (some say murdered by close friends or family members of Rumi’s but that is not at all certain) Rumi’s anguish for the loss of Shams turned into an outpouring of dictated poems, ones he sang and danced. The second collection, the Mesnevi, written in the last twelve years of his life is called by some the Turkish Qur’an. and by others, the second Qur’an.

Here is a more welcoming poem of Rumi translated by Tillinghast:

Come, come again, whoever you are
—wanderer, worshipper, lover of leaving —
                     it doesn’t matter.
Ours is not a caravan of despair
Come even though you have broken your vows
                                                           back there
                    a thousand times —
                                Come once more.

from  AGNI Magazine, #65, 2007 

I don’t have near the time or space to express the breadth of Rumi’s ecstatic visions and teaching. And while I love the teachings embedded in his poetry I especially love his use of “deep image” which creates a lyricism that carries his teaching through the mind and into the heart.


A chickpea leaps almost over the rim of the pot
where it’s being boiled.

“Why are you doing this to me?”

The cook knocks him down with the ladle.

Don’t you try to jump out.
You think I’m torturing you.

I’m giving you flavour,
so you can mix with spices and rice
and be the lovely vitality of a human being.

Remember when you drank rain in the garden.
That was for this.”

Grace first. Sexual pleasure,
then a boiling new life begins,
and the Friend has something good to eat.

Eventually the chickpea
will say to the cook,
                                “Boil me some more.
Hit me with the slimming spoon.
I can’t do this by myself.

I’m like an elephant that dreams of gardens
back in Hindustan and doesn’t pay attention
 to his driver. You’re my cook, my driver,
my way into existence. I love your cooking.”

The cook says,
                       “I was once like you,
fresh from the ground. Then I boiled in time,
and boiled in the body, two fierce boilings.

My animal soul grew powerful.
I controlled it with practices,
and boiled some more, and boiled
once beyond that, and became your teacher.”

from The Essential Rumi, trans. by Coleman Barks with John Moyne, HarperCollins Publishers, 1995

During the difficult times after the end of my twenty one year marriage a few years ago I read this poem a lot. I don’t know if I ever said boil me some more but this poem helped make sense of the reality of my boiling, of being tenderized by life in some giant soup pot!

Another one of Rumi’s poems that has helped me see my role in difficult relationships is this one – an excerpt from the longer poem – The Prince of Kabul.

from The Prince of Kabul

“When you think your father is guilty
of an injustice, his face seems cruel.
Joseph, to the envious brothers, seems

dangerous. When you make peace
with your father, he will look peaceful.
The whole world is a forum for truth.

When someone does not feel grateful to that,
the forms appear to be as he feels.
They mirror his anger, his greed, his fear.

Make peace with the Universe.
Take joy in it. It will turn to gold.
Resurrection will be now. Every moment
a new beauty, and never any boredom.”

Instead, the pouring noise of many springs
 in your ears. The tree limbs will move
like people dancing who suddenly know
the mystical life. The leaves snap
their fingers like they’re hearing music.
They are! A sliver of mirror shines out
 from under a felt covering. Think how
 it will be when the whole thing is open

to the air and sunlight! There are
mysteries I’m not telling you.

from The Book of Love

And two more:

Eating Poetry

My poems resemble the bread of Egypt – one night
Passes over the bread, and you can’t eat it any more.

So gobble my poems down now, while they’re still fresh,
Before the dust of the world settles on them.

Where a poem belongs is here, in the warmth of the chest;
Out in the world it dies of cold.

You’ve seen a fish – put him on dry land,
He quivers for a few minutes, and then is still.

And even if you eat my poems while they’re still fresh,
You have to bring forward many images yourself.

Actually, friend, what you’re eating is your own imagination.
these poems are not just some bare statements and old proverbs.

from The Winged Energy of Delight, edited and trans. by Robert Bly, HarperCollins Publishers, 2004


Your grief for what you’ve lost lifts a mirror
Up to where you’re bravely working.

Expecting the worst, you look, and instead,
Here’s the joyful face you’ve been wanting to see.

Your hand opens and closes and opens and closes.
If it were a fist or always stretched open,
You would be paralyzed.

Your deepest presence is in every small contracting
And expanding,
The two as beautifully balanced and coordinated
as birdwings.

from The Essential Rumi, Harper Collins, 1995




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