Fall in Love the Rumi Way
Intimacy with other people and with the divine is more about friendship--and hard work--than romance.
Interview with Coleman Barks
Interview by Laura Sheahen
Translator Coleman Barks' versions of Jelaluddin Rumi have made the 13th-century Sufi the best-selling poet in America. Beliefnet talked with Barks recently about his latest collection, "Rumi: The Book of Love."
- Your new collection refers to Rumi as "the ultimate poet of love." In your introduction, you say that the media and popular culture have lied to people about love. What are they saying that doesn't ring true?
- I don't focus so much on the lies as on the truths that Rumi is trying to open for us. But there are ideas that are out there for sentimental reasons. There's the idea that you can take the personal into a deep love. Rumi says you really have to empty out to be in the state he calls love.
- It's akin to something like work. The lover and the worker are identical. It's rare that you have a love song in our culture that ends, as Rumi often does, in the admonition that you need to have a daily practice--something to remind you of the deepest part of your being which is beyond the emotions and beyond desire.
- But there are all different stages of love, and Rumi affirms them all, no matter how shallow. All that emotion drawing together is from the movers, part of the action of the mystery.
- Rumi says the way that lovers are brought together, and why one person is drawn to one person rather than to another, is God's sweetest secret. It's a total mystery. Rumi says that in the motion from romance to friendship [we reach] a deeper level of connection.
- Maybe that's what the popular culture is lying about. There's this idea of romance—that ache of separation and longing—you find in Dr. Zhivago or Romeo and Juliet. Lovers are always in a rush in train stations. That ache of unsatisfied passion is celebrated, and has been, in Western culture since the 12th century.
- In one poem, Rumi says "Fall in love in such a way that it frees you from any connecting." This is unusual and counterintuitive in terms of what we're brought up with.
- People who are together just are each other; they don't feel the phone call angst. [In another poem, Rumi says] "Lovers don't meet somewhere, they're in each other all along."
- Love is an important part of all religions. Rumi's poems seem to break down the idea of organized religion and say that God is bigger than all that.
- They seem to do that, for me. Other people see him as an Islamic poet, but I like to hear in him that which calls us beyond the boundaries that separate us.
- So if Rumi were walking around today, where would he worship?
- He might go to almost any church, I think.
- Which religious figures pop up most in Rumi's poems? I've seen Muhammad, Moses, Joseph, Abraham...
- Moses, yes. Jesus is very prominent. Some Sufis feel that the same energy that came through Jesus came through Rumi. His attention to the neglected, children, the beggars, the poor seems like a characteristic of Jesus, too.
- Which sacred texts speak to you, and where do you see threads between specific verses and Rumi?
- You can read the Mathnawi [Rumi's collection of poems] as a commentary on various texts of the Qur'an. It's certainly true that he does expand on the lines there—sometimes explicitly, sometimes without quoting the text.
- But I said in the introduction to [my earlier book] "The Soul of Rumi" that I disagree with the idea of sacred texts as a category. When the living descendant of the lineage of Rumi—his name was Jelaluddin Chelabi—visited Atlanta, he sat me down and said "What religion are you?" I just threw up my hands. He says, "Good. Love is the religion, and the universe is the book."
- So everything is a kind of sacred text. The books that have been sacred texts to me are things like "Catcher in the Rye," because [when I read it in the 1950s] it felt so truthful. Walt Whitman, and even the raunchy love poems of e.e. cummings: they deepened my own sense of being. Cormac McCarthy is better than the epistles of Paul. James Agee is better than the Qur'an. I'll eventually be shot for these statements (laughs).
- But I think each person has his own Bible. You make your own anthology of texts that have been sacred to you. They would also be memories, people you've met, people who have loved you, pets you've had. That would be your sacred book. Evidently, at the end, we'll get to have a life review and look at them all again, they say. My teacher, Bawa Muhaiyaddeen, says try to make your life as though it's a movie, and you and God are going to watch it. Try to make some parts that he'll like.
- The mass market—the greeting card industry, etc.—has picked up a lot of your Rumi translations. Are there poems that are underappreciated or undiscovered?
- Well, a poem like 'Clear Being' has that sort of Zen sense of emptiness and clarity:
I honor those who try to rid themselves of lying,
who empty the self and have only clear being there.
- The harsh, severe Rumi [poems] may be the ones that have been neglected. He does the sweetness so well that when he scolds us... We turn to the next page.
- There's definitely great love and happiness in the poems, but sadness too.
- Rumi says, "Try to be like a duck, with its joyful body paddling along in the loving water of the river. Just enjoy that" –that delight in buoyancy. There's a kind of happy ease.
But he says that grief is very important too. It's only someone who feels the disconnect, who's had some sense of being in this wholeness of holy, who has the longing to change and be somewhere different. He says "give me that longing." There's a mixture of fulfillment and grief. He doesn't neglect either one of these visions.
Another idea is thinking of all of creation as a garden, and watching it grow. We can't understand why all these things flourish and then die, but we can watch it and enjoy it. That's what a human being is. We don't know how or why--the purposes of our songs and dances—but they do have one, and we just can't say it. We're like that duck--we can just ride it. We're good at that.