Saturday, October 3, 2009

The limits of language

This weekend I'm taking a seminar on Rumi at St. John's College. St. John's is in a lovely spot, above Canyon Road in the hills. It's one of the last of a particular kind of college- committed to the liberal arts and discourse. Not at all what I experienced as an undergrad. I'm not sure I would have been up to it.

I met an artist from Iran this summer and she kindled my interest in Persian poetry, telling me about a poem called The Conference of the Birds. More about this at some point. My friend Dom and I were browsing at the used bookstore here and I found a book on Sufism and a book of some of Rumi's poems- so seeing the seminar on Rumi listed on the St. John's website, I was excited at the opportunity. Because I have to say, Rumi's poems are a little hard for me to relate to. But now I see that it's the translation that is a little opaque to me. And by the way, off-topic, is the Kindle meant to suggest sparking an interest? You can get samples of books before ordering them. But it's a sweet word in a way, isn't it? Kindle. Like kinder (children) it almost seems like a diminutive.

The seminar is for the weekend only- six hours spread over Friday Saturday and Sunday. There's food, and on Friday, there was wine. The food is kind of fancy, like last night it had a Persian theme, and there was a predominance of round balls. Some were beef with spices, some were pistachio/apricot rolled in confectioner's sugar. Then there was hummus and two kinds of home-made pita chips. So of course I had a little wine and then I was sort of sorry I had, because I couldn't think as clearly. And this is a very smart crowd. Almost all are women, different ages; one male poet who is the least talkative, and the "tutor" who is an expert not only in Middle Eastern literature, but Western lit as well; reads Farsi of course, and is very good at framing questions to direct the discussion. He gave us a great deal of material to read, and also to listen to. It was password protected online and I couldn't drag an audio file off to post here. But probably listening to a Rumi poem in Farsi is not what you planned to do with your time.

I will say this, that besides hearing different peoples' responses to the poems, I've become much more familiar with the depth of Rumi's writing, and learned that the most popular and famous of his interpretors, Coleman Barks, has taken tremendous liberties with the text, often draining it of the Islamic, mystical aspects which seem to me to be very important. So seeing several translations together has been really interesting, and makes one wonder what Rumi's intentions were, but in fact, one could ask if that is even relevant, if the poems that result from the interpretations are meaningful in their own way.

Here is an example of four interpretations of the same quatrain:

1. Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing
there is a field. I'll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase, "each other"
doesn't make any sense.

2. Beyond belief and disbelief
lies the vast expanse of ecstasy
where the mystic lays his head
on the cushion of Truth.

3. This valley is different.
Beyond religion and cults.
Here, silently, put your head down
Engulf yourself in the wonder of God.
Here, there's no room for religion or cults.

4. Beyond Islam and unbelief there is a 'desert plain'
For us, there is a 'yearning' in the midst of that expanse.
The knower of God who reaches that plain will prostrate in prayer.
For there is neither Islam nor unbelief, nor any 'where' in that place.

I'll supply a bibliography for anyone who's gotten this far! The first interpretation is Coleman Barks'. I'll bet if you've got a book of Rumi poems, they are translated by him. Tomorrow, our last day, we'll be mostly listening to the poems being read in Farsi. But it's amazing how many ways Rumi's poems have been interpreted musically- from folk/country to Philip Glass to chanting. Our tutor says he is the best selling poet in this country. Could that be true?


Karen S. said...

I think I used the first version of that Rumi quatrain in a holiday card a few years ago. The differences among the four versions are kind of amazing - did the seminar teacher feel that one of them was more true to the original spirit of the poem?
I'm wondering if familiarity makes the first version more comfortable, or is it that it seems more universal a reading, rather than a particularly muslim one. At any rate, I'd love to hear more about this!

donna said...

Hi Karen!
We talked about this a lot. The leader of the seminar is referred to as a "tutor" not a teacher. He likes the Barks interpretation, but says Barks doesn't read Farsi and is a poet himself, so he makes good poetry, but often at the expense of the original intent- yet not far off. But yes, it's more universal, less Islamic. It's very complicated, really, because you consider words that have different meanings in Persian- for instance the word for God can also mean "Right" or "Justice."
But he felt that some translations (the last one I posted) are truer to the text, yet are dry and not compelling as poems.

Tina said...

The Rumi course sounds fantastic, but the multiple translations are confusing. I have heard too that he is the most popular poet in America.

I loved your experience at the services. That is our church and having HaMakom there too makes it a special place. Sunday - St. Francis day - we all brought our pets to be blessed, but were also all invited to Sukkot which was set up in the yard and happened following our services.

Malka Drucker, the rabbi, spoke at our service too, so it's a really nice mixture of faiths.