It is an unusual experience to read the mystical poems of the thirteenth-century Persian poet Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rumi. I am — sitting in this park in Chicago, June 2016, a presidential election woefully underway, the sound of a siren and a boombox in the background, advertisements for technical athletic shoes flashing on my phone — a profoundly modern, Western reader. My knowledge of Sufism is cursory at best — I’m more inclined to know Madonna’s reading of Rumi (complete with El Cristo Redentor in the background, sure, why not), to have blasted Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan from my dorm room windows, or to have seen the Whirling Dervishes in a five minute segment — mixed in with scenes from Saint Peter’s Basilica, the Wailing Wall, and other holy sites — from Baraka, which came free with my DVD player (to be fair, I’ve also seen Whirling Dervishes live, and it is a sublime experience).
There is so much in reading Rumi that confounds. His poems are largely improvised, sometimes puzzlingly opaque, and sometimes, in the end, just too distant for a twentieth-century secular reader. Which all only makes sense: his poems are written out of a liturgical Islamic tradition, concerning thirteenth-century life and philosophy, and meant as texts that are supposed to challenge readers into new consciousness.
But that’s precisely the point. Read in great, long stretches — especially outdoors — Rumi’s work has a churning, cumulative effect, not unlike the gyres that so often expose themselves in his metaphysics. He is a romantic in the biggest of ways, always seeking the unity of the beloved, and it is this romance, this endless reliance on love, the rose gardens of the heart sweet with perfume, which has likely drawn so many readers from so many places across so many times.
Rumi is also an ecstatic, and it puts him, for me, in a long and varied web of ecstatic poets, ranging from Rumi himself to Walt Whitman to Emily Dickinson to Tomaž Šalamun (for whom I have previously offered what I am about to offer here). Rumi has an especially vast sense of scale, relating the dance of motes in the light of a window to the spinning of planets and stars — and we find in his verse the profound unity of all the elements of the universe. It’s remarkably prescient given that he was writing centuries before optics would give us access to the cosmic and microscopic worlds that we have taken for granted as facets of our understanding.
Flowering atop these visionary, scalar structures — thrust with the energy of the beloved — are some of Rumi’s most peculiar moments, and let me say right now that it is unfair to extract these moments from the poems that surround them. But that’s what I’ve done, as a provoking primer, a temptation to the deeper, studied experience of Rumi that really allows these boundaries of his vision to glow. Some of the moments below — this love list of lines — explode with the combustion of the creation of the universe, and others ponder in near silence, but I hope you will see in all of these the resonant understanding that comes with the most enraptured experiences we can have.
The following selections come from A. J. Arberry’s translations found in Mystical Poems of Rumi (University of Chicago Press, 2009). The numerical identifiers reference this volume.
Image: Detail of 1663 Indian miniature from Rumi’s “Masnavī’.” Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, MD.