Poetry of Rumi Spans Across Centuries, Cultures

June 4, 2009 at 6:45 PM EDT
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Afghan-born 13th century Sufi mystic poet Jalaluddin Rumi is the national poet of Afghanistan, as well as a much-loved poet in America. Jeffrey Brown reports on what's behind the popularity of Rumi's poems.

JIM LEHRER: And finally tonight, a poet who speaks across centuries. Jeffrey Brown narrates our report by independent producer David Grubin.

JEFFREY BROWN: With more and more American soldiers arriving in Afghanistan each day coming face to face with a culture and a people they know little about, it may come as a surprise that one of the best loved poets in America is the national poet of Afghanistan, a 13th century Sufi mystic named Jalaluddin Rumi.

COLEMAN BARKS, poet and translator: “All day I think about it, then at night I say it. Where did I come from, and what am I supposed to be doing? I have no idea.”

JIM LEHRER: The poet Coleman Barks has been translating Rumi for more than 36 years. In a 1994 PBS documentary, he read to music by the Paul Winter Consort.

COLEMAN BARKS: “The day is coming”…

JIM LEHRER: Rumi, born in northern Afghanistan, wrote thousands and thousands of ecstatic poems traditionally spoken with music. Although most Afghans are illiterate, they can recite Rumi by heart.

COLEMAN BARKS: There is a part of the Afghani culture, a huge part, that is way beyond the Taliban. Rumi’s read on the radio daily. He’s used in their conversation. He’s like the Shakespeare of the Middle East, only he has mystical awareness. By that, I mean that his poetry is aware of the deep interconnectedness of all life and of all peoples and of all religions.

“I am so small. How can this great love be inside me? Look at your eyes. They’re small. But they see enormous things.”

He lived in the 13th century, and there was sectarian violence. The crusades were raking across Anatolia. But he said, “It doesn’t matter what religion you are.” He says, “I go into a synagogue, I go into the Christian church, and I go into the Muslim mosque, and I see one altar.”

The kingdom of God is within you. That’s what Jesus says in Luke 17:12. And that’s what Rumi is saying, that the deep sense of the divine mystery is in each other.

“I, you, he, she, we, I, you, he, she, we. In the garden of mystic lovers, these are not true distinctions.”

Rumi strikes a chord with Americans

JEFFREY BROWN: Something in Rumi has clearly struck a chord with many Americans. Coleman Barks' translations have sold well over a million copies. And the poems, written some eight centuries ago, are today regularly read at weddings and funerals.

COLEMAN BARKS: What the Afghans love about the poetry of Rumi, and that the American public, too, loves, is that all of those deep human emotions, all these religions, all this singing is one song.

Both cultures love the same poet. The Afghans love it that Rumi is so popular in the United States. They're proud of us for that, and we're proud to be connected with them in that way.

"Walk to the well. Turn as the Earth and the Moon turn, circling what they love. Whatever circles comes from the center."

This is a poem called "The Tent."

"Outside: the freezing desert night. This other night inside grows warm, kindling. Let the landscape be covered with thorny crust. We have a soft garden in here. The continents blasted, cities and little towns, everything become a scorched, blackened ball. The news we hear is full of grief for that future, but the real news inside here is, there's no news at all."