Form & ritual

Snugglebugs, you need a form in order to establish a ritual. In order to make writing this newsketter a ritual until I bail, I need a form. I think I’ll focus on artifacts. Like, rather than trying to extract meaning from my identical, pointless days, I’ll point at some thing and say, look at that.

First, before that, though, I need to talk about how I find myself humiliated to learn, in a New Yorker essay by Rozina Ali from 2017—an essay that somehow surfaced again on Twitter—that all the standard-edition Rumi poems I've read on the Internet are pseudo-Rumi. For example this one.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

Isn't that a lovely little pumpkin of a poem? It's about accepting sad things to become a better person. God we all need that. A man could have that tattooed across his upper back to go with the Borges poem on his left shoulder and the Neruda on his right. That man is going to cheat on you.

But it's not actually Rumi. All those modern, popular, new-agey Rumi poems that are scattered everywhere aren't real translations but rather re-written based on existing translations, with all the stuff Western folks would find awkward stripped away. I don’t know how you translate translations, but that’s what Coleman Barks, a poet who doesn't know Persian, does, and to fantastic effect, apparently because Robert Bly told him to do it. (If you were becoming a man in the 1990s you know what that means. I wrote Robert Bly a letter.)

It makes me wonder, why do we have a federally-funded poet laureate if not to step in and stop things like that from happening? Paul, you say, the poet laureate is not the sheriff of poetry. But—wear the crown, fight the clown.

I feel particular shame because I quoted one of those poems in a talk. I needed a way to reset things mid-talk because I’d gotten a little gloomy and needed some swoon. Now I feel bad; and, sorry, XOXO attendees five years ago. I remember someone telling me afterwards that the translation was probably suspect and feeling too much like an absolute failure in general to really dig into the issue and find yet more failure, but, well, there it was—I promoted pseudo-Rumi onto an audience of unsuspecting people. (To be fair it was in Portland, Oregon, so that was probably not the first time for anyone.) And to add to the indignity, the one poem I truly loved, the one that I quoted in that talk, “The Guest House,” is now part of a song by Coldplay. Which song? you ask? I’m afraid there’s no way to tell.

It all, for some reason, reminds me of when when prog rock dudes did “classical” music; it's like we've all been listening to Emerson, Lake, and Palmer and thinking it was Schumann. Relatedly, did you know they're making a movie of Karn Evil 9?

According to Radar Pictures, the studio behind the recent Jumanji reboots, the “Karn Evil 9” film will take place in “a society that has drained all its blood with a dependence on technology.” The movie also “will explore the world controlled by a pervasive and dictatorial technocracy."

This movie will never get released, inshallah, but if it does I will absolutely ride my armadillo tank (little joke for the Tarkus fans) right up to the theater, through the theater, and straight into the sea.

Why am I in knots over this? But it just makes me ache to have bought in. I'm six thousand years old and I still can flash right back to getting the right answer in seventh grade. (The question was, Are you a fat loser? And the answer was, My parents are divorcing.) I wonder how the bullies are doing in the pandemic—is it easier or harder to bully-from-home? I bet there's all kinds of cruelty happening over Zoom. Kids photoshopping peens onto pictures of other kids and then making that their Zoom background during class. Sorry I can’t make fun of Jimmy’s sneakers today I’m BFH.

Back to Rumi—today was deep-scrub chore day. (In a pandemic we pay our housekeeper by driving an envelope of cash over to her house every month, then we clean our house ourselves.) Which means it's a whole day to sweep up human mulch and yell at chore-avoiding children until everyone is screaming. Talk about inviting a crowd of sorrows! Too bad about that translation because I sure wish our apartment was a lot more “roomy!” I'm here at the Hoot Hut all weekend. We're doing an open mic, we call it the Talon Show. Take an owl.

Since I was avoiding chores and neglecting my children and just in general being a piece of shit, it became urgent for me to find a more accurate translation of that poem. I could of course read a book but instead I just started jamming terms into Google, given that I knew I’d have ten minutes before the next domestic catastrophe. It turns out there are over nine trillion poems written by Rumi, a thousand for each of the names of God, and the older translations tend to lines like, “The Hindoo Slave of the Mussulman Sheek fell in love with the Sheek's daughter, and beholding this the Sheek caused a fellow boy slave to be dressed as the daughter, and the Hindoo was horrified and relinquished all love and was evermore dutiful.” (Things were different then.) And then in the more modern 1970ish translations it's a lot of “In that house is the concert of the circumcision feast, with the ritually pure, Shams al-Din i Tabriz has built a home for the naked...” (i.e.) Anyway, I couldn’t find a translation of the poem I had liked, because apparently these pseudo-translations just sorta drop in and translate whatever, cutting and pasting away, and also because it turns out that you can’t really comprehend the entire bibliography of a great medieval mystic Islamic-Persian poet in between chores.

But don’t tell them this on the Rumi boards on Reddit. In a typical exchange someone will ask for a translation and someone else will write, You really need to read the Persian, and the first person will write, Absolutely, but are there any accurate translations? And the other person will go, No, because you can only understand the true essence of Rumi in Persian. And so Reddit brought me to the source text for the poem I liked, in Persian, so I just ran it through Google translate.

There is a guest house for this young man
Every morning a new weak comes
Hin Mago Kane is like inside my neck
Which is now reopened in the absence
Whatever comes from the unseen world
Have a good time in your weak heart

It holds up.

I had a very normal childhood, in that I took private trombone lessons in the local offices of the Theosophical Society. In doing so, while waiting for my trombone instructor, I browsed the shelves and became ambiently aware of Madame Blavatsky in general; and Gurdjieff; and the later Naropans, especially Trungpa Rinpoche, that whole Scooby Gang of 1850-1960s guru-types, and I mean, I loved it. We were Presbyterians but in the neighborhoods were lots of Christian Scientists, Quakers, plus of course Catholics, and a small smattering of everything else, enough that at 15, after attending the Presbyterian Youth Triennium in Illinois and watching all my peers shoplift vodka, I gave up on both Jesus and Gandhi, read a lot of William Blake without comprehension, and then basically called it in on God a few years later. Just your regular spiritual journey for the era and region.

What am I saying? What am I saying. What I am saying is that recontextualizing Rumi in this particular way is both a kind of blatant act of stripping the Islam out, but it’s also in keeping with this very particular set of strains of American mysticism which today have mostly passed out of the light (the last member of the Ephrata Cloisters died in 2008; I can’t remember the last time I met a Theosophist). But my grandfather grew up around Shakers and the Ephrata Cloisters and made jokes about the various spiritual communities he’d known as a boy, in particular how they were all extremely horny. He rarely went to church. These old worlds are closer than you’d think.

The way I see it is that in the 1960s drugs just absolutely obliterated any spiritual movement that wasn’t about drugs, because drugs. And the later New Age movement (cue George Winston’s December) was a way for the ethos of the older “spiritual” movements to sort of get back into the mix after everyone melted their brains in the 1960s and 1970s.

It’s not like these extremely “Footsteps in the Sand”-level translations of Rumi come out of nowhere. Robert Bly knew the hunger was there, and that if we could just make Rumi less literal, less Islamic, he’d take off like a rocket, and blam. It’s not just about stripping Islam, it’s also about filling a spiritual market gap that the Beatles couldn’t fill. It comes from somewhere, which is why it sold so well.

I think at some level we’ve got American history boiled down to Hamilton, followed immediately by the Obama Administration. Which is fine, people compress things to understand them. But nonetheless a lot happened, especially around religion, in the intervening quarter-millennium. Like Ivar in O! Pioneers:

When the Bergsons drove over the hill, Ivar was sitting in the doorway of his house, reading the Norwegian Bible. He was a queerly shaped old man, with a thick, powerful body set on short bow-legs. His shaggy white hair, falling in a thick mane about his ruddy cheeks, made him look older than he was. He was barefoot, but he wore a clean shirt of unbleached cotton, open at the neck. He always put on a clean shirt when Sunday morning came round, though he never went to church. He had a peculiar religion of his own and could not get on with any of the denominations. Often he did not see anybody from one week's end to another. He kept a calendar, and every morning he checked off a day, so that he was never in any doubt as to which day of the week it was. Ivar hired himself out in threshing and corn-husking time, and he doctored sick animals when he was sent for. When he was at home, he made hammocks out of twine and committed chapters of the Bible to memory.

Good old Ivar, I think of him. We are a deeply weird country with incredibly weird people who believe an unbelievably ridiculous range of completely bananacakes things, and yet we suppress this truth about ourselves instead of celebrating it, and thus as a consequence we’re very susceptible to appropriated and soothing poetry at all times. We have to stay vigilant, lest we feel comforted and happy. That’s not what poems are for. At least we still have Yeats.

Folks, we’re at time. Thank you for all the nice emails. I read them and will feel guilty about not responding. I have a good artifact for the next newsletter. I won’t write about poetry again, but as Rumibot says, Have a good time in your weak heart.