Moving Colors And Shapes In Rumi's Lyric Poetry

Editor's Note: This author will be speaking at the Ibn Arabi & Rumi conference, Nov. 4 -5 in New York City.

Rumi, the mystic who was born 1207 in Vakhsh outside Balkh in present day Afghanistan, and is arguably the most widely read poet in translation today, loved movement and play. When one of his young disciples died, he turned his funeral procession into a whirling dance. For him, joy was primary and joining the kaleidoscopic dance of colors, which made up our lively universe was the way to feel this transforming joy. For his part, he wrote thousands of ghazals, each a kaleidoscope of moving colors and shapes in its own right.

By the time Rumi came along, the genre of ghazal had separated itself from an earlier form called qasideh and was asserting its independence. Its gently flowing rhythm and highly polished language gave it an air of refinement and nobility. At the same time, its lyrical touch, and appeal to the universality of love earned it an exceptionally broad readership. A ghazal was not usually used for praising political patrons. Granted, it could be somber, melancholic and rather conventional. But that changed when Rumi came along.

Despite his initial portrayal as an all-out mystic and a reluctant poet, Rumi had always enjoyed poetry for the sake of its poetic fun. His master Shams once admonished him for reading too much Arabic love poetry [1]. Rumi loved the genre of ghazal so much that he turned it on its head by re-imagining its most basic conventions. His major poetic composition, the Divan-e Shams, contains over 35,000 lines of lyric poetry [2]. He wrote unconventional ghazals as short as three and as long as fifty lines, abandoned slow meters and reached for meters that echoed whirling, child play, or drunken unruly behavior. More notoriously, he got tired of gazelles, roses, and nightingales and opened the door for donkeys, grasshoppers, flies and camels to re-populate the poetic space. Most ordinary topics made into his ghazals:

It is the rainy season, I dig a canal;
In the hope of union I clap my hands.
The clouds are pregnant with drops from the sea of love;
I am pregnant with those clouds.
Don't say you are not a musician, clap your hands!
Come I will teach you how to become one.
So bright! Will you tell me whose house is that?
I love bright houses so!
Alas! I hide my own water of life
As oil drops cover the surface of water

So, what about the kaleidoscopic effects? Rumi enjoyed reviving pieces from his earlier poems and reworking them into fresh lines. This gave him a chance to re-imagine and reconstruct earlier images and thoughts. It also gave him the opportunity to create a sense of play by moving themes, colors, shapes and images around. It was almost as if he made objects, scenes and themes appear and disappear, run into one another, merge, vanish and resurface in the next line or the next poem. The result was what in his book "Mystical Languages of Unsaying" Michael Sells has described as the kaleidoscopic effect in the poems of another Muslim mystic Ibn Arabi [4]. These poems displayed the inexpressible plurality, dynamism and play inherent in the experience of love.

The act of writing is linear by nature. Any written analysis of Rumi's ghazals could portray his perception of love as an experience with a beginning, middle and an end (hence an evolutionary/hierarchical perception of where the journey of love is supposed to end). Telling the tale of love through shifting kaleidoscopic scenes, Rumi defied this very limit.

Indeed, Rumi's overarching goal was to demonstrate the fragility of all our conceptual models, which often have a linear and quantitative perception of human experience. As a shared experience, love can give us insight into this shared fragility. For Rumi, love was a kind of eventful flight, a journey heavenward. But we are not given the nature of the journey nor the location of the heavens. Indeed, the journey could entail discovering an inner seed that swallows the entire universe -- as in this quatrain:

I melted in the sea of purity like salt / belief and infidelity vanished as did certainty and doubt

A star rose in the center of my chest / the seven heavens disappeared in that single star

As for the kaleidoscopic scenes, let's begin with Rumi teasing the self-importance of the rational faculty and its helplessness when it comes to the ruthless clarity of beauty and love. Hence love declares:

I am Joseph! My proof is my moonlike face / Did anyone ever ask the Sun to prove its presence?

I am a tall cypress, directing you right to your destination. There is nothing more reliable than a guide from heaven.

We are gazing at the heavenly beauty of Prophet Joseph as he merges with the Sun and the Moon descending from there to the earthly greenness in the upright figure of a cypress tree. So we discover the dazzling poetic vista he has opened before us, Rumi appeals to our sense of play:

O, flowers on flowerbeds! Where is your proof of your existence? And the flowers answer: "Our delicious scent in your head! Our beautiful colors in your eyes!"

We are now in the field of flowers: colorful, fragrant, self-aware and able to voice their thoughts. Just in case our intellect disbelieves the sentience of the flowers or any other part of the story, Rumi reminds us of the confusion of the intellect in the domain of love. With rationality disarmed, love in control and beauty all around us, comes another kaleidoscopic scene:

You wish to have proof of a world beyond this one?/ See how the old leaves and makes room for the new

A new day, a new night, a new garden, even a new trap to fall into / A new thought in each breath. Newness is a wonder. It surely is a treasure.

Did you ever wonder where the new comes from? Where the old disappears to?/ If beyond what the eyes see there are not endless universes.

The world is a flowing stream, it looks enclosed and unchanging / But the old flows away and the new arrives. God knows where from.

In a space of a few lines, we have traveled from the earthy garden of flowers and cypress trees to the edge of the stream that is the flowing universe, alive, self-aware and re-generating. The next ghazal in the Divan picks the theme. We don't know which of the two ghazals were written first. But in the flowing and self-renewing universe of the poem, the order of the creation of the poems cannot have primacy. In fact, as true children of this universe, we should be rewriting these poems every time we read them.

In this poem, we are standing on the edge of the stream that is life, our heads giddy with the colors and scents all around us. What will be the next images moving through our kaleidoscope? Rumi will not limit our imagination by listing the wonders to come. Poetry is action. We will know only by becoming one with that which we wish to know. Here comes the next scene, an encounter, an opportunity for action! Rumi is standing on the stage:

Love is calling me every moment from every direction / I am heading for the heavens. Anybody wants to watch?

We have all been there before, with angles on our side / I say let us go back where we belong.

Indeed we are higher than the heavens, and much more than angels / Why not transcend these two to reach our home in God's magnificence.

Much colorful imagery resurface, merge and separate before us in the next few lines, most duly refashioned to fit our new abode: God's magnificence. The moon that embodied Joseph's beauty is now cleft asunder giddy with fragrant breeze coming from the abode of Prophet Mohammad. Now turn your kaleidoscope toward the heart to gaze at your personal moon! We are sea birds born in the ocean of the soul. Why are we wasting our lives on the shore? But wait. We are not on the shore, we are in the sea. That is why waves from that ocean reach us. Here comes mowj-e alast, a monster wave from the sea of pre-eternity! Like all godly things, it is the maker and the breaker at once:

The wave from pre-eternity came and built our bodies into a ship [able to sale on its waves] / When the ship breaks, it is time for the joy of union

This line ends the ghazal, yet the "joy of union" is a beginning, an arriving home in "God's magnificence." Rumi's ghazals usually end with beginnings, another signal that the kaleidoscopic movement continues. These ending/beginnings are either questions or a pleading with the reader to finish, "my work has ended" he would say "but yours has begun." Tributes to the unending nature of love, like colors and patterns in a kaleidoscope, the lines in ghazals stretch, bend, expand and merge with those in other poems. Even Rumi might have not known when they will resurface again. Sure enough, the joy of union resurfaces in the next ghazal:

It is time for the joy of union, it is time for coming to life, for living forever / it is the season of kindness and generosity, the sea is brimming with pure waves

And from this point on, the poem, like the sea itself, brims with wave after wave of joy as brilliant images emerge from its waves culminating in the ultimate brightness, God's light:

The jewel box of generosity has opened, the roaring sea has arrived / the dawn of happiness has broken. What morning? It is God's light!

[1] Shams al-Din Ahmad Aflaki, "Manaqib al-'arifin," ed. Tahsin Yzici (Ankara:Turk Tarih Kurumu, 1980), vol. II, p.623-24.

[2] For a reliable edition see, Kulliyat-I Shams ya Divan-I kabir, ed. Badi' al-Zaman Furuzanfar (Tehran: Amir Kabir, 1976).

[3] Rumi, Divan, 1672.

[4] Michael Sells, Mystical Languages of Unsaying (Chicago: U. of Chicago Press, 1994), p. 64.

Whirling Dervishes

Ibn 'Arabi & Rumi: Teachings for the Modern World
A Conference

New York, New York - October, 2011 - A conference presented at Columbia University will include international scholars, from the U.S., Europe and the Middle East, on the works of mystics, Muhyiddin Ibn 'Arabi (Arabic) and Jalaluddin Rumi (Persian). The program will also include lectures, workshops, a panel discussion and poetry readings in the original languages of Arabic and Persian and their English translation. Speakers will be James W. Morris -- keynote, Fatemeh Keshavarz, Michael Sells, Stephen Hirtenstein, Mahmud Kilic, Nargis Virani and more, plus a special performance by renowned Turkish musician Omar Faruk Tekbilek. The evening concert (a separate event) will include performances by leading American poet -- Coleman Barks, Grammy Award winning cellist, David Darling, rock star -- Salman Ahmad, British actor, Aaron Cass and friends and whirling Dervish, Sakina.

A Rare New York Open Center & Ibn Arabi Society Conference

The Middle East Institute and the Institute of African Studies
at Columbia University
Friday & Saturday, November 4 & 5, 2011

For details and registration, please visit the conference website or call the Open Center at 212-219-2527, ext 2