Well, it took me over two years, maybe close to three to read the whole of The Soul of Rumi translated by Coleman Barks, but I have finished. I have enjoyed Rumi’s poetry so much that while I am glad to finally be done with the book, I am also sad. I will miss reading a poem or two before bed every now and then, or in snips of ten or fifteen minutes when I needed something quiet, or even the occasional half hour and hour immersion session.
The book didn’t take me so long to read it because it was difficult or boring reading. Far from it, Rumi has become one of my favorite poets. It took me so long to read because, well, it’s a big book, but also because this is not a book that should be read fast. I’d often re-read poems. And lines. Some evenings I’d find a few lines in a poem that would strike me as so beautiful or expressive of how I was feeling that I’d read the lines over and over.
The poems are filled with parables and analogies and wonderful metaphors all in varying degrees explaining the human condition and human nature. Sometimes they would point out how stupid and short-sighted people can be. Sometimes they would explain prayer or how to worship or reach God. And sometimes they would be a lyrical description of a flower or a fine day. Now and then the poem would be serious, but what I love most about Rumi is his sense of humor. Everywhere he seems to laughing–ha! ha! joke’s on us!
I don’t know if this book contains all of Rumi’s poems, but the ones here are labeled ecstatic. This is an appropriate label in both senses of the word. The poems are filled with joy that comes from a divine source. Rumi is a Sufi poet, a Muslim, but I can’t help but picture him as a fat laughing Buddha. No doubt he would find that amusing.
Coleman Barks’s translation is a delight. He doesn’t try to rhyme, he doesn’t try to keep the same line length as the original. What he does do is stay true to the words and essence of Rumi. Barks has broken the book up into little chapters. Some of the poems are cycles of a sort and meant to go together. Some of the chapters are simply groupings of poems that are on a similar theme. Before each chapter Barks explains a bit about the poems and what he thinks Rumi is getting at. For the most part I found this helpful. Barks gets a bit carried away, in my opinion, at times. but when he does get carried away I have the impression it is due to his enthusiasm for the poems and his desire for the reader to love them as much as he does. So I can’t fault him for that.
There is a part toward the end of the Masnavi from the section called “The obligations that come from reading this poem” that will speak to bookish people:
Sometimes you read books
because you’re bored or you
want relief from worry or from the desires you feel.
Urine, springwater, anything
will do to dowse a fire. But try to find the clear water
that takes you to an orchard
with a stream running through.
Isn’t that a beautiful way to express the idea of reading good books? Books that will not only dowse the fire but that are also good for the soul. Rumi’s poetry definitely counts as clear water. I will be returning for a drink very often.