A couple weeks ago, I had the great honor to see and hear both Coleman Barks and Robert Bly read in Ann Arbor. The event was RumiNations800 – a birthday celebration for Mawlānā Jalāl-ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī, or as we know him in the western world: Rumi. Both Barks and Bly are known for their work with Rumi’s poetry; Bly also for his work with the poetry of Khwāja Šams ud-Dīn Muhammad Hāfez-e Šīrāzī, or Hafez. Both ancient Persians, Rumi and Hafez reknowned for their roles as mystics and poets. Still don’t know what I’m talking about? Whirling dervishes. That should do it.
The night with Bly and Barks was, by most accounts, an intimate and moving experience. They stood at either side of the stage and read Rumi poems back and forth, accompanied by David Darling on the cello and Marcus Wise on tablas. As the night was one of celebration, both Barks and Bly played to the enjoyment of their reading – Barks with his deep southern hum of a chuckle and boyish smirk before he would read some lines, Bly talking interpretations and side notes along with his lines: “Let me read that again. I’m not sure you got it.” and, “Isn’t that wonderful? Just wonderful.”
It was a delight to see Bly in what must really be his element from early days of reading poetry in coffee shops in clouds of cigarette smoke, listeners jazzing and humming along with his lines and his arm motions – sweeping and jabbing the words through the air. That night in Ann Arbor, he conducted David and Marcus, “More cello,” he would command, followed by a gravely, “Yeah, that’s it.” and then, “Lay me some tabla on this one,” to Marcus. Musicians and poet together took that stage and the audience up into their own whirling mysticism.
It’s not so rare that I hear audience response at poetry readings. That is, hear someone laugh or let out a sigh at the poem’s resolve. But this night, so many having come to hear the words of Rumi in a tongue they could understand, among the crowd I heard gasps and even low moans, at one point a soft, lilting sob that quieted to a hum. Was it Rumi’s poetry? Was it Barks or Bly that had this affect? Perhaps just the culmination of one’s life in that moment, among others, within the celebration, a joining of great poets through millennia, through words and thoughts and souls.