Forever Under Construction

Robert Bly (in Iran)

Posted in Literature, Poetry by homeyra on March 30, 2008

Among many excellent interviews by Bill Moyers I came across a few about Persian poetry:
Bill Moyers talks with poet Robert Bly

Coleman Barks reads Rumi

I will quote some excerpts in my next posts.


Robert Bly and Coleman Barks visiting the tomb of Hafez in Shiraz

[…] Bill Moyers: You went to Iran a few months ago. Tell me about that.

Robert Bly: Yes, they flew us to Shiraz where Hafez‘s grave is. So, we got up in the morning, and we went to the grave. And about 8:00 in the morning, you know, children started to come. Maybe third grade children. And they stood around the little tomb and sang a poem of Hafez‘s. Really charming. And then they went away, and now some fifth graders came. And they stood around the tomb and sang a poem of Hafez.

And, of course, every poem of Hafez is connected with a tune, so you teach the children the tune, and then they have the poem. So I said to myself, “Isn’t that unbelievable? And why don’t we do that? Why don’t we go to the grave of Walt Whitman and have children come there?” Do you understand what it is–

Bill Moyers: I do. I don’t have an answer. Why don’t we?

Robert Bly: Because we don’t love– we don’t bring Walt Whitman and love him in the way that the Iranians bring in their poets and love them. So, that’d be great if children could go to Walt Whitman‘s grave and recite little poems.

Bill Moyers: What do you think it would mean if we went to the graves of our poets?

Robert Bly: You’d bring the poets into the heart, instead of having them in your head in graduate school. And that’s what you do with children. You bring children in, and they get associated with the heart when they’re very small, and then they can feel it all through their lives. […]


Hafez’s tomb by night

Robert Bly website
Next post: Not all that great


14 Responses

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  1. […] About ← Robert Bly […]

  2. Pedestrian said, on March 30, 2008 at 4:14 pm

    As always, thanks for the great post … Where do you come up with these?! 🙂

    Does Robert Bly know any Persian? I know that Coleman Barks doesn’t … And I’m not sure how I feel about that.

    I understand that poetry (especially that of Persian poetry) transcends words and phrases and enters the mysterious, unexplainable land of feeling and spirit. That is in fact more important than the language itself. But why doesn’t he know Persian? How difficult would it have been to learn it all these years? Even if he’s doing a good job now, wouldn’t it have been more refined if he knew the language with which Rumi was speaking?

    …… I don’t know! But I still feel as if they should be able to read the original to be better interpreters …

  3. Pedestrian said, on March 30, 2008 at 4:16 pm

    On a side note, I loved Bly’s analogy: we Iranians “love” our poets … the way we love our cousins, relatives and kin. They are a part of us really … Whereas in the Western world, people “read” and “admire” their poets.

    It’s such a different take.

  4. homeyra said, on March 30, 2008 at 4:43 pm

    Thanks for your kind words dear P, but sanctions and lagging economy have their advantages: you have time, and as 99 says, I waste time so you don’t have to! 🙂
    Richard Newman has translated a selection of Bustan and Golestan. He doesn’t speak Persian either, he has written about translating. Here is his blog, and he is kind enough to answer questions.
    Coleman hasn’t even “translated” Rumi, he has re-written it.
    As if they all have found their soul mates.
    I understand your feeling, I would say any authentic source can bear an infinity of (authentic) interpretations.
    And yes! We love our poets, it is so great and such a flaw 🙂

  5. Richard Jeffrey Newman said, on March 30, 2008 at 6:08 pm

    Pedestrian raises some interesting questions about translation, ones that are especially important in the context of translating classical Iranian poetry precisely because the history of those translations are so wrapped up in British colonial attitudes not towards Iran per se, but towards India–because it was through their interest in becoming more effective colonial rulers of India that the British bothered with Persian (which was the language of the Moghul courts) and the literature written in that language.

    What matters in producing a literary translation is not so much whether the person who writes the version that is finally published is fluent in the source language–though having some knowledge of it helps, of course. What matters, finally, is the degree to which the process the translator uses respects the source language. So, for example, if one is not fluent in the source language, one needs to make sure that one consults people who are, that the sources one uses are accurate and so on. Coleman Barks, in my opinion, does not respect the source language, nor is he really hold himself acc0untable for not knowing Persian. I don’t know enough about Bly to say anything about his translations–he has a new book of Hafez out that I have not had the chance to get yet. You can read some of what I have written about this question on my blog here and here.

    Also, just for the sake of clarity, I should say that I do speak some Persian and understand a good deal more than I speak, but I do not read the language yet.

    Soleh Noh Moborak to you all!

  6. Richard Jeffrey Newman said, on March 30, 2008 at 6:08 pm

    Oops! I screwed up that last link. Homeyra, can you fix it for me? Thanks.

  7. homeyra said, on March 30, 2008 at 6:26 pm

    Richard: I imagined that you spoke Persian, but when I read your article awhile ago, I thought well, maybe not.
    Sorry, wrong impression and thanks for the clarification. I have corrected my previous comment.
    A “history of translations” would be fascinating.

    Nowruz Pirooz 🙂

  8. 99 said, on March 31, 2008 at 1:22 am

    Oh, crap, Homie! I have a pounding headache and have to go find food and I shouldn’t have looked here before I deal with this stuff! I’m big on this subject… but… I can’t even think right now! I’ll just have to come back when my head is cleared….

  9. 99 said, on March 31, 2008 at 3:37 am

    Okay. I’m going to live. Gourmet dinner and a stiff gin and tonic with a view of the ocean and I’m nearly functional as night falls.

    What is this stuff about Barks? Are you guys saying he messed up the Rumi translation? On what is that assertion based? I really need to know because it’s a matter of life and death to me that I understand Rumi perfectly, and I thought I did.

    Translation of spiritual masters is very thorny stuff. It truly is NOT enough to know the language. More important to know the subject… by far. It is optimal that historians, scholars, masters translate the stuff, even not knowing the language, because they are better equipped to bring out the meaning than someone who merely knows the language. The historical context is indispensable, and the subtleties of Sufism require laser attention to recondite details… even to the extent where someone not conversant will nonetheless be able to bring out the nuances by using their ability to put the originals in context better than even the most fluent native speaker.

    I’m not saying Barks did this, by any stretch. I know zip about him. But I have read some of his Rumi translation and it rocks. If the original in fact rocks harder than that, I gotta know! I gotta, gotta, gotta know. That stuff is outright thrilling in its implications for anyone serious about enlightening being and it could save many lives just to get to the bottom of this question.

    I’m not being colorful. This is vital stuff.

  10. The Pagan Sphinx said, on March 31, 2008 at 3:38 am

    Collectively, I don’t know that American schoolchildren “love” anything they learn in school. Learning is very compartmentalized here. There is very little crossover from school to other sectors of society and culture.

  11. homeyra said, on March 31, 2008 at 5:08 am

    99, I don’t know enough to answer your question – maybe Pedestrian or Richard can. I only know that Barks didn’t “technically” translate Rumi, but it takes a real connaisseur to state anything beyond that. I shall add that the general reaction in literary circles is favorable and the fact that he was able to make Rumi so popular is much appreciated. More on that later, I shall ask.
    Same here Pagan Sphinx, I don’t think kids or youngsters “love” anything they learn in schools.

  12. Pedestrian said, on March 31, 2008 at 7:03 am

    “It truly is NOT enough to know the language. More important to know the subject… by far

    I certainly agree with you 99 – as I think I mentioned. It is leagues and leagues more important to understand the meaning with which they speak, the context, the history, the feeling & spirit ==> Thus, it’s “less important” to know the language, but crucial nonetheless.

    Because otherwise, you are always reading the writer through a second lens: you are reading somebody else’s interpretation of that person, and then making your own based on that. It is not a face-to-face encounter … How could that be really authentic?

    Kudos to Coleman Barks for spreading the words of Rumi, but I really don’t like his version. Not because it is not “identical” to the original – it’s not even supposed to be. The beauty (or misfortune depending on how you look at it) is that when somebody’s words are brought into another language, they are being interpreted and explored with a new eye, a new take … It’s a rebirth of sorts.

    Of course, I’m no expert on Persian poetry (I can barely get through a poem with much supervision!) or Coleman Barks … But his words just don’t resonate with me … I am really looking forward to reading Jeffrey Newman … Maybe I will be proven wrong!

  13. 99 said, on March 31, 2008 at 8:22 am

    Well. Rumi is not strictly poetry. The teaching runs all through it. And so changing from a strict translation of the words to one that conveys more the transcendental intent is crucial. I guess I should try to find out more about Barks to see if I should be looking for better/other translations.

    I haven’t read the stuff in some years, and could never hold on to my copies… people kept going south with them… but I remember quite a lot of it indicating the way to such an extent that I’m certain it was not accidental. Most of it works on at least two levels, and so poetry lovers could just get lost in it on that basis alone, but there is a great deal more there for those willing or inclined to go for the insight.

    Or. Not. Maybe the few dead on pieces I read were all there was to it, and so Rumi is really fair game for any translating style… but… I’m pretty sure not. Anyway, thanks for bringing out that Coleman Barks isn’t exactly respected among Persian speakers for his translation. That is a salient bit for me when I get to immerse myself in this stuff again.

  14. […] posts: Robert Bly (in Iran) Not all that […]

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