What Happened to Poetry?

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The Spiritual Rumi Conferece, Freemont CA

In the name of Allah, The Merciful, The Compassionate.

I want to start off by saying that I know next to nothing about Jalaluddin ul Rumi, so I’m not going to talk about Maulana Rumi. I’ve read his poetry in translation, and the Mathnawi several years ago from Nicholson’s translation but what I wanted to talk about was words, and in particular about poetry, which I do know a little bit about. And the reason for that is two-fold: one, in terms of the English language, I don’t know anybody that knows English poetry better than my father does. He was somebody who, as far as I can tell, had a religious experience at Columbia University taking classes with a man called Mark Van Doren[i] who was also one of the teachers of John Berryman[ii], who some of you might know, who was an expert on Shakespeare.

Van Doren was a teacher of literature. He taught the great literature of Western civilization and my father sat in his classes for three years at Columbia University, and then audited his classes after he’d finished all the courses that he could take with him. And I don’t think he ever said anything in any of his classes but he, he told me many stories and actually he named me after Mark Van Doren, so that tells you – I was his first born son – and I think that tells you the impact that this man had on his life. But one of the things that he said about Van Doren that struck him, as to his teaching technique, he said unlike the other professors at Columbia University, who would always look at the masters with their critical eyes, Van Doren was in awe of these great teachers and poets and writers of Western civilization and he said that he had a deep humility in their presence. And he said that the other thing, and Robert Giroux[iii] – some of you might know also, who was also a student of Van Doren’s – he said Van Doren had a very clever technique in his class, and that was that he would pretend that you were his intellectual peer or equal. And when I mentioned that to my father, he said it’s not true. He didn’t pretend, he actually really believed that. And that’s what was powerful about his teaching.

So, my father actually wrote a commentary on an Elizabethan treatise on verse and so I grew up hearing – he memorized a lot of poetry – I grew up hearing poetry, and also just hearing his discussions about these things, but I didn’t appreciate any of it until I had a great teacher. And that occurred in the Middle East, and he was from West Africa. And so it was very strange that this American young man from the West Coast, who had a father who was immersed in great literature and he’s one of the only people that I know, he actually read the 37 plays of Shakespeare every year, like the Muslims do a khatam, and every time he would finish, he would start over again. But I learned to appreciate poetry hearing West Africans listen to poetry, recite poetry and be moved by poetry. And particularly, their expressions when they heard a line, and this is called tarab. The Arabs call it tarab and we get the word troubadour from that Arabic word. The troubadour is the one that makes you delight in what he has to say or tell, his story, and the Arabs, if they’re moved by poetry, they’re moved with this tarab. And the way the Mauritanians, they’re very expressive because they’re literally – it’s almost like you stab them. When they hear a really good line of poetry, they’ll say “Argh” like that, literally, just like that. And they’ll make a move when they hear it, “Argh”. They’ll literally make a move. [makes a stabbing motion at his heart] And initially, I thought that this was kind of an affected type of thing, but after awhile I realized that it wasn’t. It was that they really were being moved by the poetry. And that, obviously, got me more and more interested in poetry. And it forced me, when I came back to the States, to go back to my own tradition. So it’s funny – and by my own tradition, I mean the civilization which I grew up in, which has a tradition of great poetry.

And one of the things about poetry, and I really believe that one of the reasons that poetry is no longer taught, and if you’ve ever had a teacher that taught you poetry in any real way, that would have been probably the most profound class or experience that you had. But very few people are afforded that extraordinary delight of having a great teacher. Most of us have to suffer the mediocrity of passionless people teach words the emanated from the hearts of deeply passionate people. Because what poetry is about is passion, and what’s forbidden in the modern world is passion. It’s actually forbidden. You can’t be passionate about anything. And woe unto you, if you’re passionate! And if you think what’s out there mimicking passion has anything to do with real passion, then you’ve been completely deluded. Really, completely deluded. And if you think that any of these politicians that seem to be passionate about what they’re talking about – that is one of the greatest examples of the lie and the mimicry of what passion is about.

One of the reasons that they don’t teach poets anymore is because poets aren’t melodramatic. And in a world that you want people to think in melodramatic terms, you don’t want them to understand the subtleties of the poet. And I’ll just give you an example from Western tradition. In Homer’s The Iliad, you never know whether Homer the Greek is on the side of the Greeks or the Trojans. You don’t know who’s more noble, the Greeks or the Trojans. And he’s telling you something about most wars that are fought between people. If you look at the wars that were fought between the Muslims and the non-Muslims in that first part of Islam, the greatest warriors of the Quraysh, men like Khalid ibn al-Walid[iv], who fought against the Prophet in so many battles, end up becoming one of the greatest warriors of Islam. Because it’s not about this battle between black and white. It’s about the living coming from the dead, and the dead coming from the living. In Homer’s Iliad, he has Achilles, when his beloved is killed by Hector, and Achilles has a few flaws and one of them is wrath – he gets angry very easily and he’s petulant. What Achilles does is he goes and he kills Hector, and then he drags him around the tomb of his friend, and then he leaves his body to be eaten by the dogs, which was a sacrilege to the Greeks and the Trojans, something terrible – no respect for the dead. And one of the things that Apollo says in a gathering – and Apollo was opposed to Achilles, he was on the side of the Trojans – Apollo says, “Woe unto Achilles! Lest we become angry at him, and he is a good man.” And what that tells you is that when you look at your enemy, you have to be willing to admit that even your enemy has redeeming qualities. Because if you’re not willing to admit that, then you’re stuck in this mannequin duality of black versus white. And this is the melodrama of the modern world: They’re evil, therefore we’re good. And the problem with that world view, like an American poet who was more noted for her doggerels than for her poetry, but I still like her, she’s Ella Wheeler Wilcox. She used to write a poem every day for one of the newspapers in the 1880s. She said that the world’s divided into two people. And it’s been said that the world is indeed divided into two people – one group are the group that divide the world into two people, and the other group is all the rest. So she said that the world is divided into two people, and she said – and I’m not talking about the good and bad because the good are half bad and the bad are half good. That’s the human condition.

So that’s one of the things that poets teach that they don’t want taught anymore because it makes people have to actually think, and thinking is problematic in a society where you don’t want people to think. So what happened to poetry? That’s a good question, what happened to English poetry? One of the things about the modern world is that they tell us that anybody can write poetry. This is what you’ll learn in a creative writing class. That’s the biggest lie anybody ever told you. You can just sit down and put down your thoughts and call that poetry. It’s not poetry. Because this is another lie that this culture wants to teach – it’s that hard things come easy. Fast food. Just go to Macdonald’s. You can be satiated. And if you think that food satiates you, listen to your body after a few years of eating it. As the heart begins to harden, literally and figuratively. It’s not just the literal hardening of the arteries, arteriosclerosis, it’s a spiritual hardening of the heart, eating food that has no blessing. Eating food that wasn’t made with the hands of a loving person who actually cares for the people he or she is feeding. Food sacrificed to the altar of God. There used to be something in this country they called soul food, right? Soul food. That was the food that your mother cooked with love because it actually nourished your soul. It wasn’t hamburgers made with beef that are fed other animals that give them diseases like mad cow’s disease. It’s not Old Macdonald’s Farm anymore, right? What happened to Old Macdonald? He became Macdonald’s and that’s part of the problem. Really.

So this..what happened to poetry? Well, I’ll tell you what happened to poetry. The Qur’an has a chapter called The Poets. Al Shu’ara. And there’s no chapter in The Qur’an that isn’t named after something that is great. You will not find any chapter in The Qur’an that is not named after something that has immense import. Whether it’s The Spider, whether it’s The Cow, whether it’s The Bee, whether it’s The Morning Sunlight, whether it’s The Moon, whether it’s The Moving Sand-dunes, whether it’s Mutual Consultation, every word that is used as a title for one of the chapters of The Qur’an has immense import in the lives of human beings. And one of them is The Poets. But The Qur’an divides the poets into two types of people – the poets who sell the gift that they have been given for the highest bidder. And this was the jahili poet, he was called the sha-il. And what he would do is, if you paid him enough money, he would say whatever you wanted to say with him, and when I mentioned that to my father, about that, in The Qur’an, he said, “It reminds me of Simonides that Aristotle mentioned”. He was a poet, a Greek poet, that used to sell his ability to do verse to the highest bidder. And somebody once came to him and asked him to write a poem about a donkey that he had particular love for. And it bothered Simonides that he would have to write a poem about a donkey. But because the man was paying him enough money, he wrote the poem and Socrates quoted a couple of lines from it, “How beautiful thou art, thou storm-footed ass”.

So that’s one type of poet. And whether you realize it or not, he is now disguised as an ad man. And The Qur’an says about these people, “The poets, they follow them, those who are astray. Haven’t you seen them wandering in every valley, saying with their mouths what they don’t do?” So I want to give you a couple of examples of that. All I did, opened up a magazine today, didn’t even have to look very far, just opened it up.


[shows ad] First ad:

Godiva chocolate will make her heart skip a beat. If she wins the ring, you may need to know CPR. To be or not to be, that is the question.


Godiva chocolate will make her heart skip a beat. If she wins the ring, you may need to know CPR.

[puts ad aside]


[shows second ad]


Next one:

One part protection, one part complexion. Whose words these are, I think I know. Whose house is in the village, though? One part protection, one part complexion. Estratab, estrastep. Your pill for more reasons than one.


[shows third ad]


Make your bones rock hard. Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow. Creeps in this petty pace of time from day to day. Make your bones rock hard.


[puts aside]


“Plop plop, fizz fizz. Oh, what a relief it is.”

The ancients would never do that! Even Simonides would not stoop that low. And that’s the problem with our modern world. They don’t know what words are. They don’t know the power of words, they don’t know who gave Man words. They don’t know where they gave from.

Elizabeth Browning did. She gave one of the best descriptions of Jalaluddin Rumi. She wasn’t talking about Rumi, but she was talking about a poet. He bore by day, he bore by night, the pressure of God’s infinite on his finite soul. I mean, that’s the poet. One part protection, one part complexion. Chiquita Banana. I’m Chiquita Banana and I’m here to say, a banana’s gotta ripe in a particular way.

The Qur’an says about language: Arrahman alam Al Quran, khalaqal insan, alamuhul bayyan. The Merciful, who has taught The Qur’an, created the human being and taught the human being how to articulate his needs, how to speak what was in his heart. Speak what was in his heart. Allamuhul bayyan. The word in Arabic, to speak what’s in your heart, is yu’ribu. In fact, that’s what an Arab was, and that’s why Herodotus said, of all people, the Arabs hated the lie more than anything else. Herodotus said about the Arabs, “Of all people, the Arabs hated the lie more than any other people.” Because they knew what words were. Words are meant to speak the truth. That’s what words are for, and that’s what the other type of poet does – he speaks the truth. And that’s a very difficult thing in the modern world, because like Mark Twain said, only dead men can speak the truth.

Now, I want to just take a liar as an example here. This is a book called Why I Am Not A Muslim. His name’s Ibn Warraq and it’s interesting, he says Acknowledgements and the first thing he acknowledges, “I am not a scholar or a specialist.” Well then, what are you doing writing a book about Islam? I mean, that’s an interesting question to ask somebody who’s writing a book about Islam. But he says here that there are three types of Islam: Islam 1 was what the Prophet taught. Islam 2: what is expounded in the religion, interpreted and developed by theologians through traditions. It includes shari’ah and Islam law. And Islam 3, what Muslims actually did do and achieve, that is to say, Islamic civilization.

My general thesis emerges in this book is that Islam 3, i.e., Islamic civilization, often reached magnificent heights despite Islam 1 and 2.

And here’s the example he gives. In the Mishkat of the Prophet Muhammad – and this is revealing his ignorance because even though it’s in the Mishkat, the hadith is from Sahih Bukhari and Muslim and it’s mutafa qalai, which means it’s agreed upon and it has one of the highest authorities in Islam. The Prophet Muhammad is made to say, “A belly full of purulent matter is better than a belly full of poetry”. That’s the hadith, it’s actually a true hadith.

“Had the poets adhered to Islam 1 and 2, we certainly would not have had the poems of Abu Nuwas[v] singing the praises of wine and the beautiful buttocks of young boys.”

I mean, this is a very odd things for Ibn Warraq to be happy about – that poems about the buttocks of beautiful young boys was preserved for postery, because the hadith wasn’t followed. In this culture, they call it pedophilia, I think, if you write poems about young boys’ buttocks, but that’s for the FBI to deal with in Operation Candyman[vi]. Maybe Abu Nuwas would have been part of that sting operation.

The interesting thing about that hadith is, what the Prophet was talking about is these type characters – one part protection, one part complexion. And most of you, unfortunately, have enough of these types of lines and many of you don’t even know that they’re actually in metered verse. And if you go through a lot of these so-called – I mean, this is just lousy, it’s not very well done. We’re changing the face of security, protecting people, preserving privacy. I mean, that’s the poets that – it’s better that you had your belly filled with puss than if you fill it with empty words. Right? And if you just look – because the world is filled with poetry and people love poetry, and that’s why pop songs are filling the air waves. It’s because people actually love to hear metered words, they love to hear lyric verse. And so people listen to this music, and they don’t think about what their minds are being filled with. They don’t think about – we worry about pollution of the environment, but people don’t worry about pollution of the mind, about what actually goes into your ears and enters into your heart, because The Qur’an says,

Your ears, your eyes, your heart, these you have been made responsible for.

You’re actually responsible to protect your heart so that your soul doesn’t die. Because one of the ways the soul is killed is by allowing things into the soul that poison the soul. And one of the most powerful and toxic elements is words that are not true. False words. And this is the poetry that the Prophet saw was warning about. His wife Aisha memorized 12,000 lines of poetry from the poet Labid alone. 12,000 lines. The Prophet saw was once riding on a camel and he asked to hear some lines of one of the jahaliyya poets who was a pre-Islamic poet whose poetry was filled with wisdom. And the narrator says, “I mentioned a line and the Prophet said “Hee. Let’s hear some more.” And I mentioned some more and he said, “Hee hee. Let’s hear some more” until I mentioned a hundred lines of poetry.” The Prophet saw used to have poets in his gatherings. His own Hassan ibn Thabit[vii], who was one of the great poets of that time, he said, “This man’s poetry is strengthened by the Holy Spirit.” One time a man al-Aqra ibn Habis[viii] came to him, and he was from Bani Tameem, who’s a nasty tribe, and he called from behind the Prophet’s house, he said “O Muhammad! (saw) You better come out! Because I’m a poet and my praise is good and my blame is bad.” And the Prophet saw said, “That’s God”. It’s not you, that’s God. The one whose praise is good and whose blame is bad, that’s God. So he said “Come out! Because we want to have a” – the Arabs had these kind of poetic combat, where they would have one poet of one tribe get up and oppose a poet of another tribe and this was a civilized way of fighting. And sometimes it led to uncivilized ways of fighting. Because words meant something to those people. And that’s part of the problem of modern peoples – words don’t mean anything anymore. You can say anything, and you know – Dennis Miller[ix]. I mean, these are the types of people who can get out there and just say anything.

And part of this culture is that we’ve become such a shameless culture. And one of the things about shamelessness, is that the root of shamelessness is shame. And if you want that insight, you have to go to the great Russian poet. And he is a poet, even though he wrote in prose. Dostoyevsky. Because in his Brothers Karamazov, if anybody who’s read that remembers the meeting with the priest, who is the mystic – and the father, he’s a debauchee, he’s always having orgies in his houses and he’s a terrible man and he always behaves like a buffoon – shameless. And he’s in the presence of this mystic, Father Zosima, and he begins to act like a buffoon and Ilyusha, who’s trying to perfect his soul, is mortified and his other son Ivan is mortified, and there’s a point where he says, “I’m so ashamed at behaving like this”. And the priest says to him, “Don’t be ashamed because that’s the root of the problem.” In other words, that’s why you’re so shameless. It’s because you’re so filled with shame. And that’s what’s happened in this culture. This culture, we’ve become such a shameless culture that we have to be shameless in order to deal with the pain of being so shameless. And that’s something very difficult for us.

So those are the poets that the Prophet saw warned about, not poets who had truth to say. So I want to look just at a few things, and then I’ll stop because it’s been a long night. One of the things that Borges, who’s extraordinary – he wrote a wonderful story about a meeting between Ibn Rush (Averroes) and several other intellectuals. It’s a beautiful story. It’s a fictionalized account of something that could have happened. And the beauty of the story for me, was that what Borges was trying to do was trying to give us a glimpse of the exalted level of conversation that the people of Andalusia had. And they’re discussing a line of poetry that comes out of the Mu’allaqat, which is the, these are the great odes that the Arabs hung in the Kaabah before Islam and they considered them to be testimony to the greatness of the Arabic language. And they were, they were great, but many of them were filled with meanings that Islam would radically transform. But they talk about this line of poetry in which the poet says, Zuhair says

I saw death like the stumbling of a camel. The one that it hits, it destroys, and the one that it misses lives a long life and grows old.

And they begin to argue about this line of poetry, and they say it’s a bad line because fate is not like the stumbling of a camel. Fate is determined by God. And Ibn Rushd or Averroes in the story says, “No you’re wrong. Because what the poet describes, is he describes something we can all relate to and that’s what makes poetry great, it’s that the poet speaks in a universal language.” And this is why Aristotle – and Averroes is the greatest commentator of Aristotle – and so Borges knew that, and Borges knew Aristotle very well. What Aristotle says is that poetry is greater than history, because history deals with particulars but poetry deals with the universal. And that is why, when the poet speaks, the poet impacts our hearts if he speaks the truth. Because we recognize that truth in our hearts. And what Ibn Rushd says in this story, is that the poet, when he – what he says is he says fate is not like a stumbling camel, but he says, I see it like that. Ra’aytu. That’s what’s he’s describing. And what he’s saying is that often, when we look at the world, we see chaos. It doesn’t mean that it’s chaotic, but we often see only chaos. And that is what the poet is saying. He’s describing something that human beings experience. And that’s why, when we look at the world today, when we look at human beings, we can often forget that there is an order in this universe.

When we look at Palestine right now and look at the madness that’s taking place there in Palestine, it’s a meeting of two worlds. That’s all Palestine is. If you want to understand Palestine, all you have to understand is that half of this planet, half of this planet, lives on less than $2 a day. And we in the West consume 60% of the world’s resources even though we are less than 10% the inhabitants of the planet. And where do those two civilizations meet? They meet in Palestine. Because Palestine is taking people from the West and planting them in the midst of a society that has been too long exploited, and had its resources expropriated, lived under despotism largely due to post-colonial traumatic syndrome. And most people are too busy watching the important messages from our sponsors, to actually read a book about the history of the Middle East, about colonialism. I mean, just read David Fromkin’s A Peace to End All Peace. Most of the people are too busy to realize that most of what’s going on in the West that’s troubling us is what they call “blowback”. In CIA parlance, “blowback”, the unsuspected consequences or unforeseen consequences of our own covert activities. That’s all there is. But people don’t want that, that’s troublesome. We want to be in melodrama, remember? Us versus them. Good versus evil. The evil empire. The Axis of Evil. These wonderful terms that make life so easy. There’s all bad, remember? And we’re all good, thank God. Makes it very easy, instead of having to deal with these ambiguities, which is what the poets are trying to tell us. We’ve got problems. You have to think a little bit deeper.

So that’s what the poet has. He has a universal message. And that’s what Rumi had, and I think that’s why Rumi.. Rumi strikes me as being popular for 2 reasons. One, he’s calling our bluff because everybody knows in our heart of hearts that they’re going to die. And all he is is somebody who’s in the moment, recognizing that death is imminent and the only important thing is the readiness. And that’s something another great poet from the West said. If you look at the play Hamlet, which really is a play about spiritual evolution – a lot of people don’t read Shakespeare like that, but Shakespeare actually was working within deeply spiritual motifs. And I’m just going to use 2 examples, and then I’m done.

One of them is the idea of purifying the soul. And Hamlet, if you remember in the great soliloquy, when he says “To be or not to be”, what’s it about? It’s about fear of death. That’s what it’s all about, it’s about fear of death. Because that’s part of Hamlet’s dilemma, it’s this fear of his own mortality. But by the end of the play, what’s happened to the man? He’s had a complete transformation, and when he’s about to go into this duel, Horatio – they’re talking, and he hints to Horatio that even though he feels he’s going to win the duel, he has this sense of his own death. And Horatio’s worried about it, and he says, well, stop it for another time. And what does Hamlet say? He says:

Not a wit. We defy augury.

Don’t stop it, we’re going to defy augury, in other words, having a bad omen. And this is something the Prophet Muhammad saw taught. He said, if you have a bad omen, do the thing anyway. Go against that thing in your soul. And then he (Hamlet) says:

There’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow.

In other words, even God is aware of the fall of a sparrow. And there’s a providence in that fall.

If it be now, tis not to come

If it be not to come, it will be now.

If it be not now, yet it will come.

He’s talking about death. It’s nothing you can stop. If it’s not meant to be now, it’s coming later. If it’s coming later, it’s not meant to come now. And then he says, The readiness is all.

That’s what life is about. It’s not trying to put off death. It’s being ready for death.

Since no man has aught of what he leaves, what is’t to leave betimes? Let be.

If you can’t take anything with you, then why are you so worried about living this long life? Because once death comes – and this is said by many many great people before him and after him – Marcus Aurelius was one of them.

And finally, my favourite sonnet. And I’m sorry if you came to hear Rumi, I’m quoting Shakespeare. [laughs] They call Shakespeare the Rumi – no, they call Rumi the Shakespeare of the East, which is..that’s, that’s not..Shakespeare is Shakespeare, Rumi is Rumi. So, don’t try to compare them. But this is a great sonnet, it’s actually my favourite, but everybody’s..my father says his favourite’s the one he happens to be reading at the time, so..

The expense of spirit in a waste of shame

Is lust in action; and till action, lust

Is perjured, murderous, bloody, full of blame,

Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust;

Enjoy'd no sooner but despised straight;

Past reason hunted; and no sooner had,

Past reason hated, as a swallowed bait,

On purpose laid to make the taker mad:

Mad in pursuit, and in possession so;

Had, having, and in quest to have, extreme;

A bliss in proof, and proved, a very woe;

Before, a joy proposed; behind, a dream.


All this the world well knows; yet none knows well

To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.


And that is a commentary on a hadith, that hell is surrounded by pleasurable things and heaven is surrounded by displeasurable things. That’s all he’s saying, is that you look at the enticements of this world, and you go after them without any thinking, and as soon as you’ve got them, you realise the bitterness of their reality. They didn’t get you what you wanted. And he says, we all know it, because we’ve done it again and again and again, and yet we don’t know to shun the heaven that leads to hell. In other words, these temporary pleasures that end up leading us to something that’s frightening and this is one of the truths that the poet said, and the Prophet saw said, “Surely, in poetry is great wisdom”. Ibn Hajjar r.a. says, “A true word that is in accordance with the truth”. And the Prophet Muhammad saw said, “The truest thing that a poet every said was what Labid said, ’Isn’t it that everything other than God is falsehood?’” And that’s in Sahihh Bukhari. And that’s all Rumi ever said. You can read all those lines – words, words, words – that’s all his message is. It’s just a commentary on that one statement of the Prophet Muhammad saw. Everything other than God is false, and if you realise that at the intellectual level, he and every other scholar of Islam has been calling us to realise it at an experiential level. And that’s the path of submission to Allah swt, which in Arabic is called Al-Islam – submission to God.

And I’m going to finish with – aha I tricked you – I’m going to finish with a poem by Jalaludin Rumi, which is translated by Coleman Barks - I like Coleman a lot, but my friend Muhammad Isa Weli said “His translations are too roomy for me” – R-O-O.

This is called “One Who Wraps Himself” and it’s a commentary on a chapter in the Qur’an, Muzzammmil.


God called the Prophet Muhammad Muzzammil,
“The One Who Wraps Himself,”
and said,
“Come out from under your cloak, you so fond

Of concealment and fleeing


Because the Prophet saw loved to go off to the cave and meditate. And so he’s being told now to come back.


Don’t cover your face.
The world is a reeling, drunken body, and you
are its intelligent head.
Don’t hide the candle
of your clarity. Stand up and burn
through the night, my prince.

Without your light
a great lion is held captive by a rabbit!


That’s what Odysseus in one of Shakespeare’s plays says to the Greeks. It is by our weakness that Troy stands, not by their strength. And that’s the reality. It’s by the weakness of the people of truth that the people of falsehood stand. Not by their strength, because falsehood has no strength. But when the people of truth are weak, then a rabbit can hold a lion captive.

Alhamdulillah. I thank my teachers for instilling in me a love of poetry that my father tried to instill in me. And I thank all of you for bearing with me tonight, and being very patient and polite.