What Happened to Poetry?

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Event Name: 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