Wingbeats: The Poetry of Rumi

by Coleman Barks

The rubat, the four-line poem, is indigenous to the Persian language, and Rumi is one of the great innovators with the form. There’s a legend about how the quatrain originated. It’s fair day. A poet and his friends are strolling along in the crowd. They stop to watch some children playing a game. A young boy throws a walnut so that it starts along a groove of the pavement, jumps out, then rolls back in to hit the aimed-at spot. He has put english on the nut, and he celebrates the move with a little chant. “Rolling, rolling, off and back, then home to the bottom of the ditch.”

The poet (one version says it was Rudaki in the 10th Century) heard a new rhythm in the boy’s elation, repeated it with slight differences three times, and thus the Persian quatrain was born! There is that spontaneous dance and walnutty compression in Rumi’s short poems. The amazing variety, the playfulness of modes, does remind one of birdsong.

All the great mystical traditions love birds and their singing. Solomon understood what the different bird species were saying. That’s why they loved to stay close around him. Jesus, playing as a child, made clay birds on the Sabbath, and when scolded, shooed them into flight, his first miracle. Taoist grave carvings sometimes show one master handing a bird to another master, or a wonderfully strange procession of birds and bird-people strutting in high spirits into the next reality. St. Francis was so empty of nervous haste and fear and aggression that the birds would light on him.

Birds represent our longings for purity and freedom, and they carry messages of ineffable joy. They mediate between above and below. Some of them begin at dawn to celebrate the returning light. And some with their songs in the middle of the night deepen our silence. I have seen a television documentary about how Canary Islanders have a human whistling language that they use to call information across the cliffs. “The mailboat is in!” “The priest is not feeling well. No mass this afternoon.” “It’s not the same. I don’t mean to sentimentalize the birds here, but simply acknowledge what Wallace Stevens called their “sweet questioning” of reality, the morning meadow talk.

Walking an Irish hillside once, I was stunned, as everyone is, by the performance of a skylark. Falling-warbling, a chunked gob of pure kamikaze watermusic, unbelievably fluid and beyond any melody. Poets never achieve the skylark’s free-fall, but they aspire, especially in short poems, to the condition.

But what is this fountain of sound? What are the birds do­ing? One of the loveliest scientific ideas that I know of is Rudolf Steiner’s understanding of how plants are part of sonic systems, re­sponding subtly to swallow wingbeats, pre-dawn warbling, and the flamboyant swamp-choruses of the peepers. Certain sounds waken cellular functions. Minute mouthlike openings called stomata, for ex­ample, which plants use to exchange various aerosols and mists with the surrounding atmosphere, seem to be triggered by a combina­tion of musical frequencies and harmonics. The birds are helping the plants! Recent researchers have found that Vivaldi, some Indian raga melodies, and Bach’s E-major concerto for the violin also stimulates cells to action. We intuitively hope and feel that this is true. Birdsong and Bach and the longing of the sitar should be meshing with the mysteries of seed germination and plant growth. O let the poems we say plump out the peaches!

These unifying metaphors, or facts, are certainly not foreign to Rumi’s vision of the dance. Every forest branch moves differently in the breeze, but as they sway, they connect at the roots.
—Coleman Barks

There is a desert I long to be walking,
a wide emptiness,
peace beyond any
understanding of it.

Birdsong brings relief To my longing.
I am just as ecstatic as they are,
but with nothing to say!
Please, universal soul, practice some song, or something, through me!

People want you to be happy.
Don’t keep serving them your pain!
If you could untie your wings and free your soul of jealousy,
you and everyone around you would fly up like doves.

You’re not a slave, you’re a king.
If you want something, release the wish and let it light
on its desire, completely free of the personal.
Then sit and sound the drum of nothing, nothing.

As essence turns to ocean,
the particles glisten.
Watch how in this candleflame instant
blaze all the moments you have lived.

Lo I am with you always, you promised that,
and when I realized it was true, my soul flared up.
Any unhappiness comes from forgetting.
Remember, and be back close with the Friend.

Traslations from Birdsong, published by Mapop. Copyright 1993 Coleman Barks.

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