from Beloit Poetry Journal, Spring 2010
Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field. I'll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase each other
doesn't make any sense.
translated by Coleman Barks
In 1975 Robert Bly gathered at a Colorado woods camp fifty artists, poets, musicians, dancers, and others interested in the Swiss psychologist/mythologist C. G. Jung for a ten-day Conference on the Mother. Thirty-five years later the tradition of imaginative enactment and serious study of interrelationships between mythology and artistic endeavor continues as the Annual Conference on the Great Mother and the New Father.
One of the most successful and productive outcomes of the conference has been collaborative presentations of classic Sufi poetry in translation with music by Marcus Wise on tabla and David Whetstone on sitar. Robert Bly began this experiment in 1977 at the third conference, held near Sebago Lake, Maine, when he, David, and Marcus together introduced at a closing concert the poetry of the Indian mystic Kabir. Already the previous year Robert had suggested to Coleman Barks that he begin to translate or retranslate writings by the thirteenth-century Persian poet Jelaluddin Rumi. Soon Coleman began to read with Marcus and David as well.
Ann Arbor and I participated in that first conference, thrilled to that first concert, and longed for many years to sponsor such an event on the Beloit College campus. In November 2009, students at the college, in cooperation with the English Department, invited Coleman, David, and Marcus to perform as the initial event in the college's annual International Week and as the culmination of Ann's and my thirty-four years of teaching and creating community in Beloit. On the day of the performance, Ann and I sat with Coleman in the college library and talked about the relationship between music and poetry, isolation and community, judgment and acceptance.
* * *
JR: Some years ago you made a casual recording with two old friends, Jim Kilgo and John Seawright, "A Conversation of Southerners." In it you talked about James Dickey.
CB: Yes, Dickey has kind of an ecstatic sense of life that I share with him. He has a poem called "In the Mountain Tent"; it's just being up in the mountains by himself. In a mountain tent in the rain. And he gets this expanded sense of essence, whatever you get in that place. It feels like his voice becomes something that is coming out of the holes, animal holes in the mountain. He's no longer embodied; it's like he's got a wider identity, larger, so his voice becomes something before the first intake of breath in the first line of the Bible.
And I like that. I had a place I used to go to when it started to rain, especially in the fall. It was a little back porch on the back of the headmaster's apartment. And it leaked. But there was a couch out there, I mean a bed, and a quilt. I could get underneath the quilt. When I was about ten or twelve, I'd go out immediately when it started raining in the fall, go immediately back there, and shut the door, and I'd just be there in a kind of ecstatic state. In the rain, particularly when it was cold, in the fall. I loved that state, and Dickey defines it well.
JR: You still have a place up in the woods somewhere.
CB: I do. I love it; it's about 120 miles from home.
JR: What does it mean to you?
CB: It used to mean a whole lot. I got it in 1979. It was a beautiful retreat where I could go and write by myself. I just felt the need for that. But now, for some reason, I need companionship there. I don't want to go up there by myself anymore. I've got to write something about that, about that shift, and how I don't need to judge myself for that. I wonder what I've lost that I don't want to go up there and be totally alone.
AA: Couldn't it also be called something you gained? That you don't need that isolation anymore?
CB: I hope so.
AA: That being in a community is better than being outside it, at least in this phase of your life.
CB: Okay. It just feels like I've lost something. I don't know if it's self-reliance. It may be self-satisfaction that I've lost. I need more contact with people, and conversation maybe.
JR: But you said also "I don't want to judge myself for that," which throws me back to a remark you made in the "Conversation with Southerners": "The place I aspired to reach in reference to all people, even myself, is that of no judgment. I would like to accept what is and what has been, then let my actions and words proceed from love and compassion around that acceptance." You're kind of bumping up against yourself. How do you achieve that sense of acceptance?
CB: I think it's a sense of being—the Daoists call it choicelessness—of not making a choice, that is, of leaving the mind out of it. Maybe it's that place out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, out beyond mind. Maybe. Out beyond where the pronouns make a difference. Out beyond where even the phrase "each other" doesn't make any sense. Or the world is too full to talk about it. Some place beyond language. And that's kind of a fake thing, isn't it, because I adore language, and love word choice, fooling with it, and what comes with spontaneous language. But I'm sure there's a place beyond mind and heart and soul. This is radical theology we're into now, that has no name, that, when you get there, the language you say is just like saying lines of poetry, like saying lines that somebody else has written. But that part can't speak. It can listen, I think, and maybe that's why music is important to it, because then music responds to it; it responds to music. That, I don't know what to call it, heartsoul? Something else, or deep being. It's only experiential; it cannot be talked about. But that's what I'm hoping is a Chinese character being written.
AA: Heart and mind, it's one word, xin. There's no distinction between them in Chinese.
CB: Maybe they know more about this place of deep being.
AA: That place of deep being, that place you went to on the porch with the blanket and the rain, and there was a sound there but it wasn't language; it was some other thing. It was that music of the rain and the expanding ....
CB: It was a deeply joyful place. This other place, I think it's beyond joy. It's beyond talking about it. Maybe it's just a sort of clarity and emptiness, what the Daoists call the "original face." Whatever it is that's going to live through death.
I had a dream recently. My friend, Walter Gordon, who teaches, wasn't a close friend, but he had a great, serene smile. He just smiled walking the halls of the English department at Georgia, and the dream was that I was back in the old quadrangle at Baylor School where I grew up. And Walter Gordon was there, facing me, and a truck backed over him. He totally could not live through that, but somehow he got into a place where the atoms disintegrated and he became particles. It's hard to explain—it just happened in the dream. And then he came out of it saying this "God language." And he was speaking, he was in whatever that state is that lives through dying. He was still alive. So I had a strong sense then of what that state was, as he came out of it, saying "Allah" or something. It was some language that was only of that place.
Whenever you start to talk about this, you feel ... horrible. You feel that way because you can't say anything. It's the same thing with the "beloved" or the "friend" that Rumi talks about. I don't know whether you remember, but one time about fifteen years ago at the Mother Conference Robert asked me to give a little talk on the "beloved" or the "friend." I think it was in Montana, at that wild camp with the wild river and the wild water. And the moose. So Robert asked me to give a little talk on "the beloved." It was a trick, I think. I tried to, and you know the more you talk about it, the more the mind kicks in. And it finally says it's just the Sufi imagination of God as a sweetheart, it says there's no such thing. Robert told me afterward, that's too important a thing to have doubts about.
JR: You've mentioned Daoism twice and I'm sure you're aware that the beginning of the Dao De Jing says the Dao that can be talked about can't be talked about as Dao. A name that's the name is not the name.
CB: So, all this is fraudulent. [all laugh]
AA: Did you expect anything else?
JR: Did your ability to not talk about this come in part from your work with Rumi? When did you start thinking in terms of not talking about those things, or even talking about them just as the "beloved"? Obviously, in addition to your own poetry you've achieved a reputation as translator of Rumi. What did Rumi mean to you and is this part of it? Did he clarify it?
CB: Well, at the end of a Persian poem there's a tradition of mentioning the author's name. Hafez always mentions Hafez. Rumi in all of his poems never mentions his own name. He never signs the poem; he never claims it as his own. He mentions Shams Tabriz at the end of a whole lot of them, and he mentions "sunlight" or shams, that's another way of talking about Shams. And he mentions "silence," khumush. I always thought it was a great name for a cat. Khumush, silence. Silence, he gives it back to silence. At the end of the poem he says, let the musician finish that, well let's just give it back to silence. He's the only poet I know that uses the silence after the poem as part of the poem. [stays silent a moment] He lets it be silent after a while. That's my imagination of how he would read a poem that ends with silence. He would be intentionally silent. And probably let the music stop. We don't know whether he played an instrument. He certainly knew a lot about music. He has a whole set of poems that have musical modes, say ten or twelve, and now he'll shift to this different Persian mode ....
JR: He was quite specific about this?
CB: He names the modes, yeah, that's in "The Glance" book. I don't have it with me. If you've got a Persian musician—Reza Derakshani, he was quiet in the sound studio a moment, then he says, "I know what to do." And he would switch modes. It's like Rumi was directing, now a little like Mozart, now like Beethoven, then switch. Music is a very complicated metaphor; there's something like music flowing through us: it's like water, it's like presence, it's like something that can give a lover composure and can douse restlessness. And can give form to the imagination.
AA: Is that all?
CB: [laughs] So that's why he pairs his poems always with music. All his poems can be sung. You get a person that reads Persian and they can .... I was giving a talk out in Berkeley on San Pablo—this is 1986—and a guy was sitting in the audience named Alan Godlas, who now teaches religion at the University of Georgia. I call him "the Godlas monster." He's just an unbelievably devout, sweet Sufi, and he raised his hand and said, "Do you know that all of these poems can be sung?" I said, "Would you please sing the next one?"
JR: When you're doing a reading with Marcus and David, is that sense of music conscious? Do you agree in advance what poems you're going to read? Do they have places where they have—what shall we call them—solos?
CB: Yeah, yeah.
JR: How do you create that sort of experience?
CB: We do have a set list, and we have rhythms. They know what they are; they have names for them: sitar kani, or something, you know, that's a six-beat .... I don't know how they talk to each other in that way but sometimes slower and sometimes faster and I can direct them, a little slower, a little faster when they seem to be dragging or when it seems like the music needs more lift to it. But we do plan it out; we plan out the times when Marcus might throw in the way they vocalize the tabla. We experimented with that along with language; sometimes they're in competition, but not usually. Somehow it's good to have the vocalization. And David has started to sing with the sitar, too.
If he gets brave, he'll do it. I say, "You've got to do it. If you feel inspired to do something, if you don't do it, you might not have another chance."
JR: How is reading with musicians different from reading when you don't have any musicians?
CB: It's so lonesome now not to have a cello nearby. [laughs]
JR: You work regularly with David Darling.
CB: I work regularly with cello; I mean any instrument. The poem feels just so bare or something; I think the music puts it out of the mind, puts it in that layer below, back down in the water table. Somewhere the music lets the personality maybe dissolve a little more, or the ego. A lot of people think that the poem should stand on its own, but it feels good; it feels like I'm giving up some of my proudness, pride in the language of selection, when I let the music carry it along.
JR: What you said earlier fascinates me because suddenly you're saying that you want something else there and earlier you were talking about some dissatisfaction about being out in the woods by yourself.
AA: You need to go with the cello.
AA: I mean maybe earlier, when you were younger it might have been a woman but maybe now you need a cello, or a woman and a cello.
CB: That's what we just did. We were over in Devon, England, and we had these little houses way out in the beautiful countryside, and David Darling down in the meadow, with his cello, and Lisa there on a blanket writing poems, and I was just down on a bench, taking notes, and it seemed like heaven, with two alpacas leaning over the fence, listening. Alpacas. They have these great eyes, and they love the cello; it turns out alpacas are partial to the cello. Who knew? They literally came right to the fence.
JR: Marcus was saying that one of the differences between working with you and working with Robert when you're doing poetry and music is that Robert really only understands music intuitively. It's his assertion, and I have no idea whether it's true or not, but you clearly know something about music. You've talked a lot about shape-note singing. It's a metaphor or an actuality for you that music seems important.
CB: Have you ever seen Marcus sing?
AA: Only his vocalization of the drums.
CB: You know why he doesn't sing? He immediately starts crying, sobbing. Somehow singing for him is just a giving in to whatever brings tears—whatever that is. That's my favorite part of religions and I think it's the only part that I would like to save. We can give up the priesthoods, we can give up passing the collection plate, we can give up the actual buildings. We can use those for something else. Nice basketball courts for the poor. And we can give up doctrine, and, for me, we can give up theology, and just have ... singing. [laughs]
About the Author
John Rosenwald is Professor of English at Beloit College and co-editor of Beloit Poetry Journal. He has published his own poems in numerous magazines. During four stays in China, he founded the Beloit/Fudan University Translation Workshop, a leader in providing access to contemporary Chinese poets. He has been active member of Robert Bly's annual conference on the Great Mother and the New Father.
Editors: John Rosenwald, Lee Sharkey