Wednesday, July 31, 2013


In late April (before the protests in Taksim Square), I went on a tour of Turkey.  One of the stops was the city of Konya in Cappadocia.

Konya has an extensive history and has had many names.  The area around Konya was inhabited as early as the eighth millennium BC.  When the Hittites arrived there in mid-2000 BC, they called it Kuwanna.  The Phrygians (8th century BC) renamed it Kowannia.  The Romans latinized the name to Iconium.  The Seljuk Turks (after crushing the Byzantines in 1071) turkicized the city’s name to its present Konya and established their capital there (renaming themselves the Sultanate of Rum).

This brings me to the highlight of a visit to Konya: the shrine and tomb of Mevlana Jelaleddin, whom we know as Rumi, poet and mystic.

Born September 30, 1207 in Balkh, in modern-day Afghanistan, Jelaleddin (Rumi) came from a noted family of poets and Islamic jurists.  Between 1215 and 1220, his family fled (in advance of attacking Mongol armies) and settled in 1228 in Konya, where his father, a scholar and teacher of Islam, was invited to head the medressa (an Islamic theological academy/seminary, typically built with a tall portal linked to two-storied corridors with dormitories for students and lecturers, library and lesson rooms).  At his father’s death, Rumi succeeded him as shaikh (sheik or master) of the Sufi (Islamic mystic) learning community in Konya. (Jelaleddin acquired the name Rumi because he was from (or of) Rum, the Seljuk Turks’ name for former-Roman Anatolia.)

Crucial to Rumi’s writing and thought was his deep friendship with the Sufi mystic Shams of Tabriz who taught Rumi spiritual dance, music and poetry.  Within less than four years of his appearance, Shams vanished (probably murdered by jealous students of Rumi, led by one of Rumi’s sons, Allaedin).  Grief-stricken, Rumi withdrew.  During this period he wrote 50,000 verses, some expressing his deep loss and referring to Shams as his soul mate.  These mystical love poems take their imagery from everyday life, so that they are vivid, fresh and convincing.

Rumi lived another quarter of a century during which he wrote the Mathnawi (or Mesnevi), an encyclopedic five or six volumes on mystical thought, theories and images, written in Persian (the language of literature).  It is regarded by most Persian-speaking orders of Sufis as second in importance only to the Qu’ran.  Rumi died on December 17, 1273.

Here are two poems by Rumi:


This human being is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
translated by Coleman Barks


My worst habit is I get so tired of winter.
I become a torture to those I’m with.

If you’re not here, nothing grows.
I lack clarity.  My words
tangle and knot up.

How to cure bad water?  Send it back to the river.
How to cure bad habits?  Send me back to you. 

When water gets caught in habitual whirlpools,
dig a way out through the bottom
to the ocean.  There is a secret medicine
given only to those who hurt so hard
they can’t hope.

The hopers would feel slighted if they knew.

Look as long as you can at the friend you love,
no matter whether that friend is moving away from you
or coming back toward you.
translated by Coleman Barks

Wednesday, July 17, 2013


Last time I wrote that my first poems were cinquains (unrhymed, five-line, twenty-two-syllable poems) which my sixth-grade teacher taught us to write.  I thought I was creating fancy French-styled poems (pretty heady stuff!).  It took me a quarter of a century to discover that the cinquain is not a French invention but was conceived by an American woman named Adelaide Crapsey.

I first encountered this young woman in a book about the sanatorium at Saranac Lake in upstate New York.  Founded in 1884, it became a famous center for the open-air treatment of tuberculosis.  Robert Louis Stevenson had been a patient there in the winter of 1887 – 88 and it is where he wrote Master of Ballantrae.  Crapsey, diagnosed with tuberculosis of the brain lining, also went to Saranac for treatment.

Adelaide Crapsey’s poems (her whole poetic output, less than one hundred poems) most often speak of death and dying.  Diagnosed with fatal tuberculosis in 1911, she began writing cinquains in the same year.  These poems reflect her knowledge of her own impending death.  The form itself (the gradual increase of syllables from lines one through four, followed by the short final line) is a metaphor for the life of this young woman — a brief life, cut short.  She continued writing poetry up to the end of her life, even from her room in the sanatorium at Saranac Lake.  Not until after her death in 1914 (at the age of 33) were her poems published.

Here’s a link to an excellent article, from The Guardian, on Adelaide Crapsey and two of her cinquains:
Click here for the article.

Three of Adelaide Crapsey’s cinquains:


Keep thou
Thy tearless watch
All night but when blue-dawn
Breathes on the silver moon, then weep!
Then weep!


Still as
On windless nights
The moon-cast shadows are,
So still will be my heart when I
Am dead.

Guardian of the Treasure of Solomon
And Keeper of the Prophet’s Armour

My tent
A vapour that
The wind dispels and but
As dust before the wind am I

Wednesday, July 3, 2013


I’m often asked, when did you begin to write poetry?

I started writing poetry in elementary school when my teacher announced to our sixth-grade class that her students would begin to compose poems.  All of us eleven-year-old were skeptical.

This wonderful teacher showed us how to create a cinquain, an unrhymed, five-line, twenty-two-syllable poem.  The form begins with a two-syllable first line (with four syllables for the second, six for the third, eight for the fourth and back to two syllables in the final line).  We counted; we wrote.  We tried to keep our language spare: to capture a moment, an image or a single emotion.  (I went more for a description of a place.)

I knew that cinq means five in French and truly believed I was creating a poem in a French poetic style, or form.  This was mind-boggling stuff (me — writing a poem in a French mode!), and very seductive.

It took me many (many) years to find out that the cinquain is actually an American, not French, invention — and devised by a woman.

Here's how to write this popular, and simple, form: you can use syllables (2, 4, 6, 8, 2) or, at its easiest, words:

The first line (frequently the same as the title) is 1 word.
The second line uses 2 adjectives (often describing the     title).
The third line contains 3 words, usually gerunds (ending in “ing”) that show action and/or tell the reader more about the poem’s subject.
The fourth line has 4 words that can show emotions about the subject and may be individual words or a phrase — or they may make a complete sentence.
The fifth, and last, line is 1 word that’s a synonym of the title or similar to it.

Try you hand at this delightful poetic form.