Clippings: Everyone should read Sufi poetry

Language possesses magic.

Right now, much of its power is tuned toward harm. So much of the English language has been curled, hammered and molded around colonialism. Our stories are heavy with capitalist urgency and linear processing, our metaphors are thick with violence. The heteronormative bent of our tongues means we connect healthfully not because of, but despite, the words we speak to each other.

I don’t buy it — I’m convinced there’s more grace to be had in our speaking.

I’m a lover of this transforming being we too often do not recognize for its bold power and dynamic panache. I just think we have to tickle language back into its wild shape. By this, I do not for a moment suggest jargon, intellectual word invention. Quite the opposite. But I wonder if instead of treating our speech like broken glass — a careful, sharp, see-through thing that serves only an equally sharp, fragile mind — we could begin to feel into language not as what pulls us relentlessly out of ourselves and onto an abstract page, but as what deepens us into our bodies. Language can be an ode to sensual experience…language can be sensual experience. And joyous, sensual experience lives in direct resistance to systemic oppression.

Enter the Sufi poets: Hafez, Kabir, Rumi and several others were writing ecstatic poetry in the 13th and 14th centuries. Their writings — countless short pieces bursting with color and fervor — were written in Persian, but translations and interpretations in English by the likes of Daniel Levinsky and Robert Bly are widely available. By which I mean: please go find one.

“Do you have a body? Don’t sit on the porch!

Go out and walk in the rain!”

So writes Kabir. Further, he asks:

“Student, tell me, what is God?

He is the breath inside the breath.”


These poems are all about God, all in raucous dedication to the divine. As a very un-religious person, it took me several tries to really pick up what these makers of word magic were putting down. But they write of a divine that is not removed, not up above or stuck in some future realm; they write of a ubiquitous, mischievous divine that is dynamically seeded through everything and everyone, divine that is exulted in pleasure of the body, honored in grounded relationship with the real. This, I can get on board with.

Their words slide under my skin like honey or orange juice, too bright, too warm, delicious and surprising and sometimes almost revolutionary. Inside the wise delight is wrapped a dedication to the miracle of being a physical being in a physical world.

As a student at Middlebury College, I often find myself bedazzled and frustrated by the out-of-body-ness of academic intellectualism. But it’s not just school. So much of our culture places a far higher value on the “reasonable” than on the “sensed” or “sensual.” We are all taught how to use language with reason. But there’s no ~reason~ it can’t be mad, alive and firefly-laden. As Kabir puts it:

“I hear bells ringing that no one has shaken,

Inside ‘love’ there is more joy than we know of…

Those who hope to be reasonable about it fail.

The arrogance of reason has separated us from that love.

With the word ‘reason’ you already feel miles away.”


To truly live in our bodies, and not just as soulful minds inhabiting useless shapes, can be a whole lot harder and more uncomfortable than living up in our heads. But it can also be whole lot more joyful and filled with tangible love. Because as soon as we allow that we are physical beings in a physical world, we notice how messily entangled in relationship we are — with each other, with the pavement underfoot, with birch trees and screech owls. There’s a vastness of wild, peculiar, ordinary beauty here we have every capacity to pay attention to.

“Be strong then, and enter into your own body;

There you have a solid place for your feet.

Think about it carefully!

Don’t go off somewhere else!”


Kabir calls us into our bodies with words — words that are themselves rich with bodied presence. So it’s possible for language to speak us more deeply into the felt truth of experience.

But God and divine ecstasy might be an intimidating way in. Luckily, the Sufi poets have an unlikely follower.

Tom Robbins, author of “Still Life with Woodpecker” and “Jitterbug Perfume,” among others, studied mythology with the aforementioned Robert Bly. I doubt that most readers of Robbins’s radical, pineapple juice fiction would call his writing anything nearing “reverent”…but I would.

Robbins, as well as a very few other contemporary authors including fiction’s most recent Pulitzer Prize winner Louise Erdrich, join the Sufi poets as word-magicians of the most robust caliber in my mind. They all seem to be having the time of their lives while they’re writing.

Robbins in particular is a connoisseur of the absurd. He throws words with such caring abandon that they stick in my hair, in my teeth, crawl into my dreams and make them more colorful, stranger. They suck me so fully into the sensuous world that I cannot help but pay attention to the hilarity of simply existing — breathing, driving, cooking, making love, lacing up boots. Robbins describes wisdom and exaltation in each of these things, and so I cannot resist finding it in my own life.

And to coax out the beauty in everyday reality with words is precisely what I call reverence.

Reading Robbins, as well as reading the works of the Sufi mystics, has changed my previously literacy-and-knowledge-obsessed relationship with words into a love affair.

These days, words sneak up on me. They catch me off guard, they tease me, they lead me down paths of wildflowers, spin me around, and neglect to show me the way back. It’s a fun, topsy-turvy, often tricky relationship. But at least part of the time, it’s a relationship that returns me to physical ground instead of hyper-intellectual metanarrative.

It’s a relationship with something alive and affectatious. The stories I speak are not always right or good or saved from harm. But they breathe, they are in service to the felt reality of earthly existence instead of to a way out of it.

So play. It’s awfully funny when you think about it, how much of our lives are shaped by these sounds we make, these scribbles on paper. Words have texture and stretch. When we use the reasonable ones without thinking, we run the risk of speaking in the very cadence of continuing oppression, of reaffirming stories that separate us from the world of body and heartslick truth.

But it’s possible for words to be fun, for them to feel good on our tongues and curiously splendid between our fingers. They can be skipping stones and prayer flags and long overdue resignations to the status quo. They can be magic — of a reverent, divine sort that brings us closer to soil, to unstoppable laughter, to each other.

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