The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Craftsmanship and Emptiness” consists of a relatively few lines (lines 1369-1420 of book 5) from Jall al-Dn Rm’s enormous work Mathnawi. The Persian title Mathnawi refers to the verse form used (rhyming couplets) and came to mean an extensive didactic work that could include a variety of tales and other material. Rm’s Mathnawi, left unfinished at his death, includes stories from the Qur’an (Koran) and Islamic tradition, folk stories, and anecdotes. Even though its intent is serious, his Mathnawi is funny and even bawdy at times. Written mostly in Persian, the book also includes passages in Arabic, Turkish, and even Greek. Traditionally, it is referred to as the “Qur’an in Persian,” an indication of its high status. The title “Craftsmanship and Emptiness” is not Rm’s, but was added by the translators. This translation makes no effort to reproduce the rhyming couplet form of the original but instead is rendered in free verse.

Rm is speaking to the reader in this poem; the relation is one of a spiritual teacher instructing a disciple. The poem moves associatively from one topic to another closely related topic. Its several sections illustrate the value of emptiness. Rm begins by reminding his audience of a topic he has spoken of before—emptiness as an opportunity for the craftsman to practice his craft. He lists examples that would be part of the original audience’s everyday experience. In the...

(The entire section is 525 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The comments in this section refer to Coleman Barks’s translation (as collected in Rm: One-Handed Basket Weaving, Poems on the Theme of Work, 1991, and The Essential Rm, 1995). Other translators of Rm have used very different styles. For example, Reynold A. Nicholson, who edited, translated, and commented on the entire Mathnawi (1925-1940), translated each couplet into a prose line, as in these lines: “Even such is the seeker at the court of God: when God comes, the seeker is naughted/ Although union with God is life on life, yet at first that life consists in dying to self” (Tales of Mystic Meaning, 1931, reprint 1995).

Barks used free verse divided into twenty-five verse paragraphs of varying length. Free verse allows Barks to focus on the meaning of Rm’s verses and to use line breaks to provide emphasis and rhythm. Barks has translated many of Rm’s poems in this style, including material from Rm’s quatrains and ghazals (a Persian poetic form) as well as the Mathnawi. Overall, Barks’s translations have the effect of direct and colloquial speech. This effect, combined with Rm’s pungent stories and metaphors, accounts for the popularity of Barks’s renderings.

The style Barks uses does not call attention to itself—there is no rhyme, no noticeable alliteration, and no strong rhythms. The sentences are worded directly and vigorously, with no unusual word choices. Sentence structures...

(The entire section is 581 words.)