The Drop That Became the Sea: Lyric Poems of Yunus Emre
By Yunus Emre.
Translated by Kabir Helminski and Refik Algan
Publisher: Putney, VT: Threshold Books, 1989.
Little is known with certainty about the Turkish Sufi poet Yunus Emre (c. 1238 – 1320 CE). According to legend, he was an illiterate peasant from the Konya region. It is said that during a famine, he went to a Sufi Master only to ask for some wheat. The Master replied, “Do you want wheat or divine blessing?” Yunus insisted that he wanted wheat. The Master repeated the question; Yunus repeated his answer. Only after three repetitions did Yunus awake to the idea that this divine blessing might be what he really wanted.
It is said that Yunus served his Master Taptuk Emre for many years, doing menial chores like carrying wood, before the Master “opened his lock,” at which point he began to compose and sing the vibrant, ecstatic poetry and sacred hymns for which he is known today. Unlike the well-educated Sufis of his day, who wrote in Persian or Arabic, he composed in his own local language, Turkish, and his poems have a raw, unrefined simplicity, almost conversational in tone. A contemporary of Jelaluddin Rumi, Yunus is said to have met with Rumi at least once. One oft-repeated story of such a meeting is:
Yunus had become acquainted with the six books of Rumi’s masterpiece, the Mathnawi, and he was asked what he thought of it. “It’s a little long. I would have written it differently.” “Oh? How so?” Jelaluddin asked. “I would have written: I came from eternity, clothed myself in skin and bones, and called myself ‘Yunus’.”
The Drop That Became the Sea offers a particularly accessible introduction to the poetry of Yunus Emre. Translators Refik Algan and Kabir Helminski have selected some of Yunus’s most lyrical verses and organized these selections into five sections: The Dervish Way, The Way of Love, Necessary Lessons, Presence and Unity, and Life and Death. As the translators note, “Yunus’s songs are a natural outpouring of his state of being, that which he could not hold back from us.” In keeping with the feeling of this spontaneous outpouring, their English translations are in a free verse form, using simple and informal language. Each poem is cited to the place it appears in the Golpinarli text, which is credited as the most authentic collection of Yunus Emre’s poems.
Yunus often structures a poem around the repetition of a simple phrase, as in the following poem where the repeated “glory be to God” echoes through a song of praise and gratitude to Yunus’s teacher Taptuk Emre:
The drink sent down from Truth,
We drank it, glory be to God.
And we sailed over the Ocean of Power,
glory be to God …
We became servants at Taptuk’s door.
Poor Yunus, raw and tasteless,
Finally got cooked, glory be to God.
Emre’s awe of and gratitude to his teacher is a constant theme. He uses many vivid images to capture it.
I was a dead tree fallen onto the path,
when a master threw me a glance
and brought me to life.
He describes himself as a nightingale in the garden of his teacher:
I’m a little drunk from the Friendship….
He is my teacher. I am His servant.
I am a nightingale in His garden.
I’ve come to the Teacher’s garden
to be happy and die singing….
I’ve come to know a Teacher
and to show myself as I am.
Many of his poems centre on the intensity of love:
Oh Friend, when I began to love You,
my intellect went and left me.
I gazed at the rivers. I dove into the seas.
But a spark of Love’s fire
can make the seas boil.
I fell in, caught fire, and burned.
He sings of the power of love to baffle – and thus humble – even the most arrogant:
How strange I feel under the hand of this love.
I can’t see my way, under the hand of this love.
Once I was the crown of the universe.
Now I’m dirt to walk on, under the hand of this love….
What can I do when I’m so far from Union?
My back is bent, under the hand of this love.
Now, nearly seven centuries after Yunus’s death, his poetry remains popular and influential in Turkish culture. As Helminski points out, “His songs are quoted by peasants and scholars, shaikhs and diplomats, the old and the young.” Today, Yunus is generally recognized as “both the beginning and the highest achievement” of the Turkish poetic tradition.
Readers who want to see a more literal, line-by-line translation of Yunus’s poems might read Grace Martin Smith’s translations in The Poetry of Yunus Emre, A Turkish Sufi Poet (University of California Press, 1993; ISBN 0-520-09781-5). Smith’s extensive introduction provides useful historical background, as well as an analysis of the principal themes in Yunus’s poetry. Her translations try to adhere closely to the original text.
For example, she marks any word she inserts to clarify meaning:
If I were to start out without You, I could not take a step. You are
the strength in my body [that allows me] to raise my head
Where she is unsure of the meaning, she inserts a question mark. For example:
The door of God’s bridal chamber (?) is open for His friends. If you
want to be His friend, read a lesson from the friends.
Whether in Smith’s literal translations or in Helminski’s and Algan’s more lyrical ones, Yunus Emre’s message rings out clearly: the essence of the spiritual path is love. In Smith’s translation,
Love for You took me from myself; it is You I need, You.
I burn for You both night and day; it is You I need, You …
If they should kill me and fling my ashes to the sky,
my dust would cry there, “It is You I need, You.”
Yunus Emre is my name; my fire increases day by day.
In the two worlds my goal is this: it is You I need, You.
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