Paradoxical: earthly and spiritual, simple yet subtle, these poems of a 13th century Sufi mystic are strikingly contemporary in their spontaneous outburst of faith and disbelief, ecstatic yearning and melancholy despair. Like his predecessor Omar Khayyam, Yunus was obsessed with the transience of life and like his contemporary Rumi he sought the obliteration of self in union with the Beloved. At times he speaks in riddles, at times in moving prayer.
Edouard Roditi's translations catch the vernacular speech of this poet, first to compose in Turkish rather than the courtly Persian; his long afterword, published in Alif, journal of the American University in Cairo, and a foreword by Güzin Dino of the Ecole des Langues Orientales of Paris, illuminate Yunus' unique place in Islamic literature.
In his native Turkey, the words of Yunus Emre are as well-known as those of that other great thirteenth century Turkish poet, Mevlana Jelaluddin Rumi. But unlike Rumi, Yunus has been virtually unknown in the West—until now.
Two great traditions of Turkish spiritual culture flow from these two men. Whereas Rumi wrote in classical Persian, Yunus wrote in Turkish—or what was the vernacular of the Turkish peasant in his day. And as the first person to write great literature in Turkish, Yunus Emre is a father of that language—a kind of Chaucer, or Shakespeare, or author of the King James Bible (or maby all three rolled into one). Out of Rumi's poetry, and out of the whirling dervish ceremony his folowers developed, came a whole tradition of classical Turkish music. The poems of Yunus Emre, on the other hand, inspired the Turkish folk tradition of esoteric hymns, or ilahee, which are sung informally in groups, or by solitary balladeers accompanying themselves on a guitar-like instrument called the saz. Where Rumi's poetry is rich in narrative imagery, Yunus' is terse and confrontative. The craft of Yunus Emre expresses itself in the rhythm and economy of his language, and how he plays with Turkish figures of speech. Thus, while Rumi provides the translator with many possibilities, it is nearly impossible to do justice to Yunus Emre in translation.
If I were to summarize the message of Yunus Emre, it would be that “suffering the discipline of love leads to the source of love.”
Roditi gives us only twenty poems. About a third of the book is taken up with a four-part essay on the “themes” in Yunus' poetry, in which Roditi displays a wide-ranging knowledge of European literature, but little acquaintance with the Sufi background of Yunus Emre.
Nevertheless, I find two virtues in this book. The first is that it is printed by letterpress, so that you can feel the type with your finger tips—a rare treat in a book nowadays! And second, there is a single poem within its covers which conveys with great eloquence a certain feeling of Yunus Emre; though the translation may not be perfect, in my opinion it justifies the publication of the entire book: