"These poems need to be released from their cages." With these words the eminent poet Robert Bly beseeched Coleman Barks, then a teacher of 20th-century American poetry, to take on the task of rescuing Rumi’s poetry from obscurity and allowing the music of this 13th century Afghan mystic to play its ancient melody for the American ear. That was in 1976. "I had never even heard Rumi’s name until then," Barks recalls, but he took on the task, working with translations from the Persian by John Moyne, A.J. Arberry and Reynold Nicholson to produce The Essential Rumi in 1995. This collection of Jelaluddin Rumi’s ecstatic outpourings, rendered in free verse, proved that the American ear was not only receptive to Rumi’s poetry, but also eager for it. Sales of The Essential Rumi exceeded 200,000 copies, subsequent translations flew off the shelves, and today, Rumi is considered by many to be the most popular poet in the United States and Barks his finest interpreter. His latest volume, Rumi: The Book of Love, comes out in time for Valentine’s Day, but contains a warning from Barks in its preface: "This is not Norman Vincent Peale urging cheerfulness, conventional morality, and soft-focus, white-light feel-good, nor is this New Age tantric energy exchange. This is giving your life to the one within you know as Lord, which is a totally private matter."
Private or not, the public seems to have an insatiable appetite for Rumi’s wisdom à la Coleman Barks’ interpretation.
Barks talked to BookPage by phone on a brisk winter night from his home in Athens, Georgia, discussing his choice of using American free verse in his translations. A notable poet in his own right (Gourdseed, Tentmaking), Barks explained, "I moved away from the densely rhymed technique of Persian poetry in the 13th century, which I felt would sound like gibberish and put Rumi more into the Whitman, Galway Kinnell genre loose, colloquial, delicate a more American style." But an instinctively prudent choice of style is not enough to account for making Barks Rumi’s foremost translator. Barks admits that "some attunement must be there" in order to do justice in a translation. Still, he is reluctant to claim any special insight, let alone a mystical connection to the poet.
"The only credential I have for working on Rumi’s poetry," Barks says humbly in his smooth Southern voice, "is my meeting with Bawa Muhaiyaddeen. That relationship is the only access I have to what is going on in Rumi’s poetry." For almost a decade, Barks visited Bawa Muhaiyaddeen, a Sufi master and Barks’ "teacher" several months each year at a fellowship in Philadelphia. "Think back to an influential teacher you had in college," he says, trying to convey Muhaiyaddeen’s impact on him. "You may not remember particular things they said about the French Revolution, but his presence, his whole delight in intellect may be the essence of what you might remember. I used to go up to my teacher and say, I don’t want to ask you a question I just want to sit here.’ It’s being in that presence it’s a grand relaxation."
There is an unmistakable resemblance between Barks’ connection with Bawa Muhaiyaddeen and Rumi’s with Shams of Tabriz, his teacher/student and Beloved Friend, with whom he converses throughout much of his poetry. Rumi is said to have recognized Shams as an enlightened being right away and the two of them spent months together in retreat. Likewise, Barks also felt an instant affinity upon meeting his Sri Lankan mentor for the first time in 1978. But what basis is there for such instant recognition? "Well, the Sufis say that’s God sweetest secret," he says, laughing gently. "The way lovers recognize each other, or the way friends do. It may be that something in us recognizes something in them something that recognizes the depth, the harmony, in another human being." His voice falls soft and serious. "It’s a great gift to find some of those people."
Meandering in a wide arc around the idea of "dialogue," Barks continued, "Rumi teaches the opening heart. Rumi says that whatever was said to the rose was said to me here in my chest. The implication being that for something to open into its own beauty and handsomeness, it has to be talked to. And so that idea of a human being as a dialogue maybe an inaudible dialogue is part of his model for what a human being is. He says we are a conversation between the one who takes bodily form and something else that is flowing through that was never born and doesn’t die. So that intersection, that conversation is what a human being is. I just love that, because it’s like we’re both parts of the synapse."
Outside the philosophical, metaphysical realm, Barks enjoys simple, down-to-earth pleasures like spending time with his grandchildren (granddaughter Briny is a budding writer), taking in a hometown parade, writing and stonework. "I’ve always wanted to blend writing and stonework," Barks admits, and now that he’s retired after more 30 years of teaching at the University of Georgia, he is able to. "My ideal day is when I go back and forth between the two. But poetry is my most faithful practice. That’s what I’m good at." He pauses for a moment, considering what gives him happiness. "You know, Rumi says just being in a form and sentient is cause for rapture. It’s what children know. I’m going to see this small town parade tonight and they all know for that moment that this is enough. Rumi feels the rapture of just being in a shape and just being here and he also feels the grief and separation of that. So there’s a double music the grief and the joy the double music of existence."
Having spent years "listening" to that double music and trying to bring it to American ears, there must be a thing or two Coleman Barks would like to say if the barriers of time and space were overcome and Rumi should suddenly materialize in front of him. He laughs at this notion and then remembers something. "I had a dream once where I saw Rumi coming in a door and everybody was so glad to see him that he disappeared into everyone. You couldn’t find him he was in everybody’s gladness to see him. So I think that’s what I’d do. Enjoy his presence." There’s a pause. "And I would apologize to him for distortions I’m bound to make of him."
Distortions, whether in spite of or because of Rumi’s philosophy that "Love is the religion and the universe is the book" might seem inevitable given today’s political climate and the vastly different cultures being asked to understand these works. "Rumi said that if you think there is an important difference between a Muslim and a Jew, a Christian and a Buddhist and all the rest, then you are making a division between your heart which you love with and how you act in the world. That’s a pretty radical thing to be saying in the 13th century and even now! I think the fact that, in Afghanistan, Rumi is the most heard poet on the radio while at the same time being probably the best-selling poet in America, shows that these two cultures meet somewhere in the heart."
Now, wouldn’t that be a valentine to the world?