Coleman Barks brings Sufi mystic’s poems to Chico
Quick: Who’s the best-selling poet in America?
You’re forgiven if you don’t know the answer. Besides, it turns out the answer is a 13th-century Muslim who was born in Afghanistan. Go figure.
He was a sheikh and scholar named Jellaludin Rumi, and for the past decade or so he has had the best-selling volumes of poetry in America—in large part due to the translations of Coleman Barks, who will be in Chico this weekend to read from those books.
Rumi’s poems are an antidote to today’s notions of Islam as a stern, even militant religion. To read Rumi is to understand that Islam is more complex and diverse than most Westerners realize.
Rumi was a Muslim mystic, part of an ancient tradition known as Sufism, and his poetry is a passionate call to a direct relationship with God, whom he refers to as “the Beloved” or “the Friend.” This “divine presence” is everywhere and always available to all people, and can be sensed in the beauty of rainfall, a child sleeping or the song of a bird, and what is true for one religion is true for all.
“All of these things that are obviously beautiful outside of us also touch the beauty inside of us—that jewel-like inner presence that he activates in his poetry,” Barks told the Christian Science Monitor in 1997.
The poems are not so much about God, but rather a means of making divine contact, like prayer or meditation. That’s why Barks’ readings also include accompaning music, provided by Barry Phillips on cello and Shelley Phillips on harp and woodwinds.
“What I’m trying to do is something the Sufis call ‘sema,'” he told a reporter for the Idaho Mountain Express last year. He describes “sema” as “a deep listening to the spoken word with music, and sometimes movement is involved too, a sort of moving meditation. It’s a way of letting the words and the images go deeper into your heart where they can be of some use to you.”
Barks, a poet and former university professor, began translating Rumi in 1976, after the poet Robert Bly gave him a collection of literal translations, saying, “These poems need to be released from their cages.” Shortly afterwards he had a mysterious dream of a man sitting cross-legged near a river. A year after that he met Bawa Muhawadeen, an elderly Sufi holy man, whom he recognized as the man in his dream. He studied with Bawa for nine years, and Barks now says his translations are an outgrowth of that relationship.
As he told the Christian Science Monitor, “If I hadn’t been in his presence, I would never be able to know what Rumi’s poems are, the ways they speak to tending the soul’s growth.”
Barks doesn’t speak or read Farsi, the language in which Rumi wrote, so his work is based on academic translations. His goal, he says, is to present them in a modern, accessible style that preserves the spirit of the originals: “I don’t add imagery, I don’t try to take the words someplace they don’t want to go. What I’m after is a little bit of the rapture, the feeling of the ecstatic he talked about.”
Apparently he’s been successful. His first book, The Essential Rumi, has sold more than 250,000 copies since it was published in 1994, and his 2001 collection The Soul of Rumi sold 26,000 hardcover copies in three months.
Some Kiss We WantThere is some kiss we want with
our whole lives, the touch of
spirit on the body. Seawater
begs the pearl to break its shell.
And the lily, how passionately
it needs some wild darling! At
night, I open the window and ask
the moon to come and press its
face against mine. Breathe into
me. Close the language-door and
open the love window. The moon
won’t use the door, only the window.