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The Soul of Rumi: A New Collection of Ecstatic Poems

Feb 3, 2009 by Phil Catalfo

There’s a reason the thirteenth-century Sufi mystic Jallaludin Rumi is the best-selling poet in America today: His words express the ineffable longing to merge with the eternal; they reach across eight centuries to speak to us, in our sullen era, and offer not just the vision but also the experience of what yoga calls union—with the Divine. And there’s a reason Coleman Barks’s Rumi translations, which have filled 15 previous books, are more popular than other renderings of these ancient words: They scratch our spiritual itch better than the others do, getting under the skin of our longing by making Rumi’s raptures accessible in language at once ordinary and lyrical. Now Barks has translated and issued a massive collection of previously unpublished Rumi translations, The Soul of Rumi, that should provide enough scratching to satisfy any Rumi enthusiast. The 400-plus-page volume contains hundreds of short-to-medium-length poems plus an excerpt from Rumi’s final opus, the Masnavi, a 64,000-line work to which he devoted the last dozen years of his life and which, Barks notes, “has no parallel in world literature.” Barks’s historical, literary, and personal commentaries illuminate the background and impact (for him as well as for us) of the poetry. But naturally the ultimate value of the collection rests with the poems themselves. At times, and particularly for the uninitiated, Rumi’s verses can read like the ravings of a psychotic, but in Barks’s hands, Rumi’s revelations flow effortlessly forth, his leaps of imagery and intrepid ventures into earthy or revolting circumstances always moving us closer to the object of our hearts’ desire. Rumi’s repeated and rapturous odes to the Beloved—engendered by his profound love for his mystic friend Shams but ultimately referring to God—infuse the spiritual quest with a companionship that makes it seem less lonely and more like an immortal love affair. “There is a with-ness in Rumi’s sense of soul,” Barks notes, “a friendship; as in a spiraling cone the periphery stays with the center it began from.” This too is a tonic for the contemporary soul. And if that weren’t enough, the historical resonance of the fact that Rumi, who founded the “whirling dervish” order of Sufism, was born in modern-day Afghanistan gives his words a geopolitical relevance seldom afforded mystic poets.

But Rumi’s appeal is universal. He certainly makes sense to modern yogis; as Barks says, “Ramana Maharshi and Rumi would agree: the joy of being human is in uncovering the core we already are, the treasure buried in the ruin.” Yet Rumi wouldn’t be content to appeal to just one type of audience. In one memorable couplet, he says plainly, “What was said to the rose that made it open was said / to me here in my chest.” The marvel of Rumi is that the voice that speaks to the rose speaks through him to us.