« Back to News

Translating Ecstasy: Coleman Barks on Rumi with a Side of Curry

Dec 14, 2009 by Margaret Doyle

Coleman Barks, preeminent translator of the 13th-century mystic poet Rumi, squirms audibly at the suggestion that he may be a prophet. He says only, “I can write and recognize poetry when I hear it.” He describes a prophet as “someone through whom some revelation can come — and anyone can. I have met people who have more of the light of God in them than us normal people, but I’m not one of them.”

Barks continues to describe himself: “I’m a tremendous doubter.” Further, he says that his greatest inspiration has been his encounters with a holy man, first in a dream, and then in Philadelphia; that his practice of communal spiritual worship features going for lattés and driving his convertible; that he is most authentically himself when writing poetry or playing with his grandchildren; and that his idea of a perfect day is one spent working outdoors and working with words. Coleman Barks may participate in a conference diagonally across America from where he lives, but he says, “There’s something always in me that’s waiting until all this public stuff is over so that I can get back home to that place of writing and working in the dirt.”

The message Barks conveys is of Rumi’s ecstatic poetry, which, as Barks said to Bill Moyers, PBS journalist, is "trying to get us to feel the vastness of our true identity … like the sense you might get walking into a cathedral … what Jesus referred to when he said, ‘The kingdom of God is within you.’ "

Barks gave a precise definition of ecstasy in that Moyers interview: “each moment [is] solid and actual, yet numinous, shot through with divine light and guidance.” He also gave a telling anecdotal definition of ecstasy when I asked him more recently to define it: "I was with my granddaughter, going around the yard lifting up stones to see what was there — there’s always something good, something interesting — and a woman walking by on the street just turned her head and said, ‘You’re going to spoil her.’ This universe is just so incredible that we’re all spoiled, and it’s okay. Rumi said, ‘The eye is meant to see things; the soul is here for its own joy.’ "

Rumi’s poetry and Barks’ lifework express ecstasy with an openness, whimsy, and practicality that make the everyday resonate with the sacred; that make the everyday holy. So how does one train to be a poet in the ecstatic form? Barks taught his students, “You may as well tell as much truth as you know in poetry, because nobody makes any money off it … and then I turned out to be a liar!” referring to the royalties he receives from his translations of Rumi.

Beyond writing the truth and the consequences be damned, here’s the curve of wisdom à la Barks: He started out the son of a private school headmaster; as a 12-year old child he began and maintained a notebook collection of words and images. As a high school student, he wrote short stories; in his pursuit of a Ph.D., he persisted in writing poetry “that I was bound upon writing” instead of the required term papers. His first job followed an interview in which he was asked, “Are you a poet or a writer?” and he answered, “I’m a poet.”

With the birth of his first child, he forsook trips to mountaintops and an opportunity to ship out overseas so that he could support his family with a teaching position. But “it wasn’t training in poetry.” Barks describes his real training as a poet: “You get trained by other people whose writing you love.”

Barks says his teaching career “gave me a reliable income and a lot of time off to write in the summers … that was my way of solving the practical problem of how to get time to write. Maybe I sold my soul, but who knows how these things work out. But never in my training was the name Rumi mentioned.”

Harper published Coleman Barks’ first book of poetry, The Juice, in 1972. In 1976, Robert Bly, who said, “I think writing poetry is a matter of agreeing that you have these two people inside: everyday you set aside time to be with the subtle person who has funny little ideas,” introduced Barks to the work of Rumi.

Jalal Al-Din Rumi, born in 1207, was the founder of the Sufism, an openhearted exploration of unity. Rumi fled from Mongol-ridden Afghanistan to come to Turkey, where he lived and taught until his death in 1273. Rumi’s words offer an all-encompassing spirituality relevant to our times: being present in the moment, finding the holiness in laughter.

Coleman Barks describes his own practice of spirituality, his worship services: "I go for lattés and I go riding in my ’72 Dodge convertible. Everything is church, isn’t it? I love to sing old hymns … I used to go to old singings in the mountains of North Carolina.

“I wouldn’t say I was anything: I am everything! Why not a Hindu? I love the dancing Shiva. Surely St. Francis and Buddha Dharma would get along fine. They wouldn’t have an argument. They would laugh a lot, and laughter’s pretty holy to me. I think it’s right at the core of where you lose your boundaries — and some absorption in work that you love. I like to work with stone. I buy these big pallets of stone and they just disappear.

“Rumi was without boundaries. He would say that love is the religion and the universe is the book, that experience as we’re living it is the sacred text that we study, so that puts us all in the same God club.”

Huston Smith, author of The World’s Religions, said, “If Rumi is the most-read poet in America today, Coleman Barks is in good part responsible. His ear for the truly divine madness in Rumi’s poetry is truly remarkable.” What qualifies Barks to translate Rumi? Barks observes, "I’ve always had this contact with the ecstatic part of myself. I’ve always felt lucky, like this life is really fortunate for me. It seems a lot of grace has come to me.

“Sometimes in April, when the sun was going down [with] that gold light, I would just lie on the floor and hug myself. I grew up in a family where that was okay, and anybody could break into song at any moment, or dance, or whatever, and that’s a great help to the ecstatic vision.”

Barks claims his greatest inspiration came to him first in a dream on May 2, 1977 (“my only holy day”) when a Sufi holy man came to Barks and expressed his love, and Barks expressed his love in return and saw the entire scene as “drenched with the dew of love.” Later, Barks was introduced to this person in real life and spent many hours learning from him.

“That felt like the beginning, although I’d already started working on the [Rumi] poems. I don’t know that I’d believe it in anybody else, but I can’t not believe it when it happens to me! He taught me things in dreams like taking tiny, tiny little sips; he said, ‘You want wisdom too quickly.’ "

Rumi’s words, an “expression of praise and grief and gratitude and play,” says Barks, were written down by scribes, and were passed down in oral tradition. But Rumi’s eminence in the Persian world was such that for centuries, Persian culture included word games where one line of Rumi was spoken as a challenge for the next player to respond with another line of Rumi’s poetry, beginning with the word which ended the first line of verse.

Today, The Essential Rumi, translated by Barks, is among Book Sense’s top-selling poetry books, along with books of poetry by the Irish Nobel Prize-winning Seamus Heaney, American Poet Laureate Pinsky, Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winner Mary Oliver, and pop singer Jewel. The Soul of Rumi, new translations by Coleman Barks, is due to be published in September 2001 by HarperSanFrancisco.

Barks feels that poetry has a “social function to remind us of our deep self and a core of joy and grief; [it helps] us live in that place rather than in some other less deep place. I love the Cherokee greeting; in the morning, they greet each other and say, ‘How deep is your well?’ Sometimes their well’s not very deep, and sometimes it is, and poetry puts you in that place where it goes down to the water table.”

Coleman Barks has performed Rumi’s work along with musicians such as the Paul Winter Consort and “CelloMan” Eugene Friesen and with dancer Zuleikha. “I love to have poetry along with music and movement and even cooking. It’s good to have a lot of different art forms going at once, because they deepen each other … to go into the heart. These are all the tastes and fragrances that Rumi talks about in knowing the divine … The written page has become so lonely. I like to bring back a cello near the page, and, if I can, a little curry.”