Poet follows his own muse in translating Sufi mystic
His Rumi books are surprising best-sellers

By Jonathan Curiel, San Francisco Chronicle Staff Writer
Published April 4, 2002

Born in what is now Afghanistan, the poet Jalaluddin Rumi was reviled by the Taliban because of his poems about love, sex, nature, loss, longing and other subjects that the now-deposed regime considered risque or even raunchy.

"Rumi saw the world as basically ecstatic," says Coleman Barks, a poet and retired University of Georgia professor who is largely credited with popularizing Rumi in the United States. "Rumi would say that love is the religion and the universe is the book -- that the book of your life is the sacred text."

When he appears tonight in Monterey, at a benefit for orphaned Afghan children in Kabul, Barks will talk about the full arc of Rumi's life and work - - how more than 700 years after his death in Turkey, the Sufi mystic has become the best-selling poet in the United States, inspiring publishers to rush out new books, cards, calendars, CDs and videos that feature stanzas such as this one:

There is no early and late for us.

The only way to measure a lover

is by the grandeur of the beloved.

Make no mistake: Rumi was a devout Muslim who spoke devotionally about religion. The Arabic acknowledgment that God is everything ("La'ilaha il'Allahu") is often recited with Rumi's poetry, though Barks de-emphasizes Rumi's religious references in his books. For example, Barks says he rewrote a Rumi line that originally read in English, "out beyond what is holy in Islam and what is not permitted in Islam" to "out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and right-doing."

"I took the Islam out of it," Barks says in a phone interview from his home in Athens, Ga. "Yeah, the fundamentalists or people who think there is one particular revelation scold me for this."

Others scold Barks for not knowing Farsi, the Persian language that Rumi worked in during his lifetime. Barks gets his material from poems that have been previously translated into English by academics who, Barks says, were "really bad poets." Barks, 64, reworks the poems into what he calls "language that is more in the tradition of American free verse of spiritual, searching poetry. We have a tradition that is known throughout the world for its elegance and delicacy and its plainspokenness."

So, are Barks' poems loyal to Rumi's original intent? Shahram Shiva, an Iranian-born-and-raised Rumi translator and performer who now lives in New York, admires Barks' books but believes they should come with a clearer label that says the poems are interpretations, not literal translations.

"There are two ways of comparing any work of literature from one culture to another -- one is literal and the other is what I call lyrical," says Shiva, who is fluent in Farsi and has published four books of Rumi poetry. "With literal translation comes a certain degree of commitment to honesty. With lyrical translation, it is open to the artist's or poet's whim. If that's understood, then it's OK that a poet takes liberties. Unfortunately, that's not (widely) understood. There are still a lot of people out there who think Coleman knows Persian."

Barks, who has studied Rumi's poetry for more than 25 years, has not tried to hide his lack of Persian, saying, "My theory is that you can't be a poet in a language that you didn't hear in the cradle. All I heard was this Southern that I'm speaking."

It is odd, at first, to hear Barks read Rumi's poetry in a Southern accent, but Barks' delivery and playfulness are infectious, and his expertise is unquestioned -- one reason Bill Moyers featured him in two PBS series about poetry, and why director Oliver Stone approached him about a film project on Rumi. Barks turned down Stone. For now, Barks is content to give readings across the country and outside it, and to rework more of Rumi's poems for future projects. Barks has published 16 volumes of Rumi poetry, including the recently released "The Soul of Rumi: A New Collection of Ecstatic Poems."

Barks is still surprised at Rumi's level of popularity, which shows no sign of cresting. Readers have bought about 500,000 copies of Barks' Rumi books and have made best-sellers out of volumes by other Rumi scholars.

"My translations of Rumi sell about 100 books a day; my own poetry sells about six books a month," Barks says, starting to laugh. "That's humbling. But that's the way it is in the poetry world."