15 March 2005
Persian Poet Rumi Conquers America
Translator Coleman Barks travels to Rumi's homeland
By Steve Holgate
Washington – He is the most popular poet in the United States. Barely known here only a decade ago, classes on his work have sprouted up on university campuses throughout the country. Community lectures and public readings of his poetry are announced in the cultural sections of newspapers in virtually every major American city. In perhaps the ultimate measure of his celebrity, a group of movie stars and singers has made a recording of his poems.
Who is this paragon? Has the United States produced another celebrative poet like Walt Whitman, to sing America’s song? Another Robert Frost, the flinty New Englander, to speak to the half-realized yearnings of our souls?
In fact, this poet is not an American at all. Nor can Americans hope to see him in a local lecture hall or on the television chat circuit; he has been dead for more than 700 years. And, if his name has been familiar in the United States for only a short time, Iranians have held him close to their collective heart for centuries. His name is Jelaluddin Balkhi, better known in the United States simply as Rumi.
The dimensions of Rumi-mania in the United States, if not exactly on the scale of what, say, Beatle-mania was at one time, are nevertheless impressive. Over the last 10 years, say several sources, Rumi has sold more volumes than any other poet in the United States. An Internet search of his name results in more than 800,000 citations. Rumi calendars, coffee mugs, even T-shirts have appeared on college campuses and in bookshops around the country.
Yet, despite these hallmarks of typical pop-culture celebrity, it would be wrong to trivialize Rumi’s success in the United States or to think that his words, though grounded in Islamic tradition, do not address the needs and concerns of many Americans.
Phyllis Tickle, an editor with the American periodical Publisher’s Weekly, says that Rumi’s popularity in the United States “is a matter of our enormous spiritual hunger.” Coleman Barks, the Tennessee-born poet, whose translations of Rumi have been the greatest factor in the poet’s popularity in the United States, speaks in a similar vein when he says that the religiously ecstatic nature of Rumi’s poetry resonates in Americans seeking this very quality. Rumi’s poetic question, “Where do I come from and what am I supposed to be doing?” speaks to countless Americans who have a strong spiritual sense.
Since the attacks of September 11, 2001, a number of commentators have also made the point that Rumi has served as an important bridge between Americans and Islam. Many would agree with the German poet Hans Meinke, who said that Rumi’s poetry is “the only hope for the dark times in which we live.”
No one has been more instrumental in Americans’ increasing awareness of Rumi than his leading American translator. James Fadiman, an American scholar, has said, “The secret of Rumi’s popularity in the United States is Coleman Barks.” The publication of Barks’ 1995 volume, The Essential Rumi, more than any other event, sparked America’s interest in the great Persian-language poet.
In a recent interview, Barks indicated that his mission to translate the works of Rumi began in an unlikely way. “I had never heard of him,” he says, before the noted American writer, Robert Bly, handed him a volume of Rumi’s poetry in 1976, written in a leaden, academic translation – its only English translation at the time – and said to Barks, “These poems need to be released from their cages.”
Barks, who lives in Athens, Georgia, soon went to work. “I made a free verse version in modern English,” he says, believing that this form “is our strongest tradition.” Though this method of translation is unorthodox, Barks says that he works hard “to stay true to Rumi’s images, and, I hope, his spirit.” He adds, “There’s a musicality that is so dense – but I cannot do anything to transmit that. I listen for the pulse that comes through (the verses) and try to follow it, to get out of its way” and let it sing.
For seven years Barks worked on his translations, with little thought of publishing. Eventually, he sent the work to the American publisher, HarperCollins, which published an initial volume of Rumi. The unexpected success of this volume led to the extraordinarily popular The Essential Rumi and several other more recent titles by Barks. Together, these books have sold more than 500,000 copies, a huge popular success for a poet.
A poet and former literature professor, Barks speaks with enthusiasm and a sense of wonder when discussing the work of the great 13th century poet. “It is poetry written by another part of the human psyche,” he says, “not the personality,” but something beyond it, transcendent. “He has a theology of laughter,” says Barks, citing Rumi’s Sufic tradition, adding that, in Rumi’s view, “it may be that God is the impulse to laugh. … Just to be in a body and sentient is a great joy,” and that “he was talking of the core of the religious impulse, which is to praise – and maybe to laugh.”
The potential for Rumi’s works to bridge the gap between Americans and Muslims is not lost on Barks. “[Americans] are blind to a lot of things in the Islamic world. One of these things is Rumi. We don’t fully understand the beauty of Rumi.” He hopes, through these translations, to facilitate understanding, to “become an empty doorway” through which Rumi’s poetry can enter, “to submit,” he says, understanding that this willingness to submit is the very essence of Islam.
This desire to bridge the gaps in understanding between Islam and America will soon take Barks to places he probably would not have dreamed of when he began his translations. Later this month, he will travel to Afghanistan, the country of Rumi’s birth, to read Rumi’s poetry as part of a cultural program jointly arranged by the Afghan Ministry of Culture and the United States Department of State. While in Afghanistan he will visit a number of cities, including Balkh, the city of Rumi’s birth. “Someone will read the poems in Farsi, and I’ll read them in English, and there will be music,” he says, communicating a happy anticipation of his trip. Barks also looks forward to meeting with members of an Islamic group called The Fools of God, who share Rumi’s ecstatic tradition. When asked exactly who the Fools of God are, Barks laughs, “I don’t know exactly, but I’m going to find out.” He adds, “I’m really looking forward to it. I’m really grateful.”
This sense of curiosity and joy, a desire to experience and understand, are characteristic both of Rumi and of Coleman Barks, and are now drawing together two disparate people with common spiritual yearnings.
(The Washington File is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov)