Coleman Barks doesn't so much translate Jelaluddin Rumi as speak for him. The 13th-century theologian and poet left behind a vast body of lyric poetry, metaphysical writings, lectures and letters that have influenced Persian, Urdu and Turkish literature for centuries. He also inspired the whirling dervishes, who base their practices on Rumi, including the dancing meditation that Rumi originated.
One of the most widely read of Rumi's translators, Barks must be celebrated not merely as the man who rendered Rumi viable in a new age but as a poet himself. He brings his own sense of rhythm and language to the work.
Barks has more than 15 volumes of translations in print, which have helped make Rumi (and Barks) one of the most popular and best-selling poets in the country.
Barks said his greatest inspiration occurred on May 2, 1977, when a Sufi holy man appeared in his dream sitting inside a ball of light.
"He just raised his head with his eyes closed and his head bowed, and he said, 'I love you.' And I said, 'I love you, too.'"
Later, Barks said, he was introduced to this Sufi master in real life and spent many hours learning from him.
"I can't prove it happened but it did," he said. "He would come to me in dreams. I have a rich dream life anyway. People come to me a good deal. It's some kind of visit. I'm a real strict doubter. I religiously keep a dream notebook and compare images that occur in real life and see if they can concur. It's my own experiment. I'm interested in that dimension of awareness."
His fascination with Rumi and the beginning of his second career began in 1976 when fellow poet Robert Bly gave Barks a volume of formal poetry translated from the original Persian by A.J. Arberry. Bly told him the poems "need to be released from their cages."
"I took it out of translationese and made it into free-verse poetry in the tradition of William Carlos Williams and Walt Whitman," he said. "Rumi fits well into that tradition. My work is to translate the translations from Persian or Farsii.
"Robert Bly has a theory that the Council of Nicea 326, which expunged the ecstatic material (scenes of Jesus dancing) from the New Testament, created a longing for poetry that comes out of the ecstatic. We had Whitman and to some degree Emily Dickinson, but I think the loss is being filled now by Rumi's poetry and that we have, for a long time, wanted someone with an ecstatic vision, a mature human being."
Barks feels that translating Rumi has loosened him up.
"He's made my imagination more incandescent, more eager to make leaps," he said. "He's such a master. It's like an apprenticeship. I work on some aspect of Rumi every day."
But can he ever translate everything ever written by the prolific Rumi?
Barks said there is too much material to make that possible. He mentioned the six books and some 64,000 lines of the "Masnavi," considered Rumi's greatest poetic work, composed during the last years of his life.
Rumi had a team of scribes who followed him around, scribbling down everything he said. Barks said Rumi would revise the copies later.
"It was a spontaneous poetry fountain," he said. "We just don't know how he did this. But I don't think it's possible to write Shakespeare's plays either. They seemed to have lived at a higher pitch than us. They never looked back. They were people who had jobs and were married. They're not renunciates. They're trying to transform life."
Not only were the Sufi masters trying to enhance life, but they were also radically tolerant.
A Rumi poem that Barks quoted was:
"If you think there are important differences or divisions between Jews, Christians, Hindus, Buddhists and Muslims, then you are dividing yourself, between your heart—what you love with—and how you act in the world."
And so Rumi continues being an influence around the world.
"He is the stone singing," Barks said with a jolly laugh. "A lot of children know it, a lot of adults too, but they have to be reminded. This is a pretty good thing—what the Zen masters call the 'brilliant jewel of the universe.' It's a way of looking at the world as a kind of abundance, and of responding to it. His way was a spin of gorgeous, continuous poems."
To illustrate, he quoted a Rumi poem that the Iranian community of the United States put on a full page in The New York Times.
"Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
There is a field. I'll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass,
The world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase 'each other' doesn't make any sense."
"They put just those first two lines as a way of inviting the Americans to meet the Iranians in a place where there is no judgment," Barks said.
Pretty radical, all right.
Dana DuGan: firstname.lastname@example.org
The Poetry of Rumi
What: Presented by Sun Valley Center for the Arts and A Winter Feast for the Soul
When: 6:30-8:30 p.m. Monday, Feb. 23.
Where: Church of the Big Wood, Ketchum.
Who: Coleman Barks with cellists David Darling and Travis Job, and Whirling Dervish Hafizullah Chisti.
Tickets: $20 adults and $10 for 16 and under. Details: 726-9491.