Saturday, March 31, 2007
Appearing at the Palace of Fine Arts April 5th and 6th is American poet Coleman Barks, the West’s greatest translator of Sufi poet Rumi — an ecstatic writer and theologian born in Iran in 1207.
In 1976, Robert Bly introduced Barks to metered, scholarly translations of Rumi, telling him, “These poems need to be released from their cages,” meaning, they needed translation for modern Americans.
To shocking success and featured on a Bill Moyers PBS special in 1995, Barks presented Rumi in American-style free verse — “our strongest poetic tradition,” says Barks — in *The Essential Rumi*. “There were piles of them in the airport in San Francisco. It was a bestseller, but they had no place to put it because there is no poetry bestseller list. So they just put it in nonfiction,” Barks told us.
Ten years later, thanks to Barks’ subsequent Rumi translations like *The Book of Love* in 2003, the ancient mystic from Iran remains one of the best-loved poets in the United States.
In advance of his local appearance, the former professor of literature at the University of Georgia spoke to us in his gentle Southern twang about Rumi’s appeal in America, his own time in Iran and Berkeley and his live appearance at the Palace of Fine Arts.
What are Rumi’s major themes?
He’s very much in the body and enjoying incarnation. He says that just being in the body, and sentient, is a cause for rapture. In other words, it’s the wisdom that a lot of children know. The story about him is that he heard the hammering in the goldsmith shop, where they were making gold leaves out of gold bars. He heard a music inside of it and he started turning in that moving meditation that he originated: the turn, the swirling dervish.
They say he turned for 36 hours and then he fell. It’s a kind of joy that’s in harmony with the turning of the galaxies and the solar system and the molecules. He also feels a kind of grief. He feels that he doesn’t want to be here, really. He wants to be somewhere else. He says, “I want to go back.” And of course that’s an Islamic theme — that we’re all returning to something. To the divine. So, he has this joy and also this ecstatic grief in him that maybe we [as Americans] would know because we’ve heard the poetry of Emily Dickenson, who was deep into the ecstasy of grief.
I would say Rumi was from a mystical tradition. You say “ecstatic.” People use these words interchangeably. What does mystical means to you?
It’s the sense that we’re living in a sacred universe, which means that everything has value — tremendous value. Every action, every object. There is a vast interconnectedness that the Mystic feels, a current of electricity coming through consciousness. Each consciousness is connected to each other with mystical awareness. I’d say a sense of interconnectedness, which all is about love, about living in the excitement that occurs when you are in love.
That too, but it isn’t so exclusive as that. It’s more dissolving of boundaries, which is what Rumi’s place in world religions is. He didn’t think that the designations of Christian, Jew, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu and Shamanist were important ways to divide up human beings. He said that in the 13th century, and that’s a wild thing to say with The Crusades coming across.
Somehow, he said it with such authority and such gentleness, that they did not kill him.
When The Essential Rumi came out, you said it was in the airports. The best poets in the business don’t have their books in airports. How can you explain this phenomenon?
One theory is that the ecstatic material was expunged from Western civilization from the First Council of Nicaea in 325 AD, where they took out the parts of the New Testament where Jesus was dancing and the parts where he was so fond of Mary Magdalene.
The Rumi material, at least this is what Robert Bly thinks of it, is restoring this ecstatic feeling to our culture — that just being in the body is a source of joy.
It’s what Whitman did for us, too. This is doing it another way, in a new idiom for this time. It’s kind of a phenomenon, in all of the world, actually.
There are translators [now] in France. Of course, he has always been well known in the Muslim world and in India and Indonesia. From North Africa through Malaysia, he is known as a kind of Shakespeare. They have him memorized in Afghanistan and in Iran.
And you’ve been to Iran.
I walked into a room in Harat, in western Iran, and it said, “Harat Literary Association.” It was the toughest audience I had ever faced. Unbelievable. But they seemed to approve of me. And they asked me about one American poet that you would never guess. They said, “What do you think of Charles Bukowski?” And I said, “I love him.” And they said, “He translates really well into Farsi.”
You have an honorary degree from the University of Tehran. What’s your opinion about Bush’s posturing and aggression toward Iran right now?
I got this degree in May of 2006. It was wonderful. They are a tremendously well-educated culture. We had a dinner on the mountainside of Tehran with lots of writers. It was very European. They are wonderfully well-read and hilarious, really. It is unthinkable to attack these people.
Tell me about your time at UC-Berkeley.
Oh gosh, it was 1959 to 1961. I got a Masters there in English. Back then, everybody was sitting in coffeehouses and writing poems. And they hadn’t been doing that in [my hometown of] Chattanooga, so I felt like I had come home when I lived in Berkeley.
I had the most lively teachers, wonderful Chaucerian scholars.
You’ll be in concert in San Francisco in April.
We’ll be at the Palace of Fine Arts for two nights doing Rumi and other mystics. This will be with David Darling on the cello — he’s a magnificent improvisational cellist, and Glen Velez who’s generally acknowledged as the world’s greatest hand drummer. And dancers.
And SF Kirtan hero Jai Uttal and other SF artists will join us on Friday night, April 6th.
All of Rumi’s poems were spoken with music, and sometimes with movement. So the art of spoken word poetry is reunited with music and dance. We’re trying to get that tradition back together, and let the arts help each other out.