In 1976, poet Robert Bly handed some of A. J. Arberry's translations of the Sufi mystical poet Rumi to Coleman Barks with the words: "These poems need to be released from their cages." Barks, who taught English and creative writing at the University of Georgia for many years, was later told by his teacher, the Sri Lankan saint Bawa Muhaiyaddeen in Philadelphia, that he should continue this important work.
With passion, discipline, imagination, and playfulness, Coleman Barks has mined the heights and the depths of Rumi's mystical poetry for more than 25 years. And we are the fortunate beneficiaries of this labor of love. It should also be said that Barks has been extremely generous to those, including us, who have wanted to use his Rumi translations in their own books.
Although Rumi's poetry grows out of the rich and robust soil of Sufism, it speaks to the hearts and minds of people of all religions and spiritual paths. Barks hopes that his translations, which some scholars might call "renditions" since he does not work from the Farsi, are "faithful to the original impulse in Rumi and that they bring across some of its power and fragrance." He also states: "It's good to have many translators wandering the mountain range of Rumi's poetry."
Throughout this volume of what he calls Rumi's "enlightened-master poetry," Barks intersperses his own personal observations on the meaning and mystery of it all. He talks about common motifs initiation, the banquet, water imagery, expressions of grief and praise, emptiness, renunciation, and more. He relates anecdotes from his own experience that demonstrate how one can relate to this imagery.
"There's a shredding that's really a healing . . . "
Near the end of the book, Barks surmises: "I don't know why Rumi is so popular in the West now, but I feel it has to do with soul. Robert Bly guesses that since the ecstatic material was expunged early on from the Christian canon, Rumi is filling that need. I can only hope that American culture is beginning to assimilate Rumi's great opening heart, his playfulness, his tremendous grief, and the courage he has to live in pure absence."
Both Barks and Bly are right on target with their assessments of Rumi's connection with modern men, women, and youth. This superb collection of ecstatic poetry calls us to soul-making, the inner work that is the essence of our mission on Earth. While the ego struts around the room seeking attention and applause, Rumi points out another way of being: "When you do things from your soul, you feel a river / moving in you, a joy" ("Moving Water"). For him, the soul is purified through grief, pain, and struggle three challenges we in the West have trouble accepting as pathways of Spirit. "Hold on to your particular pain. / That too can take you to God." And again in a poem titled "The Battered Saucepan," Rumi proclaims: "There's a shredding that's really / a healing, that makes you more alive!"
"In every gathering, in any chance meeting . . . there is an elegance rising up."
Barks sees annihilation and resurrection as two motions of mystical life that are used again and again in the poet's understanding of the spiritual path. Rumi also emphasizes the importance of silence ("Be silent and don't try to add up what's been / given. An unaccountable grace has come to you" ("Joseph"). Thankfulness is another spiritual practice Rumi cherishes ("Always add the gratitude / clause, if God wills. Then / proceed" ("Inshallah"). And then there is the repeated emphasis upon being open to grace: "In every gathering, in any chance / meeting on the street, there is a / shine, an elegance rising up" ("Any Chance Meeting"). Love, of course, is what puts Rumi in a swoon, and the Friend or the Beloved holds everything together.
We were especially impressed with all the references to the saints of many different religious traditions. Rumi affirms Solomon's practice of building a far mosque, Moses' leadership abilities, Noah's persistent attempts to help people change, Joseph's arrival with "spirit wine," Mary's leap into the divine presence, and Jesus' wisdom. All of these exemplars of faith remind us: "Don't miss your own splendor."
The final section of this prodigious collection is from the Masnavi, the 64,000 lines of poetry comprising six books. Rumi composed this vast outpouring during the last twelve years of his life. Barks calls these selections from Book IV "a self-interpreting, visionary, sometimes humorous commentary on the health of the soul and on Qur'anic passages." He also compares the spirit of the poem to medieval fabliaux.
Here Rumi brings us face to face with our animal potencies, the shadow sides of our lives that we try to keep hidden from others: bodily functions, sexual adventures, and other ribald material. As Barks puts it: "The escapades always make a point about the quality of the cruder energies and their potential for transformation." Rumi also makes it clear that jokes have their place in the spiritual life: "A joke is a teaching. Don't / be distracted by its lightness or the vulgarity. Jokes are / profound." No wonder one of the images of the world put forward is a bathhouse!
At one point in this long, meandering poem, Rumi says: "Reader! Did you think that you could / read these Masnavi words / for free? You must give something back! This mystery does / not come easily; it's more like / a lover with a veil, or a difficult text."
So what can we give back?
- We can, in the words of Jim Morrison of the Doors, "turn in our credentials to the House of Detention."
- We can be silent in the enchanted mosque in our chests.
- We can be grateful for all the blessings that abound in our lives.
- We can ponder the beauty of the unsayable.
- We can honor pain, grief, and suffering as avenues of soul growth.
- We can keep our hearts open to all people, excluding no one.
- We can acknowledge and celebrate the Radiance of God.