The Soul of Rumi
by Judie Najarian
“These poems need to be released from their cages.” That is what American poet Robert Bly told University of Georgia professor and poet Coleman Barks in 1976, when he handed him translations of the Sufi poet and mystic, Jalaluddin Rumi.
And so began a friendship, carried on through a deep and continuing conversation between these two poets: one a contemporary American, the other a Persian, born in the country now known as Afghanistan in the 13th Century. Professor Barks freed these ancient poems from their confines with intuitive, clarifying understanding, and with the unspoken intimacy that only true friends encounter.
Barks tells us that Rumi understood the nature of our human longings -- each torment, each delight. He understood loss and love and the powerful effect that each brings to bear on our lives. You can feel his words now, as he tells us there is ...
The poems can touch our spirit and yet, Barks says, “Rumi’s poetry is God’s funny family talking on a big open radio line.” Rumi does have a wonderful sense of humor though, on a deeper, more spiritual level. His poems speak to the heart and mind of the common man and the common woman and of everyday living. They tell of his wisdom and passion, his understanding of the mystery of life and the never-ending search for the Divine.
Coleman Barks hears Rumi. One can almost imagine two young boys plugged into one another with a couple of imaginary paper cups connected by a string. Their communication seems almost telepathic, though centuries apart.
In freeing Rumi’s poetry, Barks gives readers in search of enlightenment a source that is both honest and unabashed about what it means to be mortal. Touching on many themes, Barks’ book “The Soul of Rumi,” is a collection of these long ago discovered truths. Some of the poems convey a raw reality, the sufferings of mankind. The real life, everyday experiences and yearnings of Rumi’s contemporaries from the 13th Century read the same way today, over 800 years later!
Barks himself is a study in contrast to what we would imagine of his old Persian friend. Barks’ southern Georgia drawl is unexpected when he reads for an audience, yet there is something of the foreign mystic about him as well. His eyes twinkle, as if his mind is on a dual track, one performing and the other remembering something funny said by his friend.
In honor of an old green shawl given to Rumi by his best friend, Shams of Tabriz, Barks also wears a green shawl when he reads for a gathering. It covers his rumpled exterior; the professor is a tall man who dresses casually and looks something like an unmade bed. Barks’ ”bed-self” is one where you know you could rest awhile and learn about life as Barks, the storyteller, like Sherazade, reveals a new story each night, until the stories morph into the dreams of one adrift in the pure pleasure of sleep.
But Rumi says, stay awake:
An energy flows from the communion of these two poets. Alert, aware, awake energy. If a question is asked, Rumi always has an answer, a prescription for living that tends the soul. Between Rumi, the doctor and teacher, and Barks, the interpreter, a taste of their combined wisdom brings a hunger for more. The poems heal emotional wounds and mend life force, drawing the reader into new realms of awareness and thought.
Barks has done more than just listen to his ancient friend; he has shown us how to listen as well, to help us fly from our contemporary cages. Whether speaking poetically of daily living or living life at a highly esoteric, spiritual level, he shares his own personal journey through the landscape of existence, stopping here and there to revel in what has been called “the truly divine madness.” And yes, there is a madness to life … Rumi appreciated the nuances, the complexities, the comedies and complaints. Almost a millennium ago, he was wise and intuitive and funny and oh, so human. Today, Barks has taught us through Rumi how to listen to these melodies underneath the words, the essence of thought conveyed in each poem, while Rumi’s abundant cornucopia for living brings contentment, and a peek into the Divine.
Hear these words now, as Barks speaks for his old friend …
and regular BoomerCafé contributorJudie Najarian