Rumi 2: Meet Coleman Barks, Rumi’s leading interpreter

BIG NEWS this week for fans of Rumi!
Coleman Banks, the leading interpreter of Rumi’s verse for English-language readers, has completed his masterwork: Rumi: The Big Red Book: The Great Masterpiece Celebrating Mystical Love and Friendship

ALSO, you’ll enjoy Part 1 (Coleman describes the spiritual power of Rumi’s work and we publish one of Rumi’s poems from the new book). Today, you’ll meet Coleman Banks in Part 2, our author interview. Part 3 is a fresh look at Rumi’s tomb, a global landmark.


Coleman Barks, the leading interpreter of Rumi for English-language readers.DAVID: Rumi is called the most popular poet in America and sometimes the most popular in the English-speaking world. I know that the BBC made this declaration a few years ago, but I can’t locate the actual data on which the claim is based. What do you know about this claim?

COLEMAN: I think this was started by the Christian Science Monitor in a report some years ago. But I don’t know how you gauge such a claim. I think it’s probably true, and even if data on book sales was totaled up and he came in the third or the fifth most popular, it’s still pretty phenomenal, isn’t it? Here’s a 13th-century mystic who is selling better than Mary Oliver today. And I love Mary Oliver, but Rumi’s more popular.

DAVID: Why? I’ve read enough Rumi myself to appreciate his spiritual wisdom and his talent as a poet, but I’m reading his work in English translation—usually your renderings of his verse. There are so many other terrific poets out there. Why is Rumi so enduringly popular?

COLEMAN: There are several strands to this.

One of the strands relates to the ancient Christian church’s decision to expunge most of the ecstatic material from the New Testament. His popularity partly has to do with the way Rumi brings back the ecstatic joy that is natural to being human, to being in a body, to being a sentient form. Rumi sees rapture in life. I resonate with that and, for me, that feels like truth—and I think it feels like truth to a lot of people. It certainly seemed like truth to Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman, our national poets. They also give us this sense of waking to a day and being enlivened.

Then, another strand in Rumi’s popularity is that there’s a kind of hilarity and genuine joy that is a part of his appeal and this is ironic because his poems come out of grief. He had a friend who he lost and his poetry is full of missing this friend, Shams Tabriz. So there is this thread of deep grief as well as great joy—and those two notes, together, make Rumi a mature human being.


DAVID: Most of our readers probably have never heard of Shams Tabriz, yet he was such a crucial figure in Rumi’s life and work. This new book you’ve translated and edited for English-language readers was dedicated to Shams by Rumi himself. In your book, you describe Shams as larger than life—as “a fierce man-God or God-man.” So, what can you tell us about this mysterious visitor, Shams, who Rumi regarded as his mentor and dear friend?

COLEMAN: We don’t know much. This is one of the great mysteries in the history of world religion. Rumi met this man in 1244 and only knew him for three years, yet their friendship is beyond categories, beyond gender, beyond age, beyond mentoring. They made their friendship, really, a way of opening the heart. Their friendship expands so much that it becomes an atmosphere in which they walk and live. When Rumi met Shams, he said: What I thought of as God, I met today in a human being. It’s one of those things that can’t be expressed quite clearly in words, but you can feel the quality of that friendship in Rumi’s poems. This is different, say, than Jesus or Buddha who seem so alone, even with their followers, compared with this friendship between Rumi and Shams.  But then Shams disappears and Rumi goes looking for him, but Rumi does not find him.

DAVID: Your book opens with a description of this friendship and you say that scholars are not in agreement about what happened to Shams. In my own past reading, I always assumed that Shams was murdered, but you point out that’s just one version of the story. What do we know about his disappearance?

COLEMAN: Well, we don’t know what happened to Shams. He might have been murdered by a jealous follower of Rumi as some have said. Or, Shams may have decided to leave—to spur Rumi to a new dimension of his life and work.

We do know that Rumi called these poems: The Works of Shams Tabriz. That decision by Rumi drives librarians crazy to this day, because these are the works of Rumi, but they’re called just The Works of Shams Tabriz.


DAVID: You’ve called your new collection of translations from this large body of Rumi’s work something else. I’ve seen the title of this vast work also translated as “The Great Book” or “The Great Book of Poetry.” On the cover of your edition, it’s called “The Big Red Book.” Even more astonishing than these other mysteries —this unusual friendship, Shams’ disappearance and the book’s odd titles down through the centuries—is the sheer size of Rumi’s work. Your book is big, but you’re really only publishing a small portion of the overall enormous work. “The Big Red Book” hitting bookstores this month at 512 pages is really a volume of greatest hits, we might say. How could Rumi produce so much work?

COLEMAN: Yes, that’s another one of the Rumi mysteries. Evidently, he had about six different scribes working with him. All of the poems came out while he was teaching in his community. The poems would just spin off as he was talking with a group. They were spontaneous and they were taken down as they were said. Now, evidently he did look at versions of what the scribes wrote down and made some changes in the final texts. But, you can think of his poetry as a kind of sublime jazz that is spontaneously coming from him in a fusion of spirit.

Rumi’s son was very, very careful about preserving Rumi’s manuscripts, so we have a lot of them. We even have 147 personal letters that Rumi wrote to people and this is just astonishing form the 13th century. These are letters dealing with the nitty gritty of everyday life: Could you please give this student two more weeks to repay his loan? That kind of letter. He was minutely occupied with the daily business of his community—and, at the same time, he was producing this poetry in ecstatic states.


DAVID: I love the language in Rumi’s poems. The language often surprises us as we encounter it. These lines aren’t just eloquent; they jolt us. The images often take us places we don’t expect to go. Like “God in the Stew,” where Rumi writes: “Every natural dog sniffs God in the stew.” The image is surprising, even shocking. We don’t expect a dog and God in the same expression. Plus, Rumi was a part of the Islamic world and generally Muslims aren’t big fans of dogs. Petting dogs can require a fresh ablution before the next prayer time.

COLEMAN: Rumi’s particular brand of Sufis loved dogs and adored the way dogs are with us, how they respond to us. Some people think of dogs in poetry as images of desire, perhaps, or as negative images. But Rumi sees dogs as great and suggests we should try to be more like dogs.

I do agree with you that his poetry is electric. There is a quality of surprise in Rumi. I think the closest American example we have to this is Whitman, who had a prose side to his poetry and would break out into an aria or a lyric section. Rumi’s poetry feels that way, too. He sometimes has these amazing images, like the dog you just mentioned.


DAVID: In your book, you talk about your work on Rumi’s poetry as your life’s work, spanning many decades. You’re proud of this work, but really the tone you use here is one of thankfulness and of the awe that you keep finding in Rumi’s work. You don’t write as though you’ve finished the work. Is that fair to say?

COLEMAN: There is magnificent jewelry in this poet’s work. I’m always amazed by it. I’ve been in an apprenticeship my whole life in working with Rumi. He’s been teaching me as I’ve gone along on this journey. This has brought me lots of friends and good times and I keep experimenting with the poetry. I’m often invited now to read from Rumi, and I usually speak the poetry to music, now. That’s how Rumi would have done it—with music, I think.

DAVID: You’re regarded as the foremost interpreter of Rumi’s work for modern readers. But you describe your work as experimental.

COLEMAN: That’s right. This is like trying to translate Shakespeare into Chinese. Rumi can’t have just one translator. We need hundreds of translators. In the end, it’s impossible for anyone to translate Rumi into English. We need many versions. All I have done is offer suggestions about Rumi’s poetry.

Remember that I didn’t hear Rumi’s name until I was 39. I had one of the best educations you can get in this country, but nobody ever said anything to me about the Islamic world for years. What I have done since I was 39 is just a beginning. If I have done anything, I’ve offered the world one person’s introduction to the world of Rumi. I want others to explore that world, too.

YOU CAN ORDER a copy of “Rumi: The Big Red Book: The Great Masterpiece Celebrating Mystical Love and Friendship” from Amazon now.

Come back tomorrow for Part 3, a look Rumi’s tomb—a global landmark.

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