Jalal al-Din Rumi

Coleman Barks:
Three Poems of Rumi

East Florence Moore Hall
Main Lounge
Stanford University

Wednesday, May 13, 2009,
7:30-9:00 pm

Edited by Peter Y. Chou

Coleman Barks
(born April 23, 1937)

Preface: I was looking forward to attending Adam Gopnik's lecture "Why Write About Writing?; Or, How Dr. Johnson Can Save Your Life?" at Cubberley Auditorium at 7 pm on May 13, 2009. From the web page at Stanford Humanities Center, this author and New Yorker writer will use Samuel Johnson's writing and conversation as a model of what good critical writing ought to be, and attempt to define some rough and ready principles to tell good writing about writing from bad writing about writing, and criticism that enlivens readers from the kind that merely deadens books. I could certainly use some of his advice. Then I noticed on Stanford Events May 13 web pageEast Flo Mo's Three Poems, with Coleman Barks. Some 20 years ago Robert Bly's reading of Rumi's poems translated by Coleman Barks made Rumi's poems alive to me. When attending Bly's Poetry Workshop at Asilomar (1988), he made us memorize three Rumi's Quatrains. I've included them in my Poetry Anthology for Robert Pinsky's final project (2007). I have six Rumi books translated by Barks and wished to thank him for all those inspired verses from Rumi. With a campus map on hand, I walked across the campus to Florence Moore Hall. On my way I run into Eavan Boland, Chairman of Stanford's Creative Writing Department. I tell her about Coleman Barks reading Rumi at the student's dorm. But Eavan tells me, "I'm introducing Adam Gopnik." So we went our separate ways. Two students pointed me to Flo Mo, the nearest dorm across the parking lot from Tresidder Student Union. I was ten minutes early and sat on a sofa near the front. I didn't know that Stanford students in this dorm have an annual event inviting poets to discuss three poems with them (East Flo Mo's Three Poems). When Coleman Barks arrived, I felt immediate rapport with his beard, smile, and composure. Here's someone who has lived with the mind and heart of Rumi all these years, no wonder he seemed like a wonderful friend. Here are my notes of this illuminating and inspiring evening. My commentaries on the Rumi poems and web links were added on later. (Peter Y. Chou)

Greg Watkins: My sister is an ardent reader of Coleman Barks' translation of Rumi and so am I. Through Barks' translation, Rumi is now the best-selling poet in America. We have the "East Flo Mo's Three Poems" event at Stanford each year, so I emailed Coleman Barks if he would like to come, and he gladly accepted. Let's give him a warm welcome.

Coleman Barks: Thank you Greg. The question is "How can I do this work?" Until 1976, when I was 39 years old, I haven't heard of Rumi. I went to UC-Berkeley and lived in the Bay Area, but never came to Stanford. So this is my first time here. I got my Ph.D. at the University of North Carolina, writing a thesis on the short stories of Joseph Conrad. I taught at the University of Georgia for 30 years in the English Department. I covered mostly American poetry since World War II.

There are three strands of this story how I got involved. Rumi's poetry is always performed with music. There's turning and dancing. Rumi was the original whirling dervish. Robert Bly has a conference every June in Maine in mythology, psychology, poetry, and fairy tales. It's called "Conference on the Great Mother and New Father". In 1976, Bly read A.J. Arberry's translations of Rumi's poems and told me "These poems need to be released from their cages." He was telling me that we need to bring Rumi out in free verse like William Carlos Williams, Galway Kinnell, Robert Hass, Emily Dickinson, and Sharon Olds.

Since I don't read or speak Farsi, the language of Rumi's poetry, I would use the translations of the academic scholars and began rephrasing Rumi in modern American free verse. After my three English classes at University of Georgia, I'd go to the Bluebird Restaurant and order cups of hot tea. On the back of their order pads, I would write out my translations of Rumi. Soon I realized that I was entering a medium that's deep and mysterious. These poems couldn't be explicated, but need to be lived. I was swimming out into the ocean like a giant sea turtle. It was a form of sublime relaxation. When as a child, you discover yourself under water, it's exciting even if it's in the bathtub. It's something like breathing under water.

Spirituality has to do with water. Breathing in— inspiration.
That's how I got started— attunement to the spiritual.
I depend on scholars to give me the original versions.
You need to have both languages as your mother tongue.
Unless you're Vladmir Nabakov or Joseph Conrad. Until he was in
Marseilles, Conrad never knew English until he heard "Watch Out!"

The second strand was my dream on May 2, 1977. That's my holy day!
I guess every day is a holy day. I had this dream by the Tennessee River in Chattanooga where I live when young. Chattanooga is derived from a Creek word for nearby Lookout Mountain meaning "rock rising to a point." The Native Americans call it "water that is ours". So in my dream, I'm looking at this rock, and woke up in a lucid state inside the dream. A ball of light rose off Williams Island. It was a clarified moment— a man with a white beard was sitting inside the ball of light. He raised his head and said "I love you." And I said, "I love you too." and the whole landscape was drenched with dew. And that dew and wetness was love. A year and half later (September 1978), I went up north for some poetry readings. I stopped and met Jonathan Granoff. He took me to Philadelphia to meet his teacher Bawa Muhaiyedeen. And he was the white bearded man inside that ball of light in my lucid dream! Bawa told me to do this Rumi work. Bawa was a Sri Lankan Sufi master. Before meeting him, I thought all human beings are at the same level. Now I know that there are masters like Bawa who could come into one's dreams and teach students. Bawa died in December 8, 1986, but still comes into my dreams and teach me. Once he taught me how to take tiny little sips of water in my dream. When I met him, I told him about it. He said, "You don't need to tell me the dream. I was there! Don't take big gups of water— not for wisdom. For nuggets of wisdom, you need to take tiny sips." When I told Bawa that my back was stiff, he told me that I need to bend all the way down on the floor to pray.

The third strand goes back to my childhood. I was in this all boy's Baylor Prep School in Chattanooga, Tennessee. My Dad was the headmaster. I was a geography freak at 6 years old. I studied the Rand McNally's Atlas and Gazetteer and memorized all the capital cities of every country in the world. In the school's cafeteria, I had meals with 400 people. My schoolmates would test me out and call out a country and I'd tell them its capital. So they'll say Uruguay, and I'll say Montevideo; Bulgaria— Sofia; Tanganyika— Dar es Salaam [after 1964, Tanganyika and Zanzibar merged as one country to form Tanzania with capital at Dodoma]. I had this perfect diamond mind as geography was concerned and knew it all. I had this ecstatic Latin teacher, James Pennington. One day he went down in his basement classroom and got a country that didn't seem to have a capital on the map that he had. And he came up and yelled out to me, "Cappadocia!" across the quadrangle. He said the look on my face named me. From then on, there are still people in Chattanooga that call me Cap or Cappadocia. He called me that. Often he would yell it out across the way at me, just reminding me of what I didn't know. I didn't know the capital of Cappadocia. It turns out that the capital of Cappadocia is, or was, Iconium or Konya, where Rumi lived and is buried. I found this out 40 years later. I was named for what I didn't know! So the universe tells you a joke, and you don't get it. These are the three strands that tell me that I'm special.

In 1984, my first book Open Secret: Versions of Rumi came out. It was selected by William Stafford for the Pushcart Writer's Choice Award. Since then, my translations of Rumi's poetry have sold over a million copies. It's selling like romance novels, not poetry books which usually sell around 3000 copies.

In 2005, the U.S. State Department decided to send me to Afghanistan for a goodwill tour. The Christian Science Monitor said Rumi is the most widely read poet in America, more than Shakespeare and Billy Collins. So the United States and Afghanistan have the same poet that's widely revered. Rumi is broadcast on Afghanistan radio continuously. So the State Department sent me there to acknowledge this common thread. It was not exactly tourism. I was in this SUV with automatic weapons with U.S. British, and Jordanian troops surrounding my vehicle to protect the poet. I had no idea what I was doing and how dangerous it was. Several vehicles were blown up during my trip. I went to a group in the Afghan ministry and told them "If you think dividing groups into Jews, Christians, Buddhists, and Muslims into God clubs, then you're dividing your heart from what you love in the world." Rumi said that in the 13th century and they didn't kill him. Why are we so divisive now about religion?"

Rumi blurs the boundaries that give us revelation. We have the impulse to breathe, to laugh, to be here at all. Rumi celebrates this in his poetry. I was in Kabul and recited Rumi's "Who Says Words with My Mouth?" (See Poem #1 below). They all knew it. Afterwards they got into a heated argument. I asked my translator whether I should leave. Is this OK? He told me that they're debating the drunkenness in this poem and Hafez. Can you imagine Bush's cabinet arguing about Wallace Stevens and bird images in Robert Frost? That's not going to happen here! Poetry is so much a part of their lives. They use poetry to stimulate their thoughts— What is the soul? What is ecstatic vision?

This is closer to the Persian world than the Western world. It's in the mindset of their lives. I went to a house in Kabul of Ambassador Massoud Khalili. They had a room in the house just devoted to reading poetry. It was a round room with fire place and no furniture, just pillows. They would sit there and recite lines from Attar, Hafez, and Rumi. I have such a room in my house and didn't know what I was doing.

Poems in Persian don't have titles. The mystic feels really homesick. Human language is like the sound of the reed flute. Cut 9 holes in the wooden flute like the 9 holes we have in the human body. When it's good and empty, the flute says "I want to go back to the mud again. I don't want to make noises. I want to go back to the mud and make sugar again. Rumi's Mathnawi has 64,000 lines singing like a reed "I want to go back." This is a song about separation and the world is but a tavern on our way back home.

At one literary gathering in Kabul, they were asking "Is Hafez talking about wine or ecstatic love?" The Minister of Culture [Dr. Sayed Makhdoum Raheem] said "Oh, of course." Then he started laughing and it spread around the room. I wondered what was going on and asked for my translator [Ruhollah] to explain. He said "Inside this one Rumi poem, there are 16 little Hafez's running around!" The embrace of Rumi in this poem includes all of Hafez's ruminations of wine. It's about the usefulness of drunkenness.

Q: Is Rumi talking about alcohol or the trance state?

Barks: I've been with the whirling dervishes. They see me drinking a glass of wine and tell me— Didn't we give you enough [with our Sufi dancing?]. What Jesus did serving wine?

Student: Communion.

Barks: I, you, we, they— in the garden of mystics, they are not any true distinctions. At the communion table, it's a situation that's communal, an idea of identity that we're all together. I guess it's telepathy, it's love! There is inclusive state of awareness, majesty, bewilderment of no separation. Keep trying to find words that we're all one thing.

My teacher Bawa got these magnificent eyes. If he gets blindfolded, I won't come to see him. He's always sitting on his bed. One of the senses of having a soul. We're living through the body giving attention, one of the mysteries of being a soul— If you see someone about to die, look at their eyes. Etheridge Knight died 17 years ago. He said to me "I'll never be able to see you again." His soul rose to his eyes the moment he died.

The United States found the Bactrian gold in Afghanistan and had a ceremony with President Hamid Karzai to return this precious gold. I was asked to come to the Smithsonian Freer Gallery in Washington D.C. for this occasion [May 23, 2005] where the U.S. Custom Service returned some Bactrian gold pieces. I went to President Karzai and presented my book The Essential Rumi to him saying "I've stolen your gold." Karzai said "I have your book." [As I was sitting on the sofa in the first row, Coleman saw my copy of his Essential Rumi and picked it up to demonstrate this scene with President Karzai.]

The second poem I'm reading tonight is "The Milk of Millennia" (page 273 of The Essential Rumi). This 24-lines poem is but a part of the 64,000 lines of Rumi's Mathnawi. In the next to the last line [of Barks' 21-line translation] is Rumi's description of sleep "the loving nowhere" where we taste a little bit each night. But he adds at the end "or during the day, in some absorbing work." Isn't that wonderful? We've all had a taste of the bliss when we lose ourselves in the work we love.

My friend John Seawright died [May 10, 2001], however he came to me in a dream. He told me "After you die, there is no time." I asked him whether there is space. He said "There's a lot of that!" I'm obsessed with sleep and dreaming. It's like streaming! You're crucified in time. I love the ending of "Milk of Millennia" where Rumi says "some absorbing work" in daytime is as sacred as the "loving nowhere" we stream at night. Every work you do have trance. When I was small, I was in the trance place. My family calls me, I can't hear them. I made dams and water and got so absorbed in what I was doing.

The third poem I'm reading tonight is "Wean Yourself" (page 70 in Essential Rumi).

Q & A:

Q: Could you tell us more about Rumi's relationship with Shams?

Barks: What was God, I met in a human being. Friendship as a way in the spiritual path. If you reach Kaaba, pray five times a day. Namaste to each other. Lift religion out of the picture. Allow friendship. Shams was a wild "winged one". Shams would put money in people's pockets without them knowing it. Not many people understood him. He asked "Is there anyone who could endure my presence?" A voice came to his head— "Jalal al-Din Rumi". Whatever it was, it galvanized Rumi to become a poet. Sometimes you find a presence with somebody— and you feel how it's great to be alive. Buddha and Jesus were people like that.

Greg Watkins thanked Coleman Barks for the wonderful evening he shared with us. It was 8:26 pm. Sushi, cookies, and bottled water were served in the lounge. Around a dozen students brought their Rumi books for Coleman Barks to autograph. I told Barks about Robert Bly introducing me to his translations of Rumi's poems some 20 years ago and cited the Rumi quatrain which we had to memorize in his Asilomar Workshop. I gave him my web page on Bly's Stanford Workshop (2008) and the Rumi poems I composed for Robert Pinsky's Poetry Anthology assignment (2007). I told Barks that I enjoyed his story of the three strands in translating Rumi's poetry. That Bawa came into his dreams to give spiritual teachings reminded me of Paul Brunton and Ramana Maharshi in my dreams after meeting Anthony Damiani at his American Brahman bookshop in Ithaca (1968). I never heard of these sages before, and thought Anthony had made up these fictitious characters. Then in 1971, India issued a postage stamp honoring Ramana Maharshi (1879-1950). I bought 100 copies of this stamp to convince myself that Ramana was for real, since the Indian Government cannot be in this charade too. Meeting Paul Brunton in Switzerland (1972-1979) inspired my scientific research and spiritual practices. Now I treasure those dreams even more for they may not be by chance but by design to encourage my spiritual disciplines in living a philosophical life. Barks autographed my copies of The Essential Rumi and Rumi— The Glance: Songs of Soul-Meeting. It was indeed a feeling of soul meeting tonight, and he signed "5/12/09 For Peter— In Friendship, Such love, With gratitude, Coleman Barks". He also drew on the title page a helix with six turns like the whirling dervish dancing and spinning from the DNA into the spiral galaxies. I told Barks about changing my career from biochemistry to poetry, and predicted the language of life locating helical regions in proteins. However, I didn't tell him about doing the Sufi Spin once a week when I weave it into my ballroom dancing. In his spiralling helical sketch, Barks has captured my love in work and play. I could only cite Shakespeare: "O wonderful, wonderful, and yet again most wonderful!"


These are the three poems Coleman Barks read from The Essential Rumi:

(1) Who Says Words With My Mouth?

All day I think about it, then at night I say it.
Where did I come from, and what am I supposed to be doing?
I have no idea.
My soul is from elsewhere, I'm sure of that,
and I intend to end up there.

This drunkenness began in some other tavern.
When I get back around to that place,
I'll be completely sober. Meanwhile,
I'm like a bird from another continent, sitting in this aviary.
The day is coming when I fly off,
but who is it now in my ear who hears my voice?
Who says words with my mouth?

Who looks out with my eyes? What is the soul?
I cannot stop asking.
If I could taste one sip of an answer,
I could break out of this prison for drunks.
I didn't come here of my own accord, and I can't leave that way.
Whoever brought me here will have to take me home.

This poetry, I never know what I'm going to say.
I don't plan it.
When I'm outside the saying of it,
I get very quiet and rarely speak at all.

— Coleman Barks (tr.), The Essential Rumi (1995), p. 2
     from Safa Anthology

PYC Commentary: Coleman added these lines at the end that do not appear in his Essential Rumi version of this poem: "Shams of Tabriz— If you show me your face again / I could flee the imposition of this life." He also commented on "Whoever brought me here will have to take me home."— "that's what the drunk says at the bar." When Coleman read this poem during his tour of Afghanistan, most of the audience knew this poem by heart. Rumi asks the big question What is the soul?" and confides "I cannot stop asking. / If I could taste one sip of an answer, / I could break out of this prison for drunks." Unfortunately we too seek for an answer, and feel frustrated like Emerson when he wrote in his Journal, May 1849: "I notice that as soon as writers broach this question they begin to quote. I hate quotation. Tell me what you know." If there is one person I'd consult about the soul, it would be Plotinus (204-270 AD), who would tell us that the soul is the "Plot-in-us"! Some of the soul's mystery is hinted in these lines of Wordsworth's "Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood" (1807): "Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting: / The Soul that rises with us, our life's Star, / Hath had elsewhere its setting, / And cometh from afar: / Not in entire forgetfulness, / And not in utter nakedness, / But trailing clouds of glory do we come / From God, who is our home". Mary Oliver asks many questions about the soul in her poem "Some Questions You Might Ask" (1990) which inspired me to write "Speculations on the Soul" (1993). Rumi asks in stanza 3: "Who looks out with my eyes?" Coleman's last question to Bawa before his death on December 8, 1986, was about his eyes. "Will what I see in your eyes ever come up behind mine and look out through me?" He used that most profound pun in English to answer. "When the I (eye) becomes a we." (Rumi's The Glance: Songs of Soul-Meeting, 2001, p. xix)

(2) The Milk of Millennia

I am part of the load
Not rightly balanced
I drop off in the grass,
like the old Cave-sleepers, to browse
wherever I fall.

For hundreds of thousands of years I have been dust-grains
floating and flying in the will of the air,
often forgetting ever being
in that state, but in sleep
I migrate back. I spring loose
from the four-branched, time-and-space cross,
this waiting room.

I walk into a huge pasture
I nurse the milk of millennia

Everyone does this in different ways.
Knowing that conscious decisions
and personal memory
are much too small a place to live,
every human being streams at night
into the loving nowhere, or during the day,
in some absorbing work.

— Coleman Barks (tr.), The Essential Rumi (1995), p. 273
     Mathnawi, VI.216-217

PYC Commentary: Coleman's remark after reading this poem: "There's a place beyond personality." Unfortunately, most people in the world believe that our "conscious decisions and personal memory" set us apart from others. We value our personality and individuality above all else. But Rumi says that this is "much too small a place to live." The "old Cave-sleepers" in the first stanza refers to the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus that appeared in the medieval Golden Legend (circa 1260) as well as in the Koran (Surah 18 Verses 9-26). These seven men sealed up in a cave slept for some 300 years before they woke and marvelled at the changes since they slept. Rumi was insightful in writing "For hundreds of thousands of years I have been dust-grains / floating and flying in the will of the air". Modern cosmology tells us that we came from star dust whose origin dates back to the Big Bang, the creation of our universe some 14 billion years ago. I like Rumi's metaphor of "the four-branched, time-and-space cross, this waiting room" which we need to spring loose. To see the Cross beyond its Christian symbol, I suggest reading Rene Guenon's Symbolism of the Cross (1931). The cross is four-branched symbolizing the four cardinal points of space (North-South-East-West) and the four seasons of time. The horizontal axis represents temporal earth while the vertical axis represents eternal heaven. Where the axis intersects is the meeting of heaven and earth. This point which Euclid defines as having no dimension which extends to make up the line (birth of time and space) is experienced each night when we sleep— "into the loving nowhere"— no wonder we all crave sleep that brings us blissful rest and peace. But Rumi does not end the poem in sleep, but with "or during the day, / in some absorbing work." I'm reminded of Rumi's Quatrain #82 "Let the beauty we love be what we do." that's similar to Joseph Campbell's "Follow your bliss" if we wish to lead a joyful and creative life.

(3) Wean Yourself

Little by little, wean yourself.
This is the gist of what I have to say.

From an embryo, whose nourishment comes in the blood,
move to an infant drinking milk,
to a child on solid food,
to a searcher after wisdom,
to a hunter of more invisible game.

Think how it is to have a conversation with an embryo.
You might say, "The world outside is vast and intricate.
There are wheatfields and mountain passes,
and orchards in bloom.

At night there are millions of galaxies, and in sunlight
the beauty of friends dancing at a wedding."

You ask the embryo why he, or she, stays cooped up
in the dark with eyes closed.
                                              Listen to the answer.

There is no "other world."
I only know what I've experienced.
You must be hallucinating.

— Coleman Barks (tr.), The Essential Rumi (1995), pp. 70-71
     Mathnawi, III.49-62

PYC Commentary: The embryo in the comfort of a mother's womb would prefer to stay there forever. Same with the caterpillar inside the chrysalis, never realizing it would be transformed into a butterfly. Likewise, we are shackled like those in Plato's Allegory of the Cave (Chapter VII of Republic) seeing the shadows for reality. Freeing ourselves from this bondage is going outside the cave of our limited ego self and seeing the Sun of our Cosmic Self. Christ tells us "And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.' (John, 8.32). Chuang Tzu knew this when he said: "Limited by space, a frog in the well has no idea of what is the ocean. Limited by time, an insect in summer has no idea of what is ice. Limited by intellect, a man in life has no idea of what is Consciousness." In "Wean Yourself", Rumi is telling us to wake up from our embryonic state and be "a searcher after wisdom" and "a hunter of more invisible game." The big game hunter prides himself with trophies of lion and tiger heads mounted on his walls. But more challenging is exploring the realm of deep sleep each night when this universe in our waking state becomes invisible. See Mandukya Upanishad and Beethoven's Fifth Symphony.


Web Links to Coleman Barks:

Wikipedia: Coleman Barks
   (Bio notes, Rumi translations, Original poetry, Quotes, References, Links)
Coleman Barks Official Web Site
   (Appearance, In the News, Links, Calendar, Press, Shop, Contact)
Coleman Barks Biography
   (PBS: Fooling with Words with Bill Moyers)
Coleman Barks Biography
   (New Georgia Encyclopedia)
Coleman Barks Biography
   (Honorees in Georgia Writers Hall of Fame)
"Spring Morning"
   (Barks' poem, Cortland Review, Issue 15, February 2001)
The Soul of Rumi: A New Collection of Ecstatic Poems
   (By Phil Catalfo, Yoga Journal)
"Orange Circles on Lavender Wings"
   (Barks' poem, Ploughshares, Fall 1983)
Coleman Barks: The Soul of Rumi
   (Living Dialogues: Conversation with Duncan Campbell)
Rumi's American Popularizer Tours Afghan Poet's Homeland
   (Poet Coleman Barks makes first U.S.-Afghan academic exchange
   in 25 years, April 22, 2005)

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