Having come across Rumi a few times in references by several writers, I was finally persuaded to give him a go when a woman I met on a recent trip to Chicago recommended him most enthusiastically. And so I began reading him. And so I’m hooked.
But am I really reading Rumi, or am I reading Coleman Barks, in whose translation I am currently encountering him? For Barks does not read Persian and thus can only work from literal, scholarly transcriptions. And he has apparently taken not a few liberties in creating poems that feature, in the words of Franklin Lewis (in Rumi: Past, Present, East and West. The Life, Teachings and Poetry of Jalâl al-Din Rumi), ‘a modern American idiom’ and present Rumi’s originally ‘rhythmic and perhaps even trance-like’ poetry as free verse.
Does this really matter though? Well, yes and no, I suppose. Yes in that, as again Lewis points out, Barks, due to his lack of Persian, sometimes misunderstands the original while also teleporting the poems out of their cultural and Islamic context into a modern ecumenical American one. Yet I do believe Barks is right to claim that Rumi would have wanted his poems to resonate with audiences from a different culture. And in Barks’s translation they do, which is why I’m hooked. Would I have been as interested if I had encountered Rumi in wooden, literal transcriptions? Probably not.
There is one thing that worries me a little though. According to Lewis, Barks has turned this ‘poet of overpowering longing, [who is] trying to grope through his acute and shattering sense of loss’, into a serene dispenser of wisdom. That frenetically searching poet I would have liked to meet, but I’m hooked regardless. And Barks does give us beautiful poetry.