Coleman Barks with David Darling performing the poetry of Rumi

Posted March 4, 2013 in
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Poet Coleman Barks delivers Rumi in such a way that it resonates within the contemporary American ear, warming his audience's aesthetic and spiritual faculties.

When I first read Rumi, the universe as I knew it exploded. Suddenly, I started realizing that the connections I share with others are bound by spontaneity, and I was opened to new levels of love. Reading Rumi is a transformative experience, and it's something that I owe to Coleman Barks, a scholar who is well known for his translations of the Sufi poet. Although Coleman Barks doesn't actually speak or read Farsi, what he's done for the accessibility of this Sufi mystic—by re-translating the translations from AJ Arberry and Reynold A Nicholson—is something worthwhile to note. By changing a poem that was written with literal translations and tight formations and applying those to the style of American free verse, Barks embodied the messages that traveled from the 13th Century to us in our 21st like bodies of water: free-flowing, simple and flexible.  

Barks performed that evening with his friend, David Darling, on the cello. What was awesome about this is the fact that Darling performed entirely on an impromptu basis, including performances of poems that he had never even heard prior to that night. Barks started the evening by explaining the different ways to listen, including deep listening and solemn listening, akin to the ways people can listen to a plant to feel its medicinal properties. Sufi listening, he described, was spoken spontaneously. A group of Sufis would form a Dervish, and they would gather together to recite to each other and tell jokes, which were used as a lens to see the growth of the soul.  It was around this moment that the organizers of the event asked Coleman to pause. I was being an eager listener, but our ears were placed in seats that did not ideally deliver Barks' words, with a weird reverb bouncing around me. Although it was a sold-out event, there were a few random seats dispersed in the hall, which they invited us to fill—this left me in the front row, which really allowed me to engage my solemn listening with my Sufi listening as he continued his recitations. That was a sweet move, and I'm grateful that the organizers were conscious and accommodating to this deep listening, or "sema." 
 
"We're here with a thousand hidden Sufis," Barks said, serving as a reminder of the translator acting as a tool to project Rumi's voice. Barks has noted before about his connection to his writings with Rumi, explaining that it's not a personal type of writing, but rather something that goes beyond him into a spiritual realm. The evening was filled with poems from Rumi, which was to be expected, but Barks also included readings from a few of his own poems, so it was neat to see the variations between his personal writing versus what his spirit calls him to work on. Highlights for me were among “The Guest House,” “Love Dogs,” and “A Great Wagon,” all by Rumi, and a poem from his book “Hummingbird Sleep.” “Glad,” written by Barks about his granddaughter’s soccer match, was a hilarious tale that ends with the tidbit of wisdom: “Good losers don’t laugh last; they laugh/ continuously, all the way home so glad.” Barks had some first-rate banter to ease the transitions into poems, and he was full of jokes and laughter all night, exuding that energy onto everyone in the audience. 
 
There was a lot of warmth between Barks and Darling, which drew me into the pairing of the deep notes of the cello with the profound language. The music never detracted from the word, which is impressive. With simple plucking, some Bach, and some deep blues, Darling impressed the audience with his ability to travel with Barks to wherever his language may go. When Barks explained that Rumi once remarked that the stories we tell each other are used as baths to make us fresh, Darling, plucking, sang out, "Tell me a story, I love it when you tell me a story," and "Tell me Coleman, you funky man." This doting shared between the two friends allowed the poems to be expanded in their delivery. 
 
With Rumi's language exploring emotional realms that range from the light to the heavier emotions, one can feel a little maudlin or jumbled, but, as was recited, "Whoever is calm and sensible, is insane." I loved that Barks talked about the process of translating, including the moment his editors told him to not use the word “grumpy,” a decision he overrode and used anyway. Before reading “The Freshness,” he explained the pronoun in Persian that encompasses I, you, he, she, it, everyone and God, which he boiled down to calling “you,” meaning a you that is both singular and plural. The poem continues to read (with the emphases added by Barks), “When it is cold and rainy, you are more beautiful. /The snow brings me closer to you,” and ends with “You enter suddenly/ and I am nowhere again, inside the majesty.” Ending the evening with the poem "The Many Wines" was a good reminder to deliver ourselves from our self-consciousness by escaping from all thought. Rumi reminds us, "Don't think all ecstasies are the same." 
 
The event was put on by a few different organizations, which are all worth checking out. The Rumi Poetry Club has a reading every first Tuesday of the month at the Salt Lake Public Library at the Anderson-Foothill location. Two Arrows Zen operates from the Art Space downtown, and you can find events and their schedule online here. The Jung Society of Utah, which embodies the philosophies of Carl Jung, host a slew of events that you can find here, and they've made the video from the event available for purchase here.
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Poet Coleman Barks delivers Rumi in such a way that it resonates within the contemporary American ear, warming his audience's aesthetic and spiritual faculties.