Persian Poet Top Seller In America

Rumi Revival

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

There is a light seed grain inside.

You fill it with yourself, or it dies!

- Rumi

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Almost 15 years ago, poet Robert Bly handed a younger colleague an accurate but stilted 19th-century translation of the mystic Islamic poet Jalaluddin Rumi.

"Release these from their scholarly cages," the poet recalls telling Coleman Barks.

Mr. Barks set to work, recasting the poems in fluid, casual American free verse.

The results have astonished many. In a country where Pulitzer Prize-winning poets often struggle to sell 10,000 books, Barks's translations of Rumi have sold more than a quarter of a million copies. Recordings of Rumi poems have made it to Billboard's Top 20 list. And a pantheon of Hollywood stars is recording a collection of Rumi's love poems - these translated by holistic-health guru Deepak Chopra - for release next Valentine's Day.

Put it all together and you've got a Rumi revival that's made the 13th-century Persian wordsmith the top-selling poet in the country today.

"It's a matter of our enormous spiritual hunger matched by our natural anticlericism gone ballistic," says Phyllis Tickle, contributing editor in religion to Publisher's Weekly. "It's also just beautiful poetry."

For seven centuries, Rumi's poetry has been sung in the Islamic world from India to Iran, Turkey to Afghanistan. He's considered an ecstatic, a romantic, obsessed with God, exalting the divine universality of the heart in everything and everyone.

"He celebrates the Presence, he calls it the Friend or the Beloved, that we sense in the beauty outside of us on a rainy day, or in a group of friends fixing food, a horse being saddled, or a child sleeping," says translator Barks. "All of these things that are obviously beautiful outside of us also touch the beauty inside of us - that jewel-like inner presence that he activates in his poetry."

A celebrated past

In his day, Rumi was celebrated by Christians, Jews, and Buddhists, as well as by Sufi Muslims who claim him as a part of their tradition. That is the ecstatic, feeling strain of Islam - less familiar in the West than the severe fundamentalist image of Islam.

"He's such a spokesman for freedom and transcendence that people have found him to be a great literary voice for centuries," says Carl Ernst, head of religious studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Some scholars compare Rumi's revival to similar fads, such as the burst of interest in Kahlil Gibran's poetry a generation ago.

But Mr. Ernst believes the Rumi phenomenon is bigger.

The mystic's current fans range from Islamic scholars to New Age enthusiasts. Barks says he can't explain the phenomenon.

Bly says Rumi fills a place in the Christian tradition left vacant when the Gnostics - Christian mystics - were discredited as heretics by early Christian religious leaders. That ecstatic impulse has occasionally re-emerged with St. Francis and some of the medieval mystics, such as St. Teresa. The late 20th century is seeing a revival of the Pentacostal, charismatic movement in the US. But the mystical tradition never blossomed in mainstream Christianity to the extent that it has in the Muslims' Sufi tradition.

Rumi was also a rebel of sorts in his day. His poetry, which in the original Persian is densely rhymed and rhythmed, breaks many of the rules of classical poetry. It sometimes runs too long, sometimes too short. His images are playful, full of the richness and abandon of childhood. He compares himself to a magician, creates images the way a wizard makes birds appear from the palm of his hand.

"He doesn't try to describe mystical love, he tries to linguistically show it to us," says Fatemeh Keshavarz, professor of Persian language and literature at Washington University in St. Louis. "He mirrors his experience of mystical love."

In the Muslim world, many consider Rumi a saint.

"My experience of a poet-saint is that they affect the deepest regions of one's intelligence and heart," says Daniel Ladinsky, a South Carolina poet who works with translations of Shams-ud-Din Muhammad Hafiz, a 14th-century Sufi poet who is also enjoying a revival in America.

Mr. Ladinsky learned about the Persian mystical poets while living in a monastic community of sorts in India. He says both Rumi and Hafiz address his "profound need to make sense out of God.... I simply want to get along with the One I have to live with."

Addie Wolbach, a mother of three who lives in Boston, began reading the Persian mystics 10 years ago.

"People are hungrier and thirstier for things of the heart," says Ms. Wolbach. "I'm not looking for poetry. I'm looking for the 'Master's' words - his 'truth.' "

The dual poetic and spiritual nature of Rumi's works has sparked some controversy. In the 19th century, British scholars translated Rumi's work literally, replicating the words and metaphors he used to make his spiritual points. They made "no pretensions to being poetic," says Mr. Ernst. These are the translations that Ms. Wolbach prefers.

But for others, the literalness is awkward and inaccessible.

Enter poet Coleman Barks. He does not know Persian and works from other people's translations. He also makes no attempt to replicate the rhyme and rhythm of the original Persian, preferring instead to render the essence of the poems into free verse.

"Translations should let something of Rumi's culture spill into the translations," says Professor Keshavarz. "Although I do think [Barks] does a good job of capturing the poetic color and fragrance of Rumi."

In some poetic circles, the fact that Barks works from other people's translations has raised questions about the authenticity and the relationship of his work to the original.

A spiritual quick fix?

"The majority of the people reading Rumi are looking for a spiritual quick fix," says Louisa Solano, owner of the Grolier Poetry Book Shop in Cambridge, Mass. "They have no real interest in poetry at all, other than Rumi."

But for those who go to Barks's bimonthly readings around the country, the re-worked Rumi poems are exactly what they're looking for.

"It's all about honesty and going in deeply within. He's speaking his 'truth' from a place of clarity and openness," says Josie Hanlon of Boston, who recently attended one of Barks's readings, which was accompanied by traditional Sufi dancing.

But whatever one thinks about Rumi's work, his popularity in America is difficult to ignore.

"I think it's extremely interesting that at the same time, politically speaking, there is this intense, ideological confrontation with Islamic fundamentalism," says Ernst. "This spirituality that Rumi represents has obviously touched a very deep nerve in the American psyche."

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