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Persian Poet Top Seller In America

Rumi Revival

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"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."

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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."