Episode 3 - Coleman Barks: The Soul of Rumi
Coleman Barks: The Soul of Rumi
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Coleman Barks: I really have to say that I just love the way you find passages to tie these insights we come upon together. I don't know how you do it. It's like it's inspired, really. And I appreciate you doing the homework on that, and I guess just being open to whatever conversation brings to both of us.
Duncan Campbell: Well, that's how I feel too, Coleman. It's just one of the great delights. I always feel so enlivened when we talk together about this. And it's so much fun. It' just feels like the juice and vitality that you found in the text and the mind and translated so beautifully opens up a key.
Coleman Barks: Exactly.
Duncan Campbell: And me for sure. And I think for sure our listeners as well.
Coleman Barks: Oh, I hope so.
Duncan Campbell: Because they are part of this whole thing.
Coleman Barks: That's right. Yeah.
Duncan Campbell: Yeah. Without them, neither one of us would evoke or be able to receive.
Coleman Barks: It probably wouldn't be so lively would it?
Duncan Campbell: It wouldn't. It's definitely wouldn't.
Coleman Barks: Anyway, it's wonderful, jabbering along with you about these ineffable things.
Duncan Campbell: It is. It's great.
Well Coleman, I've just paused here in the silence that Rumi says so eloquently is the ending and the resonance of every poem, and of this dialogue. And so, again, Coleman Barks, it's been lovely.
Coleman Barks: Thank you Duncan. You are a real national treasure. You make me smile. I really appreciate you. And I love it that you asked me to come on your program.
Announcer: Throughout history, from indigenous councils to the work of Western visionaries, such as Plato, Galileo and quantum physicist David Bohm, mutually participatory dialogue has been seen as the key to its evolving and transforming consciousness, evoking a flow of meaning, a dialogos beyond what any one individual can bring through alone.
So join us now as together we engage in Living Dialogue.
Duncan Campbell: Welcome to Living Dialogues. I'm your host to Duncan Campbell. With me for this particular dialogue, I'm truly delighted to have the great translator and American poet, Coleman Barks.
Coleman is known very widely for his wonderful, imaginative, humorous and innovative translations of the great Persian 13th century poet Rumi. He is a renowned poet in his own right, who taught English and creative writing at the University of Georgia for many years.
He has appeared on two PBS poetry series with Bill Moyers that brought him wide acclaim. And he now focuses on his own poetry and writing and performing Rumi poetry in readings and in concerts. His most recent book is entitled, ‘The Soul of Rumi - a New Collection of Ecstatic Poems’.
So Coleman, I've been anticipating this moment for some time and it's a real delight to have you here on Living Dialogues.
Coleman Barks: My pleasure.
Duncan Campbell: One of the things that I thought might be of interest to our listeners is to tell the story perhaps, for openers as to how you came to Rumi's poetry.
Coleman Barks: Well, I've told that story in several places. And it's got at least three strands to it. One of them began in 1976 with Robert Bly when at one of those conferences in June of that he gives for ritual and mythology –
Duncan Campbell: The Great Mother Conference?
Coleman Barks: Yeah, and poetry and really just what Robert has been reading lately is what it is. And then here called in 1976 he had been reading some scholarly translations of Jalal al-Din Rumi. He handed me one of those books and he said, “These poems need to be released from their cages!”
And Robert has an amazing sense sometimes of which poet needs to be paired with which other poet to translate. He recommended Anna Akhmatova to Jane Kenyon - those beautiful translations she does.
Anyway, I began doing this as a kind of practice in the late afternoons. When I would finish teaching at the University of Georgia I would go down to a little restaurant and order some tea and work on one or two of the Arberry translations, rephrasing them into what I hoped would become valid free verse American poems.
The second strand begins when I sent some of those tentative translations or rephrasings to a friend of mine in Rutgers Camden Law School. He was teaching there - Milner Ball. And he read them, inexplicably, to his torts class.
Duncan Campbell: That's a great moment.
Coleman Barks: Right. And Jonathan Granoff came up out of the audience. He was a student there, and he began writing to me telling me about a teacher that he had in Philadelphia. He was trying to get me to come up there. Even before that I had this dream in which I was sleeping by the Tennessee River. That's where I grew up outside Chattanooga.
And in the dream a ball of light rose off of Williams Island. And I woke up inside the dream. It was one of those lucid moments when I was awake, and yet I was still asleep in the dream but I had woken up inside the dream. And this ball of light came over and clarified from the inside out. A man was sitting inside the ball of light. He raised his head and he said, “I love you.” And I said, “I love you too.”
And the whole landscape then felt drenched with dew. And the dew and the wetness was love. And somehow, that was all there was to the dream, but it felt like something got settled there.
And then about a year and a half after that I was traveling up north to do some poetry readings. I stopped in and met Jonathan Granoff. He took me to see his teacher there in Philadelphia. It was Bawa Muhaiyaddeen. And he was the man in the dream, who was sitting there in a ball of light.
There's no way that I can prove that happened except to myself. It did happen. And I was there inside the dream and I met him. And he would come to me and teach me things in dream. And then I would go up to Philadelphia and I would tell him the dream. And he would just wave me on like, “I was there. You don't need to tell me the dream. What do you want to know?”
He told me to do this Rumi work. He said it had to be done. So that is the only credential that I have for working on the words of this great enlightened being is that I was in the presence for nine years, on and off, four or five times a year visiting this man, who also spontaneously sang songs and praise of existence.
So that's the main strand of that connects me with Rumi. When I work on these poems I think it is that I am strengthening the friendship with my teacher. But there is one other incredible strand and that is when I was six years old, I memorized all the countries and all the capitals of all the countries in the Rand McNally 1943 –
Duncan Campbell: You were at a prep school?
Coleman Barks: I was. My dad was headmaster of Baylor Prep School in Chattanooga. At that time it was a military school. We ate all our meals over in the dining hall. As I would go across the quadrangle at night to go to supper, people would call out countries to this six year old kid. They would say, “Uruguay.” And he would say, “Montevideo.” I knew them all. I was completely solid. And I never missed.
My first ecstatic teacher, James Pennington was the Latin teacher - it often happens I think that Latin teachers turn out to be goofy ecstatics. And he was one of those. He would stand up on his desk and say, “Young men, young men, I love words, words, words.”
But anyway, he decided this little game had gone far enough. So 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 he 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, Ikonium or Konya, where Rumi lived and is buried.
Duncan Campbell: You found that out, of course 40 years later.
Coleman Barks: Later on, it just occurred to me that I still don't know the capital of Cappadocia. There is some central core about all this matter of which I am still ignorant. So it's humbling to have my name point that out.
Duncan Campbell: Well Cap, yes, that's wonderful. That's a really beautiful story you tell in the introduction to the soul of Rumi. Elsewhere throughout the book, for each section of the book you have your own introductory remarks and commentary and you say this is not normal in a work of scholarship. But this is not really a work of scholarship. This is a conversation and a communication.
You talked very early on in the second chapter, as it were of initiation and that initiation doesn't necessarily come in a formal ceremony like a young man or a woman being initiated into adolescence or a younger person by an elder. But it can come suddenly to you at any stage of life. And these three stories you've told these three strands that in a sense are mystical initiations and you your self at some point recognized them for what they were. It fueled this fire in you that's been so connected to the spirit of Rumi.
Coleman Barks: That's true. Yeah.
Duncan Campbell: I feel that when I read your translations of these poems. There is this sense; you talk about in the poems of moving across a threshold between the human and the divine. As they said in the Romantic era of the 19th century, with Goethe and Schiller and even Nietzsche we could say in reaction to the Enlightenment, that sense of the intangible value.
You could not prove it as you said. You cannot prove it. There is no tangible rose, as it were to prove the insight. And yet we know it when we encounter it. I think that's really the beauty of your story. I think we can all resonate with the synchronistic, nonrandom series of events that happened to you. It was kind of like the call. And you answered it at one point. And we're all the better for it.
Coleman Barks: Yeah, I'm really glad that I did that. My life is really almost unthinkable without the kind of opportunities and friends that Rumi has brought into it.
Duncan Campbell: Well, as we sit here you have a couple of your books open. Perhaps you would like to just pick whatever inspires you at the moment. And we'll sort of talk about Rumi from a variety of perspectives, because he is so varied and is so rich in scope that we really can't just say, “Well, he's this kind of a poet”.
Coleman Barks: Here's one from the new book: “What was said to the Rose, that made it open, was said to me here in my chest. What was told the Cyprus that made it strong and straight? What was whispered the Jasmine, so it is what it is? Whatever made sugar cane sweet? Whatever was said to the inhabitants of the town of Chigil in Turkestan that makes them so handsome? Whatever lets the pomegranate blush like a human face - that is being said to me now. I blush.
“Whatever put eloquence in language, that's happening here. The great warehouse door is open. I feel with gratitude, chewing a piece of sugar cane, in love with the one to whom every that belongs.”
Duncan Campbell: In listening to it, I can really feel, and I'm sure each one of our audience does too, the wonder of his poetry. It does not let itself be pigeonholed or captured in any particular tradition.
We know about Rumi's life that he was a Sufi and a Muslim. Yet this language is universal. It doesn't fall into any spiritual tradition. Perhaps we could talk a little about that as you do in your introduction to the book.
Coleman Barks: Well, the implication in that poem is that the opening of the rose and the unfolding of a heart is a natural act like the formation of a Cyprus tree or the color of a pomegranate. It occurs because of something that is said to it. What was said to the rose that makes it open was said to me. So the opening was the result of a conversation.
Sometimes the Sufis say that there are three ways of relating to the divine. One is prayer. A step up from that is meditation, about which you know a lot. And the step up from that is conversation or sohbet and really even says that a human being is a conversation.
That is, we aren’t the nodes of the synapse between two speakers. We are the conversation itself, not the speaker or the one spoken to. So there is a process. The psyche is a process that is continually responding to parts of itself, I guess. It’s a beautiful idea.
Duncan Campbell: Very beautiful. And is, in fact, the inspirational idea in its own way, behind this particular program ‘Living Dialogues’.
Coleman Barks: Oh, I hadn’t thought of that, yeah. Absolutely.
For full transcript, please contact Duncan Campbell