English Professor Assembles Writings Of Famous Dead Poet

Jaluddin Rumi is among the best-selling poets in the United States, even though he died more than 700 years ago. Rumi's writings of love, friendship and the joys of life have sold more than half a million copies, a distinction for poets. Guest host Jacki Lyden speaks to Coleman Barks, professor emeritus of English at the University of Georgia. Barks helped translate Rumi's poems from Persian to English. His latest collection, Rumi: The Big Red Book, is now in stores.

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JACKI LYDEN, host:

Poetry, for all its power, isn't usually a big seller in the U.S. A publisher would be happy to sell a few thousand copies of any one book of poems. But there is a poet selling hundreds of thousands of copies. He's been interpreted by people like Madonna and Philip Glass and revered by some of the best scholars around the world. His secret? Well, no one's completely certain.

Jalaluddin Rumi lived eight centuries ago in countries that are today part of Afghanistan and Turkey. He was a Sufi Muslim and wrote all of his poetry in Persian. His themes of love, beauty and spirituality have universal appeal. He's hugely popular in Iran and the Islamic world. But Rumi is also the top selling poet in America.

Coleman Barks is Rumi's best known translator and must be one of the reasons why Rumi has become a known poetic quantity in this country. His latest collection of Rumi's poetry is called "Rumi: The Big Red Book." And it dwells on the friendship between Rumi and probably his closest companion.

We're joined now by Coleman Barks, a scholar of Rumi for over 30 years. Thank you so much for being with us today.

Professor COLEMAN BARKS (English, University of Georgia): Thank you for having me.

LYDEN: I want to talk about how long it's been that he has been as popular as he has been here. But before we do that, this is such a good place for us to hear a poem. I'd love "Inhale Autumn, Long for Spring."

Prof. BARKS: Oh, okay.

(Reading) Someone asked me, what is love? Do not look for an explanation, dissolve into me and you will know when it calls. Respond: Walk out as a lion, as a rose. Inhale autumn, long for spring, you that changed the dull field who give conversation to damaged ears. Make dying alive. Award guardianship to the wandering mind, you who erase the five senses at night, who give eyes allure and a blood clot wisdom, who give the lover heroic strength. You who hear what Sanai said. Lose your life if you seek eternity. The master who teaches us is absolute light, not this visibility.

LYDEN: What is it about Rumi that has been so persuasive, that it is really quite a long time that he has been the leading seller of poetry in the U.S.?

Prof. BARKS: I guess it's been about 15 years.

LYDEN: Fifteen years that you would say that if you're going to have one book of poetry, people would choose Rumi.

Prof. BARKS: Uh-huh.

LYDEN: Although I don't know why anybody would have just one book.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. BARKS: It's a phenomenal situation in publishing. Nobody knows why a 13th century Islamic mystic would become the bestseller. And it may be we are lonesome for a true human being and that he gives us that. But he also gives us friendship as a way. The big event in his life was his meeting of his friend Shamsi Tabrizi. And he said, what I had thought of before as God, I met today in a human being.

LYDEN: Tell us a little bit more about their relationship. Where did these two men meet? And, you know, it's been speculated for years exactly what the nature of that relationship was. But certainly, it was a profound love, however, that became realized.

Prof. BARKS: Yeah. They seemed to have met in late October, in 1244, in Konya, Turkey. And their friendship is one of the mysteries. It's beyond gender, it's beyond age, their friendship just widens out to become, not a relationship, but something beyond than that. It's like - becomes one's whole life.

LYDEN: Sort of a cosmology of love rather than a relationship between two people?

Prof. BARKS: Right.

LYDEN: If you're just joining us now, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden and we're speaking with Coleman Barks who helped bring together a new collection of Rumi's translated poetry called "The Big Red Book." Rumi comes from a brand of mystical Sufi Islam. Do we see remnants of the Sufism in his poetry?

Prof. BARKS: Well, people define - talk about Sufism in various ways. I see it in a very general way, as the way of the heart. It's just the way of the opening of the heart. It's beyond -isms, it's beyond religions, really. It's beyond national boundaries. He is the one in the history of religions who blurs all the boundaries between the great religions of the world. He says that by identifying yourself as a part of a particular religion, is a way of closing down your relationship to the whole of humanity. So you shouldn't be shut off from anybody by some declaration of an exclusive truth.

LYDEN: You've been doing this for such a long time. How would you say that -how has it changed you?

Prof. BARKS: What it felt like when I looked first into his poetry, it felt like there was a sky, of some of the new medium to breathe. It was like some great freedom came into me. And I hope I have incorporated that into my life, but I'm not the one to say that. But it certainly has - it certainly feels good and it still feels good. It still feels like it's always unfolding. And so something new comes to me from it as I read the poems and try to reform the words of the English translations. I don't get tired of it. I may be simple minded, but I don't get tired of doing this.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LYDEN: Leave us with a last poem that gives you that experience of ecstasy.

Prof. BARKS: Here's a poem that may have been written by Shamsi Tabrizi.

(Reading) I, you, he, she, we. In the garden of mystic lovers, these are not true distinctions.

LYDEN: Coleman Barks, his latest work is called "Rumi: The Big Red Book." It's out in stores now, and if you'd like to read an excerpt, you can go to our Web site, npr.org. Coleman Barks joined us from member station WUGA in Athens, Georgia. Thank you so much for being with us.

Prof. BARKS: Thank you, Jacki.

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