How a Thirteenth-Century Islamic Poet Conquered America - By Ryan Croken
By Ryan Croken, Religion Dispatches, January 28, 2009
I am / not the one speaking here. Even so, I’ll stop. / Anything anyone says is your voice.
–Rumi, translation by Coleman Barks
The best-selling poet in America today could never have known that someday there would be such a thing as America. Born over eight centuries ago in what is now Afghanistan, Jalāl ad-Dīn Muḥammad Rūmī, a Sufi mystic, has traversed some rather astonishing cultural and temporal boundaries to become one of the most improbable leaders in American letters. A study of Rumi’s success, however, would not be complete without exploring the relationship between the poet and his most popular translator, Coleman Barks.
On the spiritual and textual plane in which Rumi and Barks encounter one another, we find not a clash, but a fusion of civilizations, out of which has emerged a 13th-century Sufi devotee who is devastatingly fluent in post-modern American English. As throngs of Americans now worship Rumi for the way he worshipped Allah—at a time in which “Allah” has become a scary word in the “Western World”—the political significance of Barks’ accomplishment cannot be overstated. Barks, a white man from Tennessee, doesn’t speak or read a lick of Persian, and this fact both complicates and facilitates his ability to make a historically accurate Rumi accessible to mainstream America. A poet himself, Barks “re-Englishes” existing translations, releasing, in his own words, “the fire and ecstasy of Rumi’s ghazals” from the stale confines of their scholarly translations. But because Barks himself has become a palpable presence in these ghazals, some critics have lambasted him for the liberal manner in which he has popularized Rumi.
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