Poetry Fridays: Coleman Barks

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Martin Farawell, Program Director, Poetry

COLEMAN BARKS is considered the pre-eminent translator of Jelaluddin Rumi into English. His translations are noted for their rendering of poems originally written in 13th century Persian into a contemporary English of great immediacy. Barks’ translations make the great Sufi mystic seem as human and approachable as a friendly neighbor. Listening to Barks read one of his own poems, “The Tuesday Before Thanksgiving,” it is hard not to imagine that friendly neighbor is Barks himself.

The renaissance in poetry that has taken place in America over recent decades was also accompanied by (and perhaps even precipitated by) a renaissance in poetry translation. Contemporary American poets cite Spanish, French, German, Polish, Russian, Japanese and Chinese poets as sources of inspiration as often as they do poets from their native soil.

Coleman Barks’ translations of Rumi, begun more than thirty years ago, were part of this great wave of translation. Listening to him read one of his “shamelessly doting grandfather poems,” it is impossible to tell if the humor, open-mindedness and great heart evinced in the poem and in his reading of it were personal qualities he brought to his translations, or if his immersion in Rumi’s work translated Barks into this man we now see so full of love and nurturance for the next generation. A man who can say of his studio “that place needs some dancing,” can’t be too far in spirit from the Sufi mystic known to have broken into whirling ecstatic dance during worship.

Many editions of Coleman Barks’ translations of Rumi are available, and he has published a number of volumes of his own poetry.  Recent collections of his original work include: Club: Grandaughter Poems, Scrapwood Man, and Winter Sky: New and Selected Poems, 1968 – 2008.  You can read a biography of Coleman Barks by visiting our 2008 Festival Poet Pages.

Be sure to revisit us on upcoming Poetry Fridays, when we will feature many poets from past Dodge Poetry Festivals in the weeks ahead, including Lucille Clifton, Billy Collins, Mark Doty, Martín Espada, Joy Harjo and others.

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