Essay

A Rumi of One’s Own

What’s lost in translation doesn’t hurt this poet’s popularity.

by Rachel Aviv


Illustration by Marianne Goldin.

Several years ago Kabir Helminski, a sheikh of the Mevlevi Order of Sufism, received a call from Madonna’s producer, who wanted to hire his troupe of whirling dervishes for a music video inspired by the 13th-century Persian poet Rumi. Helminski read the script, learned that a guy would be lying on top of Madonna while she sang “Let’s get unconscious, honey,” and wrote a polite letter declining the request. He also sent a package of books so that the singer might get a better sense of Rumi’s teachings.

Like many Persian literary scholars, Helminski, who runs the Threshold Society, a Sufi study center in California, has had little success in convincing Americans that Rumi is about more than transcendent sex. (Madonna later recited Rumi’s poems on a CD, A Gift of Love, along with Goldie Hawn and Martin Sheen.) One of the five best-selling poets in America, Rumi, who was born 800 years ago in what is now part of Afghanistan, has become famous for his ability to convey mystical passion: his lovers are frequently merging into one, forgetting who they are, and crying out in pain. Yet his religious work—one book is popularly called the “Koran in Persian”—is often ignored.

To uncover and celebrate his heritage, UNESCO has declared 2007 the Year of Rumi; conferences about his work are being held in Istanbul, Kabul, Tehran, Dushanbe, and Ann Arbor. One of the featured speakers in Ann Arbor this fall will be Coleman Barks, an American poet who is largely responsible for Rumi’s American popularity as well as his reputation as an erotic soul-healer. Born in Tennessee, Barks freely admits to not knowing Persian (scholars call his best-selling works from the translations of others “re-Englishings”). While his poems are far more elegant and accessible than any previous English renditions, they tend to turn holy scenes into moments of sexual passion. Sometimes he takes out references to God and replaces them with “love.” As he explained in the introduction to his 2001 collection of poems, The Soul of Rumi, “I avoid God-words, not altogether, but wherever I can, because they seem to take away the freshness of experience and put it inside a specific system.”

But Rumi, who spent most of his adult life in Konya, Turkey, based his life and poetry around that system. The son of an Islamic preacher, he prayed five times a day, made pilgrimages to Mecca, and memorized the Koran. Under the influence of an older dervish, Shams of Tabriz, he devoted his life to Sufism, an ancient, mystical branch of Islam. Sufis are less concerned with the codes and rituals of Islam than with making direct contact with God; as one scholar puts it, “Sufism is the core of the religion, the nut without the shell.” Still, the traditional Islamic texts are central to the faith. “I am the slave of the Qur’an and dust under the feet of Muhammad,” Rumi writes. “Anyone who claims otherwise is no friend of mine.”

Rumi put forth an alarming quantity of writing—about 70,000 verses in 25 years—which affords translators the luxury of leaving out poems that might alienate the average American reader. In the introduction to his 2003 Rumi: The Book of Love, Barks jokes that his previous book of translations “achieved the cultural status of an empty Diet Coke can.” He gives the language a Southern hominess and an almost childlike simplicity:

Love comes sailing through and I scream.                                                                                     Love sits beside me like a private supply of itself.
Love puts away the instruments
and takes off the silk robes. Our nakedness
together changes me completely.

Starting with 50-year-old prose translations by the British scholar A.J. Arberry, Barks takes liberties to make Rumi’s language more accessible and universal. Occasionally this results in more than subtle changes in meaning. In one mistake, documented by the independent scholar Ibrahim Gamard, Barks mistranslates the word “blind” as “blond” due to a typo in Arberry’s version—inadvertently turning a scene about the abandonment of those who don’t know God (“Bright-hearted companions, haste, despite all the blind ones, to home, to home!”) into a part about resisting sexual lures (“I know it’s tempting to stay and meet these blonde women”). In Rumi’s time, it’s hard to imagine that there were many women with yellow hair; there wasn’t even a word for it.

Barks’s wholesome soulfulness should be credited for bringing Rumi’s work to popularity, but in the process he leaves behind perhaps the most important part of the poems. “Rumi is not a great poet in spite of Islam,” says William Chittick, a Sufi literature scholar at Stony Brook University. “He’s a great poet because of Islam. It’s because he lived his religion fully that he became this great expositor on beauty and love.”

There’s a sense in Rumi’s poems that he is at his emotional limits, simultaneously ecstatic and exhausted. His faith seems desperate, and almost tangible. Such devotion is striking because it’s inspired by God, not by the promise of sex as it sometimes appears in the translations. “He was the most important religious figure of his day,” says Jawid Mojaddedi, an Afghan-born Rumi scholar at Rutgers, whose translation of Book Two of Rumi's Masnavi came out this month. “And yet people are shocked to find out Rumi was Muslim; they assume he must have spent his life persecuted for his beliefs, hiding in some cave in Afghanistan. We talk of clash of civilizations, and yet there’s this link that needs to be spelled out.” (Rumi’s success in America has actually boosted his popularity, Mojaddedi says, in parts of the Middle East.)

But for many readers, Rumi’s Persian background has little bearing on the force of his poems. He has come to embody a kind of free-for-all American spirituality that has as much to do with Walt Whitman as Muhammad. Rumi’s work has become so universal that it can mean anything; readers use the poems for recreational self-discovery, finding in the lines whatever they wish. “It’s impossible to take Rumi out of context,” says Shahram Shiva, a Rumi translator and performance poet who regularly gives readings of Rumi’s poems, often in yoga studios. “Great art doesn’t need context,” he says. “The best thing for Beethoven’s popularity was when they put a disco beat behind Symphony no. 5.” Shiva recites Rumi to the accompaniment of flute, piccolo, piano, conch shell, and harmonica and belts out the lines in a deep, sultry Broadway voice. “Rumi’s one of the great creative beings on this planet,” he says, “a mixture of Mozart and Francis [of] Assisi, with a little Galileo thrown in, and maybe some Shakespeare and Dante.”

In his most anthologized poems Rumi comes off as a saintly Tony Robbins, urging people to break barriers, stop worrying, touch the sky, make love, never surrender. It’s as if publishers worry that reading poetry is such a fragile enterprise that too much weight and context and not enough sex will scare everyone away. Helminski, who used to run a publishing company that put out Barks’s early books, noticed a consistent sensibility in the lines readers were requesting permission to quote: those suggesting that there’s no conventional morality, no such thing as ethical failure. The number one requested line was “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing / there is a field. I’ll meet you there.” “Our culture is so shame-ridden that when someone comes along and says, ‘You’re OK,’ it’s a great relief,” says Helminski. “Americans still have an adolescent relationship with Rumi. It will take some maturing before we move beyond the clichés.”

Originally Published: July 17, 2007

COMMENTS (40)

On July 17, 2007 at 2:15pm Shahram Shiva wrote:
After reading the final version of this piece, I'd have to say that this is a prefect example of objective journalism. I’m disappointed! Ms. Aviv seems to have begun this project with the intention to present Rumi as a holy, Islamic scholar who is being exploited by Mr. Barks and I. The truth is very far from this simple and in my mind manipulative report. The quote of Rumi mentioned above, where he declares in being a devote Muslim is one of the very few and rare poems where Rumi actually claims homage to any one religion or in many cases even any one culture. Several mentions out of 70,000 verses and it’s being quoted in this short report. That’s simply wrong. Rumi is a phenomenon and hence a by product of people’s own projections. A religious person views Rumi as being highly religious, however that doesn’t it make it so. Nor does it change the fact that one of Rumi’s most common themes is “finding god outside of a mosque.? I would like to be removed from this story as I do not consider it professional enough to quote my words. Thank you. Shahram Shiva

On July 17, 2007 at 5:12pm Majid Naficy wrote:
"Colman Barks instead of conveying the misogynistic and antisexual concept of love

in Mathnavi as it is in the Persian text, distorts and misrepresents the letter and

spirit of Rumi's work." You can read my whole arguement in "Coleman Barks and Rumi"s Donkey" by Majid Naficy in www.Iranian.com This essay will be presented in a Rumi's conference September 13-15 in British museum, London.

On July 17, 2007 at 11:09pm Annie Pearson wrote:
When I first read this piece, I thought that the sensationalist opening hook achieved just what Helminski describes in the final quote— placing this piece solidly in an ‘adolescent relationship’ with Rumi by calling up vivid images of a popular artist whose career began with crucifixes and cheesy underwear. Then I reread the piece three times to be sure I understood the points the writer was seeking to make. Now I can’t tell what those points are. There are a few paragraphs that seem to rather happily describe the creation of translitics that American readers like, no matter what was intended 800 years ago. Then a couple of paragraphs seem to worry in a pseudo-scholarly way about inaccurate translations, lest the authorial intent of the original artist be lost in poor translation. But then after mildly decrying transgression against the spiritual intent and cultural context of the original author, there’s a later tone that seems to look down on how one artist makes use of another artist as source material in translation (though Shakespeare based his whole career on doing just that). So I’m lost in the end. Are we supposed to not like bowdlerized Rumi, made into New Age / Hallmark verses read in yoga parlors? Or be glad that Rumi Lite is available in English, because 70,000 verses is an ‘alarming’ number, and any Rumi is good Rumi? If we are supposed to consider and appreciate the full spectrum of these issues in an intellectual conversation, there is a great deal more connective tissue that is needed. (And, btw, “Rumi? is not the number 5 best-selling poet in America — any more than Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are the best-selling anthologized authors in America. Rumi *translations* are among the best-selling poetry…)

On July 18, 2007 at 8:11am Paul wrote:
Thanks for this insightful essay. It accomplishes much in a short amount of space. Bark's versions of Rumi do seem very soft-edged, the sort of fuzzy verse that appeals to those nostalgic for the so called "summer of love," living in ashrams, etc. Part of their popularity may be attributed to the fascination people have always had with the "foreign" or "exotic," and the fact that nothing sells better than sex, mystical or mundane.

On July 18, 2007 at 10:47am Majid Naficy wrote:
Look,

iranian.com

: Majid Naficy, Coleman Barks and Rumi's Donkey. You can see this page at:

http://www.iranian.com/NaficyMajid/2006/December/Barks/index.html

D

On July 18, 2007 at 12:47pm Paul wrote:
Majid, I just finished reading your essay, "Coleman Barks and Rumi's Donkey." Thanks for pointing it out to us. It is a very illuminating piece.

On July 19, 2007 at 12:05pm Richard Jeffrey Newman wrote:
Barks' "translations" of Rumi--like Daniel Ladinsky's "translations" of Hafez--are part of a long tradition of misrepresentation, appropriation and cooptation of Persian literature by translators into English. I have written about this in the introduction to my translation of selections from Saadi's Bustan. You can find the intro on my website: http://richardjnewman.com/publications/bustan.htm.

On July 19, 2007 at 2:09pm Majid Naficy wrote:

Thanks Paul. Here is the first page of my essay, "Coleman Barks and Rumi's Donkey":

majidnaficy@yahoo.com

During the first half of the twentieth century, the six volumes of Rumi's Masnavi and a selection of his lyrics were translated into English by British scholars Reynold Nicholson and Arthur John AArberry but these works were mostly known to academia. Recently Coleman Barks's version of Rumi, especially The Essential Rumi which is the subject of this review has become popular and and a best-seller-book in the US. Barks did not know Rumi until 1976 that the American poet, Robert Bly handed him a copy of Arberry's translation saying "these poems need to be released from cage". No doubt that Barks's version of Rumi has freed these poems from the confines of Departments of Near Eastern Studies, but unfortunately as we will see he has tied them in the cage of his personal taste.

The essential problem of Coleman Barks lies in the fact that in his version he intentionally changes Rumi, perhaps for the better, but at the expense of distortion and misrepresentation. He approaches Rumi's poetry as religious text which need to be dusted from the passage of time by a touched devotee and prepare for the a Post-Modern, new-Age market in the West. Reynold Nicholson who was the first scholar to publish the first critical edition of Masnavi in Persian as well as the first full translation of this book into English had intellectual honesty. Although his translation is literal he had no religious or mystical mission and did not change Rumi in order to promote his own agenda. Barks is the exact opposite of Nicholson. In order to remodel and fix Rumi for the American market Barks follows the path of a New-Age- sufi. He tries to disconnect the mystical concepts of Rumi from their historical and social background and modify them for our contemporary taste. For example, he instead of conveying the misogynistic and anti-sexual concept of "love" in Masnavi as it is in the Persian text, distorts and misrepresents the letter and spirit of Rumi's works.

On July 19, 2007 at 6:29pm Michael Church wrote:
I'm a little sad, but not surprised.

Sad, because I am so fond of Barks' version of

Rumi -- as I will continue to be, despite

knowing that he didn't translate from the

originals, and that he took significant liberties

with the author's religious commitments.

But not surprised, because this sort of thing

happens so often. Robert Bly's paraphrases of

Kabir are useful for comparison -- like Barks,

they are good English poetry. But they aren't

especially good Kabir. (As opposed to the

Linda Hess/Shukdev Singh renderings).

Among Christian writers, a little of this has

gone on with Hildegard of Bingen, but less

egregiously so. I suppose it is harder to

bowdlerize the religiosity of one's own parent

culture -- or at least to get away with it.

On July 19, 2007 at 11:46pm Majid Naficy wrote:
Michael, Bowdlerization means censorship. When you censor an author you not only misrepresent him/her but also deny the public of having an independent approach and debate. In case of Barks, the English reader is not the only loser but the Persian, Afghan, Tajik, Turkish and Islamic culture also suffer from his distortion in a double sense: First, Barks does not give these cultures any credit for offering such a poet to the world; Second, and more importantly, by covering the misogynistic and anti-sexual attitude of Rumi toward love, Barks denies these cultures of self-criticism and debate in order to develop a modern, and democratic world view. If you want to help the English people to overcome their antisemetic prejudices you should not omit or censor the character of Shylock in "The Merchant of Venice" and change him into a good personality; rather you should leave him where he is and instead write a critical review about Shakespeare. That way, the whole public can benefit and get involved in a debate and further the cause of racial tolerance. . s

On July 20, 2007 at 12:11am Dibs, in search of self wrote:
Aviv did her homework. The piece is excellent. The problem Mr. Shiva has, I gather, is one born out of the idea of authorial intent. Likely, Aviv and Shiva haven't read the 70K Rumi verses; nobody has. Doesn't discredit either. But unlike Mr. Shiva--who comes across just fine in this piece--Aviv has no obvious personal investment in Rumi, and thus, as Mr. Shiva notes, she wrote a reasonably 'objective' piece. Objective in the sense that she put a little pressure on the translations and thus revealed some problems with them, with their authors' 'intent'. Nice work.

On July 21, 2007 at 10:44am Michael Church wrote:
Actually, Majid, "bowdlerize" means to

expurgate prudishly. Which is precisely what

Barks has done -- he has prudishly excised

God from the work of a religious poet. And

(like Thomas Bowdler) he has also excised

whatever else he considers "the naughty bits."

Your subsequent points are well-taken. This is

indeed a sort of condescending ethnocentrism,

which suppresses the distinctiveness of Rumi's

cultural matrix. But while undergraduate

instructors love to use medieval documents as

tools for starting a critical discussion of modern

culture, I'm not sure that's an especially useful

tool, either with Rumi or Shakespeare. Better

to use them as tools for understanding the

past, and using modern writing to understand

the present.

My point is that an insensitive translation keeps

foreign readers (such as myself) from

understanding Rumi on his own terms. it

creates new poems -- which I continue to

enjoy, even as I recognize that they aren't

Rumi.

On July 21, 2007 at 12:47pm Majid Naficy wrote:
Michael, Medievalism is still haunting us and literature plays a main role here. Rumi and Shakespeare were and still are the culture-makers of their societies and you cannot change the culture without criticizing their works.

On July 21, 2007 at 3:12pm Shahram Shiva wrote:
It's interesting to me to read this dialog. As most of it is very well written and is quite eloquent. Rumi is certainly worthy of a good dialog.

For those of you who many not be familiar with my work on Rumi. I have been translating Rumi since 1988 and have been presenting Rumi concerts and workshops since 1992.

I have released 4 books on Rumi and 1 in particular would be of importance for this dialog.

In 1995 I published a book titled, "Rending The Veil: Literal and Poetic Translations of Rumi." This is the only translation of Rumi ever into the English language that presents Rumi's poetry in 4 phases: 1- Actual Persian in a beautiful Nasta'ligh caligraphy. 2- As easy to prounouce Transliteration. 3- Word for Word translation and 4- Literal translation.

For "Rending The Veil" I read all 2000 quatrains of Rumi a few times and selected 500 and out of the 500, I picked 252 poems to be presented in this collection.

"Rending The Veil" was awarded the Benjamin Franklin Award in 1996. And it remains until today the only book of Rumi of its kind.

For more information please visit www.Rumi.net

On July 22, 2007 at 8:54am anony mous wrote:
Check the bookshelves for my new translation of the

Tao Te Ching. I call it "Lose 10 pounds in a week!".

On July 23, 2007 at 12:18pm Darryl Carlton wrote:
I find it "par for the course" that New Agers have watered down and despiritualized Rumi's message. I thought it strange that a 13th century Persian poet would become the "feel-good" avatar for modern days. Now I understand more how it happened.

On July 24, 2007 at 5:33pm Haydn Reiss wrote:
I had a phone interview with Ms. Aviv for her

article as I produced a film in 1998 "Rumi:Poet

of the Heart" which includes Barks, Bly, Huston

Smith and others. It aired on PBS and has a

remained a popular title. When I read through

the comments I see a debate on who really has

the right, accurate "take" on the meaning and

significance of Rumi's writings. Of course I

have my take and bias. What I found in making

the film was this was the case among scholars,

Sufi sheiks, etc - everyone thought they had it

right. At the end, ready to give up, I came

back to why I was attracted to the Barks/Bly

versions that sparked my interest in the first

place - that Rumi asserted the presence of a

force - or call it what you will - that I called

"love" that underlayed this "visible reality".

That is my subjective take but it was enough to

go forward. With what this world is facing and

the potential for poetry to be of help in some

small or large ways, I say let's claim the cup

and translation half-filled rather than not.

On July 27, 2007 at 9:55am Lock Kiermaier wrote:
I offer my comments as someone who very much appreciates what Coleman Barks and Robert Bly have done to bring Rumi’s poetry into our lives. I first heard Robert Bly read Rumi in New York in the early nineties and was absolutely stunned. After that reading, I did everything I could to learn about Rumi and his poetry. Since 1994, I have been performing Rumi with a musical group across the state of Maine.

I’m not a scholar or a Sufi and I don’t consider myself a New Age devotee. I simply love Rumi’s poetry and my favorite versions of Rumi are those by Coleman Barks and Robert Bly. This is simply a matter of personal preference; I’ve read many of the other renderings of Rumi and none of them work for me as well as those from Barks and Bly.

It has always been clear to me that a poem translated from another language will inevitably lose some nuances of meaning and will gain others. For Rumi’s poetry, this transition is amplified by the passage of time and the vast cultural difference between the context in which the poems were written and how they are understood in the culture in which I live. For me, the crucial thing to remember about Rumi’s poetry that comes through poets like Barks and Bly is that these are interpretations of how these poets hear Rumi’s poetry. This process may have some parallels to what happens with folk songs as they get passed from one artist to another over the generations. The important thing is to be aware of what you are reading and how it came to be.

I also want to comment on my impressions of what Rumi’s poetry ultimately means. I have never had any doubt that Rumi’s poetry is ultimately about his relationship with god. The various metaphors used by poets like Barks and Bly suggest the many ways that one can understand the relationship between Rumi and god. When I perform Rumi’s poetry, I always urge the audiences to go way beyond whatever a poem seems to be describing but sometimes my efforts seem fruitless. A case in point: I have always understood Rumi’s frequent references to being drunk as being drunk with the love of god and not having anything to do with the consumption of alcohol. And yet, I have had members of the audience insist that Rumi is an alcoholic and is in denial! Oh well, to each his own.

On July 27, 2007 at 8:53pm Rumi Fan from North Carolina wrote:
I have been an avid reader of Rumi for years--his poetry has changed my life.

I once thought that Coleman Barks did the only good translations, until I heard Shahram Shiva at a Rumi Festival at UNC, Chapel Hill, several years ago.

Two of his poems knocked me out--it was not only his translations but his inflection and cadence in his readings which do not come across in print. They were "You Worry Too Much" & "Lover Me."

I read "You Worry Too Much" at least weekly which gives me great faith!

I'd been waiting years for his CD, Lovedrunk which is finally out.

On July 28, 2007 at 6:41pm James Watt wrote:
I was saddened by the tone of much of the

essay itself as well as by most of the responses

to it. I am glad Shahram Shiva's response was

put first, because it was almost the only one

that I think was worthy of either the mysterious

poet we all admire and the wonderful one we

know and love. Which I mean is the translator

and which is the 'original,' in the prior

sentence, I leave for your own spirit to

determine.

Indeed, most of the arguing about the

'ownership' of the verses of Rumi and the

requirements of translation reminds me of the

similarly dessicated responses to the poetry of

Rilke and the work of various lovers of that

beauty to render it in English for those whose

German is either absent or crippled.

One need not be a German, or even know very

much about the beauties of European culture

developed over centuries, to love the poetry of

Rilke. Those who argue that a greater

knowledge of the language and the history of

the culture in which the poet worked translates

into a superior apprehension of the poem itself

are like those who believe that the explanation

for the rose is found in an exhumation of the

soil from which it bloomed.

Finally, it is telling (and sad) that Ms. Aviv,

evidently believes that because Rumi honored

the prophet, he would scorn Walt Whitman. In

the end, we are all in the debt of every singer

in every tongue and every time. Listen to the

wren's song. Then thank her. And God for

sending her to your window.

On July 28, 2007 at 8:49pm MusicMaster wrote:
I am using a pseudonym because I am a musician, who personally knows Helminski, Barks and Shiva and have been of course familiar with their work for a very long time and have been to their Rumi presentations and on occasion have played with them. I chose to remain anonymous so I could be as candid as possible.

As for this report by Ms. Aviv, to me it seems lopsided and as Shiva aptly calls it “manipulative.? Reports like this are normally written by clerics who are opposed to all things progressive and creative. Looking at Ms. Aviv’s portrait, she doesn’t come across as an Islamic cleric. I don’t see any beard or turbans or her blond hair covered by some hejab. Therefore, I wonder who brainwashed her into writing this lopsided essay and I am pretty sure it was Helminski.

The American Rumi culture today really has only two players Barks and Shiva. One is extremely known and the other, the yet to be widely known, the real deal.

Of the 3 mentioned above only Shiva speaks Persian/Farsi. And he is of course born in Iran, in the same province as Rumi (Khorasan). For those of you who may not know this, Province of Khorasan is called the land of poets since many of Persia’s greats were born there. So, when Shiva wants to create new translations, he never looks at what’s out there already, he opens Rumi’s “Divane Shams? and goes to work. Also, another factor to remember is that Shiva is only 44, and he has been translating Rumi for 18 years. He started very young, because he had no choice; Rumi is his calling and his passion. Lastly, he is capable of creating two types of Rumi translations, Literal and as he likes to call it “lyrical.? Lyrical means poetic or creative renditions. He has published books on both. For example his “Rending The Veil? which is as amazing piece of work is literal translations and his “Hush? is lyrical.

Barks being much older than Shiva, hence more seasoned, from the very beginning went after market saturation. This is back in the 1980’s, when he would put out one small book on Rumi after another. In a matter of a few years he had a dozen little Rumi books. Also being a protégé of the older Bly, Barks gained access to high profile venues early. One such venue was the 1996, “Power of the Word? PBS series hosted by Bill Moyers. That event skyrocketed both the popularity of Rumi and Barks.

Also, as important, Americans like their Rumi with a side of grits. Barks, is not only a more media friendly name, his Southern drawl makes Rumi more palatable for the typical American audiences, who would normally not go see anything Persian or Mideast related at all. So, he’s known, because he’s all American, he has the backing of Bly and more importantly PBS made him famous. And of course he’d darn good at what he does--he used to be an English professor, lest you forget.

If you ask Helminski to define passion, he would say, passion is not for the mere mortals. Although he is a wonderful person, he is dull and very religious. None of those even remotely relates to Rumi. His Rumi events remind me of the Islamic religious schools--totally wrong for Rumi and hence very uninteresting. To quote him as some authority on the world’s most passionate poet is somewhat ironic.

A Barks’ Rumi event is quite entertaining indeed. He has great music and he works with dancers and he reads very well, basically he puts on a good show.

Shiva’s Rumi events are an experience. One person above, from NC, mentions that. Shiva knocks you out and delivers you Rumi, right in your heart. You experience the passion and the majesty of Rumi when you go to his shows. He is the only person living today, who can give you the actual experience of Rumi. If you have a chance to see one of his rare shows, do not miss it. Listening to the audience members after his shows, comments range from “he channels Rumi? to “he is an incarnation of Rumi.?

I remember a very amusing incident after one of his performances, when Shiva got visually disturbed when someone insisted on calling him Rumi’s incarnation. Shiva’s went on about how Rumi is one of the world’s most incredible and brilliant creative minds and that he is a “living spirit? who hasn’t incarnated since. Imagine being insulted with such a high praise. Then again, he knows Rumi too well and has extreme respect for him and considers himself a student of Rumi.

So, that’s basically a quick overview of the current Rumi culture in the US. Hope some of you find this of value.

On July 30, 2007 at 9:41am Victoria Lee wrote:
Rumi wants us to discover our divine nature, to focus on our connection to the Beloved above all, to open to the flowing toward us that never stops nor slows, to see the beauty in every rock and flower and human face, to forgive everyone, to embrace every aspect of ourselves, including our pain and loss, and ultimately our deaths; he wants us to find the profound joy that follows when we surrender to these intentions.

Rumi became a living presence in my life when I immersed myself deeply in him during the years I spent writing "The Rumi Secret: Spiritual Lessons of History's Most Revered Poet."

I read many translators, but Coleman Barks' translations/renderings/interpretations of Rumi were the ones that made Rumi accessible to me and pierced my soul. They led me to profound joy, forgiveness for everyone in my life, discovering my true life purpose, and losing my fear of death. I need no further evidence of their value. If it's Rumi/Barks I'm reading everyday, so be it.

Coleman's ability to make Rumi accessible to so many of us around the world speaks for itself. Discussions like this one would not even occur if Robert Bly had not urged Coleman to take on the task, and if Coleman had not brought Rumi to us in his unique way. I think reading Rumi/Barks every day for a year should be a requirement for participating in a discussion like this. Sitting in a rose garden long enough makes you unlikely to write articles criticizing the formation, color and history of roses.

Thank you Shiva. I have not had the pleasure of reading or hearing you yet, but having read your post here, I look forward to that with joy!

Rumi's garden holds incomparable value for all of us. May all readers of this find their own way to that garden!

--Victoria Lee

On August 1, 2007 at 8:36pm anonymouse wrote:
i confused rumi with the rubayyat of ohmar khayam.

i am glad that the 'rumi scene' has true value and

meaning and dedicated scholars/followers.

but you will one day see 'rumi magazine' for sale, at the

whole foods (or wild oats) checkout, 15 dollars per

issue, with hot chick on the front cover, and ask

yourself 'why didnt i listen to the warning signs'.

next up, 'rumi flakes' and 'rumi-o's cereal, maybe some

whirling dervish action figures, some rock star reading

rumi over the starbucks PA system with CD for sale at

the counter, and a rumi movie starring hollywood actor

of the month.

On August 2, 2007 at 4:47pm Norman Minnick wrote:
Rachel Aviv's wide foul reminds us that every

poet, including Rumi, deserves attentive,

conscientious readers. In his book Reading

Rilke: Reflections on the Problems of

Translation William Gass says, "Our

translations will make a batch of botches, but it

will not matter.... Their real value will have

been received. The translating reader reads

the inside of the verse and sees, like the

physician, either its evident health or hidden

disease." For Rumi to become so popular it is

because there is something inside the poems

contemporary readers on both sides of the

pond are responding to, not because of how

they are packaged. Rumi is an ecstatic poet. It

seems to me Aviv would rather have the stasis

than the ecstasy. She says that Barks “takes

out references to God and replaces them with

‘love.’? Since when is God not love, even

sensuous love?

And sure Rumi has been taken “out of context?

and into yoga studios and patchouli-smelling

New Age shops, so Monet and Van Gogh

paintings appear on mouse pads and coffee

cups. Try reading a newspaper or holding a

conversation without coming across lines

swiped from Shakespeare.

I’d like to first address the “one mistake? Ms.

Aviv points out that Barks “mistranslates the

word “blind? as “blond? due to a typo in

Arberry’s version.? So he made a mistake, and

neither Barks nor his collaborators caught it. If

we are to write him off for this, then we need

to write off Keats for getting the name of the

explorer wrong in his famous sonnet "On First

Looking into Chapman's Homer."

And if Barks is to be dismissed because he

“occasionally takes liberties to make Rumi’s

language more accessible and universal,? then

we will have to dismiss Kenneth Rexroth's

translations from the Chinese and Japanese.

Take, as an example, these lines from Chinese

poet Tu Fu?: "Each / sits listening to his own

thoughts, / and the sound of cars starting

outside." I'll check my sources, but I don't

believe they had cars in the T'ang Dynasty.

And if “cars? is the only English word for (cart),

I can hardly imagine how he could hear one

starting.

So, Coleman Barks has become popular

because of his English renderings of Rumi…is

not Edward FitzGerald's name associated with

Omar Khayyám's? Is this so bad? Pablo

Neruda said to Alastair Reid, "Don't just

translate my poems. I want you to improve

them!" I am not suggesting that Rumi would

say the same to Coleman, but I also wonder

how critical he would be of Coleman's work.

Not very, I suspect. Rumi, like any poet, would

want his poems brought over into poetry and

not simply languish in the purgatory of literal or

academic translation.

Unlike many poet translators, Barks does give

credit to collaborators John Moyne, A. J.

Arberry, Reynold Nicholson, M. G. Gupta and

others on the cover and/or title pages of all the

major Rumi collections.

By the way, in 2006 Barks received The

Diploma of Honorary Doctorate from the

University of Tehran in the field of Persian

Language and Literature. (Incidentally, a

Plaque of Appreciation from the University of

Tehran was also granted to Robert Bly at the

same ceremony.) I would love to hear what the

professors who selected Barks for this honor

would have to say about all this.

Aviv’s pseudo-criticism of Barks is based on a

shallow thesis. John Freccero says in the

introduction to Robert Pinsky's translation of

Dante's Inferno, "The poem is written in a

language that we speak now, no matter which

language we speak. Robert Pinsky renews for

us a Dante for our own time and does so with

admirable clarity and grace." We owe this

same gesture of gratitude to Coleman Barks.

On August 7, 2007 at 9:40am MusicMaster wrote:
I had two thoughts reading Minnick's well written essay above. One, I encourage you to listen to this NPR interview with Shiva. He also credits the popularity of Omar Khayyam to the recreations of Fitzgerald and actually makes a point about how it wouldn't be possible to reach the public with scholarly translations, even though he does literal translations as well.

http://audio.wnyc.org/soundcheck/soundcheck022707apod.mp3

Second, considering Barks maybe the only person in the West who's ever made a living from Rumi I'd say the "debt of gratitude" is paid, many times over.

Finally, I like to thank the young Ms. Aviv for writing a controversial piece that has generated some important feedback. I am sorry to say, but the feedback is certainly more interesting than the piece itself. Nevertheless, she deserves the credit.

On August 14, 2007 at 11:25pm Gordon Koppang wrote:
I gave the original article a quick read, and I think it is Rachel Aviv who misses the point, not Coleman Barks. Aviv says it is Coleman who turns Rumi's images of spiritual union into images of sexual union. This, I think, is a careless reading on her part.

In one of his "re-englishings" Coleman writes, "Remember, the way you make love is the way God will be with you." Coleman gets it: The motives and attitudes we bring to our spiritual and sexual practices determine the nature of the experience (the "out-come"). Are we selfish? Are we demanding, aggressive, resentful, cowardly?

Perhaps we think we are leaving the shadow, the Nafs, behind when we pray and when we make love, but it will out.

Gordon Koppang

Lethbridge Alberta Canada

On August 31, 2007 at 8:19pm naj wrote:
Watching Robert Bly on PBS ... looking for transcript of his interview ... brought me here!

Great foundation!

On October 24, 2007 at 7:12am Richard Schiffman wrote:
Perhaps we could extend this discussion

and ask why the works of Rumi, a

medieval Persian poet, are generating

more excitement, more cultural voltage

than arguably any contemporary poet

writing today. What collective spiritual

hungers are the current crop of writers

failing to respond to that we need to

turn to thirteenth century Iran for our

nourishment?

Admitedly, Barks, Shiva and Bly may--

on occassion-- be writing their own

poems with Rumi's name appended. If

these reworkings express the great

mystical heart that Rumi lived and wrote

from, then I say more power to them. If

these artists have to wear this disguise

in order to talk about the deep things of

the soul, then by all means wear the

disguise.

But the question remains: When will our

own culture of poetry mature to the

point where poets will be able to take off

this disguise and write from the same

deep mystical place that Rumi wrote

from and not feel compelled to garb

themselves in the robes of a medieval

Sufi, or a Chinese sage? When will our

own Rumi (or Whitman) rise up out of

the current sludge of cynicism and

despair?

Maybe poetry could become again the

healing art that it is meant to be.

On November 9, 2007 at 2:07pm Linda C. Lee wrote:
I agree with much of what Richard

Schiffman writes above and wonder if

has read Mary Oliver's recent poetry,

most notably, "Why I Wake Early",

Beacon Press, 2004 and "Thirst"

Beacon Press, 2006. She has won both

a Pulitzer Prize for Poetry and a

National Book Award. Oliver has been

writing her spiritual journey over

years. Her work has expanded,

deepened, enlarged, connected ever

more deeply with God, with Love, with

experiences of the transcendent in

daily life. She is our American Rumi,

our passionate poet of the holy.

On April 6, 2008 at 1:29pm Yigit Yusuf wrote:
i am from austria and rumi is not so famous as in america. rumi will be famous in austria or europe because people are looking for medicine for their spiritual pains. i am a islamic religion teacher, writing an essay about rumis messages to the mankind. i want to say, that we muslims should not do, what rumi would not do.rumi would not obligate any one to be a muslim to hear his message. his message was for all mankind.rumis message is the message of the true love.his messages are like the sunshine-it meets everybody and it warms everybody up...

mr.shiva and mr.barks are very talentedand precious persons. surely the words are important for understanding, but the selecting of the right words are more important to be understood. there is no 100% translating in the world.its impossible to translate 100%! in all translations is also the meanings of the translater hided.so we can translate what we understood, but not what rumi understood from the true love.so we can understand and feel from this not 100%translated words just percents of words from mr.barks or mr.shiva...

these two persons are doing one`s best to understand rumi. as a human we must do the same, because we need that...

(sorry my english)

PS: mr.shiva can you send me some materials about your events.thank you from vienna!

On April 15, 2008 at 9:06am tito flores wrote:
i would like the following published:

resilience.

so robust like rock and stone

so alive with reilience

but yet so monotone

pondering of the demons of life

froze still like ice

he shall not move

he is stuck between a wall and a knife

see him with the weary eyes

with the weak movement

he is dead but alive

his heart bleeds and cries with furious rage

for his heart sleeps on thorns and blades

and lives in a dark cage

he is silent like death

serene as the wind

but his emotion roars like a lion

his frustration boils like hot water

his thoughyts are lost in the darkness

but regardless he moves on.

On May 4, 2008 at 11:05am sunil kumar wrote:
I LIKE A RUMI POETRY.RUMI IS MY FAVORUTE POET.

On June 1, 2008 at 11:05pm D. Miller wrote:
I've never read a poem.

Today I heard Coleman

Barks being interviewed on

CBC radio (Canada) about

Rumi, whom I'd never

heard of.

I'm going to buy both

Coleman's and Shiva's

books and read them.

After reading all the

comments which follow

Rachel Aviv's article I have

to say that she's way way

out of her depth.

On August 22, 2008 at 6:08am Malcolm Dean wrote:
Dear Ms. Aviv: This response is

to you personally, rather than

to your essay per se. I have a

little game I play with my copy

of Coleman Barks' book The

Essential Rumi: in response to

some question or issue, I close

my eyes, open the book to a

random page, and, still with my

eyes closed, put my finger

down on a verse. It is amazing,

and often very funny, what

response comes. Thinking of

your essay, I played that game

and got the following

paragraph, which is not from

one of Rumi's poems, but

rather from the introduction

Barks wrote to chapter 20 of his

book (page 206):

"The Mathnawi is a house of

mirrors. Relationship is

everywhere, and everywhere we

are shown ourselves. The other

reveals us. Rumi's stories are

full of reflections, comic janitors

and stealthy maids, judges and

impudent lovers who disclose

our hidings and hypocrisies.

The whole always throws the

parts into relationship,

polishing the mirrors. What we

see happening in the external

drama we can be sure is part of

ourselves. It is said that a cow

walked across the entire city of

Baghdad and saw only some

hay that had fallen off a wagon.

Likewise, some people travel all

around the world and report

back that everyone tried to

cheat them."

On December 26, 2008 at 1:25pm Seattle Reader wrote:
I read through nearly half of the collection, _The Glance_, "translated by" Coleman Barks, before I flipped to the end to read that he was using Nevit Ergin's Turkish-English translation of Golpinarli's Persian-Turkish translation. Barks' is therefore third-hand; he also notes that his translations are "very free." He also hopes the "attunement to Rumi has not been lost in the relaying process" (p. 95). Yes, I hope so too, but I have little faith (Barks' awards notwithstanding) that I'm getting Rumi rather than Barks-as-filtered-through-Rumi.

Arguments that all translations are prone to this mutual infiltration are disingenuous or naive. There are tendencies to one extreme or another. At some point along the spectrum, it is more honest to call these renderings "re-interpretations" or "adaptations" or at the least, "freely translated by...."

Anything labelled a translation is a kind of contract with the reader. When the new distillation gets increasingly distant and free from the original source, this tells me something about what I'm getting. It may be I'll love the result--but I want to know this upfront before I buy a book. Moreover, the word translation is being distorted here. We don't "translate" Shakespeare into American English, we adapt it or update it...but we aren't moving it from one language into another.

This is a commercial issue, and not just a literary and cultural one, which is why the publishing houses are colluding in this. Obviously, it's more commercial to label third-hard, very free versions of Rumi as translations.

For the record, until I knew the roundabout transmission history of Barks' _The Glance_, I found portions of the poems gorgeous, and others struck me as mannered. The feeling that the translator was inserting himself at the expense of the original was exactly what made me Google "best translators of Rumi" and ultimately get to this site.

It's great that Barks is forthright in his "Notes on the Translation" about his sources, but this shouldn't be buried at the back of the book.

On April 5, 2009 at 8:26pm Hana Khan wrote:
Poetry enlightens us in a way that nothing else can. It brings out the best and worst of emotions and the job of a talented poet is to phrase these emotions and tie 'em up in words. Ever heard of taming a rebellious ocean wave? Rumi the great mystic poet didnt limit himself to one culture but has belonged to the universal fraternity. Who decides who can or how to interpret fragrance of a flower? We all need a lil sniff of this beautiful fragrant garden that Rumi has created for us.

On June 4, 2009 at 9:34pm Christanne wrote:
Thank you, MusicMan, I appreciate the context. I like Coleman Barks in spite of the "side of grits" but I have to agree with you about Shiva - and Helminski. CB/Rumi: "Love is the 30 pound bale - when you load it on the boat tips over." RB/Mirabai, "I have felt the swaying of the elephant's shoulders and now you expect me to climb on a jackass? Try to be serious!" "Making love with Krishna and eating little, those are my pearls and my carnelians." I don't care about literary wranglings, I want the taste that takes me to this space. That longing is so potent it comes through every channel.

On August 11, 2009 at 8:13pm TJ wrote:
It doesn't matter if its Coleman, Shiva,
or Helminski. They are all translations
and thus incapable of capturing the
Persian verses of Rumi. And there is
nothing wrong with that. How else would
Rumi be popularized if not by
translations?

But, like it or not, Rumi was and
remains a central figure in Islamic
Sufism. And there are many more
equally powerful Sufi poets who have
not yet been translated. Rumi is just one
of them.

If you enjoy Coleman or Madonna then
good for you. But, you can't say that
Rumi's language and world are not Sufi
and not important to unlocking his
verses.

Long before the West heard of Rumi, his
poetry was being taught, recited,
memorized, and above all experienced
by Sufi teachers for hundreds of years.

Say what you want, read whichever
translation you want, but don't take
from Rumi his Ruminess.

On August 11, 2009 at 9:07pm TJ wrote:
I read Sharam Shiva's comment more
closely the second time. I haven't read
his works/translations but they are
probably good as some have mentioned
here.

But, it was shocking to read what he
wrote
"A religious person views Rumi as being
highly religious, however that doesn’t it
make it so. Nor does it change the fact
that one of Rumi’s most common
themes is “finding god outside of a
mosque.�? I would like to be removed
from this story as I do not consider it
professional enough to quote my words.
Thank you. Shahram Shiva"

Has he any inkling of what the words
"finding God outside of a mosque"
mean?

He thinks this is Rumi's denial of piety
and religious observance! This is exactly
why one needs a basic understanding of
what Sufi poetry is and where it comes
from. Its not enough to use a Persian to
English dictionary! Try translating
Shakespeare's verses to Chinese using
a dictionary!

Sufi poetry is replete with such phrases
that Shiva quoted- Bulleh Shah, Sachal
Sarmast, Rumi, Hafiz, Attar, Ibn Arabi,
Rabia Adawiyya, Jami, Amir Khusro,
Yunus Emre, Ibn Al Farid - (has he even
heard these names? Many are not even
Persian poets).

Their poetry is also replete with such
phrases. They talk of wine, passionate
love, women, taverns etc - all are
symbols and images employed by Sufi
poets who themselves may have never
tasted wine, and some were even
celibate!

It's interesting to note that on one hand
we have "radical" Muslims who hate
Rumi for the wine, sex etc for they
understand not the meanings. And on
the other hand we have "hardcore
liberal hippies" who have not an inkling
of the spiritual practices and
observances of Rumi. He prayed and
fasted more than any hypocritical Mullah
in a mosque!

On November 7, 2010 at 5:08pm anonymous wrote:

just get a literal translation, and sit with your barks, and go through them both. look up some of your favorite "rumi" quotes. you will be surprised. that is how i got to this site. you are being drawn into a commodification, vast over-simplification and total bastardization of this work. it is the mcdonald's styrofoam remix. it's funny how even american mini communities who profess to be completely against this kind of thing are completely susceptible and attracted to it. even if he put his own name on the books as at the very least co-author (think of how sales would drop with a non-exotic name as author!), even if he was never again coy (he is constantly) about what exactly he does to the poetry or whether the term translator can be honorably applied to him, even if he simply claimed the work as a sampling job, a remix, intellectual property and plagiarism be damned, he would still be writing from a place not only of great ignorance of the language of rumi, but of a CLEARLY willful disregard for many of the principal themes and beliefs of his writing, how he lived his life, and what he believed. and this is damaging. proscribing to and supporting these interpretations not only is harmful for your own intellect, and blasphemous to the tradition of rumi and countless who have come before, but is harmful and disrespectful to sufis living today, the community, and how ideas around it develop. i hear a recurrent thread from the supporters of barks over and over, basically: ok i concede your point but i don't care. it's comfortable for me to read his translations, i don't have to struggle for knowledge. i beg you to look for something real please! think with sense. recognize that nothing is easy in this world, look at the intellectual and spiritual toil and the vast amount of learning rumi chose to submit himself to and realize that you being able to read the words in a few highly distilled (not to mention perverted) couplets does not entitle you to his measure of spiritual peace, understanding or knowledge. it's not a christ paradigm; he didn't write all this that you can consume it as easily as possible and magically benefit. the lessons of life are exactly that: lifelong, and are for each to learn himself and in his own way, not download and consume with ease from someone else. there are fates worse than death, even for cultures. i would rather die than let the likes of barks and shiva interpret my culture and religion for me and for millions of others, so they can make $$$ and the millions can feel better about the soulless place their society has ultimately enabled them to leave themselves. read the majid naficy link above it is a good one also http://www.dar-al-masnavi.org/about_masnavi.html

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Biography

Rachel Aviv’s writing has appeared in The Believer, Bookforum, The New York Times, and The New Yorker.

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