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on September 16, 2005
This review was originally written as a response to a one-star Spotlight Review entitled "Look elsewhere for Rumi's essence", which criticized Barks' versions of Rumi as inauthentic because they are not precisely literal; that negative review has since been removed. But what I said then still goes: Don't let the negative reviews drive you away from a great read. This book captures Rumi's essence like no other. And despite what the critics think, Coleman Barks is very well qualified to bring Rumi to a modern English audience. Consider these four points:

1) First, and most important, Barks loves Rumi; he loves Rumi's poetry; he loves that Presence Rumi's poetry celebrates and explores. In the original criticism, the reviewer implied Sufi poetry employs some kind of mantric magic when he said that "their poems are actually precise and carefully constructed technical instruments designed to have very specific effects on the reader under the right circumstances." Please. Rumi himself makes plain throughout his works that the point of his poetry - and of Sufism - is not technique. The point is love: "Rub your eyes, and look again at love, with love." Rumi would have been the last person in the world to insist on strict adherence to technique, or compulsive literal translation. He was about soul, and transformation, and he said over and over again that the only real magic was love. That's the real essence of Rumi. And maybe Barks has been able to translate Rumi's poetry so effectively because he's coming from the heart and the soul, and not just the head.

2) Second, Barks is a well-known American poet in his own right, a retired professor of English at Georgia University. He's studied the life and work of Rumi intensively for over thirty years. And he was a personal student of the great Sufi teacher Bawa Muhaiyaddeen, so he knows something about Sufism and Rumi's "path of love" from direct personal experience.

3) Third, while it is true that Barks does not read Rumi in the original Persian, his modern English versions of Rumi are based on the painstaking study of the best critical English editions of Rumi available, including those of Moyne, Arberry and Nicholson - and if you want to know why Barks chose to go beyond these literal translations and create his own modern versions of Rumi in plain English, try reading a critical edition like Nicholson's - yes, it's a literal translation, and it's very scholarly, but it's almost unreadable. In fact, it's torture. Scholarship is important, but poetry should be a joy.

4) Finally, Barks must know something, because he just got an honorary doctorate from the Department of Persian Language and Literature at the University of Tehran for his translations of Rumi. (Here's the announcement: "The Diploma of Honorary Doctorate of the University of Tehran in the field of Persian Language and Literature will be granted to Professor Coleman Barks, Poet and Professor Emeritus of English, University of Georgia, USA, for translating the poetry of Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi, the great Iranian poet and philosopher at 10:00-12:00 a.m. on Wednesday, May 17, 2006 at Ferdowsi Hall, Faculty of Literature and Humanities, University of Tehran.") And Barks is respected by other modern Iranian-American writers. For instance, on page 286 of his new book "No god but God; the Origins, Evolution and Future of Islam", Reza Aslan - who was born in Iran and now lives in the US - acknowledges that "The best translations of Rumi include Coleman Barks, The Essential Rumi (1995), and the two-volume Mystical Poems of Rumi by A. J. Arberry (1968)..."

There are lots of versions of Rumi out there, including the literal translations like Arberry's or Nicholson's. Barks' obviously respects these literal translations tremendously. They do capture the letter. But Barks frees the spirit. Let me conclude by quoting a wonderful story Barks tells about translating the essence of Rumi's poems. This is from page 180-181 of his new book, "The Soul of Rumi":

Barks writes: "Perhaps presence is so elusive because of those continually disintegrating and reconstituting motions called 'fana' and 'baqa': the wild longing to dissolve in God and then the coming back in the kind hand that reaches to help. That motion is the subject of Rumi's poetry, or it might be better to say that his poetry enjoys the play of presence and absence, through the mind, through desire, love, deep silence, the whole conversational dance of existence, the being of Being. Flowers and fish are doing calligraphy with their moving about. The great sun outside and the sun inside each human hum together. The bright core of their resonance is who we are. I love this Hasidic story about the transmission of such fire:

"When the Baal Shem Tov had difficult work to do, he would go to a certain place in the woods, where he made a fire and meditated. In the spontaneous prayers that came through him then the work that needed to get done was done. A generation later the Maggid of Meseritz was given the same work. He went to the place in the forest and said, "I no longer know how to light the fire and meditate, but I can say the prayers." What needed to happen, happened. A generation after that it came to Moshe Leib of Sassov to do the work. He went into the woods and spoke, "I do not know the fire meditation or the prayers, but I still come to this place where the Baal Shem and the great Maggid came. I hope that's enough." And it was. After another twenty years, Israel of Rishin was called to the task. "I do not know the place, the fire, the meditation, or the prayers but here, inside, sitting at table I can tell the story of how it used to go." The story had the same effect as the wilderness retreat, the fire meditation, and the prayers that came to the Baal Shem Tov, the Maggid, and Rabbi Moshe Leib."

Barks continues: "One might follow the sequence of the anecdote and say that it shows the diminishing of a living tradition. Or one can hear in it that the mystery of doing work takes many forms, and the same continuous efficacy is there no matter whether it's the Baal Shem in solemn silence before the fire in the woods or, generations later, Israel of Rishin indoors telling the story to a table of friends. The vital God-human or human-God connection can break through anywhere at any time. There's no diminishing of it and no fading of grace. I like to hope that Rumi's poems, even in translation, carry the essence of the transforming friendship of Rumi and Shams, that that sun can reappear, whole and radiant in any one of us at any moment." (Note: Shams was Rumi's spiritual teacher.)

"The mystery of doing work takes many forms..." I think this is the real answer to the question of Barks' translations of Rumi: The essence, the Presence, is not carried by the literal translation of form, but by the living transmission of spirit. How this happens is a mystery. But when it does - as it does in Barks' work - "there is no fading of grace". Don't miss this great book.
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on December 27, 2005
As a Persian I felt I can write some illuminating remarks here. I came to this verse from Mowlanaa Rumi in this book: "Let the beauty of what you do be what you love" and I looked a lot for the original poetry. It seems to be sth like this originally:

Today we are drunken(=in love) like everyday
Dont start worrying and start playing instead
For whom the beloved's (God's) face is prayer-niche
There are a hundred ways of prayer. (seeing God's face in everything...Everything is one.)

and Barks' translation:

Today, like every other day, we wake up empty and frightened. Don't open the door to the study and begin reading. Take down a
musical instrument
Let the beauty we love be what we do.
There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.

you see they are quite different and the traslation seems to be distorted.
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on July 5, 1997
At the risk of cliche, if you only buy a single
book this year, please do yourself a favor and
make it "The Essential Rumi." Rumi is for
Americans who think that Islam is all about harems
and terrorists. A sultry serenade to God, Rumi's
poetry explodes in the soul with a beautiful force
that tears down the wall between the individual
and the Divine. Jelaluddin Rumi was a 13th
Century Sufi mystic, the founder of the so-called
"whirling dervishes", whose inner exploration
allowed him to attain a rare level of enlightenment
and connection with God. His poems resonate with
truth and wisdom so earnest that it is impossible
not to be swept away on a tide of pure spiritual
longing and fulfillment. This is a book for
anyone who loves poetry, religion, God, or love.
And if you don't love these things now, you will
by the time you finish "The Essential Rumi."
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on June 22, 1998
This is one of the best books of poetry translations I've ever read. Barks has done a tremendous job of rendering Rumi into language that captures the poet's range: oblique to blunt, ethereal to earthy. While I can't comment on the accuracy of the translations, they work beautifully as English poetry -- and that, to me, is the crucial part. To Western readers, Rumi was a misty eminence of literary and religious history, and Barks has brought him to glorious, complex life.
One caution: although Rumi wrote intensely spiritual poetry, some of the "teaching tales" are pretty raunchy (after reading about the maidservant and the donkey, I'll never look at gourds the same way again!). Again, his poetry blends the divine and the human, heavenly love and earthly eroticism. While there are analogues in Western religious poetry (e.g., Teresa of Avila and the English 17th-century poet Richard Crashaw), this may be unsettling for some readers.
The hardbound edition, at least, is well done: the paper has a nice texture, the typography and page design enhance the text, and the cover is attractive (I haven't looked at the paperback). For me, the attractiveness of the book greatly enhanced the experience of reading it.
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on April 22, 2006
I have to say I agree with some of the other reviews here, that this collection of poetry by "Rumi" is in reality modern American poetry by someone drawing only very loosely on Rumi's work. It is rather a stretch to call it a translation! If one were cynical, one might think the large number of books from this "translator" indicates merely a money-making exercise.

Much better collections/translations can be found, like Maryam Mafi's and Azima Melita Kolin's, but I would personally recommend Juliet Mabey's Rumi: A Spiritual Treasury. This is not only a gorgeous book to look at, but more importantly, both its selection and English rendition demonstrate a deftness of touch that make you think you are reading something very close to the original sentiment. A rare achievement.
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Rumi (as he is known in the West), was known as Jelaluddin Balkhi by the Persians and Afghanis, from where he was born in 1207. Rumi means 'from Roman Anatolia', which is where his family fled to avoid the threat of Mongol armies. Being raised in a theological family, Rumi studied extensively in religion and poetry, until encountering Shams of Tabriz, a wandering mystic, with whom he formed the first of his intense, mystical friendships, so intense that it inspired jealously among Rumi's students and family. Shams eventually disappeared (most likely murdered because of the jealousy); Rumi formed later more mystical friendships, each with a different quality, which seemed essential for Rumi's creative output. Rumi was involved with the mystical tradition that continues to this day of the dervish (whirling dervishes are best known), and used it as a personal practice and as a teaching tool.

This book has a deliberate task: 'The design of this book is meant to confuse scholars who would divide Rumi's poetry into the accepted categories.' Barks and Moyne have endeavoured to put together a unified picture that playfully spans the breadth of Rumi's imagination, without resorting to scholarly pigeon-holes and categorisations.

'All of which makes the point that these poems are not monumental in the Western sense of memorialising moments; they are not discrete entities but a fluid, continuously self-revising, self-interrupting medium.'

Rumi created these poems as part of a constant, growing conversation with a dervish learning community. It flows from esoteric to mundane, from ecstatic to banal, incorporating music and movement at some points, and not at others, with the occasional batch of prose.

'Some go first, and others come long afterward. God blesses both and all in the line, and replaces what has been consumed, and provides for those who work the soil of helpfulness, and blesses Muhammad and Jesus and every other messenger and prophet. Amen, and may the Lord of all created beings bless you.'

From the lofty sentiments...

'There's a strange frenzy in my head,

of birds flying,

each particle circulating on its own.

Is the one I love everywhere?'

...to the simple observations...

'Drunks fear the police,

but the police are drunks too.

People in this town love them both

like different chess pieces.'

Some poems take very mystic frameworks, such as the Sohbet. There is no easy English translation of Sohbet, save that it comes close to meaning 'mystical conversation on mystical subjects'. These poems become mystically Socratic, by a series of questions and answers, very simple on the surface, yet leading down to the depths of meaning.

In the middle of the night

I cried out,

"Who lives in this love

I have?"

You said, "I do, but I'm not here

alone. Why are these other images

with me?"

Rumi also has an elegant series called the Solomon Poems, in which King Solomon is the embodiment of luminous divine wisdom, and the Queen of Sheba is the bodily soul. This sets up a dynamic tension that gets played out in the poetry (in extrapolation from the Biblical stories from which they were first derived)

Rumi reminds us that, in the face of love and truth, even the wisdom of Plato and Solomon can go blind, but there is vision in this blindness.

In the conclusion of this volume, Rumi's poetry of The Turn (the dervishes) is presented, as a place of emptiness, where the ego dissolves, and opens a doorway to the divine to enter. The night of Rumi's death in 1273 is considered 'Rumi's Wedding Night', the night he achieved full union with the divine that he had sought so often in poetry and mystical practice.

There is much to be gained in the contemplation of this frequently overlooked poet.
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on December 19, 2000
This is a beautifully put together book of interpretations of translations of some of Rumi's work, though I do think other scholars, Nicholson comes to mind, have gotten much closer to the essence of Rumi. Nicholson doesn't water Rumi down; often, very often, Rumi's work was incredibly rambling, and extremely hard to follow--but delightful and compelling nonetheless. Though I do immensly enjoy Barks' work, he makes Rumi too tidy, and much of Rumi's brilliant essence and expansive mind is missed.
I recently stumbled across an absolutely engaging biography of Rumi, and which is a popular, short form account. Why the heck did it take so long for this? is anybody's guess. There is one other very good biography out there by a scholar named Iqbal, but even this is still too academic. This new book, Rumi: A Spiritual Biography by Leslie Wines though is a vigorous and ambitious little book and I think a must read for all those with a real love for this most incredible man and poet.
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on July 31, 2009
Once and for all may the publishers stop calling Barks a translator. He is in his own right a fine poet but he has not translated Rumi from Persian or any other language.

The latest book from Ibrahim Gamard, "The Quatrains of Rumi" gives a fine example of excellent translation and scholarship. Buy both Barks and Gamard and make your own decisions on this important matter.
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on November 16, 1999
This pretty book of verse calls well-deserved attention to Jalaluddin Rumi, a 13th-century mystic considered by many to be one of the greatest poets the world has ever seen. But while author Coleman Barks's intentions may be the best, it's doubtful that what he serves up here is the essential Rumi, if only because Barks speaks not a word of Persian, the language in which Rumi wrote. Barks freely admits that he relied entirely on academic translations to concoct his popularized renderings. This would be less of a handicap were Rumi merely trying to entertain or to convey feelings, moods and subjective impressions. But as Barks himself points out, Rumi was a Sufi; and Sufis maintain that, far from being the emotional outpourings appearance might suggest, their poems are actually precise and carefully constructed technical instruments designed to have very specific effects on the reader under the right circumstances. These effects, which depend heavily upon the language in which the poems were written (not to mention the specific audience they were written for, which is another matter entirely), are easily blunted by translation and other forms of tampering. Barks - in translating translations - would seem to be carrying this tampering a step further, despite his skill as a wordsmith. The result, however aesthetically pleasing and emotionally evocative, is unlikely to be what Rumi had in mind - any more than the miming of a surgeon's hand-movements, however gracefully executed, is likely to heal the sick. Those interested in Rumi's essential - and still relevant - message would do better to read THE SUFIS by Idries Shah, THE LIFE & WORK OF JALALUDDIN RUMI by Afzal Iqbal, or E.H. Whinfield's TEACHINGS OF RUMI.
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Rumi (as he is known in the West), was known as Jelaluddin Balkhi by the Persians and Afghanis, from where he was born in 1207. Rumi means 'from Roman Anatolia', which is where his family fled to avoid the threat of Mongol armies. Being raised in a theological family, Rumi studied extensively in religion and poetry, until encountering Shams of Tabriz, a wandering mystic, with whom he formed the first of his intense, mystical friendships, so intense that it inspired jealously among Rumi's students and family. Shams eventually disappeared (most likely murdered because of the jealousy); Rumi formed later more mystical friendships, each with a different quality, which seemed essential for Rumi's creative output. Rumi was involved with the mystical tradition that continues to this day of the dervish (whirling dervishes are best known), and used it as a personal practice and as a teaching tool.
This book has a deliberate task: 'The design of this book is meant to confuse scholars who would divide Rumi's poetry into the accepted categories.' Barks and Moyne have endeavoured to put together a unified picture that playfully spans the breadth of Rumi's imagination, without resorting to scholarly pigeon-holes and categorisations.
'All of which makes the point that these poems are not monumental in the Western sense of memorialising moments; they are not discrete entities but a fluid, continuously self-revising, self-interrupting medium.'
Rumi created these poems as part of a constant, growing conversation with a dervish learning community. It flows from esoteric to mundane, from ecstatic to banal, incorporating music and movement at some points, and not at others, with the occasional batch of prose.
'Some go first, and others come long afterward. God blesses both and all in the line, and replaces what has been consumed, and provides for those who work the soil of helpfulness, and blesses Muhammad and Jesus and every other messenger and prophet. Amen, and may the Lord of all created beings bless you.'
From the lofty sentiments...
'There's a strange frenzy in my head,
of birds flying,
each particle circulating on its own.
Is the one I love everywhere?'
...to the simple observations...
'Drunks fear the police,
but the police are drunks too.
People in this town love them both
like different chess pieces.'
Some poems take very mystic frameworks, such as the Sohbet. There is no easy English translation of Sohbet, save that it comes close to meaning 'mystical conversation on mystical subjects'. These poems become mystically Socratic, by a series of questions and answers, very simple on the surface, yet leading down to the depths of meaning.
In the middle of the night
I cried out,
"Who lives in this love
I have?"
You said, "I do, but I'm not here
alone. Why are these other images
with me?"
Rumi also has an elegant series called the Solomon Poems, in which King Solomon is the embodiment of luminous divine wisdom, and the Queen of Sheba is the bodily soul. This sets up a dynamic tension that gets played out in the poetry (in extrapolation from the Biblical stories from which they were first derived)
Rumi reminds us that, in the face of love and truth, even the wisdom of Plato and Solomon can go blind, but there is vision in this blindness.
In the conclusion of this volume, Rumi's poetry of The Turn (the dervishes) is presented, as a place of emptiness, where the ego dissolves, and opens a doorway to the divine to enter. The night of Rumi's death in 1273 is considered 'Rumi's Wedding Night', the night he achieved full union with the divine that he had sought so often in poetry and mystical practice.
There is much to be gained in the contemplation of this frequently overlooked poet.
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