It was in the wake of this experience that Rumi’s formidable output of poetry began: a catalog that in its surviving form runs to a dozen thick volumes. Rumi’s masterpiece, the Mathnawi, is a fantastical, oceanic mishmash of folktales, philosophical speculation and lyric ebullience in which the worldly and the otherworldly, the secular and the sacred, blend constantly. For Rumi, the universe is like a tavern where people, drunk with desire and longing, collect and carouse until they finally remember their true calling: return to an Islamic God whose all-encompassing love is the core of every earthly love from the most trifling to the deepest and most passionate. “Where did I come from, and what am I supposed to be doing?” Rumi had asked. “I have no idea. My soul is from elsewhere, I’m sure of that, and I intend to end up there.”
The man most responsible for Rumi’s popularity in the West today is Coleman Barks, a poet and retired professor of English at the University of Georgia. Humble and soft-spoken, Barks acknowledges that his translations are often far from exact renditions of the Farsi of Rumi’s day, which in any case he doesn’t speak. To create them, he has used literal translations provided by others. Barks’ emphasis on poetic essence over linguistic exactitude owes a strong debt to earlier poet-translators like Robert Bly, Kenneth Rexroth and Ezra Pound who championed a style of direct, aggressively unacademic translation. Following their example, Barks was able to create an American Rumi: one who speaks across the centuries with a voice as direct and imperative as a tug on the shirt:
Muhammad rode his horse through the nightsky. The day is for work. The night for love. Don’t let someone bewitch you. Some people sleep at night.
But not lovers. They sit in the dark and talk to God, who told David, Those who sleep all night every night And claim to be connected to us, they lie.
The God Rumi speaks of in his poems — or at least in Barks’ translations of them — is one who seemingly has little interest in the intricacies of orthodoxy and doctrine. “Rumi keeps breaking the mosque and the minaret and the school,” Barks told National Public Radio last year. “He says when those are torn down, then dervishes can begin their community. So he wants us all to break out of our conditioning, be it national or be it religious or be it gender based.”