Poetry Outlet

Rumi: Beyond the mind, into the heart

By Sophie Silverstone

Jung Society reprises Coleman Barks and cellist Eugene Friesen on February 17

“Be grateful for whoever comes, because each has been sent as a guide from beyond” – Rumi (The Guest House)

No one speaks about the heart quite like 13th century mystical Persian Sufi poet Jelaluddin Rumi. Rumi’s lifelong journey from modern day Afghanistan to Konya, Turkey, and his experiences with ecstatic joy, love, sorrow, loss and longing, led him to compose what is considered some of the most popular poetry of all time.

“His poems help us feel what living in ruins is like, in the blank state of knowing nothing, of loving one we do not know and have never met, yet who is deeply familiar. Heartbroken, wandering, wordless, lost, and ecstatic for no reason. It’s the psychic space his poems inhabit,” writes Coleman Barks, acclaimed translator and American literature scholar, and the man largely responsible for Rumi’s popularity in the west since the late 1970s.

Barks returns to Salt Lake City for the third time at the Jung Society of Utah’s annual Valentines Day event, for an evening exploring the poetry of Rumi. The Jung Society of Utah will present Coleman Barks on Sunday, February 17 at Libby Gardner Hall, at the University of Utah, accompanied with Grammy-winning improvisational cellist, Eugene Friesen.

I first encountered Coleman Barks at his 2014 visit. I had been looking for some kind of explanation of life’s dizzying whirlwind at the time. Surely Rumi, with the help of Coleman Barks’ deep resounding voice, would help me make sense of the chaos. Instead it was reiterated to me just how nonsensical and wonderful the whirlwind of life and love all is.

If you want to expound on love, take your intellect and let it lie down in the mud. It’s no help, says Rumi via Barks in “The King and the Handmaiden and the Doctor,” from The Essential Rumi. This book sits by my bedside. Sometimes it perpetuates that dizziness, like whirling dervishes. Other times it comforts, allows, even encourages it: Let the lover be disgraceful, crazy, absentminded. Someone sober will worry about things going badly. Let the lover be. (From “The Sheikh Who Played with Children”).

Barks’ translations of Rumi’s writing stand out, returning some of the poetry and music that direct translations often lose. Barks has his own style of interpreting the literal English translations from the Persian, sometimes re-ordering lines, as well. While some Rumi traditionalists object, Barks is deliberate about his approach. “I’m obviously not trying to place Rumi in his 13th century locus. That is fine work, and I am grateful for those who do it. My more grandiose project is to free his text into its essence,” writes Barks in The Essential Rumi.

Barks first encountered Rumi when he was 39, then a creative writing and poetry professor at the University of Georgia. At a conference,  poet Robert Bly passed around A.J. Arberry’s scholarly translations of Rumi’s poetry. Barks was told to release them from the cages, put them into American-style free verse poetry.

“I did that all afternoon. For some reason I don’t get tired of it. So I’m still doing that almost every day,” says Barks, who is now 81, and travels around the U.S. and internationally about twice a month from his home base in Athens, Georgia to bring Rumi’s words to life.

Barks, like a flute to Rumi’s whispering breath after all these centuries, had some mystical synchronicities along the way. Shortly after his introduction to Rumi, and beginning his study of Sufism in 1977, Barks had a dream. On the bluffs of the Tennessee River, near where he grew up, a ball of light approached. Inside this ball of light was a man with a white shawl over his head. “He said ‘I love you,’ and I said, ‘I love you too.’ I was aware of the formation of the dew. And the dew was love. I don’t know how you explain that, but that’s what I felt.” Barks told me over the phone. A year later he met this man from the ball of light, a Sufi teacher from Sri Lanka named Bawa Muhaiyaddeen, who was living in Philadelphia. “If I hadn’t met him, I don’t think I would be able to do the work on Rumi,” says Barks, who likens Muhaiyaddeen to the same level of enlightenment as Rumi—Rumi, the Sufi, the first dervish to whirl ecstatically… he whirled for nearly 36 hours, says Barks. Rumi, the friend heartbroken over the disappearance of his mystical poetry companion, Shams Tabrizi. Rumi, the poet who describes love as an annihilation, a dissolving obliteration, beyond the mind, “where the soul can lay down in the grass.”

Barks brings up one of Rumi’s more famous lines: Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and right doing there is a field. I’ll meet you there.

Once an audience member, someone he knew and respected, approached him after his talk and said, “Coleman, there is no field. You can’t get beyond the mind.”

Barks laughs, “If you haven’t experienced it, maybe the poetry of Rumi is not for you. If you have, it makes perfect sense. If you delight in that field of dissolving. That’s why the music helps.” On his Salt Lake visit, Barks will be sharing the stage with Grammy-winning improvisational cellist Eugene Friesen. “The music helps the words go deeper, into that region… Beyond the mind, beyond judgment.”


Sophie Silverstone is on the staff of CATALYST magazine.


The Jung Society of Utah Presents an Evening of Rumi’s Poetry: The Guest House—Love and Gratitude with Coleman Barks and Eugene Friesen Sunday, February 17, 7:30pm Libby Gardner Hall on U of U Campus Tickets: $25-$125.


This is the Jung Society of Utah’s 10th Season. More info at JungUtah.com/

This article was originally published on January 31, 2019.