Wordsmith: Coleman Barks

When Coleman Barks was 5 years old, he begged his parents to buy him a Rand Mc-Nally World Atlas

Coleman Barks Author art&culture magazine Winter 2018

He memorized almost every capital city, creating a sensation at the boys’ school where his father was headmaster. “People would call out countries to me, and I would yell back the capital,” Barks says in his smooth Southern drawl. 

“They’d say, ‘Uruguay?’ and I’d say, ‘Montevideo!’ I never missed.” It was a Latin teacher who finally broke Barks’s streak, yelling, “Cappadocia?” one afternoon. “I could not come up with the capital,” he recalls. “It maimed me.” The takedown even earned him a nickname that stuck for decades: “Cap.”

There’s a kind of kismet in the nickname. The ancient region of Cappadocia (part of modern-day Turkey) never had a capital—thus, young Barks’s blank. But its main city, Konya, was home to thirteenth-century poet Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi, whose works Barks has spent the past 40 years translating. “I think that was the universe playing a little joke on me,” he says. “My long ignorance about what was destined to be my life’s work.”

Poet Robert Bly introduced Barks to Rumi’s verses in 1976. Bly felt the essence of Rumi—the search for the divine in both the mundane and the miraculous—had been buried in scholarly translations. He challenged Barks to recast the poems in the free-verse tradition of American poets like Walt Whitman and Galway Kinnell, insisting the works needed to be “released from their cages.” Barks has since translated more than a dozen volumes.

Barks’s own poetry is contemplative, set in his native landscape of rural southeastern America. “With my poems, I try to get in the way,” he says. “I let it all come in: shame and love and disappointment and laughter, all my emotional states. With the Rumi work, it’s more about the spiritual states. I just try to get out of the way, to disappear.”

As the special guest poet at this year’s Palm Beach Poetry Festival, Barks hopes the wisdom of Rumi will come through when he reads: “[In Out Beyond Ideas], Rumi tells us, ‘Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.’”

He pauses to consider this, then adds his take: “Out beyond the mind. Out beyond judgment. Out beyond our guilt and our pride. Out there is a field where you can feel sort of free. That’s where I want to meet people…. Somebody came up to me after a reading where I had shared that poem and said, ‘I don’t think there’s a field like that.’ And I said, ‘Well, I do.’ And anytime I give a reading or a talk, I hope it’s like that—a place where the pronouns dissolve, and there’s a kind of feeling of common identity.”