Coleman Barks

Coleman Barks

Coleman Barks is a renowned poet and the author of nearly twenty books of translations of the Persian mystical poet Rumi and other Near Eastern poets. Of equal accomplishment, if not quite as phenomenal as his extraordinary awakening of American "bestseller" lists to a 13th-century poet, is Barks' own poetry and prose, in which "considerable whimsy occurs alongside a tendency toward the meditative, an appreciation of the natural world, and an interest in people and relationships." A retired University of Georgia teacher of English literature and creative writing, Barks still lives and works in Athens, where he writes and publishes under his own imprint, Maypop Books.

Born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Barks attended the Baylor School, where his father was headmaster. He earned B.A. and Ph.D. degrees from the University of North Carolina, and an M.A. from the University of California at Berkeley. After teaching at the universities of North Carolina and Southern California, he joined the English department at the University of Georgia, from which he retired in 1997 as professor emeritus.

The New Georgia Encyclopedia describes Barks' original poetry as observations of Southern landscape and life - observations infused, at least since 1976, with the poet's immersion in the study of Sufism and Near Eastern mystical poets. Thus shape-note hymns, loose dogs, yellow jacket nests, the Appalachian foothills, Waffle House conversations, and even gourds become in Barks' hands much more than mere metaphorical Southern emblems:

About gourds, one thing they say in Blue Ridge is, "It takes a fool to grow a gourd," and they notice how I always get a good crop. The other thing they say is that you have to hard-cuss gourd seed as you put them in the ground. To get their attention before they'll even consider coming up. Gourds are stubborn-stubborn. In the mystical poetry of Jelaluddin Rumi gourds are a metaphor for human beings, and their rattling speech. If we make our noises against enclosure long enough, we'll break out and have some chance to germinate...

After joining the University of Georgia in 1967 and producing three books - The Juice, New Words, and We're Laughing at the Damage - drawn from his experiences of love and parenthood, the death of his parents, and divorce, Barks took a career turn in 1976 when fellow poet Robert Bly showed him some lifeless academic translations of Rumi's poetry. "These poems need to be released from their cages," Bly urged him. Working entirely from English translations, Bly and Barks reworked the literal translations of Rumi's rhymed, metered Persian poetry into contemporary English free verse, published as Night & Sleep (1981). In 1984 Barks published Open Secret: Versions of Rumi, a collection of his solo poetic renderings from translations by Persian scholar John Moyne. Thus Barks embarked on a pursuit which has engaged him for more than thirty years.

Awarded the Georgia Writers Association best poem and best poetry manuscript awards in 1968, Barks has been featured in numerous anthologies of Southern poetry, including Georgia Voices, a University of Georgia Press collection of Georgia's finest writers. He has published widely throughout his career in poetry journals and his work has been anthologized in numerous collections of Southern poets, winning recognition such as the Southern Literary Review's Guy Owen Prize (1983) and the New England Review/Bread Loaf Quarterly prize for narrative poetry (1985). Open Secret won a Pushcart Writers Choice Award (1984), and Barks' work on Rumi was the subject of an hour-long segment in Bill Moyers' Language of Life series on PBS and featured in Moyers' book Fooling with Words. In 2004 Barks received the New York-based Temple of Understanding's Juliet Hollister Award, which is annually given to secular and religious leaders whose vision and work have supported and generated new interfaith understanding. In March 2005 Barks was an academic envoy and speaker to Afghanistan, the first American to be sent to Afghanistan on behalf by the State Department in twenty-five years, and in May 2006, in recognition of his translation works, he was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Tehran.

Posts by Coleman Barks


Rumi: Dancing in Fullness


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There are few experiences in life as satisfying as the poetry of Jalal ad-Din Rumi, which for many is the spiritual equivalent of enjoying a piece of rich delicious chocolate, listening to Bach, or perhaps sipping a glass of fine red wine. In this extraordinary performance you will hear Rumi as you never have before — through the resonant, whiskey-and-syrup voice of Coleman Barks, a preeminent poet, scholar, and interpreter of Rumi’s work, and the music of Grammy-winning artist David Darling.