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.
Alongside the international phenomenon of Barks' translations of Rumi's 13th-century poetry, are the numerous awards Barks has received for his own poetry, in which "considerable whimsy occurs alongside a tendency toward the meditative, an appreciation of the natural world, and an interest in people and relationships."1
Barks has lived and worked in Athens, Georgia, since 1967, when he arrived to teach English literature and creative writing at the University of Georgia.
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, Barks joined the UGA English department, from which he would retire 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...2
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 Barks. Afterward, working entirely from English translations, Bly and Barks reworked the literal translations of Rumi's rhymed, metered Persian poetry into a volume of contemporary English free verse, which they published as Night & Sleep (1981).Then, in 1984 Barks published Open Secret: Versions of Rumi, his first solo collection of Rumi's poetry, based on translations by Persian scholar John Moyne.
Barks won the Georgia Writers Association best poem and best poetry manuscript awards in 1968, and over his career his own original work has been featured in numerous anthologies of Southern poetry, including Georgia Voices, a University of Georgia Press collection of Georgia's finest writers. For more than fifty years, Barks has published widely in Anglo-American poetry journals. These poems are anthologized in numerous collections https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coleman_Barksof Ameican poetry, and have been recognized with awards that include 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 in 1984. However, after laboring to convince American publishers of Rumi's relevance to Western readers, Barks established his own publishing imprint (Maypop Books) to circumvent the struggle and get his translations into print. For several years he distributed his Rumi work this way. Then, in the mid-1990s, Harper and Row took note of the growing audience for Barks' work, and arranged to publish The Essential Rumi.
Also in the early 1990s, the noted TV journalist Bill Moyers had taken note of Barks, who he filmed reading at the Dodge Poetry Festival, the largest poetry event in North America. When The Essential Rumi came out in the summer of 1995, it coincided with a Moyers episode devoted to Barks on the popular PBS series, The Language of Life. Suddenly Barks' Rumi work became a national phenomenon. He would be featured in subsequent Bill Moyers specials, and in Moyers' book of interviews with American poets, 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.
Barks' selection of poems from his career, Winter Sky, was published by the University of Georgia Press in 2008, and in 2010, his rendering of one of Rumi's greatest works, Rumi: The Big Red Book: The Great Masterpiece Celebrating Mystical Love and Friendship was published. Over his long career he has published eleven collections of his own poetry, and twenty-two volumes of Rumi translations.
Of a generation of post-WWII American poets for whom professorship was often the only way to eat and live while answering the poet's calling, Barks spent more than fifty years traveling often and widely to give readings. Meanwhile he published in small poetry journals, often for little or no compensation, to satisfy university "publish or perish" requirements.
After the Rumi phenomenon made him famous, Barks continued to travel frequently to give readings, often appearing in concert halls with world-class musicians on Western instruments and Middle Eastern instruments, other performers and poets such as his old mentor Robert Bly, meeting the demands of a worldwide audience of Rumi fans who have pushed sales of the Rumi books into the millions.
Now in his eighties, Barks travels and reads less frequently following his second stroke in a decade. However he continues to write poetry and work on translations of Rumi's monumental 50,000-line Masnavi. In September 2019 he joined a special tribute to the late poet Mary Oliver, in which he read poetry and led an audience that included former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in a singalong of "Hey Good Lookin'" at New York City's 92nd Street Y.
Original Works by Coleman Barks held by the Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library:
The Juice. New York: Harper & Row, 1971.
New Words. Austell, GA: Sweetwater Press, 1976.
We're Laughing at the Damage. Davidson, NC: Briarpatch Press, 1977.
Gourd Seed. Athens, GA: Maypop Books, 1993.
Xenia: A Hoard of Lost Words, Eighteenth-Century Street Lingo, and a Few Completely Confabulated Terms. Athens, GA: Maypop, 1994.
Tentmaking: Poems and Prose Paragraphs. Athens, GA: Maypop Books, 2001.
Club: Granddaughter Poems [by] Coleman and Briny Barks. Athens, GA: Maypop, 2001.
Scrapwood Man: Poetry and Prose. Athens, GA: Maypop, 2007.
Winter Sky: New and Selected Poems, 1968-2008. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2008.
Works of Maulana Jalal al-Din Rumi, Translated by Coleman Barks:
Open Secret: Versions of Rumi.Putney, VT: Threshold Books, 1984.
Unseen Rain: Quatrains of Rumi.Putney, VT: Threshold Books, 1986.
This Longing: Poetry, Teaching Stories, and Selected Letters. Brattleboro, VT: Threshold Books, 1988.
Delicious Laughter: Rambunctious Teaching Stories from the Mathnawi. Athens, GA: Maypop Books, 1990.
Like This. Athens, GA: Maypop, 1990.
Rumi: One-Handed Basket Weaving; Poems on the Theme of Work. Athens, GA: Maypop, 1991.
Birdsong: Fifty-Three Short Poems.Athens, GA: Maypop, 1993.
Say I am You: Poetry Interspersed with Stories of Rumi and Shams. Athens, GA: Maypop, 1994.
The Essential Rumi.San Francisco: Harper, 1995.
The Glance: Songs of Soul-Meeting. New York: Viking/Arkana, 1999.
Feeling the Shoulder of the Lion: Poetry and Teaching Stories of Rumi. Boston: Shambhala, 2000.
The Soul of Rumi: A New Collection of Ecstatic Poems. San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 2001.
A Year with Rumi: Daily Readings. San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 2006.
Rumi: Bridge to the Soul: Journeys into the Music and Silence of the Heart. New York: Harper One, 2007.
Rumi: The Big Red Book. San Francisco, Harper Collins, 2010.
Other Translation Works by Coleman Barks:
Naked Song / Lalla.Athens, GA: Maypop, 1992.
Stallion on a Frozen Lake: Love Songs of the Sixth Dalai Lama. Athens, GA: Maypop Books, 1992.
Coleman Barks' archive of manuscripts, correspondence, recordings, photographs and other career materials is held by the University of Georgia's Hargrett Rare Book & Manuscript Library.