Books: Coleman Barks’s “A Year With Rumi”, by Pranada Devi

In January, the fast pace, bright lights, luxurious meals and energetic parties associated with the holidays and New Year’s Eve give way to simpler, quieter days – still with early nightfall and (at least in Canada) freezing cold. The warmth of summer can feel a long way away. As we do our best in this time to focus on our goal, or on some new resolutions, we may be in need of some regular nourishment for our spirits. It is good to do something every day that brings joy, quiets the mind, gives a sense of expansion.

In this spirit, I recommend the book A Year With Rumi, a book of daily short readings of the poetry of Jelaluddin Rumi as translated by Coleman Barks.

Coleman Barks is an American writer who taught English and poetry for thirty years and now focuses on writing, readings and performances. His English renditions of Rumi’s poetry have been bestsellers. In the introduction to A Year With Rumi, he describes Rumi’s poetry as his “wild soulbook […] For me, since 1976, I have felt the bright wind coming from Rumi.”

Rumi was a 13th-century Sufi mystic. He was born in what is now Afghanistan, and lived most of his life in Konya (now Turkey). Until November 15, 1244, he was an accomplished teacher and jurist. That day, he met the dervish Shams-e Tabrizi and transformed into an ascetic. After four years of mystical friendship with Rumi, Shams disappeared and was never seen again. Rumi’s love and longing for his spiritual friend became the fuel for lyrical poetry which he wrote for the rest of his life.

750 years later, Rumi’s work has been translated into many languages including Russian, German, Urdu, Turkish, Arabic, Bengali, French, Italian and Spanish. English interpretations of his poetry by Coleman Barks have sold more than half a million copies worldwide. Rumi is now one of the most widely read poets in the United States. His poems have been performed by celebrities such as Madonna and Philip Glass.

Why is this mystic’s poetry so popular? Part of it is the compelling, poetic, readable, memorable translation Barks has done, and part of it is the genius of Rumi himself. He was able to portray the soul’s longing for reunion with the One in beautiful, sometimes raw, always engaging imagery with which people could resonate even if they did not consider themselves spiritual seekers.

To dip into the spiritual writing of someone who has attained an exalted state in their journey is somewhat like dipping in a ladle to pour yourself a glass of light. At its best, the writings of a fully enlightened soul can be great nourishment for the spirit. To take a little of this every day can bless and inspire your day-to-day life, and perhaps awaken something deep within you that longs for reunion with its Source.

A Year With Rumi presents Barks’s translation of Rumi’s poetry in short excerpts – never longer than a page per day, though a few longer poems are presented in instalments over a few days. In this busy world, the mind can so easily drift into a state where it agitatedly wants more, more, more – another page in the book, another show on the television, another refresh of Facebook and Twitter. The opportunity A Year With Rumi offers is for this tendency to be placed on pause. You don’t have to read whole long poems at once. There will be no quiz in the morning. Just read one poem each day, and be with that poem for at least a few minutes.

Looking into the Creek (reading for July 18)

The way the soul is with the senses
and the mind, is like a creek.
When desire-weeds grow thick,
your intelligence cannot flow,
and soul-creatures stay hidden.
But sometimes a flooding comes
that runs so strong
it clears the clogged stream,
as though with God’s hand.
No longer weeping and frustrated,
your being grows as powerful
as your wantings were before.
Laughing and satisfied,
that masterful current
lets soul-creatures appear.
You look down,
and it’s lucid dreaming.
The gates made of light
swing open. You see in.

I invite you to consider spending 2012 with Rumi.


Pranada Devi is a communications professional living in Toronto, Canada. She manages the Politics, Books and Activism sections for Parvati Magazine in addition to serving as Managing Editor for the magazine overall. She discovered Sufi poetry in 2000 and is grateful for the light it brought to her life. She serves as an advisor on marketing communications for Parvati’s various projects.