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The Mysterious Hold of a 13th Century Mystic : An Academic Took Poetic License and Translations of Rumi's Verse Took Off

June 18, 1998|MARY ROURKE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Jelaluddin Rumi deserves to be the envy of every poet. His latest book, "The Essential Rumi" (Harper San Francisco), sold 110,000 copies in three years, and he has a couple of dozen others that are doing well. None of it was his idea. He has been dead for more than 700 years.

He seemed to surface from nowhere in 1994, when Publishers Weekly announced that Rumi was the bestselling poet in America. Since then, the remote star continues to rise.

Born in 13th century Persia, raised Muslim in the mystical Sufi tradition, he founded a group of whirling dervishes who spin their way into a state of ecstasy, and wrote some of the most romantic love poetry of all time. To God.

I am your lover

Come to my side

I will open

the gate to your love

Before he died in 1273, he predicted that his works would cross all boundaries. That was before anyone knew Coleman Barks. Barks, a Tennessean with the voice of a blues singer and the build of a mountain man, teaches poetry at the University of Georgia and has published 14 books of his Rumi translations in 14 years, six of them by his own Maypop Press.

He doesn't read Persian, Rumi's language. Instead, he turns scholarly English translations into what he describes as American free verse, expansive as Walt Whitman, precise as Emily Dickinson.

At poetry workshops, on tour with a jazz ensemble, in bookstores, on audio and videotape, Barks has been reciting Rumi, his way. Two summers ago, Bill Moyers vaulted Barks and his muse to the big stage when he featured them in his PBS series on poetry, "Language of Life."

This spring, another whirlwind has Rumi stealing heat from Hollywood celebrities who read his verses on a compact disc; charging the air of a New York fashion show; haunting the libretto of a spare and ethereal opera.

For the CD "Love Poems of Rumi" (Rasa Records), Barks, Goldie Hawn, Madonna and Rosa Parks--the Rosa Parks--read steamy, giddy, punch-drunk verses.

Because of your love

I have lost my sobriety

I am intoxicated

by the madness of love

Deepak Chopra breathes Rumi's metaphors from the oasis--"I am your flower garden and your water too"--into Donna Karan's fall fashion show, now playing on video in her boutiques. Cloud-color satins, storm-color cashmeres, glimpses of shoulders and shinbones, and Rumi.

Allah be praised, but who can't understand Karan's point of view?

"I don't think of Rumi's poetry as religious," says Karan's company president and spokeswoman, Patty Cohen. "It's all about love."

Barks says the verses go beyond limits, and he quotes his muse: "Love is the religion and the universe is the book." But composer Philip Glass, who put Rumi's poems to music for his new score, "Monsters of Grace," looks back to the artist's intention.

"Rumi was absolutely writing to Allah," he says. "People who have seen the opera get that right away. They understand divine, ordinary, and the mixing of the two."

The poet's thought that all of creation comes from God helps explain the poetry's mysterious power. "One quality of Rumi is to continually confound the reader with the object of the poem," says Glass.

At one time, Rumi was an imam, a Muslim prayer leader, as well as an expert in Islamic law. He had a teacher, Shams of Tabriz, who he once spent six uninterrupted months with. Whether it was a mystical friendship or something else is not entirely certain.

"It is in the Eastern tradition that a student and master bind together in spiritual unity," says Mohammad Haghi, a medical doctor with a doctorate in the history of science who lectures across the country. "Sufis use the language of human love to express a divine relationship. It is only in the past 15 years that the other question has even come up."

While romance and mystery surround his name, something else explains the furthest reaches of his fame. Robert Phipps of Burbank, who's in his 50s, wrote his first poem after hearing his first Rumi verses in 1995. Now he has memorized them and is likely to recite one at any moment.

You dance inside my chest,

Where no one sees you

but sometimes I do, and that

sight becomes this art.

Phipps organizes poetry readings at headquarters for Disney Stores in Glendale, where he works.

"When I heard Coleman Barks reciting Rumi, I was enchanted." Soon after, Phipps wrote his first poem.

He tries describing Rumi's appeal. "This brilliant man had the same questions and difficulties we have." He lets Rumi finish the thought.

I have lived on the lip

of insanity, wanting to know reasons,

knocking on a door. It opens.

I've been knocking from the inside!

Fariba Enteshari, who emigrated from Iran as a teenager and later studied German language and culture at USC, organizes Rumi study groups and seminars. She works at Immaculate Heart College Center, but keeps up with Rumi groups that meet at USC and UCLA. One group studies the "Mathnawi," a six-volume poem considered Rumi's masterpiece.

Enteshari is also part of a group led by Haghi, who comes to L.A. from Berkeley for meetings.

All of the gatherings are in Persian, and most of those who attend are Iranian natives. In August, Enteshari plans to branch out with a Rumi conference in English that will be held in Montecito.

"In modern societies we get cut off from our roots, not only as immigrants but as women, as minorities and others," Enteshari said. "Rumi tells us to look inside and find ourselves. He is the healer of our time."

When she began to study his work four years ago, she was happy to find a couple of collections of Rumi on the bookstore shelf. This spring, for a poetry reading at Borders in Westwood, 39 titles were in stock.

From the beginning of my life

I have been looking for your face

but today I have seen it.

* For more information about the Rumi conference in Montecito on Aug. 7-9, call (310) 541-5207.

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