Coleman Barks

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Coleman Barks
Barks reading at the Festival of Silence, Esvika, Asker, Norway, June 25, 2011
Barks reading at the Festival of Silence, Esvika, Asker, Norway, June 25, 2011
BornColeman Bryan Barks
(1937-04-23) April 23, 1937 (age 84)
Chattanooga, Tennessee
GenreAmerican poetry
Notable worksGourd Seed, The Essential Rumi
SpouseKittsu Greenwood (1962–?, divorced)
ChildrenBenjamin, Cole

Coleman Barks (born April 23, 1937) is an American poet, and former literature faculty at the University of Georgia. Although he neither speaks nor reads Persian, he is a popular interpreter of Rumi, rewriting the poems based on other English translations. His "translations" are therefore controversial.

Early life and background[edit]

Barks is a native of Chattanooga, Tennessee. He attended the Baylor School as a teenager, then studied collegiately at the University of North Carolina and the University of California, Berkeley.


Barks taught literature at the University of Georgia for three decades.

Barks makes frequent international appearances and is well known throughout the Middle East. Barks' work has contributed to an extremely strong following of Rumi in the English-speaking world.[1] Due to his work, the ideas of Sufism have crossed many cultural boundaries over the past few decades. Coleman Barks received an honorary doctorate from Tehran University in 2006.[2]

He has also read his original poetry at the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival. In March 2009 Barks was inducted to the Georgia Writers' Hall of Fame.[3]

Personal life[edit]

He currently lives in Athens, Georgia, where he interprets the writings of Rumi and composes poetry of his own. In early 2011, Barks suffered a stroke that has somewhat impaired his speech and has resulted in at least one cancelled appearance.[4]

Coleman Barks was a student of the Sufi Shaykh Bawa Muhaiyaddeen.[5]

Rumi interpretations[edit]

Barks has published several volumes of his interpretations of Rumi's poetry since 1976, including The Hand of Poetry, Five Mystic Poets of Persia in 1993, The Essential Rumi in 1995, The Book of Love in 2003 and A Year with Rumi in 2006.


Barks does not speak or read Persian; his 'translations' are therefore technically paraphrases. Barks bases his paraphrases entirely on other English translations of Rumi which include renderings by John Moyne and Reynold A. Nicholson.[6] In addition, while the original Persian poetry of Rumi is heavily rhymed and metered, Barks has used primarily free verse. In some instances, he will also skip[7] or mix lines and metaphors from different poems into one 'translation'.

For example, here is a very literal rendering by Reynold A. Nicholson,

On the Day of Resurrection every hidden thing will be made manifest: every sinner will be ignominiously exposed by himself.
His hands and feet will give evidence and declare his iniquity in the presence of Him whose help is sought.
His hand will say, 'I have stolen such and such'; his lip will say, 'I have asked such and such questions';
His foot will say. 'I have gone to (enjoy) things desired'; his pudendum will say, 'I have committed fornication.'
His eye will say, 'I have cast amorous glances at things forbidden'; his ear will say, 'I have gathered evil words.'
Therefore he is a lie from head to foot, for even his own members give him the lie,
Just as, in (the case of) the specious prayers (performed by the ascetic), their fine appearance was proved to be false testimonio testiculi.
Act, then, in such wise that the action itself, without (your) tongue (uttering a word), will be (equivalent to) saying 'I testify' and (to making) the most explicit declaration,
So that your whole body, limb by limb, O son, will have said 'I testify' as regards both good and ill.
The slave's walking behind his master is a testimony (equivalent to saying), 'I am subject to authority and this man is my lord.'[8]

And Barks' version of the same passage,

On Resurrection Day your body testifies against you.
Your hand says, 'I stole money.'
Your lips, 'I said meanness.'
Your feet, 'I went where I shouldn't.'
Your genitals, 'Me Too.'

They will make your praying sound hypocritical
Let the body's doings speak openly now,
without your saying a word,
as a student's walking behind a teacher
says, "This one knows more clearly
than I the way.[9]

Barks' translations have been criticised by many Persian scholars. Majid Naficy writes that Coleman Barks reduces Rumi's poetry to a New Age text:

The essential problem of Coleman Barks lies in the fact that in his version he intentionally changes Rumi... He approaches Rumi's poetry as sacred texts, which need to be dusted from the passage of times by a touched devotee and prepared for the Post Modern, New Age market in the West. The New Age movement finds a remedy for modern alienation in old recipes, such as horoscope, Extra-Sensory Perception and divination... In order to remodel and fix Rumi for the American market Barks follows the path of a New-Age sufi. He tries to disconnect the mystical concepts of Rumi from their historical and social backgrounds and modify them for our contemporary taste... The falsification and misrepresentation of Rumi's fundamental concepts is not limited to Love and spreads to other ideas such as "wine", "master" and "Jesus".[10]

Original poetry[edit]

Barks has published several volumes of his own poetry, including Gourd Seed, "Quickly Aging Here", Tentmaking, and, in 2001, Granddaughter Poems, a collection of Coleman's poetry about his granddaughter, Briny Barks, with illustrations by Briny. Harper published his first book of poetry, The Juice, in 1972.


  • Barks, Coleman. Marcus Wise, David Whetstone, Robert Bly (October 1, 2001). Rumi: Voice of Longing (audio). Sounds True Incorporated; Unabridged edition. ISBN 1-56455-832-0. Archived from the original (CD) on 2016-03-06.
  • Barks, Coleman (2006). Back From Afghanistan (audio).


Iran is my first home-land. (2006)[11]

The only credential I have for working on Rumi's poetry is my meeting with [my Sufi teacher], Bawa Muhaiyaddeen. That relationship is the only access I have to what is going on in Rumi's poetry.[12]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Persian Poet Conquers America Archived 2007-06-22 at the Wayback Machine
  2. ^ Iran News report
  3. ^ "Georgia Writers Hall of Fame".
  4. ^
  5. ^ [ "Walking Around In The Heart Coleman Barks On Rumi, Sensuality, And The Path With No Name"], The Sun (magazine), October 2007
  6. ^ Coleman Barks, The Essential Rumi: New Expanded Edition (Harper Collins Publishers, 2004), "On the more literal level, the texts I work from to produce these poems are unpublished translations done by John Moyne, Emeritus Head of Linguistics at the City University of New York, and the following translations by Reynold Nicholson and A. J. Arberry, the famous Cambridge Islamicists..." (p. 365)
  7. ^ "Blogger".
  8. ^ Reynold A. Nicholson (translator), The Mathnawi of Jalalu'din Rumi, Book V, verses 2211-2220, p. 133 (E. J. W. Gibb Memorial Trust 1926, Reprinted 2001)
  9. ^ Coleman Barks, The Essential Rumi: New Expanded Edition, (Harper Collins Publishers, 2004), p. 111
  10. ^ Coleman Barks and Rumi's Donkey, The Iranian, December 13, 2005, by Majid Naficy
  11. ^ Fars News Agency report
  12. ^ Archived 2007-11-21 at the Wayback Machine

External links[edit]