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Rumi-nations on Mystical Poetry
Verses of Godly Devotion Become Popular Language of Love

Los Angeles Times
Saturday, June 20, 1998; Page C02

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's 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 spun their way into a state of
ecstasy, and wrote some of the most romantic love poetry of all time. To

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 and haunting the libretto of a spare and ethereal

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.

"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, with whom he once spent
six uninterrupted months. Whether it was a mystical friendship or something
else is not 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, Calif., who's in
his fifties, 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 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 the University of Southern California,
organizes Rumi study groups and seminars. She works at Immaculate Heart
College Center, but keeps up with Rumi groups that meet in the Los Angeles
area. One group studies the "Mathnawi," a six-volume poem considered Rumi's

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, but Enteshari plans to branch out
with a conference in English soon.

"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, Calif., 39 titles were in stock.

From the beginning of my life

I have been looking for your face

but today I have seen it.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company


Last updated: May 9, 2004