The 13th-century Persian poet has become a household name in contemporary America, but few know the name of the scholar who popularized his poems in the West. Since the 1970s, Coleman Barks has been translating the words of Jalal al-Din Rumi into English and bringing Rumi’s simple language and ecstatic wonder to readers and audiences across the globe. This Sunday, Barks will be in town for an afternoon of music and poetry.
Modern poetry tends to be read unaccompanied, but Rumi’s work was intended to be presented alongside music, and often dance. To that end, Barks likes to team with performing artists when he reads Rumi’s work. For his Santa Barbara appearance, he’ll share the stage with his longtime collaborator David Darling, an improvising cellist known for his sensitive, even spiritual approach to music.
Over the phone last week from his home in Connecticut, Darling told me of his ongoing collaboration with Barks as “natural and mutually respectful.” “He’s a wonderful human being,” Darling noted, adding that these programs pairing Rumi with improvised cello are among “the most inspired concerts I’ve ever been part of. Everyone leaves the theater uplifted. A lot of that is because of [Barks’s] personality. He’s a Southerner with a drawl and a deep voice. People find his delivery comforting and humorous — and he always seems to be amazed by the words that Rumi wrote. Every time, it’s a celebration of the best of human energy.”
In recent years, Barks has focused on the powerful friendship between Rumi and Shams Tabriz, a wandering mystic and fierce truth-seeker. The two men shared an intense spiritual and intellectual connection, and Rumi composed thousands of verses honoring his friend and teacher. Their connection is the subject of Barks’s current book project, tentatively titled Soul-Fury and Kindness: Rumi and Shams Tabriz, Their Friendship.
Whether in his scholarship or in his performances, human friendship is one of Barks’s primary interests. Those interested in a sneak peek at Barks and Darling’s collaboration can visit the UCSB Arts & Lectures event page, where there’s a link to a YouTube video. “There are so many ways to kneel and kiss the ground,” Barks reads as Darling plucks delicately at the cello strings.
There are plenty of other ways to get a taste of this work: Barks’s Essential Rumi and Rumi: The Big Red Book are widely available, as is a set of recordings of Barks and Darling’s collaboration, Just Being Here: Rumi and Human Friendship. Yet there’s no replacement for the experience of hearing Barks and Darling live; every event is unique. That’s because Barks always chooses a different collection of poems, and Darling’s music is never pre-set.
“I’m following each word and line in a responsive way,” Darling explained of his approach. “When I improvise, I don’t need to worry about the future. Every new passage, new note, and new rhythm leads to another place.”
Rumi, it seems, would approve of this spontaneous, instinctive approach to his poems:
Don’t worry about saving these songs!
And if one of our instruments breaks,
It doesn’t matter.
We have fallen into the place
Where everything is music.
Coleman Barks and David Darling will appear Sunday, March 2, 3 p.m. at UCSB’s Campbell Hall. For tickets, call 893-3535 or visit artsandlectures.sa.ucsb.edu.