It was one of those under-the-radar events. But judging by the full house at Libby Gardner Hall on the University of Utah campus on Feb. 17, a lot of folks were flying low that night.
In a coup for the Carl Jung Society, Coleman Barks was in town to read poetry — some of his own, some of the late Mary Oliver’s, but mostly the poems of Jalaluddin Rumi, a 13th-century whirling dervish born in what is now Afghanistan.
It’s not often a poet is both the best and most popular of his era (Robert Frost comes to mind, Pablo Neruda).
Rumi was that poet for his era.
Some say he’s also that poet for ours.
Each year his influence swells.
Rumi’s lines have a universal hum that resonates with Muslims, Mennonites, Lutherans and Latter-day Saints.
And the English translations of Coleman Barks have become the gold standard for Rumi's vision.
To begin with, the reading was a night of contrasts: The opulent hall set against the rumpled and unruly appearance of Barks. A solitary cello set against a caterwauling version of the Hank Williams ditty, “Hey, Good Lookin’.” Monumental poems set against silly jokes.
In lesser hands, the whole affair would have felt affected.
What carried the day was the authentic humanity of Barks, as well as the humanity in the 700-year-old poems he’d come to share.
Authenticity has a way of piercing every costume. Every mask. Maybe every heart.
When Barks was introduced, there was no mention of his achievements, his awards or his published works. The emcee simply spoke his name: “Coleman Barks.”
It seemed like a slight, but I’m guessing Barks wanted it that way. He didn’t want the focus to be on him. He wanted it to be on Rumi.
And anyone who’s read Rumi knows Rumi wanted the focus to be on the divine.
“There is a community of the spirit,” Barks read, “Join it. … Open your hands if you want to be held. … Quit acting like a wolf and feel the shepherd’s love filling you. At night, your beloved wanders. Do not take painkillers. … Be empty of worrying. Think of who created thought. Why do you stay in prison when the door is so wide open?”
Without fanfare, the evening rolled on.
Eugene Friesen added some jazzy responses on the cello as Barks read.
A single vase of flowers brought attention down to a personal level.
The dark brown podium became a tree stump.
The harsh light became a sunrise.
To lift the mood, Barks paused to tell a few jokes, the kind of jokes your grandkids might share.Comment on this story
To deepen the mood he read “Singapore,” an exquisite poem by his good friend Mary Oliver. Oliver, considered the best-read and best-loved American poet in a generation, died in January.
Slowly, as planned, Barks seemed to disappear, leaving the words of Rumi shimmering in the air.
“This is how a human being can change: There’s a worm addicted to eating grape leaves. Suddenly he wakes up, call it grace, whatever, something wakes him and he’s no longer a worm. He’s the entire vineyard.”
It was an evening under the radar.
But then flying under the radar is how missions are accomplished.