Bill Moyers
October 24, 1999
Poet Coleman Barks

BILL MOYERS: He's a son of the American south. A boy from Tennessee. A university professor for almost forty years. And a poet in his own right. But his southern accent resonates with the rhythms of ancient Persia, and he's best known today for introducing us to the 13th century mystic poet, Rumi, his soulmate across the centuries. I'm Bill Moyers. Join me for the Sounds of Poetry with the Paul Winter Consort and Coleman Barks.

Funding credits

Montage of poets' voices

The Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival

Waterloo, New Jersey

COLEMAN BARKS:Jalaluddin Rumi is a 13th century heart master who presided over a dervish learning community, exactly, in fact, as large as this one. And the work of that community was to open the heart.

"Time's knife slides from the sheath, as a fish from where it swims.

Being closer and closer is the desire of the body.

Don't wish for union.

There’s a closeness beyond that.

Fall in love in such a way that it frees you from any connecting.

Fall in love in such a way that it frees you from any connecting.

Love is the soul's light, the taste of morning.

No me, no we, no claim of being.

These words are the smoke the fire gives off as it absolves its defects.

As eyes in silence, tears face.

Love cannot be said."

MOYERS: The last time we were together we talked about poetry as performance.

BARKS: Right.

MOYERS: -and people said they never-

BARKS: Mmmm-

MOYERS: -never experienced Rumi on the page the way they did when you were performing Rumi. And they often ask me: Was he Rumi or was he Barks?

BARKS: Well, I have to translate Rumi through my own personality and my own experience. If I can't, if I don't have any way to understand it through something that's happened to me, I can't translate. You know?

MOYERS: Don’t you think that's true of-


MOYERS: -most poems?

BARKS: I think it is, yeah. But some people, or some poets, you're attuned to, and some I couldn't translate. Some poets, some mystics I don't feel that resonance with.

BARKS: In this next poem, Rumi explores one of his models for the psyche. He calls the psyche a caravanserai. But I'm uncomfortable with that word as a translator, and so I call it a guest house. The psyche is a place where emotions, compulsions, moods come, and you as the psyche, you are the structure that houses them and that is their host. So jealousy comes, and you say — I haven't seen you for 10 years, I thought you were dead. Or — stage fright comes, and you say, it's good to have you back. You're making things more lively. Ecstatic love comes. My pleasure. A sentimental sense of oneness with everything comes. I knew your mother. A sarcastic doubt of anything spiritual arrives. Bro! How about that game last night? Unbelievable! That's just my riff on, on Rumi's poem. Here's the poem.

"The Guesthouse"

This being human is a guesthouse.

Every morning a new arrival.

A joy.

A depression.

A meanness.

Some momentary awareness comes as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all.

Even if they're a crowd of sorrows who violently sweep your house empty of its furniture.

Still, treat each guest honorably.

He may be clearing you out for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame.

The malice.

Meet them at the door laughing.

And invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes, because each has been sent as a guide from beyond.

MOYERS: Any new insights since we were last together on why it is that a 13th century mystic from such a different world and time speaks so powerfully to a post-modern America?

BARKS: Okay. I don't know, but I think he's, I think we're in the midst of redefining love, I think. And he writes in the 13th century a new kind of love poem that is beyond gender, and beyond age, and beyond wanting.

"The way of love is not a subtle argument;

the door there is devastation;

birds make great sky circles of their freedom, how do they learn that?

They fall, and falling, they're given wings.

You so distracted me, your absence fans my love.

Don't ask how, then you come near; do not, I say, and do not you answer, don't ask why this delights me.

Stars burn clear all night till dawn;

do that yourself, and the spring will rise in the dark with water; your deepest thirst is for.

You're the spring, we're grasses trailing in it, you're the king coming by, we're beggars along the road, you're the voice, we're echoes of.

You're calling for us now, how could we not return.

MOYERS: Which do you prefer, writing your own poetry about the people and places and experiences you know best, or translating Rumi?

BARKS: I like both of ’em. But in one of them I have to try to disappear. In Rumi. In the other one I have to kind of get in the way. You know, get my personality and my delights and my shame and get all that in the poem.

“Love for clouds”. This is a poem of my own but it begins with a reference to the 13th century when Rumi spoke his poems spontaneously.

"There was a time when a man said poems and friendship grew visible.

Whole evenings.

Phrases came out of his mouth like breasts.

Language nourished with silence as an infant opening for the nipple.

Naked phrases appear and enter the listeners.

It is not strange and dreamlike, it feels natural and fully awake.

This might seem strange, my standing reading words on paper.

I look up and speak and look down, but I do not apologize.

Now is no less wonderful than then.

We write in a coffee house or parked alone in a car.

We print pages and revise on the porch for months, for years, tinkering.

I am climbing through a mist, rising off the Tennessee River in the 1940s, down a bluff.

No one knows I am.

On the shale ledges that slant and shelve into the water are stone seashells, fossils from the ocean that lived when fish spoke cloud shows in the bright milk mind of this child."

BARKS: I like this performing part of poetry, but sometimes in the middle of it I get lonesome for the making part. This is a poem about that self-division of the one speaking up here and the one off somewhere else doing his work, waiting for this to be over.

It's called, "A Wish."

"I love the microphone breath flutter, the famousness of words that keeps me up late and remote from a cigar sweet closet under the stairs where an old man reads his Bible and hears the encores and turns out the overhead to nap with applause so softened and made whole by the basement walls.

Deep sleep is his name, and just by not dying he refreshes as dawns have my life so rarely.

Though now less rarely, more often he talks and walks me through the scripture of aching light the way he's hoped he could.

MOYERS: What do you say when people ask: "How do I become a poet?"

BARKS: Well, the way I did it, I just kept a little black notebook when I was about twelve and wrote down words that I loved the taste of, like 'azalea', or for some reason 'halcyon', the bird that calms the waters with its wings. Odd words and also of images too. I remember there was an image of a boy stirring a spider web with a stick. I don't know why. Things that just- I think a fascination or an obsession with images and with the taste of words, of language that is to your mouth delicious.

"New Year's Day Nap"

Fiesta Bowl on low

My son lying here on the couch on the 'Dad' pillow he made for me in the seventh grade.

Now a sophomore at Georgia Southern, driving back later today, he sleeps with his white top hat over his face.

I'm a dancing fool.

Twenty years ago, half the form he sleeps within came out of nowhere with a million micro-lemmings, who all died but one piercer of membrane, specially picked to start a brainmaking, egg-drop soup, that stirred two sun and moon centers for a new-painted sky in the tiniest ballroom imaginable.

Now he's rousing, six feet long, turning on his side. Now he's gone.

I sound low-key, but this is the way I howl an old hymn in the plaintive bass drone, a charm for accepting what happens, and a stubborn question.

Say, why in the valley of death, should I weep or alone in the wilderness roam.

There's no one to worry about waking with my singing.

I have loved them, those two boys, so well that they've left.

We're after the fact now, out in nowhere again, where I, and I am a line of music wriggling along like water, wanting to be ocean.

BARKS: Thank you. I recently retired from university teaching for 34 years. And this is sort of the - the capstone of it. It's about my final final exam.

"I missed giving my final final exam.

I slept through it.

The alarm didn't sound or I turned it off in my sleep.

I'm buying a new clock, maybe it's perfect.

They wrote me such letters.

I'll give them all As.

But that moment will not come back no matter how I call, howl for it to weep.

This morning will not come back this afternoon.

But the letters I have from them are better than the finals they might have written, maybe not.

This class really was the best I ever and I regret, I regret.

I cannot believe I missed the final final.

The predictable conclusion to my legend in the English department.

The secretaries loved it.

But I can believe it and I won't say I'm sorry.

I am sorry. Like my mother used to call unreliable hired help, you can't count on him, he's just sorry.

You never know if he'll show up.

I'm so sorry, I won't say I'm sorry.

And actually it gives me a chance to give 40 As which out of some arrogant ungenerous grading attitude I would not have done, which now I do, with an iron whang of the grade's only shoot door in the back of the academic building.

And an illegal pull of the chapel bell.

They really do that.

Do you reckon I'll sleep through my death?

Another pull.

Sleep through resurrection day, another.

And have to do this whole jabbering career again?


Or will I get to go on to some other plane where there's no such thing as dreamless sleep and discipline and drinking too much the night before and faulty clocks and forgetfulness and the frustration of saying anything in front of groups.

Then that lovely bunch of young people talking and laughing and writing me letters, forgiving me even straggling out of that room made sacred by our presences and attention were gone when I arrived at 10:45.

You created quite a stir around here, says someone on the hall bench. I bet.

I heard them say you've used up your poetic license.

This is how death might surprise as the thing undone, irremediably missed out on.

You round a corner and the backyard party with your friends is breaking up.

Where have you been?

Alone, asleep.

If I lived with someone, I might have been jogged awake, reminded.

But I still don't want to live with anyone.

I'm unrepentedly sufficiently some would say terribly, alone.

Look at me and be frightened of not pouring the last of your love and wakefulness you're given which is every moment.

But more so some than others.

Emptying out is the point in time, over time.

Be early."

BARKS: I'm gonna read you some granddaughter poems now. It's shamelessly grandfatherly. There she is. This is the beloved as far as I know. This is it. It's called "Club."

"Every Monday night or most Monday nights we meet for club.

Nobody else is allowed.

No moms or dads.

Some Monday nights we meet after supper.

No moms or dads allowed.

I'm grandfathered in.

The only organization I'm part of.

No nation, no religion, no academic business anymore.

We do science experiments like walking around the block to check on Hale Bopp.

She wears special shoes.

Genie silk numbers that turn up at the toe.

She invents people that live in houses we pass.

Teacher Jane with the lights on her arbor, she has funny hair, green.

Uh oh, here comes a broken milk of magnesia bottle.

It's the blue swamp.

I'll carry you across.

One night we meet at the new house they'll soon be moving into.

She takes me upstairs to show which room will be hers.

Empty except for a metal office desk.

Students have been renting the house.

She opens a side drawer and tears off a piece from an adding machine roll.

This is your permanent ticket to club.

I never had a permanent ticket before.

I put it in my pocket and later, while we're drawing pictures, notice that it has monkishly careful calligraphy on it.

Tiny writing, amazingly of the first three and a half poems from Rumi' s Birdsong .

Somebody copied out the entire book on that roll.

I do not pretend to know what's going on.

But I was there remember, into a body, a flock when Briny reached in like a little bird and handed me my permanently torn ticket stub to club."

MOYERS: Do you have any sense of how Rumi has influenced your own poetry?

BARKS: Well, I think, I'm in a kind of apprenticeship with a master, you know. He's an enlightened being. And I'm not enlightened. But he sort of, within his glance I see, I see how it might be. I get glimpses of how it might be.

"Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and right doing, there is a field, I'll meet you there.

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and right doing, there is a field.

I'll meet you there. When the soul lies down in that grass the world is too full to talk about ideas, language, even the phrase 'each other' doesn't make any sense."

BARKS: All right, good.

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