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Persian Poet Top Seller In America

Rumi Revival

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There is a light seed grain inside.

You fill it with yourself, or it dies!

- Rumi

Almost 15 years ago, poet Robert Bly handed a younger colleague an accurate but stilted 19th-century translation of the mystic Islamic poet Jalaluddin Rumi.

"Release these from their scholarly cages," the poet recalls telling Coleman Barks.

Mr. Barks set to work, recasting the poems in fluid, casual American free verse.

The results have astonished many. In a country where Pulitzer Prize-winning poets often struggle to sell 10,000 books, Barks's translations of Rumi have sold more than a quarter of a million copies. Recordings of Rumi poems have made it to Billboard's Top 20 list. And a pantheon of Hollywood stars is recording a collection of Rumi's love poems - these translated by holistic-health guru Deepak Chopra - for release next Valentine's Day.

Put it all together and you've got a Rumi revival that's made the 13th-century Persian wordsmith the top-selling poet in the country today.

"It's a matter of our enormous spiritual hunger matched by our natural anticlericism gone ballistic," says Phyllis Tickle, contributing editor in religion to Publisher's Weekly. "It's also just beautiful poetry."

For seven centuries, Rumi's poetry has been sung in the Islamic world from India to Iran, Turkey to Afghanistan. He's considered an ecstatic, a romantic, obsessed with God, exalting the divine universality of the heart in everything and everyone.

"He celebrates the Presence, he calls it the Friend or the Beloved, that we sense in the beauty outside of us on a rainy day, or in a group of friends fixing food, a horse being saddled, or a child sleeping," says translator Barks. "All of these things that are obviously beautiful outside of us also touch the beauty inside of us - that jewel-like inner presence that he activates in his poetry."

A celebrated past

In his day, Rumi was celebrated by Christians, Jews, and Buddhists, as well as by Sufi Muslims who claim him as a part of their tradition. That is the ecstatic, feeling strain of Islam - less familiar in the West than the severe fundamentalist image of Islam.

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