Coleman Barks and David Darling Bring Audience to Their Feet in an Afternoon of Poetry and Music


Julia Frazer
Staff Writer

University of California, Santa Barbara’s Arts & Lectures presented poet Coleman Barks and musician David Darling at Campbell Hall this Sunday, March 2, for an afternoon of poetry and music. Sponsored by Mary and Gary Becker, the event was titled “Soul-Fury and Kindness: Rumi and Shams Tabriz, Their Friendship.”

Since 1977, Barks has collaborated with scholars of the Persian language to translate the work of 13th century poet Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi, commonly known simply as Rumi. Barks’ translations have been published in approximately 20 volumes of poetry. Over 1.5 million copies of these volumes have been sold, arguably making Rumi one of the most-read poets in the United States in the past 15 years. In 2005, The U.S. Department of State sent Barks to Afghanistan as the first visiting speaker there in 25 years.

Composer and cellist Darling has had a diverse musical career. In his playing and compositions, Darling incorporates jazz, classical, country, and new-age music. He worked with country legend Johnny Cash in the ’70s and won a Grammy award for best new-age album in 2010. 

As Barks and Darling entered the stage, the audience grew hushed and expectant. Barks did not introduce himself or his onstage companion, but began with a poem from Rumi. His voice, a deep southern drawl, resonated throughout Campbell Hall. Darling played the cello, heightening the emotional impact of Barks’ reading. As Barks continued his readings, he peppered the event with jokes, opinions on the works, and personal anecdotes.

“Love is the religion, the universe the book,” said Barks, embracing the spiritual and universally understood undertones of many of Rumi’s poems. “Forget the -isms and theology. Your life as you’re leading it—that’s the scripture.”

The difference between Barks’ speaking voice and his poetry-reading voice was marked. His speech took on a musical cadence while Darling carefully plucked the strings of his cello in accompaniment. As Barks spoke, it seemed as if each line was a recent revelation to be shared with the audience. Though the poems are thousands of years old, Barks’ translations, reading style, and synergy with Darling’s musicianship gave the poems a fresh breath of life.

In a moment of sincerity, Barks discussed the questions that Rumi raised and attempted to answer them in his poetry. Rumi questioned life, purpose, dream, song, the soul, and the balance between discipline and surrender.

Barks also read a few selected poems from his newer translations. Many of the poems contained repetitions that heightened the impact of the poet’s intentions.

“Find your place and close your eyes so your heart can start to see,” read Barks in a slow and measured voice. “Find your place and close your eyes so your heart can start to see,” he repeated. After Barks finished reading this poem, he joked with the audience and said, “I think that’s enough wisdom, we can leave now,” to which his listeners responded with great laughter.

Poet and UCSB professor Teddy Macker expressed gratitude for and excitement about the afternoon of poetry and music.

“I’ve been reading his translations for years and I’m familiar with his own poetry, somewhat,” said Macker. “I think he’s one of the wisest poets out there, and I feel like he’s a true sage. Obviously Rumi was a true sage, but Coleman Barks is a true sage too.” Macker will be teaching a class on Rumi this spring in the Literature Department of the College of Creative Studies.

The afternoon ended with a reading of “Silkworms,” one of Rumi’s most famous and expressive poems.

“The hurt you embrace becomes joy,” read Barks. “When I stop speaking, this poem will close, and open its silent wings.”