Barks' poems span topics from the everyday to the grand


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Barks' poems span topics from the everyday to the grand

"Winter Sky : New and Selected Poems, 1968-2008" by Coleman Barks
Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2008


Coleman Barks is, perhaps somewhat sadly, best known as the translator of the historical Persian poet Rumi and while his contributions thus to world literature are certainly worthwhile, this very repute also isolates Barks somewhat as a translator less than as a working poet himself. However, Barks is very much the contemporary poet as well as the translator and scholar of world literature. Having taught for years at the University of Georgia in Athens, Barks writes about the same universal feelings of awe, wonder, and love as Rumi did in 1230 A.D. but also about current events and even the argot and trends of the undergraduates with whom he shares a campus and town. It is this Barks who comes forth in "Winter Sky", a newly-published collection of poems from the later 1960s up to the current day. In providing these poems grouped together in a comprehensive volume, the University of Georgia Press has done a great service to the reader who really wants a better feel for Barks or even the stranger to his poetry who would like a sweeping introduction.

Part of the joy of reading Barks in this type of production is to see his trajectory towards the mature poet he is today: while his work from the 1960s and 1970s shows promise, his poems from the 2000s are obviously more developed and astute. Often thought of as a more liberal writer and a product of the '60s, poems such as "Whittling" showcase Barks' Southern roots and his skill in observing rural culture while poems such as "Night Train, Southern France" are so universal in their intent and feeling that they span the whole spectrum of modern poetry.

A common question I have heard from friends who do not really read much poetry is simply "why should one read poetry?". And a fair question it is: why poetry, which at its best cannot be approached as quickly as fiction nor, most often, is on the surface as entertaining? For many, poetry is something left to high school English classes and Hallmark greeting cards, but there is unique joy in poetry plus a near-scientific exploration of human emotions and the natural world found in the best of our contemporary poetry. Writers such as Diane Ackerman have been powerful in bringing poetics into essays and other forms of writing while poets such as Barks bring us an encompassing view of the world around us in a way few other forms of writing or even forms of media can reproduce: whatever details a photographer overlooks, whatever silence a video fails to capture, what legacies a writer of non-fiction cannot speak of beyond their immediate truths, all of this an astute poet may bring to us in his verse. Barks is such a man and "Winter Sky" makes this very clear. Of contemporary American poets, only Linda Pastan and John Mattias come to mind as being so skilled in bringing dazzle and wonder to everyday topics.

Thus, the really wonderful, amazing, trait of Barks is how he can turn his skills and attentions as a poet to so vast an array of varied topics from the foods of summer to the joy of swimming to the poet Keats; Barks can draw a poem out of the everyday as much as out of grand subjects such as literature and world affairs. Running at over 300 pages with notes and other non-poetic aspects included, this is a long book of poetry and one filled with content. From this volume, a reader can gain not only a good idea of Barks as a poet and a writer but a good idea also of the current flow of American poetry, even for that matter a good idea of life in a Southern college town like Athens. Barks is, and has always been, a journalist of a poet, a man with a very certain drive to show and tell of what's around him. With the Winter holidays not too distant, I would suspect "Winter Sky" to be a perfect gift for any lover of poetry and literature plus simply a great book of poetry for anyone interested in understanding an American poet at the apex of his career.

MIKE WALKER is a journalist based out of Gainesville, Florida, who writes for this and other news media about history, ecology, and other topics. He is also a published poet with work in Meanie, the Church-Wellesley Review, Fetishes, and other literary journals. He may be reached with comments via email at:

Ο λόγος είναι μεγάλη ανάγκη της ψυχής. (Γιώργος Ιωάννου)


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