Barks, a poet and professor emeritus at the University of Georgia (UGA) in Athens, has gained world renown for his translations of Near Eastern poets, especially Jalal al-Din Rumi. He is also an accomplished poet, whose interest in Near Eastern mysticism infuses his observations of southern landscape and life. Barks has published several collections of his own poetry and numerous poetry translations, and his work has appeared in a wide array of anthologies, textbooks, and journals, including the Ann Arbor Review, Chattahoochee Review, Georgia Review, Kenyon Review, New England Review, Plainsong, Rolling Stone, and Southern Poetry Review. He was inducted into the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame in 2009.
Coleman Bryan Barks was born on April 23, 1937, in Chattanooga, Tennessee, to Elizabeth Bryan and Herbert Bernard Barks. His sister, Elizabeth, also became a writer, and her fiction has been published under the name Elizabeth Cox. Barks attended Baylor School, where his father served as headmaster for thirty-five years, and later received his Ph.D. in English from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In 1962 he married Kittsu Greenwood. The couple had two children, Benjamin and Cole, before they divorced. After teaching for two years at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, Barks joined the faculty of the UGA English department. Since his retirement from UGA in 1997, Barks has lived in Athens, where he works on his poetry and translations and operates Maypop Books, which publishes translations of Rumi and other Near Eastern religious poets, as well as Coleman's own work.
Barks's first poetry collection, The Juice (1972), reflects the range of styles and subjects he developed more fully later in his career. Considerable whimsy, a common feature in Barks's poetry, occurs alongside a tendency toward the meditative, an appreciation of the natural world, and an interest in people and relationships. The poems in the book's first section, "Body Poems," describe parts of the human body in sensual, imagistic, sometimes enigmatic ways. In the poem "Spine," for example, the backbone, "a curl of rainwater / down the windshield / moves around / like it's hearing / the radio." The second section, "Choosing," contains longer narrative poems. Many seem autobiographical, describing people or experiences from Barks's life. Poems in the third section, "The Swim," tend to be shorter; many of them are about animals. In form some of these poems, consisting of couplets or three-line stanzas, at first seem more conventional than the free-flowing narrative style Barks would later favor. But even at this relatively early point in his career, Barks has mostly abandoned rhyme and conventional meter for a more relaxed, improvisational, even musical approach to language. An example is "The Coyote Cage at the Athens (Ga.) Zoo," which is composed of four three-line stanzas using irregular three-foot lines. The poem comments on the unnatural state of a coyote living in a small-town zoo and imagines its release from captivity: "Nobody could live / like you do, you dumb // beast. Come out of there / and lie down in the grass / with me. Easy. Good boy."