The rage over the poet Jelaluddin Rumi took root on May 2, 1977, when Coleman Barks had The Dream.

Barks, then a 40-year-old English professor, dreamed of a man sitting cross-legged inside a sphere of light, a man whose love was so immense that Barks "felt saturated with love as with dew."

A year later, Barks was in Philadelphia, where he says, "I met the man in my dream." His name was Bawa Muhaiyaddeen and he was a Sufi master who'd spent 50 years in the jungles of Sri Lanka, watching the animals and learning about God. Muhaiyaddeen taught Barks about Sufism and its greatest poet, Rumi, and instructed him to translate his words. "He told me to do this work," Barks says, "and that was it. There was no choice. It was something I had to do."

It sounds a bit kooky, but there's no denying that Barks's life changed an awful lot after his dream. Today, the 62-year-old Georgian is considered the number one popularizer of Rumi. His 14 books have sold nearly half a million copies, allowing him to quit his day job and devote himself to Rumi full time. Barks visits Washington today to read from his latest Rumi book, "The Glance: Songs of Soul-Meeting" at 7 p.m. at Olsson's Books downtown.

As for Rumi, he's quite the popular guy these days. Madonna and Goldie Hawn recited his love poems for a recent CD, "A Gift of Love." Donna Karan has played his words in her fashion shows and boutiques. And enough regular people, from college students to CPAs, buy his books, which makes him quite a rarity nowadays: a best-selling poet.

"To put the mystery of being human and spirit into words is what moves me about this poetry. Sometimes I gasp for air when reading it," says Anthony Spadafore, a 36-year-old career counselor from McLean who subscribes to an e-mail list on the poet.

Not bad for someone who's been dead for 700 years.

Rumi is as popular in the Islamic world as Shakespeare is in the West. His poetry is sexual, relational and spiritual, delving into the mysteries of human desire. He wrote of the ecstasy that is love, composing verses like: "I turn my face to you, and into/ eternity:/ we have been in/ love that long."

Rumi, who was born in 1207 and raised in what is now Turkey, was a traditional religious teacher until age 37 when he encountered a wandering dervish some two decades his senior. One glance at this man, Shams of Tabriz, and Rumi said, "What I had thought of before as God, I met today in a human being."

Mere words cannot describe their partnership. "As Rumi says, this kind of love cannot be said. It can only be experienced," Barks asserts.

But their time together was short. Shams disappeared three years later, probably murdered by Rumi's jealous followers. But this experience of love, longing and loss made for some good poetry and lots of it. For the next 29 years, until his death in 1273, Rumi composed about 15 poems every day, Barks estimates.

Barks seems an unlikely candidate to bring Rumi to the modern masses. A sturdy, bearded gentleman who likes to play tennis and do stone masonry in his free time, Barks grew up in Chattanooga, Tenn., and made a career out of teaching Henry James and Ernest Hemingway at the University of Georgia.

He doesn't know Rumi's language, Persian, so he takes scholarly translations and transforms them into what he calls American free verse. For a long time, Barks's colleagues were suspicious of his Rumi work. "That kind of secondary translation is frowned upon in the academic community," Barks says, adding that their attitude changed in the early '90s when his poems were included in a prominent anthology.

Barks credits his mentor for his literary success. A Sufi master, Muhaiyaddeen belonged to the mystical Muslim sect that seeks to find the truth of divine love and knowledge through direct personal experience of God. Dance is one way to feel this connection, hence the Sufi whirling dervishes who seek to glorify God through an elaborate dancing ritual.

"Bawa was on the level of an enlightened being, like Jesus or Buddha or Rumi," Barks says. "This work would be impossible without having met him. I would have no sense of what Rumi was doing in his poems."

But why do so many people like those poems seven centuries later?

Jonathan Brown, a 22-year-old Georgetown University student, attributes the popularity to the spiritual hunger felt by many people disenchanted with organized religion.

Diane Solomon, 46, an accountant from Silicon Valley, says Rumi's words fulfill that need for her: "His poetry opens my heart and shows me that the sorrows and uncomfortable emotions that I feel are in reality what connect me to my Creator and have been sent to me as a gift or as guidance 'from beyond.' "

New Age health guru and Rumi fan Deepak Chopra claims that the poet's words heal his patients, especially those suffering from addictions. "Rumi is the best medicine they can have. Rumi's whole poetry is about overcoming your toxic emotions--guilt, depression, fear," he says. Chopra's also had success selling Rumi--the collection of Rumi love poems he edited last year with another translator has sold 80,000 copies.

As for Barks, he can't pin down Rumi's attraction. "It just provides some kind of nourishment for people," he says. He's certain of one thing: Rumi is here to stay. "I've been doing this for 22 years and it hasn't gotten stale yet. It's definitely more than a fad."

Rumi-nations

Three poems from the new Rumi book "The Glance: Songs of Soul-Meeting," translated by Coleman Barks and published by Viking/Arkana:

Daring Enough to Finish

Face that lights my face, you spin

intelligence into these particles

I am. Your wind shivers my tree.

My mouth tastes sweet with your name

in it. You make my dance daring enough

to finish. No more timidity! Let

fruit fall and wind turn my roots up

in the air, done with patient waiting.

Both Worlds

There is God's wine, and this

other. Don't mix them. There

are naked pilgrims who wear only

sunlight. Don't give them clothes!

There are lovers content with

hoping. I'm not one of them.

Give a cup of pure fire to your

closest friend, healing salve

to the wounded. To Shams-i

Tabriz, offer up both worlds.

Fierce Courtesy

The connection to the Friend

is secret and very fragile.

The image of that friendship

is in how you love, the grace

and delicacy, the subtle talking

together, in full prostration,

outside of time. When you're

there, remember the fierce

courtesy of the one with you.