Peter Cole on Poetry and Influence
It’s true, but funny.
Time is honey.
—Peter Cole from Things on Which I’ve Stumbled (2008)
Peter Cole thinks about time a little differently than most. He was born in Paterson, NJ, in 1957, incidentally, the year when W.C. Williams was readying to publish his final volume of Paterson. But Cole, salt of Paterson, New Jersey, has since mapped his influences to times and places far more remote. For decades, Cole has authored innovative poetry, while writing and editing translations of Hebrew and Arabic verse. His newest book of poems, The Invention of Influence (2014), and his latest anthology, The Poetry of Kabbalah (2012), are widely acclaimed and essential reading for anyone interested in poetry as it coevolves with the Jewish wisdom tradition. As Harold Bloom says in his introduction to The Invention of Influence, the author’s own powers of influence transcend secular margins, and in fact Cole is “one of the most vital poets of his generation.”
Peter Cole splits his time between Jerusalem and New Haven, CT, where he teaches at Yale University. His many honors and awards include fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, a genius grant from the MacArthur Foundation, a National Jewish Book Award for Poetry, and the PEN award for poetry in translation. Cole is the author of four books of poetry, fifteen books of poetry in translation, and a book of nonfiction, Sacred Trash: The Lost and Found World of the Cairo Geniza (2011), coauthored with Adina Hoffman. Hymns & Qualms: New and Selected Poems and Translations is forthcoming in the Spring of 2017 from FSG.
In an email correspondence that took place between Summer 2015 and Winter 2016, and pending a brief hiatus following the Mets’ collapse in the World Series, I was privileged to sample the honey, as Peter Cole made time to respond to our big questions.
Michael Barach: So, where do poets hang out in Jerusalem?
Peter Cole: At home. Living rooms are to Jerusalem what cafés are to Tel Aviv.
MB: Are you working on a project now?
PC: Yes, I’m putting together a volume of new and selected poems and translations—so, writing new things and working with the figures in the carpet of the old.
MB: My favorite Hebrew letter is yod. Do you have a favorite?
PC: Bet, the second letter, for its open groundedness, its belatedness and doubled aspect, and for what pronouncing it does to the lips.
MB: Do you keep a journal?
PC: I keep notebooks, and have at least since I was in my early twenties. They’re everything-books, and increasingly illegible with arthritic scrawl—to-do-lists, compilations of quotations, responses to reading and sometimes to events or people, reflections of all sorts. They’re almost always the place where poems and translations begin.
MB: Your new book is called The Invention of Influence. How can influence be an invention?
PC: It’s not that we can control what controls us, or deliberately create what exerts an influence over us, but, unconsciously, and also through a combination of instinct, desire, and will, we seek out the people, contexts, and works that end up shaping our lives and determining, in key ways, what and who we’ll become.
There’s also the undertow of the word invention, which in the classical and etymological sense means “discovery.” So the book is also about that—the often startling discovery of influence and the complex, miraculous, destructive, elusive, formative role it plays in our lives.
MB: According to Ezra Pound, it is “important that great poetry be written, it makes no jot of difference who writes it.” What are your feelings about the role of authorship in poetry?
PC: Evolving. The line between so-called originality and derivation interests me less and less. Or, more accurately, I find myself writing along that line more and more. That’s very much the direction the new book follows out, weaving the “original” work and the “translations” together in a kind of double-helix that winds through the book.
MB: The Poetry of Kabbalah describes the exceedingly high stakes for medieval poets writing in Hebrew. “Set a word straight / and restore the Creator to His place” says Sefer Yetzira, a work that’s very much about the power of letters. How do you resolve what you view to be your duty as a poet writing in this tradition with our contemporary skepticism about the role of poetry?
PC: I don’t think I ever resolve it, and that puts this creator in his place. Though the “it” here isn’t duty, it’s desire. There are temporary resolutions to specific tensions that sometimes give rise to poems. But life is constantly reshuffling the deck, and new circumstances require new solutions, re-solutions. That said, I do try to “set a word straight,” provisionally, for a given context, and, as William Carlos Williams put it, to “make the necessary translations.” And that involves detailed immersion in the materiality of poetry—the arrangement of words, letters, sound, sense. Patterning and texture. For some people that might seem like an ornamental aesthetic; for others, for me, it isn’t cosmetic so much as a question of ordering and reordering, of ongoing recalibration, with the void looming.
MB: I experience the language you’ve ‘set’ in The Invention of Influence as restorative to the reader (if not the cosmos), and I love the joy that many poems take from a variety of 4-beat lines. Would you speak about how accentual verse developed as a force in the book?
PC: In the Invention of Influence there are lines of all sorts—a good deal of tetrameter, but also trimeter and pentameter, free verse, syllabics, rhymed and unrhymed. And, yes, I take real pleasure in finding the right setting, the right vehicle for a given impulse. And then leaning into it. That’s a translational instinct—listening to the lines as they first form themselves and then responding to and becoming responsible for the patterns that begin to emerge, letting them lead you on, through what you know and into what you don’t.
Rhythm, cadence, is elemental, and it’s the first thing and maybe the last or at any rate the lasting thing that registers on me when I read or hear someone else’s poem, or when I sense a poem taking shape in me. That’s where attraction or repulsion takes root—in the music of it. It’s been that way from the start for me. The tetrameter line—broken to stress the aspect of duration, or intact to emphasize symmetry and a sense of weighing things out as though on the pans of a scale—evolved through my early poems, and especially through the translations of the Andalusian Hebrew material, as a sort of versatile base measure. I’ve valued it for its narrative vigor, its compression, its lyricism, and for its ability to act as counterpoint to some of the more metaphysical impulses of the poetry. It also establishes a certain distance from the trappings of tonier, more official English verse culture, which we still tend to identify with iambic pentameter.
MB: The title poem in The Invention of Influence seems exemplary of the versatility you’re pointing to, as the poem commands multiple forms and modes to explore the suicide of Victor Tausk, Sigmund Freud’s star pupil. It’s a thematically rich poem, but I’m especially curious about its subtext of shame. You write, for instance—
Did writing this poem lead you to something you didn’t know about shame? Is there a mystical root here, or is the shame specific to Tausk?
PC: I’m ashamed to say that I can’t really answer the first question, though I feel like I should be able to. Shame is part of the unconscious material and fuel of the poem. The second question is easier: No. Extreme as his case was, there’s nothing about Tausk’s story that, at heart, is limited to Tausk, neither his shame nor his ambition or gifts or flaws, not even his suicide. Otherwise his story wouldn’t have resonated for me as it did. Without getting into the particulars of his situation, shame, as you’ve noticed, is something that shows up with some frequency—in his sense of himself, first of all, as a son, and second, in the passage you’ve cited, in his sense of being transparent as a person and as a disciple, of knowing that what he knows isn’t his own, at some basic level. And so, what’s deepest in him is there for others to see. His shame holds both a life-enlarging perception of interconnection—which helped make him an effective psychoanalyst—and a pathological, destabilizing sense of extreme dependence and vulnerability. Or inadequacy.
There’s nothing mystical about that. It’s simply human—in this instance, perhaps too human. Which is also what makes him cruel at times, and vulnerable to abuse, on both the receiving and the giving ends.
MB: Would you speak a little about the rabbis who chime in? Who are these sages, and what’s their take on influence—or on shame, for that matter?
PC: The rabbis in the poem are second to fourth-century C.E. Palestinian Jewish teachers, all of whom are associated with that early Talmudic period’s wisdom. Their voices have been running through me for years now—as a beautifully succinct, aphoristic sort of chorus, commenting on life, prodding, goading, hounding, encouraging. As for their take on influence and shame—they provide a kind of check on Tausk’s experience of dependence and vulnerability and linkage. In Tausk’s case we see a dangerously intense experience of influence going haywire—in his patients and in himself. But that heightened sense of the very same things can also become the grounds for an ethics.
And we find an ethics of just this sort in the rabbinic and Jewish wisdom traditions, along with a constant elemental reminder about where human beings are, structurally, in this scheme: “Know where it is you come from and where it is you’re going, and before whom you will stand in the end and give account: Where you come from—a fetid drop. Where you’re going—to the place of dust and worms. And before whom you will stand—The king of the king of kings, the holy one blessed be he.” We all interpret that notion of kingship differently, but the structure of the statement holds true universally.
MB: And does that in some way bring us back to the question of what you might have learned about shame in the course of writing this poem? Or, more simply, what does this rabbinic approach have to do with your own poetry?
PC: That bottom-line commonality, that elemental and elementary aspect of being human juxtaposed with an aspiration toward something more, has been a steady presence in my poetry from the start. The pre-occupation with shame is at the very least ambivalent, or polyvalent. It comes from an ambition or desire for that something more, as well as a drive to expose that something less—since they’re always and vitally connected. But that ambition and exposure in turn give rise to an inevitable sense of inadequacy and to a desire to avoid or mitigate exposure, to cover oneself—which is, etymologically, where the word “shame” comes from.
Emerson says somewhere that he makes poetry from all sorts of things, but serious ethical engagement, or “the moral sentiment” makes poetry of him. There’s a terse structural beauty to early rabbinic writing, and I very much wanted to bring that collective and more classical and even choral voice to bear on Tausk's story as it was emerging in the poem. As a check on the more romantic and neurotic struggle that Tausk is engaged in, and because that normative rabbinic perspective speaks to me every bit as powerfully as the Tausk-Freud nexus does. The moral sentiment doesn’t just make poetry of our lives—I think it has something to add to the lives of our poetry.
MB: Elsewhere in The Invention of Influence, poems invoke medieval Jewish mystics like Abraham Abulafia and Isaac Luria. “Song of the Shattering Vessels,” in particular, appears to perform Lurianic Kabbalah right on the page:
I think I sense the moral sentiment adding to this poem. Is it an expression of Luria’s teachings? A response? How did this poem come about?
PC: Why do you say this poem presents a “moral sentiment”?
MB: I sense a moral element because of the refrain, which plays off of the first 2 lines’ “either / or” construction. It reminds me that, although we might be stuck feeling unsure if the world is improving or collapsing, the world is moving in some direction, it isn’t static, and we could still have agency to affect its course. All this seems relevant to Luria’s principles of Zimzum (contraction) and Tikkun olam (repairing the world).
PC: I think that the poem’s morality or amorality exists independently of the Kabbalistic framework, although the mystical rubric does add an eerie depth to the basic situation, which is one of relationship—human, erotic, conversational.
I wrote the poem, or the core of it, in a few minutes on a traffic island in Manhattan, at a moment when I felt that things were fraying for me in pretty much every way. The thrust of it was emotional, and tactile. The fabric of everything unraveling, which of course also afforded me a view of the weave itself and what was behind and beneath it. I simply wrote what I wrote, and the title came later—though I worked on it all for quite a while, over the course of a year. It’s clear to me now that the systolic and diastolic action of the poem entered, unconsciously, from my immersion in the world of Lurianic Kabbalah and my living with it all for quite some time as I absorbed the poems that went into The Poetry of Kabbalah. That material, that way of understanding, simply rose up into the heart of my day. And that’s the way it should be with one’s learning. If it bubbles up from within, that’s a sign that it belongs and is part of one’s way of seeing and being in the world. Otherwise it’s just intellectual decoration.
As for the moral element here, the poem is really about being caught up in that very physical, integrated sense of interrelatedness and a larger rhetoric—its contraction and expansion in the ongoing act and acts of creation. It’s about experiencing that rhetoric on one’s skin, in one’s bones. That experience is the ground for moral action, but the poem is also saying that this is a force field we’re all in, and it isn’t so easily controlled. That’s part of the wonder of it, and also the terror.
MB: Those two scenarios fascinate me. One being the visionary moment on the traffic island, the other being the year you spent working on the poem. When you’re working on a poem, is a goal to arrive again at that visionary moment you described?
PC: On the contrary, I’m trying to work outward from that moment and from what it produced on the page, or in my ear. Composition that involves re-vision has to honor that moment of vision at its core—if there was such a moment. So, imaginatively, one does return to that moment over and over again. But in my case the inspiration, or opening, gives rise to a series of sounds and a rhythmic complex that becomes its own thing with its own demands, and that’s what I work out from, listening to what the words themselves are saying and trying to hear where they want to go. There’s a basic difference here between poetry and mysticism.
MB: Have you been seized by inspiration in other unlikely places?
PC: When things are going well, always. In an elevator. In line to have my passport stamped. Underwater in the bay of Haifa once. Lately while listening to some boring lectures.
MB: That makes me think about the tension in The Invention of Influence between the miraculous and the commonplace. Poems like “Actual Angels” and “A Palette” seem to suggest that language itself epitomizes the miraculous embedded in the commonplace. Do you find this to be a tension in your work?
PC: Absolutely—that tension is right there at the heart of everything that engages me most powerfully, on the page and in my days, so it makes sense that it would find its way into my poems. What one does with the experience of that, how that felt tension gets translated into poetry, is another matter.
You asked about language: Language is a medium, it’s in the middle and it’s matter, material. The user of language, the specialized user—the poet—becomes a medium for that medium, a conductor and shaper of it. I want the sometimes fairly ordinary language of my poems to trap and refract that sense of what we’re calling the miraculous here. So that the ordinariness or extravagance of language itself might seem miraculous, as it conducts perception and generates it anew. We are, after all, what we pay attention to.
So I do what I can to let the language that comes naturally to me rise up to meet the sort of experience you’ve singled out. The quiet dance of connective tissue and surface tensility is as or more important to me than the conspicuous image or the dramatic gesture or verbal fireworks. All the little links involved in the poem matter and contribute to the whole, as they do in most every action and transaction in life.
MB: As a user of both languages, how is Hebrew different from English? Are there qualities of Hebrew that present special challenges to translation?
PC: Hebrew is terse, sturdy, and charged with transparent etymologies and shifting roots. The language has naturally changed a great deal over the three thousand plus years of its history, but these essential qualities remain, for better and worse. The rule of thumb in translating Hebrew prose into English is that the English will usually be three times longer. So, there’s the basic challenge of how to let the succinctness of the Hebrew exert a pressure on English without rendering the English unnatural. But that’s a healthy challenge, especially for a poet, who is always trying to do more with less.
Another challenge I’ve been drawn to is that Hebrew tends to convey spiritual and even abstract experience in palpable, concrete fashion. And that has certainly had an influence on my sense of what English might do.
MB: In Paris Review #213, you tell a great anecdote about sitting in synagogue as a child, seeing Hebrew on one page of the prayer book, English on the opposite page, and realizing that the gap between could be a space for poetry. What happens to the religious charge of Hebrew during its translation? Is translating prayer anything like praying?
PC: That makes it sound more conscious than it was. As a kid, I didn’t have any thoughts about poetry at all. While I was supposed to be praying, I had basically two things on my mind. First—what will I do as soon as I get out of there? The second thing was related, but harder to pin down, as I had no vocabulary for it at the time, but it involved a sense of being swept up in the force field of the Hebrew, not so much as prayer with specifically Jewish or even religious content, but as unusually charged language that met my own inchoate longing to, well, be elsewhere, as Nietzsche and others have characterized the motive for metaphor. This is also what Charles Peguy said the Jew’s great talent was for—“to be elsewhere.” It was only much later that I “realized” anything about that experience in the synagogue. And even then, in my twenties, when I began working more directly with Hebrew liturgical material, it wasn’t entirely a conscious process. I was responding instinctively to the gravitational tug of the language.
As for the other part of your question, I don’t think I was really praying in a conventional sense. I was reading for dear life. And as for what happens to the specific charge of Hebrew during translation—I don’t think there’s any essential difference between the various charges that attend to Hebrew—religious or what we call secular— and those attending to Tibetan or Latin or Arabic or Spanish. One has to be careful not to put a halo around any of this just because it’s Hebrew. We’re all swimming in language, all the time, sometimes happily, sometimes recklessly. There’s tremendous richness involved, and pleasure, but, also struggle.
MB: What is it to “read for dear life?” And does a translator read a poem differently when he’s involved in translating it?
PC: I didn’t come from an intellectual household. My mother was a Martha Graham dancer, but ideas and books weren’t really part of the mix at home. Beyond that, there was almost no talk or cultivation of what one might call the inner life, beyond a deep-seated ethical sense that my lawyer-father had and somehow conveyed to us. My maternal grandfather—a pediatrician and a serious amateur photographer—held out the hope of something more interior and also somehow more expansive. But when I first encountered Hebrew and that sense of uncanniness it held for me, I had almost nothing in the way of intellectual or spiritual equipment to help me. I didn’t have a clue as to what to do with it. So reading for dear life meant, I think, responding instinctively to the power of the moment and hanging on to the words themselves, their sound and feel, their promise to transport.
That in itself is a key aspect of translation—a good translator inspects and tests every cubic millimeter of the poem he’s translating. He sounds it, and certainly hears it as few others will.
MB: So your poetic instincts grew despite your upbringing, and when did you become aware that your experiences were leading you towards a life of poetry and translation? I guess I’m wondering, too, if the impulse to translate is natural to bilingual poets or if it develops independently.
PC: I’d scribbled poems my first couple of years at Williams College, where I was studying comparative religion and philosophy, but I had no sense of myself as an aspiring poet or of wanting to write into or through a literary tradition. The poems, if I can call them that, were thin and random eruptions.
In any event, I didn’t begin to study poetry with an eye toward getting better at it or developing myself as a poet until I dropped out of Williams and lived in Philadelphia for a while. That’s when I started reading and writing more seriously, and the following year I went back to school at Hampshire College, wanting to focus, almost exclusively, on writing poems and studying poetry. By the time I was 21 or 22 I felt that that’s what I wanted to do with my life, even if I was pretty far behind a lot of my peers. But I was hungry.
Translation didn’t come into that mix until later. I’d translated a little from French in college, and began translating passively from Hebrew literature as soon as I started absorbing that tradition. But the first real encounter came, oddly, when I tried my hand at translating the poetry of Harold Schimmel, an American poet who had moved to Jerusalem as a young man in the early sixties and eventually switched over to writing in Hebrew. He became a close friend, and I probably learned more about poetry, and about being an artist generally, from him than I did from anyone else. For a variety of reasons, he could never bring himself to translate his own work with the kind of conviction one has to give to translation. So I tried out a few poems from a recently published Hebrew book of his, just to see what his poems might sound like in English. And very quickly I discovered that I loved being in that motion between the poem as-it-is in one language and as-it-might-be in another. Loved working with that betweenness and that kinesthesis. I responded to its magic immediately.
MB: And the whole question of bilingual poets and translation?
PC: First of all, I’m not bilingual by any stretch of the imagination. I studied Hebrew as a kid at school, but it was limited and not much spoken. My Hebrew became very good in my early twenties, and then much later I learned Arabic. I love both of these other languages—but my language is English. Back to your question, though: Yes, bilingual writers do tend to take up translation, quite naturally, if not with any consistency. And I would venture to say, counterintuitively, that they don’t necessarily make for the best translators. Of course there are some phenomenal exceptions, but it seems to me that bilingual writers often have a hard time imagining what it’s like NOT to know what it feels like to be in one of their two languages. They can’t really put themselves in the place of, say, the English speaker who can’t just switch codes and move fluidly in and out of the languages involved. I’ve never really looked into this very thoroughly, but I’ve seen bilingual translators who were absolutely tortured by their dual fluency. They can’t bear to give up either of their languages, which, in a way, is what a translation has to do.
MB: It seems like the void between languages is a perilous place to navigate. How do you get situated in that creative space? Is there a process to it?
PC: It is perilous. But all serious poems are written and read over a void or within a precarious betweenness. How does one handle that vulnerability? Sometimes well, sometimes not! I think of the poet John Wieners’s description of his method: “arm against the hard brown desk.” That helps, even as it hurts. So does curiosity, and an emphasis on the pleasures taken—from poetry wherever one finds it. Staying open or receptive over time and in the face of extended anxiousness is always the challenge. Being receptive means being open to sensation, and so, to irritation. That’s where aesthetics come from, again etymologically, and biologically.
MB: If sense perception is a starting point for aesthetics, I’m curious, does the materiality of the source from which a translator works affect receptivity? For instance, I imagine you at the “the hard brown desk” writing The Poetry of Kabbalah with an antique volume in-hand . . . but maybe it’s a PDF? Is there a difference to the translator?
PC: The materiality that matters most is the language itself. So anything that intensifies my experience of that, anything that enhances that pleasure, is important. But it’s rarely a matter of having, say, what you’re calling an antique volume in hand—which is more a romantic scenario and for me one that’s entirely unnecessary. And I also don’t usually work from manuscripts—that’s another skill altogether. By and large, and when they’re available, I use modern critical editions. The quality of those books, as material objects, does make a difference and helps me hear the work. And it certainly makes the process more pleasurable. That said, a PDF of a well-designed critical edition, with a typeface that makes you want to bite into the words and lines, and say them over and over again—that I can work with! But when I started all this, there were no such things. So it was a moot point.
There were many minor poets in the various anthologies I’ve done—The Poetry of Kabbalah and The Dream of the Poem—for whom no critical editions were available. In those cases I had to work from journal publications, or Xeroxes made from print editions. But I’d almost always take those Xeroxes to a Jerusalem bookbinder I knew who would make very simple little books for me, and I found that to be very helpful and an important aid to concentration and involvement in the work. There was and is something talismanic about it. The bound pages help focus me, and the promise of contact with the page in that frame draws me in. Working with these makeshift books, or “real” books, I can begin translations of select lines impulsively in the margins or between the lines while I’m reading, registering the immediacy of contact and even the contamination of cadence and texture, all the while taking notes as they occur to me. Then I can go back to the poems more easily than I might if I were using files of Xeroxes and loose pages. So, yes, materiality matters.
MB: It’s amazing to me that esoteric poems written over a millennium ago are still reprinted today. From the perspective of someone who perpetuates poetry in so many ways, what makes a poem last?
PC: Ah, the sixty-four-thousand dollar question. A certain combination of mystery and clarity? Mystery trapped—by craft— in clarity? The familiar glimpsed in the strange, and vice versa? For a poem to last it has to feed us—and that entails providing nourishment and pleasure on numerous levels. The word “esoteric” contains the word “erotics,” and that’s also a central part of a poem that will last—its ability, all at once, to arouse and address desire, and somehow sustain it.
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