Peter Cole speaks at Kelly Writers House in Philadelphia. (Kelly Writers House)

An Interview with Peter Cole

Sacraments of Secular Consciousness
This story is included in these collections

I first met the poet and translator Peter Cole at an academic lunch. I was a grad student in English, he was a lecturer in Judaic Studies and Comparative Literature. We shared intellectual interests: I was in the midst of a dissertation on poetry and Christian theology, while he was working on a book of translations from the Jewish mystical tradition of Kabbalah. Cole is a fantastic talker (listen to this podcast for a taste of his conversational brilliance), and the lunch was a delight. As sometimes happens, I knew that I’d love Cole’s poetry even before I’d read it. Soon enough, I read it, and I did.

Cole’s poems occupy the space of the in-between. They’re deeply mystical and deeply physical, impressively learned and gorgeously musical, rooted in tradition and yet absolutely singular. He’s one of the best religious poets writing in English, but he’s also a lovely love poet (see “Valent(L)ines for A.”) and, when he wants to be, a sharply political poet. As he puts it in “Open for Business,” he’s interested in “paradox riding its cause into song.” Poetry is, for him, a way of residing and working within paradox. It’s “the praxis perfecting opens into.”

Of course, translation exists in the in-between, too. From the first section of Cole’s “Notes on Bewilderment”: “Translation aspires, clearly, beyond its words, / beyond what it renders, beyond even—if through— / sense, yielding, or wielding, blunders and wonder, / erasing our notion of a sacred uniqueness— /  the original—as incarnation of what it heard.” Cole’s poetic translations are models of scholarship and exquisite aesthetic creations in their own right. He translates Hebrew and Arabic with equal artistry. His 2007 anthology, The Dream of the Poem: Hebrew Poetry from Muslim and Christian Spain, 950–1492, is as ambitious as the title indicates and just as accomplished. That book of Jewish mystical poetry he was working on when we first met came out in 2014—The Poetry of Kabbalah (Yale University Press); it will be the standard collection for a long time yet.

Last year, Farrar, Straus and Giroux published Hymns & Qualms: New and Selected Poems and Translations—a perfect introduction to Cole’s sensibility and craft. In May, this book will be issued in paperback. Cole and I spoke recently by email.

Anthony Domestico: Why the title, Hymns & Qualms? It’s borrowed from your 1998 collection of the same name, and I’m wondering how you see the relationship between hymn-making—“to bask in the blessing / of the Crown / and sound Glory, / to utter praises / and link letters”—and the airing or entertaining of qualms.

Peter Cole: The two words—hymns and qualms— are as close in sound as they are in experience: one seems always about to collapse or rise up into the other. Like lyric and cynic, giving and misgiving. The mystical hymn from Late Antiquity you quote doesn’t just—as a hymn—represent half of a tonal whole, it embodies the whole itself: “To rise on high / and descend below /…. To see the vision / of the living, / and know the vision / of the dead.” Which summons Blake: “Without contraries is no progression.” That sort of tension between binaries interests me endlessly. They’re two sides of an affective coin and currency: yes and no, faith and doubt, openness and closure, wonder and undercutting wit.

There’s also a Jewish dimension at work here, a sort of alternating current that brings the poles of an apparent dualism into electric tension. That electricity is then put to use. Literary use, civic use, emotional use. 

How does faith develop? Over time? All at once and in a flash?

A.D.: This book, as the subtitle makes clear, moves between poems and translations. Late in the book you write that, where before you resisted Novalis’s claim that “all poetry is translation,” you find that “nothing now seems more vivid or truer.” What brought about this change in attitude? Was it the practice of translating itself? The living of your life? You now seem to agree with Freud that, as you put it, translation “is health, not loss—not failure, but fuller life.” How has translating given you fuller life—as a writer of poetry, as a reader of poetry, as a Jew?

P.C.: That’s a little like asking someone about a religious conversion! How does faith develop? Over time? All at once and in a flash?... There were flashes, but I didn’t always understand what they were showing me. I was also trying to keep things “honest,” and not confuse someone else’s work and inspiration for mine. I’m glad I did that, but eventually life took over and I began to understand how it is that we are always translating one another and older or other literatures into our present. Which creates a future.

I can’t quite account for what brought the change about. All I can say is that the evolution was gradual and magical—to take a phrase from one of Cynthia Ozick’s essays. Living and listening led me to poetry and then to translation, and translation intensified and altered the way I lived and how I listened, and what I read and wrote, whom I spoke with, and how. Translation lures us into new prosodies and new poetics, which extend and strengthen and sometimes radically reshape the muscles and muscle memory through which writing emerges. That’s the literary yoga of it, which returns us to the world and the word with a difference.

The question of translation and Jewishness takes it all to another level. The Jew has long been caricatured or stereotyped as a go-between. On a good civilizational day, that’s as the useful translator or merchant or citizen of the world whose cultural freedom affords him a unique perspective on things; on the bad days, it’s as usurer or abuser of debt, traitor, rootless cosmopolitan, or parasite and purveyor of slippery abstraction.

Not surprisingly, Judaism itself has something to say about all this betweenness, and that something is also often contradictory. In the Song of the Sea (Exodus 15), it’s from that condition of being between—between land and sea, freedom and slavery—that Hebrew song arises and the ambiguous people(hood) of the Jews begins to take on form. Then there’s the long history of commentary on Scripture and its offshoots as the most highly valued and meaningful form of religious activity—so that Jewishness itself is rooted in interpretation, or translation: a performance of the music of this being in the middle. A registration of it. Translation in this scheme and others like it draws us into key qualities of a text; it “breaketh the shell, that we may eat the kernel…removeth the cover of the well, that we may come by the water,” as the preface to the King James Bible has it. More tangentially, but no less important for me, is the role of translation in the Hebrew poetry written in Islamic Spain, where Arabic and biblical Hebrew combined to yield a classicizing avant-garde Jewish literature that gave and continues to give subtle and sophisticated voice to an eleventh-century contemporary Andalusian reality. That poetry—some of the greatest in all of Hebrew verse—emerges from a culture of translation.

But the Jewish dimension is just a part of it—unless “all poets are Jews,” as the Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva has it. In a more universal sense, that being between in language figures in all of these situations as a central human experience, one that comes to powerful expression in the translation of poetry and the poetry of translation.

A.D.: In “Open for Business,” you urge us “Not to live in abstract deferment / but only to sound the lines we’re in,” suggesting that we “stay open for business / in this isness, no matter the mess / one stumbles into.” How does writing poetry help you to say attuned to this isness, to the world we’re in and the world we build? What about reading poetry?

P.C.: Becoming and staying open and alert in the face of time and routine, acceptance and rejection, success and failure, is everyone’s challenge, and certainly the poet’s. Poetry hones you—it demands your attention and then stretches it, sometimes painfully, sometimes wondrously. Writing poetry, certainly, and translating it (which is always first a reading and then a writing) asks you to attend to the sensual, conceptual, and dramatic dimensions of a text, all at once, intuitively and analytically.

Entering into the simplicities and complexities of a poem—watching a student do that, or doing it in silence on one’s own, while reading or composing—these are fulcral moments of meaning for me. Call them the sacraments of secular consciousness or non-denominational understanding. Even Levitical rites in miniature, not exactly bloodless offerings of the heart and lips. Translation is simply a fuller verbal extension of those pivotal moments into a new life in another language. Or another’s language.

I’m interested in poetry that makes the world more interesting. Period.

A.D.: You have a beautiful line in this same poem about “paradox riding its cause into song.” That’s a perfect description of poetry—and of theology, too. In Kabbalah, God creates the world through language, and so distinguishing between poetic speech and theological speech becomes quite difficult. How do you think about the relationship between the two?

P.C.: Poetry emerges through sensing and making, theology through thinking. Poetry percolates through words, theology through ideas. There is most definitely a poetry at work in theological inquiry, and a sort of theology implicit in the making and sensing of poems. The two feed off of one another, and I often find myself veering from one to the other. The danger is the easy access to big ideas that theology affords. Genuine poetry, no matter how minor the poem, takes shape from the ground of feeling upward through thought and speech, not downward from concepts.

A.D.: You dedicate one of your poems to the late poet and critic Allen Grossman, and many of your poems remind me of a passage from The Sighted Singer. There, Grossman writes about “the question of the purposiveness of poetry altogether. One answer to that question is to find the real, or to give an account of a mind engaged sincerely in its discovery. The other possibility…is that the purpose of poetry is to supplement the real, to disclose something not at hand which it is the business of the poetic speaker to supply.” How would you answer Grossman’s question of the purposiveness of poetry? Does it exist to find the real or to supplement it? To discover something or to supply it?

P.C.: The pitch of Grossman’s thinking through poetry has drawn me pretty much from the moment I first encountered it when a friend gave me one of his books in 1980—its steepness and timbre, its absolute seriousness and its fearless raising of stakes. It’s an antidote to the thinness and inanity of so much contemporary poetry. His earlier work is somewhat forgotten, or looked down on as derivative, but it was love at first hearing for me—“My house is older than my life, and therefore / a continual instruction,” which is from The Recluse. And there are marvelous things in the signature poetry as well, like these lines from his last book, Descartes’ Loneliness: “Song is extreme work. Help me, river sister… / Start love’s gift once more. words for another.” As to your question about his more theoretical writings and the purpose of poetry: it’s both. I write and read to find the real, but in finding the real, the poetry I read and write in turn creates a reality of its own—it becomes part of the reality it discovers, and that ripples out into everything, moment by moment. For me, and, ideally, for readers.

It’s a matter of how one understands “invention.” Does invention imply “discovery” in the classical and etymological sense of in-ventio and invenire—“to come upon, find, find out”? Or does it suggest a Romantic creation out of nothing, and unique self-expression? Is poetry about the world (and the mind that constructs it), or about the demonstration of the singular self in the process of establishing its difference?

I’m interested in poetry that makes the world more interesting. Period.

A.D.: You and I have talked before about our shared love of the Anglo-Welsh poet David Jones. What is it about him that you admire so much? Is it the music of his verse? His deep sense of tradition—the deeply Catholic and deeply Jewish sense that, as you put it, “you most exist when you’re driven / away, or on—by forms and forces greater than you are”? His vision of poetry as a kind of sacralizing, a “calling forth / and lifting,” as you write?

P.C.: I admire the music of his mind, his celebration of language as a movement through that mind, apart from the image. And the focus in his calligraphy and poetry alike on the letters of the alphabet as a kind of icon beyond the image. I love his shameless, maverick embrace of the religious impulse as a valid subject for poetry, his sense of poetry’s purpose—“to lift up valid signs”—and his obsession with “offering” and its analogue with the poet’s mediating role. In other words, his ability to surprise and reawaken tradition. And, while we’re at it, his calling the poet to “work within the limits of his love.” That magnetic honesty, regardless of where it takes one. It’s in every line of his prose and his poems alike—that desire, not to describe, but to re-present. In that way he resembles Grossman. Both continue to give me a kind of courage, or permission.

A.D.: In a recent poem, you describe your interest in “that which hovers here,” in “the imperfect / tense and tension of what / in fact articulates the eternal.” What contemporary poets express that imperfect tense and tension between that which hovers here and the eternal most powerfully for you?

P.C.: Christian Wiman, and Forrest Gander in a very different way, and in a previous generation but still contemporary, James Schuyler. Also of another generation but contemporary is Harold Schimmel, an American-born Hebrew poet I’ve translated. He’s now in his 80s. While he writes a poetry that’s far from mine, no one has taught me more about the art. It’s a question of touch and pitch more than anything else, the lay of a line, the light it gives off and the sound it makes. This, for instance, is from a fairly recent book called Straw:

A second Turkish coffee   Not exactly
consolation      though it helps     Sunday morning
it’s hard      after all      to mark
the first month’s just beginning     properly
 

demons flitting through my dreams
instead of family coming     one
by one    all knew      what I was yet to
know    beside the table     threats echoing
 

spring’s in everything     except for me
that spring within—     not so easily

A.D.: Commonweal recently published a lovely poem by your Yale colleague, Danielle Chapman, which ends “in the Brutalist carpark as I round and brake, / round and brake down seven levels into New Haven.” Like Danielle, you and I both live in New Haven. What has the city meant for you poetically? Are there particular places or elements of the city that speak to your imagination?

P.C.: That is a lovely poem. And while I don’t have a car, I do identify with what she’s getting at there. I grew up in Paterson, New Jersey, and then an adjacent suburb, and went to college in Western Massachusetts. Most of my adult life I’ve spent in Jerusalem, apart from a post-college year in Providence and a few years in San Francisco in the late 80s, along with patches in NYC and teaching at various places in New England. I felt out of place in America pretty much from the moment we left Paterson, and most certainly whenever I came back to the States from Jerusalem. New Haven is the first American city or town I’ve lived in since my childhood where I’ve felt I could work, which is to say, live. The combination of grit and care, the coastal quality of its sky and the irregular call of gulls, the train lines and whistles, the signage, the complex history and deep walkability, and what that does to the hips and chest, and to the connective tissue of writing…the familiar trees and weathers (after years in the Middle East) and assorted flora, the stimulation of the degreed and soon-to-be-degreed fauna, in combination with the pace and scale. The urban marvel and Kabbalistic mandala that is Wooster Square, right outside our front door. It’s quiet enough to focus, but highly alive on numerous levels.

There’s a lot that it doesn’t have, but when I get off the train at Union Station and take in the air along the tracks, I’m happy, at least for an instant. And that’s an instinctive instant, which is to say, it’s always at the edge of the poem.

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