Thursday, April 26, 2012

Interview: Poet/Translator Peter Cole talks about Kabbalah and his Jewish poetry

American poet/translator Peter Cole

In another of the ongoing series with Anglican and Christian poets this religion writer chose to interview Jewish poet and translator Peter Cole. One of his agents suggested a Jewish poet, though Ofer Ziv of Blue Flower Arts knew the series was made up of Christians and Anglicans.

The mystic, poet, secular Jewish married man of letters who is a scholar is reticent to use the word “God” in an interview, and even reticent to admit to a belief in the Almighty. Yet this religious and spiritual scholar and poet has a recent book of translations of works from the Kabbalah in the book titled The Poetry of Kabbalah: Mystical Verse from the Jewish Tradition.
This ancient discipline of understanding the Almighty in the Jewish tradition is a mystical and mysterious exercise in religious practice that continues into our own day–this 21st Century. If one asks, Where are we going, even in the Christian community, it does good to look towards the mystics be they Christian or Jew. This eminent and if not celebrated translator Peter Cole fits the bill of man who finds the kind of no God experience of mystery in the Kabbalah work. That is, if this Religion Writer may takes some liberties based on visiting the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco where a room of men and women heard him speak of Kabbalah, read from his new book, and talk of matters poetic and scholarly in the Jewish tradition. Peter Cole was on tour in March, and as a guest in the house of the Jewish Community, that though not Temple, is certainly a specific place of community life and interest; Peter Cole makes a noteworthy presentation and appearance, even so far as to engage the audience with his translations and his own poetry. Here are two samples of his translation work from the new book of Kabbalah writings:

The stakes couldn’t be higher: extraction of
light from the container of sound; ascent to the
Throne of God and direct vision of His Glory;
the eradication of coarseness and the forces of
darkness; a path to redemption, sometimes
through sin; the achievement of erotic union
on high — which is to say, the sacred marriage
of feminine and masculine aspects within the
Deity. “Great is the power of the poem recited
for the sake of heaven,” writes one late-
seventeenth-century North African poet. “It
unites all the [spiritual] qualities
like a sacrificial offering, aligns the [heavenly]
channels, and gives rise to effulgence in all
worlds — above and below.”

The poet explains: In this Kabbalistic context, poems not only depict a mystical process, they produce it . . . In other words, the hymns of the Jewish mystical tradition demonstrate how song — almost magically, and at times with actual magic — can conduct and preserve transformative knowledge, even for those who don’t quite know what they know. Moreover, they show how a vision of the manifold linkage of all things and all degrees of thought and feeling might be registered in the cadence and weave of a line of verse, a series of wedded sounds in the air.

To rise on high
and descend below,
to ride the chariot’s wheels
and explore in the world,
to wander on earth
and contemplate splendor,
to bask in the blessing
of the Crown
and sound Glory,
to utter praises
and link letters, to utter names
and behold what is
above and below,
to know the meaning
of the living
and see the vision
of the dead.
To ford rivers of fire
and know lightning.
—from The Poetry of Kabbalah

Poem by the poet:

Only by sucking, not by knowing,
can the subtle essence be conveyed—
sap of the word and the world’s flowing

that raises the scent of the almond blossoming,
and yellows the bulbul in the olive’s jade.
Only by sucking, not by knowing.

The grass and oxalis by the pines growing
are luminous in us—petal and blade—
as sap of the word and the world’s flowing;

a flicker rising from embers glowing;
light trapped in the tree’s sweet braid
of what it was sucking. Not by knowing

is the amber honey of persimmon drawn in.
An anemone piercing the clover persuades me—
sap of the word and the world is flowing.

across separation, through wisdom’s bestowing,
and in that persuasion choices are made:
But only by sucking, not by knowing
that sap of the word through the world is flowing.
—from Things on Which I’ve Stumbled

Translation by the poet:
TO THE SOUL by Avraham Ibn Ezra, 1092
Sent down from a luminous fountain of life,
drawn from a sacred place, and pure,
created as one, though not with form,
and greater by far than honor or wisdom—
why were you ushered into the world
and then in the dark of the body imprisoned?
At first its sleep seems sweet to you,
but in the end it’s hard and bitter.
Put the pleasures of Time behind you,
unless in exile you’d always wander.
Consider your glory, for this is your Good,
to serve the living God in awe:
take counsel while living within this world—
and be bound in the one-to-come with the Lord.
—from The Dream of the Poem, trans. Peter Cole

Perhaps you has reader are not familiar with the name Peter Cole, or even Madonna, a Hollywood figure who studies Kabbalah as well. She is a part of the ever popular movement towards that mystery of ancient Judaism. But she is a singer, and like other Hollywood types we don’t take their study seriously, unless we are fans. Peter Cole is taken seriously in the Jewish community and among academics and religious types.

If you as reader have heard of this list of notable organizations, This religion writer thinks you will agree they are impressive. These are the titles and awards held and worn almost like an unseen necklace by poet/translator Peter Cole.

Winner of the 2010 TLS Risa Domb/Porjes Translation Prize, Jewish Book Council Winner of the 2007 R. R. Hawkins Award, Association of American Publishers Winner of the 2007 Award for Best Professional/Scholarly Book in Humanities, Association of American Publishers Winner of the 2007 Award for Best Professional/Scholarly Book in Literature, Language, and Linguistics, Association of American Publishers Winner of the 2007 National Jewish Book Award in Poetry Finalist for the 2007 National Jewish Book Award in Sephardic Culture Peter Cole is the recipient of a 2007 MacArthur Fellowship Peter Cole is a winner of a 2010 Academy Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

They are ones Princeton University Press notes. Here is another “award.”

As one scholar and poet says of this seeker of God, this man involved with the ineffable, adding another acclamation to the poet’s list: “Peter Cole is a true maker. His extraordinary learning is deep and personal, and his poems, like his translations, are powered by a large spiritual quest to link and light the world with words. He stands with amazement before great mysteries.” —Edward Hirsch

His most recent work that brought him on the tour, which came down to local communities in the Jewish world USA, even to the County Community Center in my own area, Marin County. The Poetry Foundation: The work is Peter Cole’s The Poetry of Kabbalah: Mystical Verse from the Jewish Tradition … from Yale University Press. It is a handsome hardback, Yes.
In this literary study of religion, for Peter Cole is an intellectual and well educated man, too, When attending his talk at Jewish Community Center of San Francisco this religion writer kept wondering as others have, do the mystics, those who study mystics and in particular Kabbalah, those who are poets, too, and of course the ones seeking Union with God—do not they tell us something of the way the Church needs to go. In a recent conversation over coffee with the Rector of the Episcopal parish I attend located north of San Francisco, the Rector spoke about having to know about his flock, their spiritual need, and even the Church’s spiritual needs as well. In the coffee shop Peets we talked of the poet and what vision or understanding is offered in such work and of course in such thought.
In the New Directions published work, the poet again creates a gem for those interested in the mystery of God, and in the religious poetry of history, especially those of the Jewish faith, the recent work, Things on Which I’ve Stumbled, published 2008 is the book from which earlier examples found in this article of his poetry are posted. This man Peter Cole has a body of work. The recent book is listed this way:

The Poetry of Kabbalah: Mystical Verse from the Jewish TraditionTranslated and Annotated by Peter ColeYale University Press, April 2012Co-edited and with an afterword by Aminadav Dykman

In an interview in Bomb magazine with Ben Lerner, the poet says:
Ben Lerner I’m interested in how your work as translator and as poet relate, how one practice influences the other. How does translating from different epochs and geographies—the Hebrew Golden Age in Muslim Spain, the contemporary Middle East—shape your sense of the present in which your own composition takes place?
Peter Cole They relate like the closest relations—usually loving, sometimes hating, often hovering, and occasionally smothering. Ultimately they mean, quite literally, the world to one another. I began translating as a poet to get inside other poetries that appealed to me and also to bring them back to friends. One thing led to another: the modern to the medieval, the American to the Middle Eastern and Andalusian, which in turn led back to the American (my own). Now, in a sense, it’s a little like Chuangtzu’s predicament, the Chinese philosopher who was so deeply released into his dream of being a butterfly that when he woke he didn’t know if he was Chuang-tzu who had dreamed he was a butterfly or a butterfly who was dreaming he was Chuangtzu. I used to want to separate the poet from the translator in me, but that’s no longer possible, nor is it desirable. On the contrary.

This excerpt, “Peter Cole by Ben Lerner,” was originally commissioned by, edited, and published in BOMB Magazine, Issue 105, Fall 2008, pp. 40-7. © Bomb Magazine, New Art Publications

The Aspen Writers Foundation presents “Translating the Middle East” with Peter Cole and Rob Spillman

Aspen Summer Words 2011

Coexistence: A Lost and Almost Found Poem

By Peter ColePeter Cole

And the Levites shall speak, and say unto all the men of Israel, with a loud voice: —Deuteronomy 27:14
Over the border the barrier winds,
devouring orchards of various kinds.
Cursed be he that taketh away
the landmark of his neighbor.
And all the people shall say, Amen.
The road was blocked in a battle of wills—
as the lame and sightless trudged through the hills.
Cursed be he that maketh the blind
to go astray in the way.
And all the people shall say, Amen.
The army has nearly written a poem:
You’ll now need a permit just to stay home.
Cursed be he that perverteth the justice
due to the stranger (in Scripture).
And all the people shall say, Amen.
Taken away—in the dead of night—
by the secret policeman, who might be a Levite.
Cursed be he that turneth to smite
his neighbor in secret murder.
And all the people shall say, Amen—
as peace is sought through depredation,
living together in separation.
Cursed be he that confirmeth not
the words of this law—to do them.
And all the people shall say, Amen.

Source: Poetry (June 2008).

In the work, The Dream of the Poem translator Peter Cole also writes of Arabic poetry. For in the era of research on Jewish poetry, there is also the Arabic. In his presentation that this writer attended in San Francisco, it is noteworthy that he says Jews lived in the Middle East. So they were greatly influenced by that geographic proximity, and the translator did in the work The Dream of the Work: Hebrew Poetry from Muslim and Christian Spain reflect the poetry of the era in its historic perspective, as is done in this work mentioned published by Princeton University Press. Jews also lived in Spain, and again they reflect the poetry of the era in its historic perspective. Princeton says this of the poet and the book in their promotion text:
Hebrew culture experienced a renewal in medieval Spain that produced what is arguably the most powerful body of Jewish poetry written since the Bible. Fusing elements of East and West, Arabic and Hebrew, and the particular and the universal, this verse embodies an extraordinary sensuality and intense faith that transcend the limits of language, place, and time.
Peter Cole’s translations reveal this remarkable poetic world to English readers in all of its richness, humor, grace, gravity, and wisdom. The Dream of the Poem traces the arc of the entire period, presenting some four hundred poems by fifty-four poets, and including a panoramic historical introduction, short biographies of each poet, and extensive notes. (The original Hebrew texts are available on the Princeton University Press Web site.) By far the most potent and comprehensive gathering of medieval Hebrew poems ever assembled in English, Cole’s anthology builds on what poet and translator Richard Howard has described as “the finest labor of poetic translation that I have seen in many years” and “an entire revelation: a body of lyric and didactic verse so intense, so intelligent, and so vivid that it appears to identify a whole dimension of historical consciousness previously unavailable to us.” The Dream of the Poem is, Howard says, “a crowning achievement.”


Peter Cole wrote answers to questions from his home in New Haven, Connecticut:


PM: Why as a secular Jew do you write Jewish poetry?

PC: I’m not sure I can explain that, except to say that my poetry and my Jewishness come from what feels like the same, deep-seated place in me. Perhaps they’re adjacent, or merely aligned. In any case, while I by no means write an exclusively Jewish poetry, much of the poetry that I do write has an informed notion of Jewishness at its heart.

As a scholar interested in things holy, do you find your faith and understanding of God even made more deep and real? This not only in your work of poetry, but in your translation work–specifically your recent book, The Poetry of Kabbalah: Mystical Verse from the Jewish Tradition.
I wouldn’t call myself a scholar. I’m a poet who is drawn to a certain kind of scholarship, or who, at any rate is not put off by it. And that involvement with it certainly intensifies and enriches my engagement with the world as a Jew.
The many years of work on this book have of course deepened my understanding of the world of Kabbalah and my faith in the work of words, but not my faith in the word “God.”
Do you find yourself a peace person as Jew in Jerusalem?
Do you have children?
In what manner are you a part of the Jewish Community if not a practicing Jew with membership in a Temple?
Jews are “part of the Jewish Community,” whether or not they observe the mitzvot, or commandments, or belong to a synagogue or Temple. Some are active in that community, some are passive. For some, that community provides the core of their identity; others define themselves against that community. Being Jewish has as much or more to do with how one is raised (and behaves) as with what one says one believes.
I live a deeply Jewish life, and Judaism is very much at the center of my concerns as a human being and as a poet and translator. I’m fluent in Hebrew and live a large part of my life in the language. I’ve also worked extensively with a wide range of Hebrew literature, as well as with Arabic literature. I’m a citizen of Israel (and of the U.S.), and have been a resident of Jerusalem for thirty years. I live the rhythms of the Jewish week and the Jewish year.
Why did you move to Jerusalem and then return to USA.
I moved to Jerusalem initially to study Hebrew, fell in love with the language and the city, and decided to stay. I still live there, but my wife and I also spend part of the year in the US. By and large, we now divide our time evenly: January through June in New Haven and July through December in Jerusalem.

Of the Hebrew poets and writers in this and the last century, who comes to mind as a favorite and why?
Avraham Ben Yitzhak was a legendary early 20th-century Hebrew poet whose entire body of work consists of 11 poems, two of them masterpieces, and the others sublime in their various ways. I’ve always felt very close to his poetry. I translated his Collected Poems, Avraham Ben Yitzhak (Ibis Editions, 2003).I also hold the work of the contemporary Israeli poet Aharon Shabtai in very high regard and have translated a good deal of it, most recently in War & Love, Love & War: New and Selected Poems, Aharon Shabtai (New Direction, 2010).
In the Bible, what book or section speaks to you as a poet and translator?
I seem to be drawn, steadily, to the Book of Proverbs and Ecclesiasticus, the parts of Leviticus treating sacrifice, and the parts of the Book of Exodus treating the construction of the sanctuary.
I am looking for a quote from you of a Biblical kind, even short reiteration of the story part that sticks out in your mind.
“Choose life.”

Have you taught University?
Yes, I’ve taught at Middlebury College, Wesleyan University, and Yale University. I’ll be teaching at Yale again next spring.
And if so, where and what kind of student do you like?
I like all sorts of students, so long as they’re curious and willing to work hard.
Do you want to say something about any poets or poetry of the spiritual or religious kind in general?
Generally speaking, I try not to use the word “spiritual” or “religious” in relation to poetry unless they have historical referents to a specific poetry, genre, or cultural context.
I see by the notes on your wife, a literary woman, that yours is a kind of marriage some will call, literary. Do you find your marriage that way?
No. Adina and I do what we love, and it’s been our great fortune that what each of us loves overlaps with what the other does. Our lives are “literary,” in that literature is at their core. But so are other things.
Do you find yourself engaged in the world and lives of those you bring alive in translation and poetry?
It seems that way from the radio interview you did with your wife about your recent book, Sacred Trash: The Lost and Found World of the Cairo Geniza: .

Deeply—otherwise, why bother? Both poetry and translation should extend one’s sense of self and world. The way out is often the way in, and the reverse, fortunately, is also true.


And So the Skin . . .

And So the Skin . . .

By Peter ColePeter Cole

And so their pounded hearts
were worn—
like a badge
or talisman,
that canceled
almost all their blindness—
creation’s linkage depending
on a drive itself
derived from a kind of kindness
or desperation, the sense that one’s
at any rate

the space for time—
water has it, flowing
(even from a faucet . . .)
and here the black swan glides across it—
as the sunlight’s suddenly on my back,
and now the skin along it’s warmer,
which lets me walk by the river . . .

Source: Poetry (June 2008).

1 comment:

Doug Tilley said...

Hello I’m Doug from San Diego Califorina. I checked out your profile on and thought you might like my blog. It’s​ I’m new at writeing, blogging and this Social networking stuff and I'm juat trying to figure it all out....