It is by now a cliché to classify a writer as unclassifiable, but 2007 MacArthur Foundation Fellow Peter Cole is importantly difficult to place. I think he’s an American poet, but I’m not entirely sure; since 1980, he has lived primarily in Jerusalem. I consider him an experimental writer, but his work is as formally indebted to medieval Hebrew poets as it is to postwar American poetries. He is a Jewish poet, certainly, but above all in his ceaseless questioning of what such a phrase might mean: “Israel is he, or she, who wrestles / with God—call him what you will / not some goon (with a rabbi and a gun) / in a pre-fab home on a biblical hill.” The sheer scale of his accomplishment as a translator makes him an outlier: he’s translated widely from modern Hebrew and Arabic, and in The Dream of the Poem, an anthology of Hebrew poetry from Muslim and Christian Spain between the years 950 and 1492, he brings the verse of five centuries into English with deep scholarship and the lightest touch. And his own poetry is perhaps most remarkable for its combination of intellectual rigor with delight in surface, for how its prosody returns each abstraction to the body, linking thought and breath, metaphysics and musicality. Religious, erotic, elegiac, pissed off—the affective range is wide and the forms restless. From his home on the seam between East and West Jerusalem, Peter fielded questions about translation and his new book of poems, Things on Which I’ve Stumbled.
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 Chuang-tzu’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 Chuang-tzu. 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.
BL I think here of the lines from your “Why Does the World Out There Seem” in the new volume: “Strange how I’ve become a modern / poet of a medieval kind . . .” Why the particular conjunction of the medieval and the modern? How did the latter lead you to the former? What about these two epochs—politically or poetically—brought them into such significant alignment for you?
PC It wasn’t political—at least not at first, and not in the conventional sense. That came later. The poetry written by Jews in medieval Spain is a peculiar hybrid in which a Hebrew vocabulary and mytho-poetic heritage is grafted onto the trunk of a very rich Arabic literary tradition. That fusion of the Arabic and the Hebraic would in time draw me in very powerfully. But the initial pull toward the medieval poetry was the promise I thought it might hold for me as a modern poet. It’s the old notion that one makes progress by, at first, going backward. In a way I was responding to Harold Bloom’s observation that Jewish-American poetry was overly burdened by the Christian background of the English literary tradition. I somehow felt that keenly—though inchoately. Inchoately because I sensed—don’t ask me why—that my poetry was going to emerge from my still rather unformed sense of Jewishness. And I say this despite the fact that I’ve never really liked the use of ethnicity as a poetic value or handle, and at this point tend to run in the other direction whenever I hear the term Jewish-American poet. I see the terms “American” and “Jewish” not as badges of identity, but as distinct poetic capacities. And for whatever reason, at that point I wanted to know as much as I could about every possible form of Jewish expression in verse—to look into that “capacity.”
By the late ’80s I’d begun to burrow very deeply into the Hebrew poetry that was written in Muslim Spain, or al-Andalus, from the tenth through the 12th-centuries. It had so much of what I wanted in poetry and wasn’t finding in contemporary verse: it was classicizing and avant-garde, at once religious and secular, philosophical and tactile, emotive and sharp, and highly musical (I’ve always been powerfully drawn to the musical aspect of verse, in Middle English song as well), and it valued, in equal proportions, beauty and wisdom. Just before the lines you quoted there’s another that mentions “the pool of pleasure wisdom is.” The Andalusian Hebrew poetry offers both a great deal of pleasure along formal and intellectual lines and also has a lot to say, in a meaty, old-fashioned way, about what it means to be alive. But it says it all in a manner that oddly jibes with certain modernist elements that appeal to me: it takes up impersonal, or a-personal, tacks to give expression to the most deeply felt things. It makes profoundly expressive use, for instance, of quotation, which becomes a kind of collage, of traditional and, especially, biblical texts.
There were also distinctly non-modernist and even contrarian elements that drew me. Ornament in particular, which is central to the medieval Judeo-Arabic aesthetic, became key to the evolution of my own poetry. Ornament as an essential element of the poem, not as fluff or decoration.
BL Say more about ornament. It’s a term I rarely hear, one more likely these days to be pejorative than laudatory. How have you incorporated (or translated) ornamental traditions into your writing? I remember encountering the term in your second book, Hymns & Qualms, where it appears at the end of the remarkable long poem, “Speech’s Hedge”:
Hives of midday light
through a window’s invisible weave—
and a barely registered
on the skin,
PC The truth is that I’d always seen it as a pejorative as well, and I first encountered it as such in the writings of the Viennese architect Adolph Loos and in Pound. Both equate it with criminal evasion and flight from the real. But all that changed for me when I started working with Andalusian verse. The poem you just quoted came out of that initial encounter with the Judeo-Islamic aesthetic and is really a meditation on ornament—its value and its function. It’s also a march into the lion’s den of the term’s negative connotations.
In the medieval Hebrew poetry of Spain, and certainly in its visual analogues in Islamic art, ornament seems to be working in a much more positive fashion. It acts as a conductor and modulator of attention and poetic currency. There’s something practical about the sort of adornment involved. Maybe it helps to recall that the words “cosmos” and “cosmetic” come from the same Greek root—meaning “to order.” Ornament in writing is, at its best, something that intensifies engagement with both the medium itself and what the medium is conveying. It gives expression to a kind of attention that, while hardly “functional” in the conventional sense, means everything to the way we experience the world and to how meaning emerges from our encounter with it.
But I like your way of putting it—that the poems “translate” the notion of ornament from the medieval matrix and also from the visual plane. As for how that makes itself felt, it shows up, I think, first of all on the level of sound and in a concern for texture and the fabric of the verse. It’s also apparent in the poetry’s obsession with design (the patterns of bird flight, for example, or symmetries of political and spiritual thought, and of violence) and above all with the premium it places on relation — of the way in which abstraction and ornamentation can work to highlight and intensify a sense of connection, or adjacency. The Israeli novelist Dan Tsalka used to talk about “all the little weddings between the words”—a phrase I love: those ongoing celebrations of the desire for linkage and sustenance. Extension and recurrence. I suppose another way of putting it is to say I’m interested in the food chain of meaning in verse.
BL In the introduction to The Dream of the Poem you come up with an odd alignment of Pound and the rabbis. For both, as Pound put it, “all ages are contemporaneous”—both understand the present as shot through with the past. This also seems true of your own work: one of the many ways that all ages are contemporaneous in your new book is that ancient thinkers coexist with modern painters—a quote from Mark Rothko, the homage to Agnes Martin. What kind of pleasure (or wisdom) have you encountered in painterly abstraction? Rothko, if I remember, also appears in Rift, your 1990 book of poems.
PC The Rothko that showed up some 25 years ago in Rift is a midcareer painting of his, where figuration is giving way to abstraction. I’ve always been interested in that cusp or seam between abstraction and figuration, and the movement across it in both directions. As for pleasure and wisdom—I’ve long been fascinated by the ways in which abstraction in the work of both Rothko and Barnett Newman comes across as at once transcendental and tactile. And how it seems, in many ways, more real than realia. I love Joel Shapiro’s work for similar reasons, and one of his woodcuts appears on the cover of the new book. There’s an uncanny closeness between it and the poetry; its way of seeming to be, at one and the same time, uplifted and stumbling. Shapiro’s sculpture and prints often work like that—as I think he once put it, “moving backward and forward simultaneously.”
BL Much of what you value in medieval verse—the musicality of language, the conception of the poem as a subtle patterning of internal relations, both sonic and semantic—recall the priorities of Objectivist writers, particularly Louis Zukofsky. And while the word “ornament” would contain negative connotations in the Objectivist lexicon, Zukofksy himself had an ornamental side, and also made radical use of citation and collage. Would you say something about what Objectivist (or Zukofsky’s) poetry and poetics have meant to you?
PC All of the Objectivist poets mattered in a major way to me early on, in part, I think, because I found in them an appealing sense of rupture and difference from the mainstream English tradition—their broken syntax and decidedly metonymic rather than metaphorical modes of figuration—and also an elusive but evident moral or metaphysical dimension. Maybe they’re the same thing.
You asked about Rothko earlier. The first serious piece of writing I published was an aphoristic essay called “The Object and Its Edge,” which was an attempt to identify qualities common to the work of Rothko, Newman, Oppen, Zukofsky, and Reznikoff. The odd thing is, of course, that the former are always labeled “abstract” and usually also “expressionist,” and the latter “Objectivist.” I suppose I was trying—and am always trying, at some probably unconscious level—to yoke poles or modes of experience that would seem at first glance to be irreconcilable. Both the painters and the poets stood, as I saw it, for a respect for reality on its own terms—if there is such a thing—or the importance of the given within the context of a larger metaphysical understanding.
You also asked about collage. One of the things I’ve tried to collage over the years is a very wide range of appreciations and influences. This is also something that I’ve gotten from the medieval Hebrew tradition—a notion of originality that’s at odds with the modernist emphasis on shock and the postmodernist regard for attitude. I see a challenge and potential richness rather than a problem in reading and delighting in both the Scottish Chaucerians and the Poundians, Robert Creeley and Robert Lowell, James Merrill and Lorine Niedecker, Ivor Winters and John Wieners—let alone all sorts of contemporary and foreign writers. It seems to me that American poetry suffers today from a kind of malnourishment or shrinking of sensibility, one that’s brought about in large part from a failure to rotate the literary and experiential crops. And this applies to the mainstream and so-called avant-garde alike.
So, if I had to sum up Zukofsky’s influence on me it would probably, and simply, be his dictum that the upper limit of poetry is music and the lower limit is speech. The entire spectrum interests me. But when it comes to the sort of patterning and internal relations you mention, I think I learned much more from, say, Edwin Denby’s prose, and of course from Islamic art and medieval verse.
BL I’m interested in your comment above that the Objectivists’ break with more conventional syntax (and “modes of figuration”) “might be the same thing” as their “moral or metaphysical dimension.” Your poems are exceptional for their prosody—for the subtle—and subtly varied—metrical, sonic, and syntactic configurations, and so I’m curious about the moral and metaphysical significance of your own experiments in this regard. In the new book, for instance, the long poem toward the end, “What Has Been Prepared,” strikes me as a brilliant exploration of the relationship between (a specifically Jewish?) morality and poetic measure. One of the crucial questions of the poem is “What is meant by being bound?” “Bound” has innumerable religious resonances, from binding commandments to the binding of Isaac, but it also recalls the ancient definition of verse as “bound speech,” as intensification produced by restriction. The religious and prosodic senses of the term seem active at once in the poem:
Bound to bless—
with a measure of terror—
with the frankincense of slippage
and the ambergris of sense,
the steady flame of bestowal
and the choice words of a spoken sentence
or parts of speech
that are like a tent of meeting—
by being bound.
PC I’m as suspicious of my own moral inclination, or inclination to the moral, as I am interested in following it out along a line of poetry. Which may be why there’s been so much time—ten years—between books for me! Obviously my somewhat maniacal engagement with translation has had something to do with that, but translation too has a pronounced moral dimension to it, and involves another sort of binding. (I guess I’m into bondage . . . ) Translation and prosody should, at their best, not only intensify by restriction, but release through constraint.
Hugh Kenner has written of the ways in which translation can take one to the secret places of the imagination one might not get to otherwise. The same holds true for the dynamic use of convention and conventional form, and also of so-called organic or open form employed in conscientious fashion. It’s ludicrous—but all too common—to think that one leads to the predictable in poetry, the other to a place of breakthrough, or that one is inherently moral and the other somehow dissolute. What matters, and what’s truly organic within a literary tradition, is finding the right form in relation to a given subject or set of materials. Otherwise one just has a manner.
In “What Has Been Prepared” the subject is a kind of moral outrage in the face of destruction and desecration—of Palestinian society and culture, of (humanistic) Judaism, and of the land itself. “Anger management raised to the level of art” is how one poet-friend has characterized it. Sound and form are enlisted there, and listened to there, to help me make sense of a truly outrageous situation, one I’ve lived and worked with—and been implicated in—for more than two decades now. I wanted in this poem to turn the Jewish tradition, in Jewish fashion, back on itself, to question itself. And in fact, this is by far the most Talmudic and certainly the most rabbinic poem I’ve written. It takes its cue from, among other things, the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas’s Talmudic Lectures, which are penetrating inquiries into pressing ethical concerns that are both deeply particular and universal: What does spiritual poise in relation to other people and peoples, for instance, consist of? How is community defined? Where is the sacred and how does it feed or impede us? What is the place of Israel among the nations? What does it mean to listen and learn, continually, as one grows older? I’ve simply shifted the axis of the discussion and pitched it toward what I found before me here in all-too-tender or sore Jerusalem.
BL There’s a great deal of formal variety internal to the poem—traditional verse forms, more open structures, and then there are the passages of prose . . .
PC Early on in the composition process I knew I’d have to find a way to check, or question, my outrage and the pain I felt in the face of this tragic and fairly—but, it’s important to say, not altogether—hopeless situation. A way to surprise my response to it. The situation in Israel/Palestine easily beats one into a kind of submissive numbness. Somehow—it emerged quite naturally—I came up with a systole-diastole sort of structure, where passages of “poetry,” or bound speech, alternate with passages of “loosened speech,” or prose. But the poetry would take on topics, and proceed in a fashion, usually associated with expository prose and the prose would take up a tack that’s usually found in lyric poetry. The verse sections would in some cases be cast in “traditional” forms—regular stanzas, with a uniform stress pattern and rhyme, or a vivid echo of them—with these more formal sections acting as supporting columns to the unfolding meditation in prose and open form. The shifting forms would also reflect a passage between internal and external landscapes. The tension—physical and metaphysical—between these various forms and the expectations and associations they carry is at the heart of the poem’s prosody, which is merely a vehicle. Convention here, like ornament, has a function—to intensify consideration and experience, of subject matter and of the medium itself.
The moral aspect of the formal choices has to do with poetic behavior: How do we alter our poetic behavior in the face of diverse literary and human situations? How can form embody engagement or dialogue with the world around us? How can it serve as a way to challenge rather than indulge both writers and readers? How do certain sounds and subjects link up, or not? What responsibility—with an emphasis on the response at its core—do we have toward them? This is, I realize, a slippery slope—the alignment of ethics and aesthetics—but it’s the one that has interested me most, and along which I’ve worked, from the start of my writing life. Helping things say what they seem to want to say, or are “bound” to say, is central to my work as an editor and translator as well. I take tremendous pleasure in that activity, regardless of the mode. And that too is really another sort of binding, being held by attention to language, which at heart I consider sacred, or at least a reflection of the sacred. Care for language feels to me like a moral and also a metaphysical act. To return to the vocabulary of patterning and ordering, it takes one into the weave of being.
So I’m trying to figure out what “being bound” means, what it means to be a responsible user of words as one moves through the world. And particularly what it means to use them in the charged political, spiritual, and verbal vortex of the modern Middle East.
BL I’d like to scale up our discussion about, as you said, “finding the right form in relation to a given subject,” and ask how you conceive of or structure your books, those literally bound forms. If there is “the dream of the poem,” there is also “the dream of the book”—a phrase I recall encountering in the work of Edmond Jabès (with echoes of Mallarmé?). I wonder to what degree the book is the relevant—or ultimate—unit of composition for you, and I’m interested in the particular architecture of Things on Which I’ve Stumbled.
PC Yes, the books of poems, the translations, and Hebrew Writers on Writing, the modern anthology I just finished for the Writer’s World series published by Trinity University Press, are always conceived of as wholes, as complete entities with complex inner lives of their own, and with outer lives as well—in the reader’s hand and day.
It took me a long time to find the right form for Things on Which I’ve Stumbled. I struggled with the relationship of the short poems to the long poems and the fact that I was working in so many different modes. I think of the book—of any good literary book—as a source of information. Books of poems should allow knowledge of all sorts to enter into the bloodstream of a collection, whether or not that knowledge seems to lend itself to poetry. In this volume, I wanted the shorter poems to take on a variety of occasions, revelations, and irritations not accounted for by the longer pieces, and in the process to act as counterpoint to them. For example, one of the more confrontational short poems in the book—“Palestine: A Sestina”—uses what is at this point a cliché of a form to take on an acute problem that has come to seem hackneyed to much of the world. My goal there was, first of all, to find a form that would force me to repeatedly employ a word that, let’s face it, makes many people uncomfortable. It’s not a word one can use neutrally. But there it is, stanza after stanza, defying, as it were, the imposition of a “formal” solution and churning up complicated feelings and connections as it does. It’s an experimental poem in a reactionary mode.
But to get back to your question, it really comes down to a matter of listening to, and looking at, what’s in front of one. The various poems and pieces of prose I’m writing or translating enter into a conversation with one another, and with their author and sometimes other authors, and the shape of the book gradually develops from that dialogue. The architecture has to consciously construct a space in which the unconscious elements can emerge and be heard.
To that end, certain formal and thematic elements recur asymmetrically throughout. The dynamics between, for example, past and present, and foreign and familiar, are central, as is the idea of stumbling on things—in the sense both of being tripped up and of accidentally, or randomly, discovering.
BL The title poem—a long poem about the Cairo Geniza—is a thematic and formal exploration of the dynamics between past and present. The conditions of that poem’s composition are a powerful figure for the complexity of tradition, of intergenerational transmission. The journey of those Geniza texts from ancient Cairo into your poem is a remarkable story. I keep returning in my reading to the fact that what enabled you (and those scholars who preceded you) to stumble on these texts in the first place—to gather them into a live tradition—was a lapse in tradition. The texts had never received a ritual burial.
PC It is a remarkable story, and the further one goes into it, the more remarkable it becomes. The Cairo Geniza is one of the greatest collections of medieval documents ever discovered. Geniza is the Hebrew word for a storeroom in which discarded texts are placed. In traditional Jewish culture, texts that contain the name of God can’t simply be thrown away. They have to be given a ritual burial. Because in the medieval world almost all texts contain mention of God, and because some communities felt that anything with Hebrew letters on it was considered sacred and required ritual burial, certain genizas contained documents of all sorts—everything from sacred texts to personal correspondence, secular poetry, and legal documents. This was the case with the old Cairo synagogue geniza where, for reasons that remain unclear, nearly 1,000 years of material was amassed but never brought to ritual burial. At the end of the 19th century, an extraordinary cache of documents was, essentially by chance, discovered there—a cross-section of an entire society—and rescued by a series of extraordinary scholars, who are still sifting through it.
BL How did you encounter the archive? How was that encounter shaped into a poem?
PC I’d dealt with some of this material while working on my medieval volumes—the Cairo Geniza contained thousands of poems, many of them previously unknown to modern readers—but I knew very little about the Geniza itself. Then I was invited to read at the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival. My British geography is embarrassingly bad. I looked on a map to find out where Aldeburgh is and saw that it wasn’t far from Cambridge. Ah, Cambridge, I thought, That’s where they have the Geniza documents. It gets much more involved than that, but the short of it is that I wrote to the people at the Geniza Research Unit, was given a private and very generous tour of the holdings in the vault next to the Charles Darwin papers, and, after I was told I could rummage around in anything I liked for as long as I liked, I kept returning to a group of anonymous medieval poetic fragments that seemed to be giving off a kind of gold light every time I looked at them. I was shocked at how vivid and clear the handwriting was, and how powerfully the fragments seemed to be leaping off the page and into the air.
I let the impressions of that visit steep for the better part of a year or more, and eventually came to feel that I wanted to write a poem about the Geniza and these fragments. I don’t think I’d ever before planned to write about a topic in quite that way. And as it was, because of all the medieval translations and the scholarship around it, some of my friends had been warning me for years that I was becoming too much of a nerd. A poem about a set of musty documents? Just what I needed. But somehow those fragments drew me to them, and I went to Cambridge and sat with them for a month, and “Things on Which I’ve Stumbled” is what eventually emerged. The poem is a bit like an electron cloud, with documentary and personal elements jumping orbits and recombining in curious and surprising ways.
As for rupture—it’s also complicated, but essentially you’re right about the lapse in tradition allowing the tradition to live on, initially with the discovery of the documents, then with their decipherment and analysis by scholars. The linkage runs back well beyond the texts, which are themselves connected in the deepest way to the tradition they’re a part of. A host, or gust, of these foreign bodies and medieval voices enter into the present of the poem. While I use italics to mark those voices, the power and relevance of their presence soon creates a temporal whirl in which it’s hard to distinguish between present and past. So yes, reclamation and extension, connection and intense reconfiguration—that’s certainly what I wanted from this poem, and, when push comes to shove, it’s what I want from poetry.
—Ben Lerner’s books of poetry are The Lichtenberg Figures and Angle of Yaw, both published by Copper Canyon Press. He has been a Fulbright Scholar and a finalist for the National Book Award, among other honors. He confounded and coedits No: A Journal of the Arts.