What is Found There: Keeping the Mystery Alive — Peter Cole on Writing and Translation

Peter Cole
BY Adina Hoffman

I first discovered PETER COLE‘s work indirectly, through a surprise gift of French writer Marcel Cohen’s book published by Ibis Editions, a Jerusalem-based literary press that Cole co-edits. Humble as he may come across, Cole is, according to critic Harold Bloom, “a matchless translator of Hebrew poetry” and “one of the handful of authentic poets of his own generation.” The author of three books of poems, most recently Things on Which I’ve Stumbled (New Directions, 2008), he has translated important modern Hebrew and Arabic writers such as Aharon Shabtai, Taha Muhammad Ali, Yoel Hoffmann, Avraham Ben Yitzhak and Harold Schimmel. His anthology, The Dream of the Poem: Hebrew Poetry from Muslim and Christian Spain, 950-1492 (Princeton, 2007) is considered a landmark of literary translation. A book of nonfiction, Sacred Trash: The Lost and Found World of the Cairo Geniza — written with his wife, Adina Hoffman — is forthcoming from Schocken/Nextbook this April, and a new volume of translations, The Poetry of Kabbalah: Mystical Verse from the Jewish Tradition, will be published by Yale University Press in 2012. His work has been honored by American institutions such as the National Endowment of Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation. Recent literary prizes include the National Jewish Book Award for Poetry and the PEN Translation Award for Poetry. Recipient of a 2010 Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, he is also a MacArthur Fellow. He divides his time between Jerusalem and New Haven.

You’ve said that you consider language sacred. There is something soulful in this perspective. As a poet/writer, how do you write silence? As a translator, how do you read, translate, or remap silence in the Hebrew texts you work on?

If your goal is success in the conventional sense, rather than a given intensity of experience or quality of composition, there won’t be time for silence. But poetry takes time. Literally and figuratively. Time enters into the fibers and figures of a poem, into the sound and space that bind its letters and lines.

I know it’s not exactly fashionable, but I do think of language as “sacred” in that nothing is more basic to our being alive in the world — among other users of words and in history. If you add to that a secularized quasi-Kabbalistic belief in language as the very material of creation, and a reflection of the forces sustaining existence, this sense begins to take on some imaginative substance. But just because one has a particular notion doesn’t mean that one will necessarily act in a particular manner. Belief in the sacred aspect of language could as easily lead one to violence as to pacifism, or to silence as to cacophony — “a joyful noise unto the Lord,” a talking in tongues, a proliferation of textual commentary, or blather about the “spiritual.”

That said, the question of, as you put it, writing silence, or how silence might be translated or remapped, does go to the heart of the kind of work I’ve been trying to do for a long time now. In my most recent book of poems, Things on Which I’ve Stumbled, there is a section in “Notes on Bewilderment,” that addresses all this:

It was a golden time, said Rothko,
for then we had nothing to lose, and a vision
to gain.
Thinking of his youthful loneness,
he wished the graduating class, not success,
but pockets of silence in which to root and grow.

If your goal is success in the conventional sense, rather than a given intensity of experience or quality of composition, there won’t be time for silence. But poetry takes time. Literally and figuratively. Time enters into the fibers and figures of a poem, into the sound and space that bind its letters and lines. And if you don’t give a poem and a poetry time, life won’t enter into it. On the other hand, too much silence and you have only that, or worse — sanctimony, a failure to respond, which is an abdication of responsibility.


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