Brooklyn Public Library, Brooklyn
October 22, 2008
The following is a transcript of the conversation.
Edward Hirsch I’m crazy about the quote from Levinas. It starts this book; and I thought I might, to sort of set the spirit right now, I might quote it, read it, and then you and say something about it . . .
“The wars had meaning from the moment adoration has produced in this world, when a finite being stands before something which goes beyond him.”
Just beautiful, mysterious . . .
Peter Cole I’ve always been drawn to Levinas’s work. Years ago I was drawn much more to it as it was straight philosophical work—and much too late. One reason is his writing is about Judaism and Jewishness. I don’t actually remember where I read, where I came across that [quote]. A lot of the material in this book is about getting beyond oneself, about the self that exists only in relation, or that has meaning and value in relation. That’s very much something that concerns and is central to all Levinas. I just wanted to put that out there at the beginning of the book. I kind of toned it with a tuning fork, a tone that struck, because so many of the poems deal with that in one way or another. And also somewhere in one of the poems it talks about the distance between adore and adorn, and the notion of ornament, essential to what’s going on in this book. So again I just wanted to establish that at the outset.
EH There’s quote from Lorca where he goes “Only mystery enables us to live.” It has sort of a signpost for Lorca, “When you enter a world, you enter into a world of mystery.”
PC With that Levinas, it’s a mystery; but it’s also an ethical relationship to things around you; and that’s also something that true to form. Your book shows a relation to Josef Albers, the painter, in kind of relation of color relation. So in a sense, I’m kind of seeing it only through the book.
I was at Yale this fall. At the Whitney Humanities Center there is an exhibition of Albers’s painting. So everyday I’m walking by these Albers. This was written when I was at Yale last time, where Albers was . . .
“Albers lay homages, squared no circle. He pushed green with orange, so it seemed red. He placed a teal form within a grey one, or was that ochre? In his bow house head, the absolute was always relational.”
EH Is that from “Notes on Bewilderment?”
PC That is, yeah, yeah.
EH Is that a note on bewilderment?
PC Well, um, the whole this is one big beast gesture.
EH We can go from there to the poem.
PC The poem that Ed wanted to hear was one called “Improvisation on Lines by Isaac the Blind.” Isaac the Blind was a 13th-century Provencal Kabbalist. And so it begins with lines of his that I came across somewhere, and somehow they just struck me and they turned into this poem. The word bulbul here is actually a word in English dictionaries. It’s a Persian nightingale. We have many of them in our backyard in Jerusalem.
“Improvisation of Lines by Isaac the Blind”
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.
EH Terrific poem. Won’t you say something about the form of it?
PC Well it’s a villanelle. Poets aren’t supposed to write villanelles . . .
EH That’s one of the reasons I wanted to ask you. There are a lot of traditional forms in this book, and the villanelle is one of the recurring forms; so is the ghazal. And what does the villanelle do for you?
PC Poetically, I come out of a more American experimental tradition, but over the years I’ve always read extremely widely, both in the English tradition, the Hebraic, and Arabic also, and I’ve always had a very Catholic sense of what’s possible in poetry. What I feel is that—I mean all poetry, your poetry, really anybody’s poetry—if it’s real poetry, it is responding to a given situation, and the situation is dictating the form on some level. And experimental poetry that turns out to look like something we expected, something we can predict in advance, to me is not experimental.
Those traditional forms presented themselves to me. I think at first I resisted. The real experiment—the real wildness—here was to see what would happen if I tried to write like that. Part of it came out I think in my work for medieval poetry. They were not working with traditional European forms, but with traditional Arabic forms. I felt very comfortable in them right then. I felt as comfortable in those Arabic or Eastern forms as I did in American open form. Really the same principles are at work there.
EH I think these traditional forms are somewhat misunderstood; because, although the form is there the adventure of writing it in traditional form when the poem actually worked is itself a kind of discovery. It’s not as if it’s all laid out for you in some kind of closed way. The form has to unfold for you, and it has to be a means to discovery. The idea I think is when the form is working then the form kneads you a kind of discovery that you wouldn’t get . . .
PC Exactly. I wanted the forms to read me on certain times and to do something difficult and present a certain obstacle that would knead me. So I can see those constraints as kind of liberatory in a certain way, but what you said about it being the adventure of them . . . I really felt when I was writing these poems and I came to the poem in this book when I went through a really lone and intense period of translation of ten years when I burrowed very deeply into the Middle Ages and contemporary work. I really had no idea about sort of what waiting for me when I went back to poetry.
EH Well one of those things that was waiting for you was the notion, “Only by sucking . . .”—
PC Exactly, which I got from the Middle Ages and from the translation that all have knowledge of things they got in the Middle Ages. They were essentially useless. Thus it became a kind of sucking a kind of intense physical . . .
EH Visceral . . .
PC Yeah, yeah. Only then will the knowledge just come to light. But the adventure of it is what I really want to, what really struck me when you asked the question. Every day when I write in that room, I just felt like I had no idea what’s going to happen and when these forms took over I had truly felt like I was just riding them and struggling . . .
EH Why don’t you tell us about the title poem “Things in which I’ve Stumbled?” I think many people might not know about this storeroom and what’s there and what that means. So maybe you could tell us about that story itself and how that led to a poem?
PC Yeah. “Things on which I’ve stumbled” is a poem about those at Cairo Geniza. which in a nutshell a geniza is actually a Karimi word which was roped into Hebrew that means a storeroom. In the traditional Judaism any text with the name of God on it, but in some communities it was extended to anything with Hebrew on it, the text couldn’t be thrown away. When they were worn out and no longer usable they would be put in a kind of storeroom. Eventually the idea was they would be buried; they would be given a burial just like a person. But of course you couldn’t spend all your time burying every piece of paper in your pocket. So they were just sort of put in this room. In this one particular community in Old Cairo beginning around 10th-century the storeroom was above the women’s section of the synagogue, up high, out of the way, it was sort of a hole you could throw thing up there. The climate was very dry there, and they just forgot about it. So the better part of a thousand years, the intense period was about 300 years, in a sense almost every piece of paper in this community—secular, sacred, letters, legal documents, lust poetry, you name it—was just all tossed up there in the attic. In the late 19th-century by chance it was discovered and eventually brought back to Cambridge, England. Scholars have been going through it pretty much ever since; they haven’t really gone through it all. It’s all been preserved. So this is something that they’ve stumbled on. And I was—
EH In Oxford now?
PC I said Cambridge. There are some fragments in Oxford too and the whole competition between Oxford and Cambridge, my wife Adina and I are writing a book about this now. Or a chapter for the next book. The whole competition between Oxford and Cambridge was behind all this.
EH Someone from Oxford paid me to say that.
PC They could have netted. They came very close. I was at Portrait Festival in England and looked at a map and saw that Cambridge was nearby. I spoke to people there and asked if I could come see their collection of poetry from the Middles Ages, these manuscripts. She gave me a tour. They basically said that—they were right next to the Darwin papers in the hall—it’s really an incredible powerhouse of . . . .
EH There are a lot of plants species.
PC So they showed me a lot of the things that was in my book that was hiding in the collection. They said, Well you can just go rummage around there for a while. I started opening things by chance. I saw these fragments, anonymous fragments. I was shocked because I could read them; they were in medieval handwriting. They were incredibly clear. Usually if you just picked up a piece of paper on the ground today in Jerusalem it would look like that, with somebody’s handwriting on it. They were just jumping out at me. I put them away and went somewhere else and came back. I kept coming back. For some reason I felt like I wanted to write a poem about them. I’ve never had that sort of desire or plan for writing a poem. But I wrote to them and I said, Can I come play with these documents? I didn’t know if I was going to be able to read more than those few things that I’ve come across. So I was the first ever and probably last public resident at the Cairo Museum in Cambridge. Everyday for a month I just went through . . . When I got there I said, I wanted to see the anonymous fragments. That was a part of it. I didn’t want to translate them. I didn’t want this to be a work of translation. I wanted those poems to read me in those forms we talked about. So I said, How many of these anonymous fragments are there? [She said], Oh there’s not so many but I’ll go up there and count. The first day she came up and said, Well I was wrong, there’s 9000 of them. (laughter). So I quickly did the math: how many did I have to look at each day? I basically just sat with them for a month.
EH You’re still a young person. The idea—it must have emerged—that the poem would be fragmentary and follow the fragments.
PC I had no idea. If I could just sit up there with work. You know all work and no play makes Johnny a dull boy. They gave me an office on the fourth floor. I did not know . . . All I wanted was to just be with this material. I started to take notes. My rule was anything I couldn’t understand, I’d avert. I was done with trying to decipher. Anything that would jump out at me I would just sort of jot down notes about. I was reading about the geniza and the sort of practice around it. About the third week, it started to form itself as a poem. At first it was the usual terror of, What am I going to do with all this material? It just very naturally . . .
EH There are translations in part of it.
PC Oh yeah. Yeah.
EH Did you end up translating against your will in a sense?
PC There are fragments in italics or bolded through with my own voice. The ideas are that—or the idea that emerged was that I couldn’t really tell the difference. Now when I read, sometimes I wonder if I read a mistake and that parts in italics. Actually I just put them in italics. You read and the voices emerge. There were a lot of different voices in there from this sort of—it was all drawn into this storehouse in a random fashion. The fragments that I was looking at they were all catalogued in a random fashion. That’s part of what I wanted was the randomness. So it became a kind of metaphor for the way I think poetry works which is you’re translating the world, the things that come to you in a sort of vision or you hear it and establishing this very powerful relationship to the past. In this case it was the past rising up into the present, very very powerfully and then the poet sort of sinking back into the past. That kind of alternating current between them was very interesting to me.
EH One of the things that I think is very interesting about your poems in relations to contemporary poetry is that because fragmentation is very much a mode in contemporary poetry. I would like to say that one of the things, to me, that distinguishes that relationship between fragmentation is that a lot of work by poets now revel in fragmentation, delight in fragmentation, speak in fragmentation, rejoices in fragmentation, has no real intention or longing to put things together. And I would say what’s distinguishing about your work is it is fragmentary at times; but there is, I feel, a mournfulness and a great longing for connection. Is that fair?
PC Totally, I mean the deep theme. You started with the Levinas, that is essentially a comment about connection and what goes beyond you. I’m kind of a nut for connectedness. I looked up only recently the Forester quote of how we connect. Of course people don’t remember what comes next which is something like, No longer we live a life of fragments. And someone wrote to me about the geniza poem saying that this was not Ilyiadic or Poundian short . . . . What’s going on there is that the fragments actually are trying to come back together. They’re rising up and trying to make sense of them in their presence.
EH I think this is important in contemporary poetry because I think that poetry that reveled in fragmentation doesn’t want to do anything with it, they just like the way it is . . . Is it called poetry? A poetry that takes that fragment and sees that as something we’re doomed to and that we’re trying inevitably—and failed to transcend. We’re left with our friends. But we seek something out. That strikes me as compassion for writing. So emotion has a different place.
PC In the geniza poem I talk about these fragments and how he keeps his hand right in the margins of the, you know. That’s what was striking to me. I really felt that kind of warmth and that kind of passion from them. So I tried to work with them and getting them to sort of speak for me in a sense and me to speak for them.
EH You know Pound had that notion that all poets are contemporaneous. And the geniza poem has that feeling there, that it’s all still present.
PC I quote Pound in my medieval book, because the Rabbi said something just like Pound.
EH (laughter) Oh my God, you Jewish poets are quoting me!
PC But the rabbi said, There’s no earlier and later in the Scripture. He basically said that all ages are contemporary. He had those macronistic settings where Moses would be sitting in a town with an academy somewhere and everything is reversed. Time can be played you know. That is a deeply, deeply Jewish notion. It’s one that informs all medieval poetry, because they’re just reeking havoc with Scripture. In teaching one of the first things I have to do with students is to get them not to think that every time something is mentioned in the Bible it’s sacred.
EH It’s quite the opposite.
PC And so those medieval poets are just sort of playing loose and fast with all that stuff.
EH In your introduction you say something about Hebrew literature being connected in a way that you can’t quite anticipate.
PC I treated it like a poem. I treated it like a long poem and saw it in form of terms. I understood that I only had so much time to work on it; you know, I have to work it into a work schedule. I limit it a lot saying I only have one or two essays. How many writers can I have? It’d have to be so big. And so anything that interested me when I got bored—and I made a huge stack—I had a hip operation, a hip replacement operation coming up, and I said, Okay. It was my second so I knew that I would have some downtime.
In the month before the operation, basically two months, I just began gathering material like a maniac, Xeroxing all these things. Just buying these books. That was a great fun, walking around Jerusalem just buying up these old books that basically nobody wants anymore.
EH Part of this series is, by the way, is writers making comments about writing, interviews, essays, poems, short stories, diaries, whatever, to sort of set a portrait of what writing is in a given country.
PC Right. So basically while I was recovering, I began to read through all of this stuff and start to form a picture of what that continuity looked like. I knew that I didn’t want it to be academic in any way. So I didn’t really care what scholars said the tradition looked like. That also sort of had to do with their design of narratives and their political agendas. I had certain people that were important to me over the years that sort of span the century. I literally went to the reading room of the National Library; I put my finger on books. Every writer I didn’t know, I pulled the book off the shelf. I made a stack of the few of them and I talked to my friends, Who are these people? The next thing you know I have the most incredible material on my hands.
EH One of the things I really like, that you say in the introduction, is you say one of the things that was going on on the side while it was raining literature is—
PC Posing for portraits.
PC I said, Alright, I’m going to go on the pleasure principle. What do I find really sufficing and exciting? It started in the end, at the very last minute I shifted. I think at first maybe it was purely chronological. Then there was this figure named David Frishman.
EH Yeah, I didn’t know anything about him.
PC He was totally forgotten. In all my years in Israel—I’ve lived there 25 years or more—I don’t think I’ve ever heard anybody mention the name David Frishman. And then I began to read his — he wrote prose and poetry and he was a great critic—his prose was so beautiful, so clear, and very much a part of a European tradition, deeply from a Jewish conscience. Where has this guy been all my life? I just fell totally in love with him as a writer. So I opened the book with an elegy of his for a letter writer, a younger writer. It was just a portrait of a gifted young man who died too soon and worked in obscurity.
EH But he also then says what he thinks of literature.
PC Yeah, it all came out in there. So the book. It open with Frishman and then later on I have another Polish-German writer, writing about Frishman as an old man sitting in a Viennan café with three other younger writers. The young writers are talking about the literature of the day and Frishman is in his last year of his life. He’s very sick and he can’t smoke his cigars. He’s sort of gesturing. Suddenly Frishman says to them, All this literature—what’s it really for? He’s feeling his whole life has been kind of wasted. Then the young writers turn to him and take turns trying to cheer him up and make him thing that his life as a writer has been worthwhile. He bats them down one after another. Just really powerful.
EH We [have] some young writers like that these days.
PC There’s a poet named Noah Stern. Noah Stern. Whose story is—how much time do we have? He was an incredible figure. He was born in Poland. He went to high school with Leah Goldberg who we talked about. He went to Canada, and then he went to Harvard. He graduated from Harvard. Then he went to Palestine. He translated “The Wasteland” into Hebrew.
EH How do you say, Shanti, shanti, shanti?
PC Just like you’re doing! He was a poet very much ahead of his time in the Israeli literary revolution, or evolutionary scheme. He then moved to a kibbutz near Jerusalem and started to go crazy. At a certain point he tried to strangle the kibbutz librarian, literally tried to kill him, and he was stopped. Then they discovered his diaries. He had plotted the whole thing out in his diaries about somebody he would strangle the librarian. So they were going to try him for attempted murder.
EH You shouldn’t say that in this building [Brooklyn Public Library].
PC And later he was institutionalized. That explains his life in the institution and he eventually killed himself. But he was a marvelous, marvelous poet. He’s not known in English; only a handful of poems have been translated. This is a poem which I literally I stumbled on, one of the things I stumbled on. It’s called “[Portrait of] the Young Poet.” I just read through his collected poems for this book. I came across this one poem “Portrait of the Young Poet.”
“He lugs himself, the pain within, and in another person, pain’s reflection, is his"
—and in it sort of goes back to Levinas, much more perverted way—
“And in the hot summer’s wind he drilled his own free will and the fever’s soul descends emerging wind. His speech is not tufted, as though he were the gaping rule. His mouth moved and doesn’t move. He will not notice if the listener was listening to the poem when he stirs. The song of a man he’ll never know, glowing so, and so sublime and oh, so ironic. The send words to walk along the path of the imagination of one who trails out to the woods and then gets lost in its thickets. The words too are lost there. Although the echo of an omen returning from the forest reaches him in the poem, between poem and poem, between the village and the town, he walks stealthily and forgets almost entirely the world. And so he lives who loves solitude alone and a hot summer wind. Who loves himself, a flame within. And happened in him is wicked only by the poem."
The recipient of a 2007 MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, Peter Cole is the author of three books of poetry, most recently, Things on Which I’ve Stumbled. He has translated widely from Hebrew and Arabic, and has received numerous awards for his work, including the PEN Translation Prize and a Guggenheim Fellowship. His anthology The Dream of the Poem: Hebrew Poetry from Muslim and Christian Spain, 950–1492 received the University Press “Book of the Year” award from the American Publishers Association. Co-founder and publisher of Ibis Editions, he divides his time between Israel and the U.S.
Cole was interviewed by MacArthur Fellow Edward Hirsch, President of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation and author of over ten books of poetry and prose, including the national bestseller How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry.