Peter Cole is a poet and translator of Hebrew and Arabic poetry. He has received numerous awards for his work, including prizes from the Times Literary Supplement and the Modern Language Association, and a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship. Winner of the 2004 PEN-America Translation Award, he lives in Jerusalem, where he co-edits Ibis Editions.
Mark Thwaite: What first drew you to this wonderful medieval Hebrew poetry from Muslim and Christian Spain?
Peter Cole: It’s always difficult to reconstruct the history of an attraction, and it’s true, as I think Eliot said, that we’re taken by poems well before we understand them. That was certainly the case in my first encounter, in 1981, with the Hebrew poetry of Muslim and Christian Spain. I’d been drawn to it because early on in my writing life I had a palpable sense that Hebrew poetry would somehow lead me to my own in English. So it was almost inevitable that I would eventually come to the work of these Andalusian poets, which is widely regarded as one of the greatest literary products of the Jewish imagination since the close of the biblical canon.
Looking back, it seems that a number of elements in the poetry appealed, including the way in which the border between sacred and secular seemed to blur there. Its approach to quotation also intrigued me: the classicizing avant-garde Hebrew poets of Spain used the “anonymous” language of isolated scriptural phrases as their raw material, which they then reconfigured in highly charged and seemingly more personal and expressive constellations—a technique that might be understood as a kind of pre-modernist collage. Third, the sexual ambiguity spoke to me in this (often homoerotic) poetry, which, properly read, contributed to an intensification of the ambient sensuality of its world. I was also pulled toward a notion of originality that was very much at odds with everything I’d been taught, as it relied on distinctive rather than merely novel treatment of a given subject. In time, other aspects of the poetry became important to me as well—the notion of beauty it embodies, its emphasis on ornament as a carrier of that beauty, and its potency as a vehicle for the transmission of wisdom.
As though that weren’t enough, all these elements were reinforced and enhanced by a new understanding the poetry gave me of musical possibility (and this understanding would quite naturally make its way into my own poems in the early and mid-1980s). I found that music both in the lines on the page and in the singing of baqashot—a Hebrew word which literally means “poems of petition,” but in fact refers to a kind of Jewish gospel music, based on medieval lyrics. I'm not religious in the conventional sense, but every Friday night/Saturday morning the first year I lived in Jerusalem, I went with an Iraqi-Jewish friend to these middle of the night sessions which simply blew the lid off of any notion I had previously held of what poetry was and might do. Traditional and religious Jews from a variety of Eastern countries, including Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Bukhara, and elsewhere, would gather at 3 a.m. between the autumn holiday of Sukkot (Tabernacles) and the spring festival of Passover and, for some four hours, sing intensely beautiful, kaleidoscopic and sometimes mystical poems along a variety of Arab scales and modes, with soloists stretching the lines in the aural equivalent of arabesque fashion and the ragged, informal chorus (of which I was a part) joining in as the solos trailed off. This “devotion”—though the English word hardly begins to get at what was happening—was accompanied by whiskey, snuff tobacco, boiled potatoes with salt, pepper, and fenugreek, phyllo pastries filled with spinach, cardamom-spiced tea, and much more, including the occasional fistfight. That first year in Jerusalem showed me not only a new kind of poetry and a new notion of literary reality, but a new kind of Judaism.
MT: Do you have any particular theory of translation? Many of the poems have a very strong, very distinctive rhythm and metre when read in the English, so I’m guessing these aren’t word for word renderings?
PC: My only theory of translation is that one should be wary of theory. “Aesthetics is to artists what ornithology is to the birds” is how Barnett Newman once put it, in another context. That said, the translator is in a sense part bird, part ornithologist, and I do think it’s important to read widely in the history of translation and the history of writing about translation from a variety of languages. When it comes to the act itself—and translation is very much just that, an act, as much as it is a process—intuition and instinct prevail, as they have to for any performer or writer. These, granted, are developed over time and many trials, but the point is that theory is rarely a reliable guide in the fray. Better, as the translator (from Spanish) Gregory Rabassa has written, to let oneself “be led by language.” The language itself (on both sides of the translation ledger) will show or tell one what to do, provided that one has learned to be a vigilant listener and is prepared to respond to the demands that arise.
The distinctive sound you’re hearing in these translations is, I’d like to think, a product of my having absorbed the poems as whole worlds and attempted to recreate them as such. So, yes, one might say that these “aren’t word for word renderings.” Moshe Ibn Ezra, the major theoretician of the medieval period—in fact the only one to write about the poetry critically in a sustained manner—had the following to say about the translation from Arabic into Hebrew: “And if you plan to bring a matter from Arabic into Hebrew, grasp the spirit and intention of the work, but do not transpose it word for word, for not all languages are alike…. And if it doesn’t turn out as you’d hoped, rid yourself of it entirely, for sometimes silence is better than speech, and the speaker who pleases will please with his silence too, though the opposite is not true.” Though that should by no means imply that the translations in The Dream of the Poem are “free,” or “loose.” On the contrary, each Hebrew word has been accounted for, and the translations rarely add to, or subtract from, what is there in the original. In many cases they echo elements of the Hebrew syntax directly. While I am not particularly analytical about all this, they tend to take in (as Ibn Ezra suggests) the Hebrew phrase by phrase rather than in discrete lexical units—this because I want the poems to compel on the level of texture and sound, without distorting the sense of the verse.
If “let the language lead you” is one of my non-theoretical axioms, then “make it new” might be the other. Not in the faux avant-garde sense of adopting the surface manner of experiment, but as Pound means it in the Cantos, where it refers to the renewal of life, to natural, national, and moral sustenance—the kingdom’s crops in a time of drought and the ruler’s fitness to lead. Another translation of the Chinese phrase renders it, instead, as “renovate thyself.”
MT: How long did it take you to get all the poems together?
PC: I began translating them seriously in 1989. After returning to a fairly debilitating office job from an innocuous summer vacation in Portugal, I was sitting in a San Francisco diner watching a football game one Sunday morning, when an eleventh-century poem I didn’t know I’d remembered percolated in me. I began writing on a napkin, suddenly realized that this was not impossible (I once thought it might be), worked for a while more, then hurried home to continue. In a sense, I haven’t looked back—though occasionally along the way I have looked down and around and wondered, more than a little neurotically, where this was actually taking me. I worked on the Selected Poems of Shmuel HaNagid, the first major poet of the period, for three years or so, reading widely in the field and gradually working out the possibilities for the translation of this material. That book was published in Princeton’s Lockert Library of Translation in 1996. Soon after, I began working on the second and very different major figure of the period, Shelomo Ibn Gabirol, and five years later a volume of his work (Selected Poems of Solomon Ibn Gabirol) was published in the same Princeton series, which is edited by the American poet and translator Richard Howard. By then I’d also begun the serious study of Arabic and was translating the poetry of the contemporary Palestinian poet Taha Muhammad Ali.
At that point, I decided that, rather than doing a series of “selected poems” by all the major figures, it would be more interesting to put together an anthology that would—through a combination of generous selections of the poetry and lively background and biographical material—tell the endlessly fascinating story of the Spanish-Hebrew period as a whole, or as a sequence of inter-related figures, schools, and movements. I worked steadily on The Dream of the Poem from 2001 on, aided greatly by a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship and a grant from the PEN-America Translation Fund. So I’ve been at it, on and off, for some seventeen years, as I was also writing my own poetry—two books of which appeared in the States and one (combining them—What Is Doubled: Poems 1981-1998) in the UK, with Shearsman Books. A third is nearing completion.
MT: During your research, did you come across any really noteworthy poems or poets who so far, in your opinion, have not been given their due?
PC: To a certain extent, all of the poets in this anthology are overlooked, at least when it comes to the attention they’ve been given in English. If the poetry is known at all, it’s because it is often gestured to (by writers and scholars—and even politicians) as evidence of cultural achievement in an age of co-existence or medieval multiculturalism; but it’s rarely read. So the first half of the anthology is built around substantial—nearly book-length—selections from the work of the major poets of the eleventh and twelfth centuries: Shmu’el HaNagid, Shelomo Ibn Gabirol, Moshe Ibn Ezra, and Yehuda HaLevi. The second half of the volume—the Hebrew poetry of Christian Spain— begins with the Avraham Ibn Ezra, whom scholars often consider a fifth major poet. (While he wrote during a great deal in Muslim Spain, most of that work has been lost, and his reputation is based almost entirely on the poetry that he wrote after he left Spain altogether. The year 1140 finds him in Rome, and after that he wandered into Italy, Provence, northern France, and England!)
Beyond that presentation of the major figures, one of my primary goals in creating this anthology was to make available in English the best work by the other Hebrew poets of the age, not just the greatest hits. I have, therefore, included work by some fifty-four different poets. Among the lesser-known poets, I’m especially fond of the Wife of Dunash, the only woman writer of the entire Spanish-Hebrew period. We have just a single tenth-century poem by her, a relatively recent discovery from very early in the period, but it’s a beautiful and haunting personal lyric, and one that is forcing scholars to reconsider the nature of the poetry’s emergence. And numerous other poems by minor writers during this period are noteworthy (those by Yosef Ibn Avitor, for example, and Yitzhaq Ibn Sahl).
Turning to the Christian period, Yosef Qimhi (c. 1105 – c. 1170), a writer of epigrams, falls very definitely into the overlooked category. And there are two major, and marvelous, silver age poets about whom English readers know very little: Yehuda Alharizi (1165 – 1225) and Todros Abulafia (1270 – a. 1300). Alharizi’s scathing portraits of Jewish communities and types he encountered during his travels in the East are often hilarious. And Abulafia—who had a distinct predilection for non-Jewish women, and seems to have honed his literary skills in prison—is a writer of tremendous verbal energy, wit, drive, and ambition. But because he was subtly recasting the conventions of the Golden Age, and was clearly something of a maverick spirit, his work went almost entirely underground for the next six (mostly conservative) literary centuries. When it reemerged in the early twentieth century, in Hong Kong!, and after it was eventually published in a scholarly edition in the 1930s, opinion of the work was decidedly mixed. He was considered everything from “one of the greatest poets of whom the Jews can boast” to an egocentric graphomaniac to a mediocre epigone. Only recently has critical consensus come round to consider him a major figure of the thriteenth century. He is, to my mind, easily one of the most surprising poets of the entire period, though his work is not often read by non-specialist Hebrew readers and is almost completely unknown to readers of English.
MT:Are there any poems/authors that you are particularly sorry that you couldn’t include?
PC: I’ve managed to include just about everything I wanted to: the only exclusions that I regret are those due to the size of the book. It was, for instance, hard to part with many of the poems that appear in the Selected HaNagid (and here I will put in a plug for his long wine poem, “Have You Heard How I Helped the Wise”) and in the Selected Ibn Gabirol (the full text of his masterpiece, “Kingdom’s Crown,” which I had to excerpt for the anthology), and I still feel a kind of phantom pain when I get to those excisions in the book. That said, Princeton has kept these two volumes in print, so the work is available.
I’d also wanted to include a section of poems that Jewish authors wrote in Arabic (rather than in Hebrew), but the anthology was already quite large and that seemed like a separate project. I did sneak in two of these Arabic poems, however, in the notes. These are by a woman named Qasmuna bint Isma’il al-Yahudi (Qasmuna the daughter of the Jew), and some scholars feel that she may in fact be Shmu’el HaNagid’s daughter. In any case, she has two quietly stunning Sappho-like poems there.
Finally, the Hebrew poems themselves haven’t been included in the bound volume, though I’d originally wanted to them to be there, at the back, after the notes. Princeton felt that it would be counterproductive, as it would both bulk up the book and boost its price, and at the same time perhaps give the impression that the anthology was primarily intended for an academic audience—which is very definitely not the case. It’s intended for a general readership, for other poets, and also for students of the period and their teachers. The Hebrew texts have, however, been provided online, at the Princeton website, so they can be downloaded free of charge and printed out for classroom or individual use.
MT: Muslim Spain is often held up as a multicultural idea. Is there, quietly, a polemical intention to your book!?
PC: The short answer to your question is: Yes. A longer answer would be: Yes and no. That is, I’ve tried in The Dream of the Poem to present the period on its own terms, and both the selection of the poetry and the composition of the background material (the introduction, biographies, and notes) are, to the extent that this is possible, free of any deliberate polemical or political bias. At the same time, the anthology most certainly delights in the cross-fertilized and hybrid nature of the work (qualities that lie at its root), and given the political climate of our day, the focus on medieval Hebrew-Arabic or Jewish-Muslim-Christian coexistence—culturally, literarily and socially—can’t help but carry with it a political valence.
The fact is that the finest work of the period, which is to say some of the finest Hebrew poetry of all time, was a product of just that openness (grounded in extensive learning within the Jewish tradition), however complex and fraught the coexistence may have been. While it is possible to draw any number of conflicting “conclusions” from this literature (including Yehuda HaLevi’s, which called in the mid-twelfth century for rejection of the entire Andalusian ethos), it does seem to me that the work has something to tell us today, and not only on the personal level. My title, drawn from a comment by Mahmoud Darwish, who is considered the Palestinian national poet, highlights that relevance (he says that “Andalus might be here, or there, or anywhere … a meeting place of strangers in the project of building human culture”), though I am aware that his presence at the front of a book that celebrates five hundred years of Hebrew literary achievement will raise a few hackles. There are other writers who speak in a similar spirit, however: the French cultural critic and sociologist Jacques Berque has written of “the revival of [the Mediterranean world’s] ‘inherited landscapes’, the creation of ‘new Andalusias’…. to be discovered beneath the surface of political and economic events [in] the intimate movements of the human heart.” And the Syrian poet Adonis has gone on record as saying that “Andalusia seems a viable project, not only for the present, but also for the future.”
I share that feeling.
There is also the question of what is sometimes called “Sephardic supremacy.” For the vast majority of English-speaking Jews and western observers of Jewry, Judaism is Eastern European. “In the beginning was the matzoh ball” is how I think of it. But in the middle ages, ninety-percent or more of the Jews in the world were Sephardic. In Spain its culture was the culture of civilization at its apogee. By the mid-twentieth century the situation was reversed, and Sephardic Judaism along the Spanish model has now almost entirely dropped out of the equation of what it means to be Jewish in the West. This is certainly the case when it comes to literature: Jewish-American literature is by and large a derivative (and when it comes to poetry usually a weak derivative) of Yiddish literature, though the Sephardic model is, to my mind, far more potent.
MT: What do you do when you are not translating?
PC: When not translating medieval or modern work, or writing my own poetry, I edit Ibis Editions in Jerusalem, with my wife Adina Hoffman, who is an essayist and biographer, and the poet Gabriel Levin. Ibis was founded in 1998 and is dedicated to the publication of what we call Levant-related literature. We publish translations from all the languages of the region—that is, from Hebrew, Arabic, Greek, French, Ladino, and German (and hope to add Turkish to that list very soon), and in a sense this work can be considered an extension of the Andalusian spirit. From time to time I also teach. I just returned from a very rich fall semester at Yale’s Whitney Humanities Center, and a month at Middlebury College teaching an intensive January-term course. I live in Jerusalem.
MT: What are you working on now?
PC: I’m currently working on a book of poems and will soon pick up where I left off editing and translating a book of essays called Hebrew Writers on Writing, for an international series edited by the American poet Edward Hirsch.
MT: Who is your favourite writer? What is/are your favourite book(s)?
PC: It’s hard to single out just one writer or even a handful of favourite books, as my tastes range widely, but I can say that the writers I have translated from Hebrew and Arabic have been among the writers who have mattered most to me—and that includes, along with the medievals, the Hebrew poet Aharon Shabtai and the Palestinian poet Taha Muhammad Ali. Both are masters, in their very different ways. I’ve also lived closely with the Hebrew poetry of Avraham Ben Yithzak and Harold Schimmel, and the prose of Yoel Hoffmann. Among writers in English it’s almost impossible to draw up a short list of favourites, but high on it would be Middle English poetry—from the anonymous lyrics of the thirteenth century through the poems of Chaucer, James I, and Dunbar. The American poetic tradition, from Whitman and Dickinson through the great modernists and their successors, is deep in me. And I love Edwin Denby’s Dance Writings and the prose of Eliot Weinberger, as well as the poetry of David Jones, John Wieners, James Schuyler, and Forrest Gander, again, to name just a few, and without getting into other languages.
MT: Anything else you would like to say?
PC: Only that I continue to take enormous and complicated pleasure in the making of translations and in reading excellent translations by others. Translation remains for me a mystery, in the best sense, as it overcomes apparent impossibility and draws one into the workings of language and our being through it in the world. There is, to my mind, something miraculous about it. In any case, it has brought me to places I never imagined I’d see, or hear, and I think of it, in the grand scheme of things, as a gift.