In 2012, Peter Cole will release a book of poems by the Kabbalists from Yannai to the 20th century (Yale University Press). A few years ago he put out the supurb The Dream of the Poem: Hebrew Poetry from Muslim and Christian Spain, 950–1492. This interview is from the spring issue of The Paris Review. Many of Cole’s answers have a poetic quality and many of his sentences are worlds unto themselves. From his answers, his volume may be giving the world insights into Kabbalah that the transcend the historians. Cole is a believer in the power of language, especially Hebrew.
I’ve never read poems quite like these—wild yet severe, also a little bit unearthly. Can you give some context for understanding them? What is their relation to Kabbalah?
The anthology these poems are drawn from—The Poetry of Kabbalah: Mystical Verse from the Jewish Tradition, forthcoming from Yale—covers some fifteen hundred years, and the poems emerge from diverse varieties of Jewish mystical thought and practice: Palestine of Late Antiquity, the eleventh- and twelfth-century Jewish communities of Muslim Spain and medieval Germany, and, later on, Christian Spain, Ottoman Palestine, Yemen, North Africa, Italy, and Eastern Europe.
By and large, Jewish mystics were preoccupied with other masochistic pleasures (rolling in nettles, fasting and wearing sackcloth, observing turbocharged versions of the traditional commandments, et cetera), so there isn’t a great deal of Kabbalistic poetry. But the best of it epitomizes an extraordinarily potent if lesser-known aspect of Judaism. That wild severity and otherworldliness you describe reflects the history of Jewish esotericism through the ages, some of which is in fact shockingly mythic, intricate, erotic, and often just plain weird.
What drew you to this body of poetry, as a reader, poet, and translator?
For one, its sheer potency and the steepness of its metaphysical ambition. Contemporary literary culture tends to doubt the power of poetry and is suspicious of verse that takes as its subject its own medium. But hymns treating nothing less than the nature of creation and the language that leads to that creation lie at the heart of the heart of Kabbalah’s country. So that drew me. The Kabbalists thought that song could, among many other things, extract light from the container of sound and bring about erotic union within the cosmic forces on high. That definitely got my attention. I was also drawn by the way in which Kabbalistic literature (the term kabbalah means “tradition” or, more literally, “reception” or “receptivity”) depicts a literary situation of acute authorial susceptibility to the interaction of words—sonic, semantic, architectonic. In short, the poetry of Kabbalah pressed a lot of my literary buttons.
The first poem of the selection, “From the Sky to the Heavens’ Heaven,” certainly has no doubts about the power of poetry. When I read it out loud I can’t help but feel it’s a poem to be chanted or sung. Who is the poet, Yannai, and what sort of occasion was this poem intended for?
Yannai is a titanic poet whose incredible story Adina and I tell in some detail in Sacred Trash. He’s one of the major liturgical Hebrew poets of Byzantine Palestine, and his work overlaps with the Christian hymnology of the day. The some eight hundred poems that now make up his oeuvre were lost for nearly a thousand years, during which time he was known primarily as the author of one hymn in the Passover Haggadah and, more notoriously, for reportedly murdering his star pupil, another poet, by placing a scorpion in his sandal. Like Bach writing cantatas for churchgoers in Leipzig, Yannai composed “From the Sky to the Heavens’ Heaven” and numerous other works on commission for a synagogue in late sixth- or early seventh-century Palestine. It seems that symphonic works of this sort were meant to intensify the experience of prayer for worshippers by “making new” both their devotion and their understanding of the weekly reading from scripture, which the poems gloss in a highly eccentric way. (This particular poem is spun out of Yannai’s “commentary” on the Tower of Babel story.) Some scholars say the hymns were originally intended not only to ornament the standard liturgy, but to replace it.
In any event, the “performance” of these poems apparently drew large crowds. And as you note, they were almost certainly sung—perhaps with a chorus or with the congregation chiming in.
What you say about making it new reminds me of the third poem, an extract from The Book of Creation, which seems to be a rewrite of Genesis or maybe of John 1:1 (“In the beginning was the Word”). The poem’s representation of God—if that’s who He is—is very physical, almost demiurgic: he carves and quarries and weighs…
The Book of Creation (or Formation) does constitute a revolutionary, imaginative line of Jewish thought. It’s a bizarre and not altogether fathomable work, and we know almost nothing about its author or the circumstances of its composition. But one thing that seems clear is that it amounts to an ars poetica, where the “made thing,” the product of poesis, is the world itself. God in this scheme constructs through language, which is to say that the cosmos is a literary creation. Working on this excerpt I kept thinking of The Book of Creation, anachronistically, as a radically theological inflection of what Ezra Pound said was the poet’s central task: to build a world.
You’ve already translated several volumes of medieval Hebrew verse. Did these Kabbalistic poems offer special difficulties to you as a translator?
Their abstraction was a challenge, as was the almost total absence, in the early work, of what we think of now as a personal voice. The Poetry of the Palaces—and many other selections in the anthology—present a verse that’s rooted in the magical power of letters and words, their shapes, sounds, and the cadences they create in combination. Experience in this literature is acoustic and rhythmic rather than psychological in the conventional sense, though this doesn’t mean that emotional struggle, growth, and insight aren’t at its core. Central to the quest that drives these poems is the verse’s ability to animate abstract understanding, to set up a palpable, percussive current that links syllable to syllable and word to word in a progression that leads toward heightened perception and, sometimes, a kind of ecstasy. But I’ve always been drawn to a tactile sort of abstraction in the arts, and to a poetry that does intense and impassioned work beyond narrow definitions of the self. So, if anything, these difficulties just made the challenge all the more enticing.
The absence of a personal voice is striking in the second poem, “To Rise on High,” which has a lot of verbs in the infinitive but no subject. What’s going on there?
Your guess is as good as mine. But I do love that poem.
Were there any English verse models you found helpful while working on your translations?
It’s hard to say. In the translations of the early medieval work I let the Hebrew have its way with me and with English, and there were no particular models, at least none that I was conscious of. Elsewhere in the anthology, all sorts of poetries hover further off in the wings: at least one of the poems has a gust, or ghost, of Wordsworth in its sails, and if pressed I suppose I could identify distant echoes of the middle English and early English Renaissance lyric, Blake, the metaphysicals and Hopkins, occasionally Whitman, maybe Stephen Crane and certainly Hart Crane, even Jack Spicer and Robert Duncan. Reception is reception.