World of Letters: The Work of Poet and Translator Peter Cole

Listen to Peter Cole Reading from The Poetry of Kabbalah

Each Day

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In an interview with Ready Steady Book, poet and translator Peter Cole reflected on the medieval Hebrew poetry of Muslim and Christian Spain, remarking that he was attracted by “the notion of beauty it embodies…and its potency as a vehicle for the transmission of wisdom.” This description is particularly relevant to his most recent work, The Poetry of Kabbalah: Mystical Verse from the Jewish Tradition, the first substantial collection of Kabbalistic poems in English, spanning three continents and more than 1,500 years of Jewish mystical tradition, new from the Margellos World Republic of Letters.

Known for his work with Hebrew and Arabic texts, Cole was a 2007 MacArthur Fellow, receiving the so-called “genius grant” for his translations, which have transformed even poems “long regarded as “untranslatable,” into English versions that “retain the subtleties, complexities, and formal elegance of the original verse.” Along with this expertise in the realm of translation, the MacArthur Foundation praised Cole for the “implicit message of cultural and historical cross-fertilization that is also evident in his work as a poet and a publisher.” The publishing house Ibis Editions, founded by Cole and his wife Adina Hoffman in 1998, dedicates its mission to the literary works and languages of the Levant.

While no simple description can frame the widespread spiritual and religious history of Kabbalah, it’s helpful to keep in mind Cole’s observation that the “poems not only depict a mystical process, they produce it.” It is the poems’ ability to act as “highly charged carriers of initial vision and actual practice” that appeal to the Kabbalist, the philologist, the poet, and the general reader. In a recent interview for Margellos WRL, Cole expressed his hope to “bring readers into the world and force field of this verse in every way—acoustically, spiritually, culturally, historically.” If poetry allows for the “transmission of wisdom,” translation allows for the transmission of that wisdom across linguistic and cultural boundaries.

Dissemination of wisdom, of lux et veritas,is central to Yale University Press’s purpose, and for this reason, we have been exceedingly proud to publish both Cole and Hoffman’s work, beginning in 2009 with Hoffman’s acclaimed biography of Palestinian poet Taha Muhammad Ali, My Happiness Bears No Relation to Happiness: A Poet’s Life in the Palestinian Century. A friendship—that to some would seem unlikely—had developed between the two American Jews and the Palestinian shopkeeper-writer. Working with the poet himself, and with Yahya Hijazi and Gabriel Levin, Cole translated and published the first of Muhammad Ali’s collections in English, Never Mind: Twenty Poems and a Story in 2000; then in 2006 Copper Canyon Press published So What: New and Selected Poems, 1971-2005 in 2006.

Now, with The Poetry of Kabbalah, Cole has presented a poetic tradition that transcends the constraints of language, the sublime and startling elements of Jewish mysticism speaking to each other on the pages of this work as loudly and clearly as they would in Hebrew. The Poetry of Kabbalah takes its readers on a journey both poetic and emotional, with this superb translation, enabling the ideas of Kabbalah to flow naturally. Cole’s poetic treatment and careful selections are thus an invaluable guide to understanding experiences not only beyond English, but beyond ourselves in ways both spiritual and physical.


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