The ‘Genius’ Of Poetry


Poet, translator and publisher Peter Cole is among this year’s recipients of MacArthur Foundation fellowships, or genius awards, as they are popularly known. The no-strings-attached award, honoring creativity, includes a $500,000 stipend that is paid over five years.

Cole, who was raised in New Jersey and now lives in Israel, was also granted the award for his three-part work, using language to bridge and open up cultural worlds. As a translator, he brings the rich poetry of the golden age of medieval Spain to new audiences, illuminating the work with his own poetic sensibility. Through his Jerusalem-based press, Ibis Editions, he publishes books translated from Arabic, Hebrew, German, French and Ladino, works that until now have been little known to English speakers.

“In a region mired in conflict,” as the MacArthur Foundation states, “Cole’s dedication to the literature of the Levant offers a unique and inspiring view of the cultural, religious, and linguistic interactions that were and are possible among the peoples of the Middle East.”

“I feel incredibly grateful,” Cole tells The Jewish Week in an interview. “So much of what I do is by nature under the radar. I work in English in a country whose language is not English. The kind of work I’ve done involves serving as a conduit for the writing of other people.”

Cole’s latest book, which he translated, edited and introduced, “The Dream of the Poem: Hebrew Poetry from Muslim and Christian Spain 950-1492” (Princeton University Press), published earlier this year, includes the work of 54 poets, including some major writers of the period, like Shmu’el HaNagid and Yehuda HaLevi, along with others who’ve been largely overlooked. The only known poem by a woman, known as the Wife of Dunash is included, written on the occasion of the forced departure from Spain of her husband, poet Dunash Ben Labrat, whose work is the earliest represented here.

The title is drawn from the contemporary writing of Mahmoud Darwish, who is considered the Palestinian national poet, “Andalus … might be here or there, or anywhere … a meeting place of strangers in the project of building human culture … It is not only that there was a Jewish-Muslim coexistence, but that the fates of the two people were similar … Al-Andalus for me is the realization of the dream of the poem.”

While others have translated some of this remarkable poetry before, Cole’s work stands out. Previous translations have been prepared by scholars who understood the complexities of the language and cultural references but lacked the poetic vision, and also by poets who worked not from the original Hebrew but from other translations (Emma Lazarus translated some medieval Jewish poets, working from German).

Cole, 50, was in New York City last week, where he spoke about the book and read at Instituto Cervantes, the Spanish Cultural Center. That he adores this poetry — which he considers one of the greatest literary products of the Jewish imagination — is evident in his presentation, pronouncing each word with tenderness and musicality.

“I’m totally addicted,” he says. “You could spend 20 years on this poetry — as I’ve done — and burn out, and still, every time, I’m shocked at how powerful, profound, and wise it is, and how the poetry brings you to the world it comes out of — and that world is endlessly interesting.”

It was his own journey as a poet that brought him to this canon. In 1980, after graduating from college, he traveled to Israel to study Hebrew.

“I had this sense that my own poetry was going to come out of a Hebraic tradition,” he explains, noting that early on in his stay he “lucked out” in meeting an Iraqi Jew who introduced him to the world of Sephardic Judaism. One Friday night, the friend took him to a shul in the Bukharian quarter of Jerusalem late in the night, where people had gathered to sing baqshot, poems of petition, a kind of Jewish gospel music based on medieval lyrics. Some singers performed solo, and Cole found himself part of an informal chorus. The scene was full of food, liquor, spiced tea and fistfights, “all very relaxed, with a casualness, sensuality and religiosity to the music.”

“It was absolutely sublime. It was music like nothing I had heard before, or even associated with Jewish music. It was Arabic-based and I couldn’t understand the meaning, but the relationship these musicians had with words went into me and has formed everything I do.”

That first year, he took a course in medieval poetry and tried his hand at translating, but was encouraged by a friend, another poet, to leave it alone, and he did. But about eight years later, after traveling across Spain by train, he found himself in a San Francisco diner, scribbling on a napkin. One of the poems he had recited back in 1981 had popped into his head, and he began translating. He credits his views of the Spanish landscape for unleashing his abilities to get inside the poetry. He hasn’t stopped translating since then.

The poems are written in biblical Hebrew, permeated with Arabic culture and literary modes. As Dunash Ben Labrat wrote, “Let scripture be your Eden/and the Arabs’ books your paradise grove…”

Although Hebrew wasn’t a daily spoken language at the time — most of these poets spoke Arabic — the language is very much alive, “glorious,” as Cole asserts. The poets delved into the Bible and also into the culture around them, turning both inward and outward. The poems convey a deep connection to beauty and sensuality, philosophy, artistic refinement; some are homoerotic and highly sexual, others are contemplative, with touches of humor. Some are liturgical and others more secular, although all of the poets are deeply religious, some more subversive than others.

“The great figures of the Spanish-Hebrew literary renaissance were, in short, neither crumpet-munching literati in tights nor rhyme-happy rabbis with time on their hands. They were men of great learning, fierce ambition, and complex talent and spirit,” he writes.

Cole’s translations are sparkling; they’re neither word-for-word, nor loose translations, but he takes the poem apart and then recreates it in English. He explains that translating can sometimes feel like detective work, and he often consults with scholars. For each poet, he includes a brief biography, and together these comprise a colorful history of the period. Shelomo Ibn Gabirol is described as “Philosopher, misanthrope and spectacular fly in the ointment of the refined eleventh-century Andalusian-Jewish elite.”

Hebrew texts for the poems are provided online, (

Cole has written two volumes of poetry, “Rift” and “Hymns & Qualms,” with another volume due out next year, along with several volumes of translated works. His own poetry is connected to the topography of Jerusalem, and at times he thought that he couldn’t write anywhere else.

For years, Cole, who also speaks Arabic, tried to keep the elements of his writing, translating and publishing work separate, but has come to find the way each informs the other to be very exciting. His own politics quietly appear in his poems and are reflected in the work of the press.

He founded Ibis Editions in 1998, along with his essayist/biographer wife Adina Hoffman and their partner poet Gabriel Levin. With close to 20 titles in print, the press — so named because the ibis in Egyptian mythology represents Thoth, scribe to the gods —is “a reincarnation of the Andalucian model” with cross-fertilization of cultures. It publishes English and bilingual editions, and hopes to add Turkish to the list of languages.

“We’re devoted to bringing these voices into the world — they come from a place of light and vision that is endangered in the current matrix of Israel and Palestine,” he said.

When the work is described as idealistic, he asserts that it’s based in realism, that it might serve an ideal but that the work is physical and tactile, with much lugging of boxes.

“It’s important that a sense of hopefulness be grounded in things, in texts, so that there’s physical evidence of what we’re talking about, not simply hope.”

Cole, who has won a Guggenheim fellowship and the 2004 PEN-American Translation Award as well as prizes from Times Literary Supplement and the National Endowment for the Humanities, says that winning the MacArthur won’t change his plans. He and his wife are writing a book for Nextbook on the Cairo Geniza, and he has plans to teach at Yale.

“The thing I’d like to do most is to carve out some time for my poetry,” he says.