On Oct. 11 in Marquand Chapel, poet Peter Cole spoke on “the poetry of Kabbalah, the Kabbalah of poetry,” for the 2012 Lana Schwebel Memorial Lecture, in honor of the titular former faculty member at Yale Divinity School and Yale Institute of Sacred Music. Cole, the author of three books of poems and translator of works from Hebrew and Arabic, splits his time between Jerusalem and New Haven, and has taught at Wesleyan and Middlebury, in addition to Yale. His most recent book is “Things on Which I’ve Stumbled” (New Directions, 2008).
Q. What is Kabbalah, exactly?
A. Generally speaking, Kabbalah is the Jewish mystical tradition, in its many and varied manifestations through the ages. Technically, it refers to the Jewish mystical movements that first emerged in late 12th and early 13th century Spain and Provence and eventually spread throughout the Jewish world. Certain elements of these movements were in time absorbed into mainstream Judaism; others remained the province of “specialists,” working, as it were, in institutes of advanced research into the nature of first and last things, and our being between them. Unlike many other forms of mysticism, which tend to distrust language, Kabbalists through the centuries have seen language as a vehicle that might bring one into the worlds of the really real.
Q. How did you become interested in Jewish mysticism?
A. Poetry made me do it. I came to this tradition early on in my writing life, when I was trying to retool and reschool myself as a writer by beginning to read deeply into the “Judeo” side of the Judeo-Christian tradition that English poetry is part of. The Hebraic or Judaic side of the hyphen seemed to me woefully unexplored in English verse, and as a Jewish-American poet, I decided early on that this was something I wanted to look into in a serious way, even if it turned out to be a dead end and a lethal waste of time.
My first concrete and conscious encounter with the tradition was my coming across Cynthia Ozick’s review of Gershom Scholem’s massive and magisterial late work — “Sabbatai Sevi: The Mystical Messiah.” Her review made it clear to me that this was a direction I had to go in.
My second concrete encounter with the tradition was less conscious, but even more transformative. Soon after going to Jerusalem to study Hebrew (in 1981), I was invited to tag along with an Iraqi-Jewish friend of the family to attend and participate in the singing of bakkashot—petitionary hymns sung by certain Sephardic communities in Jerusalem during the rainy season (winter), beginning at 3 a.m. on the Sabbath and running through till dawn. There were gorgeous Eastern musical scales, fabulous soloists and powerful choruses (of ordinary congregants), whiskey, snuff, simple food and a what amounted to a kind of classical Jewish gospel music. I was hooked, and when I asked my friend what we were singing, apart from certain psalms, he waved my question away and said, it’s Kabbalah — you wouldn’t understand. But, very gradually, I began to.
Q. Do you see yourself as part of the literary tradition of the Kabbalists?
A. I see myself as part of the broader tradition of Jewish poetry, or even the project of the Jewish imagination. Kabbalah holds an important place for me in that larger project, but the Andalusian literary tradition is as strong in me, or stronger. Both have come to inform (to give form to) my poetry in critical ways — technically and in terms of content.
Q. I see you’re from Paterson, NJ. Where do you stand on Williams? Or, more seriously, what poets are you reading right now?
A. Williams is one of the first poets I read closely once I’d figured out that I wanted to be one, and I’ve long loved his work. (That my grandfather was the first pediatrician in Paterson and lived a life very much like that of WCW — with his doctor’s bag and house calls and an office attached to the home — made it easy for me to conjure the poet as person.)
Right now I’m not reading any books of poetry. I’ve been reading obsessively for a new long poem that I’ve been working on for several months: work connected to the Freud circle in Vienna during the first two decades of the twentieth century. In terms of poets, that reading has included HD’s book about her time with Freud and Robert Duncan’s book about HD.
Q. Do you have a favorite poem, or favorite moment in a poem, from “The Poetry of Kabbalah” that you’d like to share?
A. That’s hard — there are so many different kinds of poetry in this book, and I identify deeply with almost all of them: the primordial weirdness of “The Book of Creation” (Sefer Yetzirah), the symphonic majesty of Ibn Gabirol’s “Kingdom’s Crown,” the spooky, transgressive hybrid hymns of the Muslim-Jewish Shabbatian of the 17th century, the gentleness and intimacy of the Hasidic “Song of You,” the spectacular incorporation of so much of this in the work of a modern secular poet like Hayyim Nahman Bialik… As you can see, I can’t choose, and prefer to look at it all as one.
Note: Mandel spoke with Cole in the flesh after his talk, and the two exchanged emails on the record. This interview is drawn from Cole’s written responses.