Translating the Poetry of Kabbalah: Author interview with Peter Cole

The Poetry of Kabbalah

The Poetry of Kabbalah: Mystical Verse from the Jewish Tradition

Peter Cole’s brand new work of translation, The Poetry of Kabbalah, is the first every English-language collection of poems from the Kabbalistic tradition. In the exclusive author interview, Cole (an acclaimed MacArthur fellow) discusses the tradition of Jewish mystical verse, as well as his own role in translating and annotating this important new book.

Most of us here in the UK will be familiar with Kabbalah as the trendy religion adopted by celebrities such as Madonna, Mick Jagger and Lindsay Lohan. However, the tradition of Kabbalah stretches back further than the current westernized understanding, and carries with it a canon of beautiful (and until now untranslated) poetry.

But first of all, what is Kabbalah? Kabbalah forms the foundations of mystical religious interpretation, and seeks to define the nature of the universe and the human being, the nature and purpose of existence, and various other ontological questions. It also presents methods to aid understanding of these concepts and to thereby attain spiritual realisation.

Kabbalah originally developed entirely within the realm of Jewish thought and kabbalists often use classical Jewish sources to explain and demonstrate its esoteric teachings. These teachings are held by followers in Judaism to define the inner meaning of both the Hebrew Bible and traditional Rabbinic literature, their formerly concealed transmitted dimension, as well as to explain the significance of Jewish religious observances.

A key fact to remember is that there are many different approaches to Kabbalah, and although it has also been adopted outside the Judaism, its roots lie firmly within the Jewish tradition.

The Poetry of Kabbalah is a groundbreaking collection that presents for the first time in English a substantial body of poetry from this world of Jewish mysticism. Taking up philosopher and historian Gershom Scholem‘s call to plumb the “tremendous poetic potential concealed” in the Kabbalistic tradition, the MacArthur-winning poet and translator Peter Cole has provided dazzling English renderings of works composed on three continents over a period of fifteen hundred years.

The book, which is a new addition to the ever-growing Margellos World Republic of Letters Series (which includes poetry from the Syrian poet Adonis and translated works by Romanian novelist Norman Manea), presents the texts in their original languages alongside the English translations. These prayerful poems represent different cultural terrains and take up multiple tacks. The reader will encounter cosmological masterpieces and occasional poems; erotic charms and epic phantasmagoria; ballad-like lyrics and didactic mottoes; and, simple hymns of pure devotion and gnomic verse of numerical intrigue.

In the interview below, Cole discusses the history, culture, language and identities that have shaped over a millennium of tradition in Jewish mystical verse, and of course, his own role in translating and annotating the edition.

Yale University Press: Could you describe the origins of this project? What led you to The Poetry of Kabbalah and when?

Peter Cole: My co-editor, the Israeli scholar and translator Aminadav Dykman, dreamed this project up some fifteen years ago and approached me with the idea. I’d long been drawn to this poetry, or to what I knew of it at the time, and I relished the opportunity to delve into it…

YUP: Your book not only exposes the beauty and the power of Kabbalistic poetry but also teaches us about history and culture. What do you hope your readers will take away from this collection? How would you like them to approach the poems—as an artistic endeavor, historical document, or as something different altogether?

PC:  I’d like this anthology to bring readers into the world and force field of this verse in every way—acoustically, spiritually, culturally, historically. The poetry itself has a great deal to say to us as readers today—about the nature of the language we use for things great and small, and what it means to maintain a vital connection through speech to spirit; about the ways in which Eros might inform a faithful existence and about the centrality of coupling in our lives; about how first things are bound to what comes last, and where the present stands in relation to both. In a nutshell, the poems function, in many cases, as allegories of inwardness: they embody an intense sense of an inner life and, in their cadences and patterns, capture some of the most elusive, yet poignant and central aspects of existence…

YUP: What about the abstraction that one finds in so much of this verse?

PC: Translating the abstraction of the poetry was another challenge. On the whole, I take my cues from the original poems in question. The abstraction I think you’re talking about—the sort of thing we find in the Poems of the Palaces, say, doesn’t feel abstract. Its incorporation, its embodiment in the pulse and cadence of the lines of verse, along with the manipulation of the verse’s texture, renders it highly physical, aural, even tactile. I aim for something similar in the English…

YUP: The Poetry of Kabbalah opens with liturgical hymns and ends with poems by Hayyim Nahman Bialik. In what ways—thematic, aesthetic, linguistic—has the Kabbalistic tradition influenced modern writing? What is the significance of these poems to world literature?

PC: Kabbalistic literature has had a profound effect on modern writing—often through the mediation of scholarship. One thinks of Borges, for instance, who directly incorporated Kabbalistic elements into his writing, as did the poet Paul Celan, among many others. The inclusion of the two poems by Bialik is meant to mark that transition from the conventionally religious and sometimes ritual context to the far broader matrix of world literature read in humanistic terms. And it also reminds us that it’s important to circle back, like Bialik and his successors, and read the older work through the lens of our own understanding.

Peter Cole (credit Adina Hoffman)

Peter Cole (credit Adina Hoffman)

Peter Cole is the author of three books of poetry and the translator of more than a dozen volumes from Hebrew and Arabic, including The Dream of the Poem: Hebrew Poetry from Muslim and Christian Spain, 950–1492. His many honors include a Guggenheim Fellowship, the National Jewish Book Award for Poetry, and the PEN Translation Award for Poetry. In 2007 he was named a MacArthur Fellow. He divides his time between Jerusalem and New Haven.

For more on Yale’s Margellos Republic of Letters series, sign up on the new WRL site to receive full e-mail updates and interviews with authors and translators in advance. You can also listen to Cole read the poems Nut Garden, by Yosef Gikatilla, and Each Day.

The Poetry of Kabbalah is available now from Yale University Press.

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