Weekly Poem: Peter Cole writes about why we read poetry

BY Victoria Fleischer  January 27, 2014 at 3:30 PM EST

Peter Cole

Peter Cole thinks of all poetry as translation.

“Writing one’s own poetry, you’re translating a nonverbal experience or a less than articulate experience into something much more articulate,” he told Art Beat.

In addition to writing his own, Cole translates Hebrew and Arabic poetry into English. When Cole finished translating 2,000 years of Jewish mystical poetry for his previous project “The Poetry of Kabbalah” (Yale University Press, 2012), he was ready to start producing his own work again, but it wasn’t a simple or easy transition.

“Every morning you come to your desk. There’s lots to do and it can be that way for many years. And then you finish and you feel a certain pressure and you want to write your own poems, or they want to be written, but there’s the terror of course, what will you do when you have all that time and all that space?”

So Cole wrote about a poem that deals with that fear, “Quatrains for a Calling.”

Hear Peter Cole read Quatrains for a Calling.

Quatrains for a CallingWhy are you here?
Who have you come for
and what would you gain?
Where is your fear?Why are you here?

You’ve come so near,
or so it would seem;
you can see the grain
in the paper — that’s clear.

But why are you here

when you could be elsewhere,
earning a living
or actually learning?
Why should we care

why you’re here?

Is that a tear?
Yes, there’s pressure
Behind the eyes–
And there are peers.

But why are you here?

At times it sears.
The pressure and shame
and the echoing pain.
What do you hear

now that you’re here?

The air’s so severe.
It calls for equipment,
which comes at a price.
And you’ve volunteered.

Why? Are you here?

What will you wear?
What will you do
if it turns out you’ve failed?
How will you fair?

Why are you here

when it could take years
to find out–what?
It’s all so slippery,
and may not cohere.

And yet, you’re here …

Is it what you revere?
How deep does that go?
How do you know?
Do you think you’re a seer?

Is that why you’re here?

Do you have a good ear?
For praise or for verse?
Can you handle a curse?
Define persevere.

Why are you here?

It could be a career.

In “Quatrains for a Calling,” a poem from his new collection “The Invention of Influence” (New Directions, 2014), Cole begins by having a conversation with himself and the reader.

“When you read it and someone asks ‘Why are you here?,’ I’m asking the reader, ‘Why are you here? Why are you here reading this poem?’”

Cole and the reader are on a journey together. “In a sense, we’re engaged in the same pursuit, the same quest trying to find out what we’re trying to get from poems.”

Cole’s poetry is influenced by Jewish mysticism. He draws on Kabbalistic concepts for the titles of the poems and the themes he explores throughout “The Invention of Influence.”

For those who aren’t as familiar with the Kabbalah, there’s a handy section of notes in the back of the book where he explains relevant mystical histories and notions.

“I understand that people don’t walk around with knowing a lot of these things.”

But, for Cole, some of those notions are central to his philosophy.

“For the Kabbalists, whether they are writing poetry or whether they are engaged in a theological speculation, the stakes are incredibly high. Worlds are made and unmade based on what you might do or say or sing,” Cole explained.

“That’s something I identify with as a poet. I think the stakes are very high for poetry, at least I want the stakes to be very high.”

The Invention of Influence (c) 2014 by Peter Cole. Reprinted with permission by New Directions.