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Peter Cole

Peter Cole was born in 1957 in Paterson, New Jersey. In 1975, he began his first two years of undergraduate study at Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts, and received his BA from Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, in 1980. The following year, he moved to Jerusalem to study Hebrew.

He is the author of six poetry collections: Hymns & Qualms: New and Selected Poems and Translations (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017), The Invention of Influence (New Directions, 2014), Things on Which I’ve Stumbled (New Directions, 2008), Rift (Station Hill Press, 1989), and Hymns & Qualms (Sheep Meadow Press, 1998). A fifth collection, What Is Doubled: Poems 1981–1989, was published in 2005 by Shearsman Books in the United Kingdom. 

Of Cole, Edward Hirsch has said, “[He] is a true maker. His extraordinary learning is deep and personal, and his poems, like his translations, are powered by a large spiritual quest to link and light the world with words. He stands with amazement before great mysteries.”

Cole has also translated extensively from Hebrew literature, medieval and modern poetry in particular. He has translated Hebrew and Arabic writers such as Aharon Shabtai, Taha Muhammad Ali, and Yoel Hoffmann, and his anthology The Dream of the Poem (Princeton University Press, 2007), which painted a portrait through verse of the Jewish artistic and intellectual communities that flourished in medieval Muslim and Christian Spain, was the winner of the National Jewish Book Award and the American Association of Publishers’ R. R. Hawkins Award. His most recent book of translation, The Poetry of Kabbalah: Mystical Verse from the Jewish Tradition (Yale University Press, 2012), was winner of Poetry magazine’s John Frederick Nims Prize for Translation.

Cole’s other honors include fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation. He has also been the recipient of the PEN Award for Poetry in Translation, the American Library Association’s Sophie Brody Award, and the TLS Risa Domb/Porjes Translation Prize. In 2010, he received the Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and, in 2007, he was named a MacArthur Fellow.

Cole currently teaches at Yale University each spring. He divides his time between Jerusalem and New Haven, Connecticut. 

Selected Bibliography


Hymns & Qualms: New and Selected Poems and Translations (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017)
The Invention of Influence (New Directions, 2014)
Things on Which I’ve Stumbled (New Directions, 2008)
What Is Doubled: Poems 1981–1989 (Shearsman Books, 2005)
Rift (Station Hill Press, 1989)
Hymns & Qualms (Sheep Meadow Press, 1998)

By This Poet


Improvisation on Lines by Isaac the Blind

Only by sucking, not by knowing, 
can the subtle essence be conveyed—
sap of the word and the world's flowing 

that raises the scent of the almond blossoming, 
and yellows the bulbul in the olive's jade. 
Only by sucking, not by knowing. 

The grass and oxalis by the pines growing 
are luminous in us—petal and blade—
as sap of the word and the world's flowing; 

a flicker rising from embers glowing;
light trapped in the tree's sweet braid 
of what it was sucking. Not by knowing 

is the amber honey of persimmon drawn in. 
An anemone piercing the clover persuades me—
sap of the word and the world is flowing 

across separation, through wisdom's bestowing, 
and in that persuasion choices are made: 
But only by sucking, not by knowing 
that sap of the word through the world is flowing. 

The Ghazal of What Hurt

Pain froze you, for years—and fear—leaving scars. 
But now, as though miraculously, it seems, here you are 

walking easily across the ground, and into town 
as though you were floating on air, which in part you are, 

or riding a wave of what feels like the world's good will—
though helped along by something foreign and older than you are 

and yet much younger too, inside you, and so palpable 
an X-ray, you're sure, would show it, within the body you are,
not all that far beneath the skin, and even in 
some bones. Making you wonder: Are you what you are—

with all that isn't actually you having flowed 
through and settled in you, and made you what you are? 

The pain was never replaced, nor was it quite erased. 
It's memory now—so you know just how lucky you are. 

You didn't always. Were you then? And where's the fear?
Inside your words, like an engine? The car you are?! 

Face it, friend, you most exist when you're driven 
away, or on—by forms and forces greater than you are.