Peter Cole

Acclaimed Poet & Translator
MacArthur "Genius" Award Recipient
National Jewish Book Award Winner

Readings & Lecture Topics

  • The Invention of Influence & Translating the World
  • The Poetry of Kabbalah
  • Translating the Middle East
  • The Dream of the Poem: Hebrew Poetry in Muslim and Christian Spain
  • An Evening with Peter Cole

“One of the handful of authentic poets of his own American generation.” —Harold Bloom

The recipient of a 2007 MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, Peter Cole has published four books of poetry, most recently, The Invention of Influence (New Directions, 2014) and Things on Which I’ve Stumbled (2008)“Prosodic mastery fuses with a keen moral intelligence [in Cole’s work],” wrote the American Poet. Other reviewers have noted the “politically charged and often dazzling” nature of the verse, as well as the “quiet, streaming power in [his] work that leads the reader back to it over and over again.” Cole’s vision of connectedness, his wit, and his grounded wisdom, along with his expansive sense of literature’s place in a meaningful life, render his poems at once fresh and abiding.

Cole has worked intensively on translations of Hebrew literature, with special emphasis on medieval Hebrew poetry. The Poetry of Kabbalah: Mystical Verse from the Jewish Tradition (Yale, 2012) was called by Booklist “a dazzling treasury of verse…accompanied by fascinating, illuminating commentary rich in history, biography, and literary expertise.” His prize-winning translations of the Hebrew Golden Age poets have helped to recreate for contemporary American readers the multifaceted world of medieval Spain, in which Jewish artistic and intellectual communities flourished under Islamic rule. His anthology The Dream of the Poem (Princeton, 2007)—recipient of the National Jewish Book Award and winner of the American Publishers Association’s Award for Book of the Year—traces the arc of the entire period and reveals this remarkable poetic world in all of its richness, humor, grace, gravity, and wisdom. By far the most potent and comprehensive gathering of medieval Hebrew poems ever assembled in English, Cole’s anthology builds on what poet and translator Richard Howard has described as “the finest labor of poetic translation that I have seen in many years” and “an entire revelation: a body of lyric and didactic verse so intense, so intelligent, and so vivid that it appears to identify a whole dimension of historical consciousness previously unavailable to us.”

Among Cole’s translations from contemporary Hebrew and Arabic poetry and fiction are also War & Love, Love & War by Aharon Shabtai (New Directions); So What: New & Selected Poems, 1971-2005 by Taha Muhammad Ali (Copper Canyon); The Collected Poems of Avraham Ben Yitzhak (Ibis); and Curriculum Vitae, by Yoel Hoffmann (New Directions).

Sacred Trash: The Lost and Found World of the Cairo Geniza, a nonfiction book written with his wife Adina Hoffman, was published in 2011 by Schoken and tells the story of the recovery of the most vital cache of Hebrew manuscripts ever discovered.

Cole has received numerous awards for his work, including an MLA Translation Award and fellowships from the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, the NEA, and the NEH. The Dream of the Poem was awarded the TLS Hebrew Translation Prize, and his translation of Aharon Shabtai’s J’Accuse was awarded the PEN America Prize for Poetry in Translation. In 2010, Cole received an Academy Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He has taught and been a visiting writer at Yale, Wesleyan, and Middlebury. Cole was born in Paterson, New Jersey, in 1957. He now divides his time between Jerusalem and New Haven.

Peter Cole’s website

Peter Cole has been called “an inspired writer” (The Nation) and “one of the most vital poets of his generation (Harold Bloom). He is the author of four books of poetry, most recently The Invention of Influence and Things on Which I’ve Stumbled. Cole’s many translations from Hebrew and Arabic include The Poetry of Kabbalah: Mystical Verse from the Jewish Tradition and The Dream of the Poem: Hebrew Poetry from Muslim and Christian Spain, c. 950-­1492, which received the National Jewish Book Award and the American Publishers Association’s Award for Book of the Year. He has also translated So What: New & Selected Poems, 1971-­2005 by Taha Muhammad Ali and three volumes by Israeli poet Aharon Shabtai, including War & Love, Love & War. He has received numerous honors for his work, including a Guggenheim Foundation fellowship, an American Academy of Arts and Letters Award in Literature, the PEN Translation Prize, and, in 2007, he was named a MacArthur fellow. Born in Paterson, New Jersey, Cole now divides his time between Jerusalem and New Haven.


“Masterful…. Deeply allusive, profound, committed verse.” —Booklist

Peter Cole has been called “an inspired writer” (The Nation) and “one of the most vital poets of his generation”(Harold Bloom). In this, his fourth book of poems, he presents a ramifying vision of human linkage. At the heart of the collection stands the stunning title poem, which brings us into the world of Victor Tausk, a maverick and tragic early disciple of Freud who wrote about one of his patients’ mental inventions—an “influence machine” that controlled her thoughts. In Cole’s symphonic poem, this machine becomes a haunting image for the ways in which tradition and the language of others shape so much of what we think and say. The shorter poems in this rich and surprising volume treat the dynamics of coupling, the curiously varied nature of perfection, the delights of the senses, the perils of poetic vocation, and more.


“Studded with insight, and written with great verve, this book will become a classic.” —Lawrence Fine

This luminous collection gathers together for the first time in English a substantial body of poetry that emerges directly from the sublime and often startling world of Jewish mysticism. Taking up Gershom Scholem’s call to plumb the “tremendous poetic potential” concealed in the Kabbalistic tradition, Peter Cole provides dazzling renderings of work composed on three continents over a period of some 1500 years. Of the book, Rosanna Warren wrote, “Peter Cole offers a monumental view of the poetry of Kabbalah and honors the Kabbalistic reverence for song-as-knowledge by translating Hebrew into English song: his versions are graceful, clear, and most important, tuneful. They live in the ear and the heart, in English, with their own transformative power.”


“Peter Cole is best known as a matchless translator of Hebrew poetry. With Things on Which I’ve Stumbled he matures into one of the handful of authentic poets in his own generation.” —Harold Bloom

In Peter Cole’s remarkable book, the forces and sources that have long driven his work come together in singular fashion. Things on Which I’ve Stumbled rides a variable music that takes it from an archeology of mysterious poetic fragments unearthed in an ancient Egyptian synagogue to poignant political commentary on the blighted hills surrounding modern Jerusalem. “[A] major book,” ForeWord Magazine called it. “The title-poem is a tour de-force…. Readers searching for wholly modern poetry dealing with spiritual issues, grounded in history, and presented with great craft will find it in Cole’s book.”

THE DREAM OF THE POEM: Hebrew Poetry from Muslim and Christian Spain, c. 950-1492 (Translation, 2007)

“A brilliant and original body of Hebrew verse.” —The New York Times Book Review

Hebrew culture experienced a renewal in medieval Spain that produced what is arguably the most powerful body of Jewish poetry written since the Bible. Fusing elements of East and West, Arabic and Hebrew, and the particular and the universal, this verse embodies an extraordinary sensuality and intense faith that transcend the limits of language, place, and time. Peter Cole reveals this remarkable poetic world to English readers with translations of “unsurpassed scope, quality and importance,” as one reviewer noted. The Dream of the Poem traces the arc of the entire period, presenting some four hundred poems by fifty-four poets, and including a panoramic historical introduction, short biographies of each poet, and extensive notes. The book is, said Gabriel Josipovici in The TLS, “a treasure trove, a labour of love and exceptional erudition, which will open up to the reader a world of poetry and culture as rich as anything in human civilization…. The range is astonishing…and [Cole] has produced a book which is by turns moving, charming, and funny.”


Either the world is coming together
or else the world is falling apart—
here—now—along these letters,
against the walls of every heart.

Today, tomorrow, within its weather,
the end or beginning’s about to start—
the world impossibly coming together
or very possibly falling apart.

Now the lovers’ mouths are open—
maybe the miracle’s about to start:
the world within us coming together
because all around us it’s falling apart.

Even as they speak, he wonders,
even as the fear departs:
Is that the world coming together?
Can they keep it from falling apart?

The image, gradually, is growing sharper;
now the sound is like a dart:
It seemed their world was coming together,
but in fact it was falling apart.

That’s the nightmare, that’s the terror,
that’s the Isaac of this art—
which sees that the world might come together
if only we’re willing to take it apart.

The dream, the lure, isn’t an answer
that might be plotted along some chart—
as we know the world that’s coming together
within our knowing’s falling apart.

from The Invention of Influence


The stakes couldn’t be higher: extraction of light from the container of sound; ascent to the Throne of God and direct vision of His Glory; the eradication of coarseness and the forces of darkness; a path to redemption, sometimes through sin; the achievement of erotic union on high—which is to say, the sacred marriage of feminine and masculine aspects within the Deity. “Great is the power of the poem recited for the sake of heaven,” writes one late-seventeenth-century North African poet. “It unites all the [spiritual] qualities like a sacrificial offering, aligns the [heavenly] channels, and gives rise to effulgence in all worlds—above and below.”

In this Kabbalistic context, poems not only depict a mystical process, they produce it . . . In other words, the hymns of the Jewish mystical tradition demonstrate how song—almost magically, and at times with actual magic—can conduct and preserve transformative knowledge, even for those who don’t quite know what they know. Moreover, they show how a vision of the manifold linkage of all things and all degrees of thought and feeling might be registered in the cadence and weave of a line of verse, a series of wedded sounds in the air.

—from the Introduction


To rise on high
and descend below,
to ride the chariot’s wheels
and explore in the world,
to wander on earth
and contemplate splendor,
to bask in the blessing
of the Crown
and sound Glory,
to utter praises
and link letters,
to utter names
and behold what is
above and below,
to know the meaning
of the living
and see the vision
of the dead.
To ford rivers of fire
and know lightning.

—from The Poetry of Kabbalah


Instead of scalding
your pots and plates,
take steel wool
to your hearts:
You read the Haggadah
like swine, which
if put before a table
would forage about in the bowl
for parsley and dumplings.
Passover, however,
is stronger than you are.
Go outside and see:
the slaves are rising up,
a brave soul
is burying its oppressor
beneath the sand.
Here is your cruel,
stupid Pharaoh,
dispatching his troops
with their chariots of war,
and here is the Sea of Freedom,
which swallows them.

—Aharon Shabtai, from War & Love, Love & War


The multiple troubles of man,
my brother, like slander and pain,
amaze you? Consider the heart
which holds them all
in strangeness, and doesn’t break.

—Shmuel HaNagid (11th c., Granada), from The Dream of the Poem