The Inven­tion of Influence

Peter Cole
  • Review
By – July 23, 2014

Many poets and schol­ars who have spent sig­nif­i­cant time defin­ing and artic­u­lat­ing a con­tem­po­rary Jew­ish Amer­i­can poet­ics have locat­ed Jew­ish­ness in for­mal­ly exper­i­men­tal poet­ry, like that of Rachel Blau du Plessis, Hank Laz­er, and Charles Bern­stein. Peter Cole is a dif­fer­ent kind of Jew­ish Amer­i­can poet, in that he often works with tra­di­tion­al forms of poet­ry. Cole is not exact­ly under the radar; he has won sev­er­al major book prizes and a MacArthur Genius” grant. But as a mid-career poet — this is his fourth vol­ume of poet­ry, not includ­ing his numer­ous trans­la­tions from Hebrew and Ara­bic, or the impor­tant poet­ry antholo­gies he has edit­ed — he is not as well-known as his tremen­dous accom­plish­ments and con­tri­bu­tions might indicate.

In his intro­duc­tion to the col­lec­tion, Harold Bloom likens Cole to Jew­ish poets John Hol­lan­der and Del­more Schwartz, but Cole also recalls some of the twen­ti­eth century’s pri­ma­ry for­mal mas­ters, par­tic­u­lar­ly Robert Frost. Like Frost, Cole often uses famil­iar lan­guage to con­vey sur­pris­ing or unfa­mil­iar think­ing. As a read­er, one runs the risk of skat­ing along the decep­tive­ly smooth sur­face of such poems— but beneath those sur­faces are fath­oms to plumb. With a pre­ci­sion rem­i­nis­cent of the Mod­ernist poet Mar­i­anne Moore, Cole lets his mono­syl­lab­ic words car­ry knot­ty philo­soph­i­cal ques­tions and truths. The won­der­ful poem A Palette” is rem­i­nis­cent of oth­er Mod­ernist tech­niques like lin­guis­tic com­pres­sion and an empha­sis on the image: O, ole­an­der, how many years / have I been writ­ing this pure white poem?” The poem presents twen­ty-six such cou­plets, each artic­u­lat­ing a sin­gle image and thought. 

Despite many of these poems’ Mod­ernist ten­den­cies, there is deep engage­ment with dis­tinct­ly Jew­ish thought and themes through­out the book. That there are twen­ty-six sec­tions of A Palette,” for exam­ple, under­scores the Kabbalah’s asso­ci­a­tion between the alpha­bet and the mak­ing of the world. At the cen­ter of the book is a long poem about the life, dis­ap­point­ments, and even­tu­al sui­cide of Vic­tor Tausk, an aca­d­e­m­ic fol­low­er of Freud and the inven­tor of an influ­enc­ing machine.” The poem draws from numer­ous dis­cours­es and sources, includ­ing Freudi­an psy­cho­analy­sis, Tausk’s poet­ry, cor­re­spon­dence between Tausk and Freud, Freud’s obit­u­ary for Tausk, Rab­bini­cal wis­dom, and Bib­li­cal pas­sages. This might seem like a lot of infor­ma­tion for one poem, but Cole col­lates it briskly, pre­sent­ing the var­i­ous data, char­ac­ters, and sce­nar­ios across lyric, voice-dri­ven blips. The long poem is divid­ed and sub­di­vid­ed into so many sec­tions that it almost feels like a book all its own. And among the poem’s many coex­ist­ing and com­pet­ing voic­es, Cole’s ele­gant lyri­cism pro­vides an anchor: The dead won’t wake / with a morning’s fright — / no ances­tors come / to rebuke them at dusk. // Let them rest.” Tausk was haunt­ed by Freud’s loom­ing pres­ence — the anx­i­ety of influ­ence, as Bloom puts it in his pio­neer­ing lit­er­ary study, or, as Cole writes in one stun­ning line, So we own and owe what we know.”

Relat­ed Content:

  • The Jew­ish Poet­ry Con­spir­a­cy by Aaron Roller
  • Peter Cole read­ing list
  • Nation­al Poet­ry Month read­ing list 
  • Lucy Bie­der­man is an assis­tant pro­fes­sor of cre­ative writ­ing at Hei­del­berg Uni­ver­si­ty in Tif­fin, Ohio. Her first book, The Wal­mart Book of the Dead, won the 2017 Vine Leaves Press Vignette Award.

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