Poetry - Spring 2013

Vision Guided by Craft

By Langdon Hammer | March 20, 2013


Viktor Tausk, a disciple and colleague of Freud, is best known for his work on a delusion common among his schizophrenic patients who believed their thoughts were directed by an external device Tausk called the Influencing Machine. Tausk’s machine suggests to Peter Cole a concrete image for the way the language and thought of others enter and shape what we think and say. Far from being a matter only of abnormal delusion,  thought transmission of this kind is constantly occurring. “One does nothing on one’s own,” Cole says. “The principle holds in particular for creativity.” Every maker is made.

Or unmade: the fact that Tausk was rejected by Freud as his disciple and died by suicide emphasizes how fraught influence is, how much it can be an issue of life and death. Cole holds up influence as a primal, unavoidable condition to be submitted to wisely. Perhaps, if there is a mistake to be made, it is in confusing the source of power with a person, or a personification like God. In Cole’s “Philo in His Confusion,” Philo of Alexandria, the Hellenistic Jewish theologian, recommends that we see ourselves not as sons of God, but as children of the Word—a mystical name for what Cole, in “On Making and Being Made,” calls “craft” and “techne.” Poetry, as a tradition of vision guided by craft, is his influence machine.

Cole’s grasp of technique and tradition developed over his career as a distinguished English translator of Hebrew and Arabic poetry. His books include two magisterial works of translation—The Dream of the Poem: Hebrew Poetry from Muslim and Christian Spain, 950–1492 and The Poetry of Kabbalah: Mystical Verse from the Jewish Tradition—as well as three volumes of his own poems, with a fourth, The Invention of Influence, to be published next year. He is very much a poet in his translations, just as, in the poems here, he is a translator channeling Tausk, Philo of Alexandria, and Hugo von Hofmannsthal.

Hofmannsthal—the Austrian modernist poet and playwright, and the favored librettist of Richard Strauss—attracts Cole for his ventriloquism (“He, in being himself, was funneling / the other selves in time he’d release”). Cole is interested too in Hofmannsthal’s love of paradox and contradiction.  In “Six Cheers for von Hofmannsthal,” he plays variations on one of Hofmannsthal’s aphorisms: “Depth must be hidden. Where? On the surface.”

“Being Led” brings the theme of influence home, where the poet finds himself writing with a pencil that came from his father.  The pencil, with an eraser that doesn’t work, is a humble image of the influence machine: it’s a techne, a tool passed from one generation to another, half by chance.  Writing involves allowing one’s self to be “led,” coaxed into poetry by a pencil stamped with a particular place, a date from the past, and the apt slogan of a car dealership, “Again the Leader.”  There could hardly be for Cole anything more uncanny, more familiar and more “strange,” than that pencil in his hand.

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