Peter Cole and Christian Wiman, two longtime friends, recently exchanged e-mails about the process of selecting their own work for their latest collections. Wiman’s book of selected poems, Hammer Is the Prayer, published by FSG in 2016, was “a stunning reminder of how this gifted poet has transformed suffering into verse that is not just the best of his life, but among the best of his generation” (The Washington Post). Peter Cole’s forthcoming Hymns & Qualms: New and Selected Poems and Translations, to be published by FSG in May, showcases the range of Cole’s work, building on his masterful translations and sharp poetry by weaving in dazzling new pieces. “It is,” says Harold Bloom, “a majestic work, a chronicle of the imaginative life of a profoundly spiritual consciousness.” Here, Cole and Wiman discuss the arrangement of collected works, the tension between life and art, and the survival of one’s own poetry.
Christian Wiman: Peter, I have been reading through your selected poems with great wonder and gratitude. Part of what moves me most is the way you seem to have reconciled a tension that has been a source of real pain (but also, real creativity) in my own life: the competing claims of life and art. In “Valent(L)ines for A” you conclude: “Doing and making—the end served by / what it is we make, and what we do, / is what has made me: making and you.” I want to have written that. Or, better, to live it. I wonder if you’ve experienced this same tension over the years, and what it feels like to you to have all of that life and work enclosed now between the covers of this collection of new and selected poems, Hymns & Qualms.
Peter Cole: How do I feel about it? Grateful, a little nervous, a little numb. Edwin Denby writes, “When he’s painted himself out of it, / De Kooning says his picture’s finished.” So it’s strange—on the one hand, that picture’s done. The book’s form itself braids all that life and work, and that twining feels very natural, almost eerily so. On the other, it’s a new and selected collection, and I’m still very much in the middle of that newness unfolding from the old—so I’m not sure about the reconciliation. That’s day to day.
CW: What about the old wishbone of Life and Art? Which way did it split in the end—or did it?
PC: I’ve been pretty much obsessed with that question ever since the Yeats poem first hit me over the head with it when I was, what, 21: “The intellect of man is forced to choose, perfection of the life or of the work.” I don’t want to say I vowed, but, ok, I made something like a vow not to accept those terms, or not to let the intellect define them—swore that, if nothing else, and however the chips might fall, I’d work out that tension between the life and the work, and do so along felt lines of vitality and value. And let that give form to both.
There’s a similar nexus in your own work, and the magical transformations in your poetry often emerge around the x of that nexus— where creativity and pain meet: “For all / the pain // passed down / the genes // or latent / in the very grain // of being; / for the lordless // morning, / the smear // of spirit / words/ intuit // and inter; / for all // the nightfall / neverness // inking / into me . . .” is from “Prayer,” a recent poem of yours in which the poem’s progression through sound down the page produces the “trace / of peace” it seeks. It inks it into me as I read. That’s a powerful gift and distillation, as is the entirety of Hammer Is the Prayer. I’m curious— let’s get up on our step-ladders and raise the stakes a little higher—how the finished volume compares to the vision you had for yourself when you published your first book, and where pain is in that picture.
CW: Well, I spent everything I had. I really did go all in. I find that to be a great relief, even if I have developed a pretty antagonistic relationship to my own work. These days I think regularly and tenderly of Henry James’s description of hearing Robert Browning read his poems, spitting them out as if they were a bad taste in his mouth. I know that taste, though I don’t quite understand the dynamic. I don’t kid myself that it’s humility. It’s more likely some cankered and ingrown version of its opposite.
PC: And this book of selected poems?
CW: For all the pain passed down, I’m glad it exists. The poems have been immense and necessary revelations in my life, and to have them sequenced and speaking to each other moves me. But what once mattered to me most—that they survive—has fallen away. What matters to me now is that they bear “some affluence, if only half-perceived, / . . . Of the planet of which they were part.”
That’s Wallace Stevens, of course, whose work and life are perhaps apt here. With the publication of his new biography, the old argument about his deathbed conversion has been revived. I consider myself a (miserable goddamned) Christian, and yet I find it hard to care about this. Surely God would admire “Domination of Black” too utterly to consign its author to the flames!
I’m only partly joking. Juan Ramón Jiménez said that “The world does not need to come from a god. For better or worse, the world is here. But it does need to go to one (where is he?), and that is why the poet exists.” Perhaps part of my unease is that I agree with Jiménez but do not really know where I am standing, much less heading.
Et vous, mon ami. Success or failure? Salvation or perdition?
PC: The reluctant and literary Kabbalist in me is more comfortable with first things than last, with creation and re-creation than with conclusion: “The world-to-come is the word to come.” Which is to say, the afterlives that interest me are ongoing. It’s not that I never think about Final Literary Judgement. But what mattered more immediately to me as I put Hymns & Qualms together was that the book, with its larger structures and also poem by poem, might give readers a palpable sense of the ways in which poems and translations, and poems as translations, have helped me move through the world and continually build a world. And that it might in some small way help them do the same. Thirty or thirty-five years ago I couldn’t have imagined that I’d write much of what’s now between the covers of this book. But the seeds of it were all there from early on.
Which brings us to the brass-tack decisions that go into making these volumes of selected work—what to include and what to leave out, and how to present it all. Demands of length apart, what kinds of considerations helped you shape your book?
CW: I know what you mean about seeing the seeds of the recent poems in the earlier ones. My work is often treated as if there were some stark rupture between my second and third books. There’s certainly some change—a seizure of style, call it—but I’ve always felt the concerns to be continuous, and putting together this collection confirmed that feeling. For better or worse, it’s all one weave.
This book was not actually my idea. Jonathan Galassi, the publisher of FSG, suggested it one day when we were talking in his office. It had never occurred to me, though the minute he said it, I knew it was the right time, as I was in the midst of one of my seemingly inevitable droughts (the prospect of a new and selected was never an option) and about to turn fifty, so it seemed a good point at which to take stock.
It took me about half an hour to come up with the book. Oh, I agonized for weeks about this and that, and with every round of galleys I cut something else, but the book is basically what I came up with on the train home from New York that day. (I did it first in my head. I do still have—again, for better or worse—just about all of my own poems in my head.)
I did take the advice of my wife, who insisted that I include the long poem “Being Serious,” because it’s tonally different, and because in it are the seeds of everything I have written since. And I listened to the advice of my friends Ilya Kaminsky and Atsuro Riley, who wanted me to include a couple of short poems that I had been inclined to omit.
I suspect the process was quite different for you, not only because you had more work to choose from, but also because your own creative work has been so intimately bound up with translation, your own voice so wonderfully threaded through the voices of other poets. There’s just a lot more, and more diverse, material to negotiate. What was that like? Not a train ride, I bet.
PC: Actually, it was something of a train ride, in that it came to me quite easily, as things often do when I’m traveling, especially by train—my preferred mode. And as with you, the book wasn’t entirely my idea. Within the space of a month, two exemplary readers (among the other things they excel at)—the novelist Joshua Cohen and “Bookworm” extraordinaire Michael Silverblatt—suggested to me that it was time for a selected something or other, though what that something might be wasn’t clear. Josh understood the way the different parts of my work play off and into one another better than just about anyone I’d encountered. Maybe even better than I did. At any rate, he was more articulate about it. That was a blessing.
And Michael, after hosting me on his show, turned to me suddenly and said, “You know, you really need to find a way to bring the various things you do together. People don’t necessarily see the connections. You need to help them.”
I mulled that over, and some six months later began assembling two distinct volumes—a selected poems and a selected translations. But that separation has never felt right to me, and it didn’t then either. So I stopped, put it all aside, and maybe even that same afternoon or the following morning—I don’t remember, but I don’t think it took more than thirty seconds, if that—something shifted, and I had a very vivid, figural sense of what did feel right. Or at least what I should try—one book that embodies the way the poems and translations are part of a single vision.
CW: The traditional way of organizing a selected is from earliest to latest. I have followed that myself—and have almost excised my first book entirely. Your arrangement is more original; I feel myself being compelled to respond to the form of the whole in a way that’s new to me.
PC: I wanted the genetic material of the poetry to be visible, not simply as a static diagram, but as though seen in action. Not surprisingly, the structure that came to me was that of a double helix, in which poems of my own are entwined and interact with translations from across the periods and landscapes I’ve been absorbed with for years. As the poems corkscrew from the present to the past of my own development as a writer, the translations spiral up from the early (Near Eastern) middle ages into the second decade of the twenty-first century. Running through it all is a palpable sense that we are all always listening and always translating, from one moment to the next, within ourselves and for one another.
Finding the form of this book was almost all release. The rest was a question of bringing out certain emphases, then toning down others. That wasn’t particularly painful. There was serious struggle involved, years of it—but that came earlier. Really from the beginning of my writing life, at first unconsciously and then with increasing awareness, I’d been wrestling with this issue of translation and original work—how they relate to each other and to just about everything we do. Was I lamed in that wrestling? You bet. Was my name changed? In a way. Would I do it again? In an instant.
Peter Cole was born in Paterson, New Jersey, in 1957. The author of four previous books of poems and many volumes of translations from Hebrew and Arabic, he has received numerous honors for his work, including an American Academy of Arts and Letters Award in Literature, a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship, a National Jewish Book Award, and a MacArthur Fellowship. He divides his time between Jerusalem and New Haven.
Christian Wiman is the author of eight books, including a memoir, My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer; Every Riven Thing, winner of the Ambassador Book Award for Poetry; Once in the West, a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist in poetry; and Stolen Air: Selected Poems of Osip Mandelstam. He teaches religion and literature at the Yale Institute of Sacred Music and Yale Divinity School.