Martin Farawell, Program Director, Poetry
Robert Frost is reputed to have said, “Poetry is what is lost in translation.” Poet and translator Peter Cole told a group of students at a recent Dodge Poetry Festival: “Poetry is what is found in translation.” Is Cole disagreeing with Frost? To find out, listen to Cole read his translation of a Taha Muhammad Ali poem as well as one of his own poems: “Coexistence: A Lost and Almost Found Poem.”
Now go back and listen again-but also watch Cole’s hands. He appears to be conducting the poems. This physicalization may help us understand one aspect of what both Frost and Cole mean by “poetry.” Cole is, perhaps unconsciously, showing us that both his translation and his own poem have a rhythmic shape. Indeed, he writes the shape of every line of both poems on the air.
Poets often speak of “listening for” the right word, phrase or line as if these were fragments of a piece of music whose complete sonic shape is only vaguely sensed at first, and that only emerges through careful attention. This is true regardless of whether the poets write in predetermined verse forms or in free-verse.
So Cole is not necessarily disagreeing with Frost. Perhaps part of what he means is that, as a translator, he must listen for the shape of the poem in its original language and then listen for the shape that poem wants to take in English. Through that process, he finds the poetry in both. That is wonderfully illustrated by listening to “Revenge,” read first in the original Arabic by Taha Muhammad Ali, and then in English by Peter Cole.
Peter Cole is one of our foremost translators of ancient and contemporary poetry of the Levant. He is deeply learned in this tradition, and this scholarship infuses his own poetry. It is clear that only someone widely read, curious about many subjects, informed about the news of his own time and possessing a deep knowledge of poetic traditions and forms could have written “Coexistence: A Lost and Almost Found Poem.” Yet, in his introduction, Cole stresses the chance nature of the poem, how its elements seemed to simply fall together. This reveals yet another truth about the nature of composition: It requires long, deep and careful preparation to take full advantage of the inspirations “chance” sometimes drops into our laps.
“Coexistence: A Lost and Almost Found Poem” can be found in Things on which I’ve Stumbled. Peter Cole’s translation of “Revenge” appears in So What: New and Selected Poems. Visit the 2008 Dodge Poetry Festival Poet Pages for a biography of Peter Cole.
Be sure to return for upcoming Poetry Fridays, when we will feature many poets from past Dodge Poetry Festivals in the weeks ahead, including Martín Espada, Joy Harjo, Jane Hirshfield, Charles Simic, C. D. Wright and others.