“What will you do/ if it turns out you’ve failed?/How will you fare?” Peter Cole asked members of the audience, looking up from the pages of his book to gauge their reaction.
He was greeted with faces basking earnestly in the light of this new poetry, ambivalent chewed lips toward the back row, a few scattered and nervous laughs.
The question, dangling neatly off a stanza of Cole’s “Quatrains for a Calling,” was one of several raised Wednesday evening at the Institute Library. Cole read from and discussed his new book of poems, The Invention of Influence (New Directions Publishing, 2014).
Central to the reading was an exploration of not only people, but also the things and texts that had influenced him as a writer. These were apparent in pieces like “Actual Angels,” reflecting his Kabbalistic interests.
The book’s title poem, “The Invention of Influence,” takes this interest to another level. It investigates the life of Victor Tausk, a disciple of Sigmund Freud who proposed an “influencing machine” for his schizophrenic patients. Often sidelined in his teacher’s shadow, Tausk caught Cole’s interest for his “dangerously sympathetic imagination,” a trait that the poet may very well share. His piece, of which he performed only sections, sounds more like a classed-up ballad or opera than contemporary verse.
Raised in New Jersey, Cole has lived between Jerusalem and New Haven since the 1980s with his wife, critic and essayist Adina Hoffman. He is not only a prolific and widely published poet, but also a translator and professor, roles to which he brings as much influence as he receives.
“Transformation and reconfiguration come in a sense of relation, constant relation,” he explained. “Teaching is so powerful for me and so important. It is the place I get tremendous nourishment from.”
And nourishment he brought right back to the audience, which included many of his students. Although sometimes esoteric and overly academic, the reading acted as a contemporary take on the Institute Library’s circa 1826 mission: to foster, in the words of Executive Director Will Baker, “learning in a context of mutual encouragement.”
After reading selections from The Invention, Cole engaged in a spirited dialogue exploring sources likely and unlikely influence, originality, quotation, revelation and even psychoanalysis.
At one point, Yale Professor Susan Howe ventured: “I’m interested at how you weave quotation and originality into this very poem [about Tausk]”
Cole’s answer got to the heart of the evening’s discussion, and indicated that the book is worth every moment readers will spend on it.
“The notion of originality is at the center of my poetics,” Cole started. “But I don’t really care if it’s original in the Romantic sense. If it’s fresh, it doesn’t have to be different. Just make it new. That makes you part of the chain that makes communities stronger.”