For the past few days I've been reading Peter Cole's The Invention of Influence. I read a glowing review of it somewhere a few years back and I'm sure since then I've had the wrong impression of what this book would be. While I can't effuse about the book as Harold Bloom does in his introduction, I can say I genuinely loved several of the poems.
Here's one of the poems I loved. It's the first poem in the collection, "Of Time and Intensity":
Is Time a dispersion of intensity?
For epiphanists, maybe, but not for me—
for whom Time is a transposition
of immensity into a lower key.
As an opener, this poem does well by laying the groundwork for what's to come. Cole favors rhymed couplets and quatrains throughout, and most of his themes tend toward the philosophical. You get a taste of both here. It's also a statement of Cole's poetics. There are plenty of artists who would claim their chief business is epiphany, rescuing moments of glory or humor from the everyday. Cole rejects that aesthetically and philosophically, calling out the dichotomy of intensity and dullness as a false one. What remains is the immensity of everything transposed into a lower key. Time, the human mode of seeing the world as a series of irreversible and thens, is merely timelessness viewed from another angle, heard at another pitch. Time is a mode of perception, a compromise between the all that only a divinity could understand and the small portion of reality that any one human can bear.
It's satisfying reading philosophically but also poetically. The rhyme scheme could be read as AABA, but lines two and four each have two internal A rhymes, making you pause on "maybe" and "immensity" before pausing again on "me" and "key". By pausing to consider and reconsider, we re-enact the poet's thinking. It's playful and brilliantly done.
Not bad for a little nugget of a poem. I think it's in short poems like this where Cole is most successful, and even the better longer poems are most satisfying when read as loose collections of short poems. "A Pallette", for example, is an acrostic poem in the style of Psalm 119. Across four pages of couplets, Cole lays out a world of colors in a variety of textures. A few examples:
Azure lobelia props up the heart
that extra hair's breadth happiness is.
Honest work makes itself known,
somehow. This too is a hue.
Rust reduces iron to dust;
over time instead trust litheness.
With a variety of such literal and metaphorical colors, Cole teases out unforgettable pieces of wisdom. They are (how often can one say this of poetry?) worth contemplating. One can sit with such a poem as one would a favored scripture.
The ambitious title poem, "The Invention of Influence," operatically reenacts the Oedipal struggle of Victor Tausk and Sigmund Freud. As a reflection on becoming oneself under the influence of a strong father figure, you can see why Harold Bloom was called in to write the introduction. As to its quality, I have to reserve judgment, as I simply don't know enough to understand it. It is a nut I have yet to crack. But I'm sure that with the coming years, as I return to this book for the poems I've already fallen in love with, I'll turn a curious eye back to the big poem that holds the book together.
By the way, I chose the word "operatically" in the above paragraph because of how Cole himself talks about the poem in this video:
Cole is also an accomplished translator, perhaps best known for two anthologies: The Dream of the Poem and The Poetry of Kaballah. For me, I think the most moving poems in the entire collection are his translations of the 14th century Castilian poet Santob de Carriòn. Here's my favorite of the bunch, entitled "How Friends Act":
Is anything better
than a pair of scissors,
which separates those
that separate them?
They do this not
because they're bitter
but out of desire
to meet again.
When they're joined,
they do no harm—
hand to hand
and lip to lip;
only when parted
can they destroy—
that's how strong
their loyalty is.
Those who'd learn
what brotherhood means,
and how friends act
when all is done,
should watch as scissors
make one of two—
and when they have to—
two of one.
I think of John Donne's elaborate conceit of a pair of compasses in "A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning". The poem has the stately pace and construction of a Donne poem, too. Cole has a gift for imitating older English writing styles; I'd have believed you if you'd told me this was an example of 16th or 17th century English verse.
I love that the poem has an edge to it. It's as much in praise of friendship as it is a warning to anyone who would dare come between friends. Cole has achieved one the translator's highest goals: to make words from one language come alive in another.
I've ignored the parts I didn't enjoy. I'd say a good half of the shorter poems just didn't speak to me, but so what? Even the very best books have dull patches, and ambitious poetry operates at a much more intense pitch than most fiction. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. I admire Cole's choices even when I don't enjoy their results.
(Lesson for creators: great work can build goodwill for less great work. Well, some goodwill.)
Overall, I highly recommend The Invention of Influence.