By Isaac Choua

Poetry during the High Middle Ages of Spain under Islamic rule “was in the very heart of that culture”, according To Professor Peter Cole. Being a star in those days meant being a poet. Poetry dealt with more than just the beauty of the physical world, instead dealing with the divine, homiletic, satirical, and the political. Muslims would later call a collection of poems dīwān, which translates to “Archive”, since poetry was the dīwān of Arab culture. Jews of the Islamic lands, especially in Spain, came to emulate this practice and have their poetry at the center of their lives.
In Professor Cole’s works he is able to capture this rich Jewish dīwān of the past through his transfiguration into English, allowing one to read the poetry fluently with a diction and tone that is modern. The rich scholarship accompanying it references to the religious and cultural borrowings from the Arabic tradition and from the Tanakh, and even explains the method of choosing each particular word.

Aside from being a transfigurator, Professor Cole was a prolific reader as well. His voice grabbed the attention of the audience of sixty plus in the room. With each poem recited it felt as if we were all speaking and understanding the text in its native tongue.

Professor Cole opened with a poem that he wrote to set the stage for poetry and what it means for the Jewish people:

Actual Angels by: Peter Cole
Gone is the griffin, the phoenix, the faun.

Only angels in the poem live on

as characters catching the light between things,

as carriers of currents from the wings

of thinking we know where we’re going and then

getting somewhere, despite our intention.


Maybe an angel’s confused with an angle

so often because the slip lays bare

something these envoys are trying to tell us—

that what we’re missing is already there.

How is it that creatures with names like Anáfiel,

Shakdehúziah, Azbúgah, and Yófi’el

could possess the power to raise a person

up to a Temple-within from his Hell?


Angels are letters, says Abulafia,

in us like mind as the present’s hum.

No one knows what a year will bring,

but the world-to-come is the word to come.

“Actual Angels” and Other Poems Common Knowledge, Volume 20, Issue 3, Fall 2014, pp. 549-561 by Peter Cole <https://muse.jhu.edu/article/558160/pdf>
In this excerpt, Professor Cole explained the awesomeness of angels and their eternity, comparing them to letters. “Angels are letters”, meaning that the words/letters themselves takes us from different plains of existence, acting as messengers, a go-between. When reading a poem, you obtain insight into another person’s world – their mindset. Poems take us on a journey that we might not be able to go on by simply reading a history book. We need the historical background to understand poetry, but a dīwān can take this understanding beyond to heights where a simple history lesson cannot.


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