Notes for The Meridian: Breath.

This section of the notes has four separate parts, breath, mortality, person and language and direction. I will deal with each of these separately but it is important to remember that they are grouped together under/within 'breath'.


For Celan, the 'finished' paragraph as it appears in 'The Meridian' is really quite explicit:

'What's on the lung, put on the tongue,' my mother used to say. Which has to do with breath. One should finally learn how to also read this breath, this breath-unit in the poem; in the cola meaning is often more truthfully joined and fugued than in the rhyme; shape of the poem: that is presence of the single, breathing one.-

Let's get the elusive stuff out of the way first. I'm sure that I'm not entirely alone in stumbling with 'cola' and I've sorted this out by looking at 'breath-unit'. Another note in this part is: '"Breath-units" (Buber); cola'- I've long been of the view that far too much critical attention is given to Heidegger's presence in the poetry and not enough attention is given to Martin Buber and the Jewish tradition. I've now found this from 'Martin Buber: The Life of Dialogue' by Maurice S. Friedman which was first published in 1955:

'The result of their endeavour was the creation of a new Biblical idiom in German which followed the original meaning of the Hebrew more faithfully than any other German translation -- or any translation in any other language -- had ever done.' The translation is set in the form of cola (Atemzüge) rhythmic units based on natural breathing pauses. These serve the purpose of recapturing the original spoken quality of the Bible.

The first sentence is a quote from Ernest M. Wolf and the translation refers to Buber and Rosenzweig's translation of the Hebrew Bible into German.

So, this emphasis on breath would seem to be an indication that the meaning of a poem is to be found by means of the 'natural breathing pauses' rather than formal notions of rhyme and meter. So, the apparently 'free' and unstructured later work may reflect this initial and oral aspect of the Bible.

This privileging of breathing pauses over line length and metre carries echos for me of Olson's 'Projective Verse' manifesto which has the same principle. What also intrigues is this idea of the joining and fuguing of meaning in the poem and how we might learn to read these pauses (units) rather than just noticing them. What also occurs to me is the problems faced by a reader who has to measure pauses in this way when all she is accustomed to is line-length and/or punctuation. The other problem for non-German speakers is whether these units are the same in other languages.

The quote from Celan's mother is perhaps an accidental expression of what some see as the central dilemma of Celan's work- his mother tongue was German- the language that he spoke at home. He was a professional translator and exceptionally able in several other languages but felt compelled to write in German despite the fact of the Holocaust and his parents' murder in the German camps. Celan also occasionally uses the exhalation of breath to signify the smoke rising from the chimneys of the Nazi crematoria. I'm not entirely convinced that this choice, and it was a choice, signifies anything other than the language he felt most proficient in rather than another means of tormenting himself. It seems to me that it's the action of breath on tongue that is important (central) here.

In order to think about this a bit more, I'd like to try the notion on one of Celan's longer poems. This is the opening ofThe Straitening which was published in 1959 in the Sprachgitter collection:

    Driven into the 
    with the unmistakable track:

    grass, written asunder. The stones, white
    with the shadows of grassblades:
    Do not read any more - look!
    Do not look any more - go!

This is the original German:

    Verbracht ins
    mit der untrüglichen Spur:

    Gras, auseinandergeschrieben. Die Steine, weiße
    mit den Schatten der Halme:
    Lies nicht mehr - schau!
    Schau nicht mehr - geh!

Reading both of these versions aloud gives different breath pauses but these are also different from that suggested by the line breaks and by the punctuation. I believe that great poems need to be read aloud and this different 'dimension' perhaps can join in a fugal relationship with the other two. Whether this helps with a 'meaning' or of being 'truthful' remains to be seen. The point for me is this change in or addition to my readerly perspective.

I was going to suggest that the meaning here is reasonably apparent, a call to action in response to the Holocaust but then I started to think about this grass that is separated by writing and whether this refers to the split created by the track or whether more attention should be paid to the shadows cast by individual blades of grass. I am however hanging on to the view that the unmistakable track is the one leading to the gas chambers and that the last two lines are still a call to action as opposed to passive reflection.

This first part also contains:

    *Voice-direction (wherefrom ← ensouling
       ↕                     whererto → death, God)

This does look like a mathematical formula but attentive reading does yield a kind of sense. The only potential stumbling block is 'ensoul' for which the OED provides two definitions:

"To put or take into the soul; to unite with the soul: to be absorbed into, become part of, the (Divine soul)"


" To infuse a soul into; to fill with 'soul'. Also, to dwell in, animate, as a soul."

It would therefore appear that:

Having just written this out I realise that this is one of many possible interpretations. I originally read the death-God ending as the point of Judgement but now (Oct 2014) I'm more inclined to see this as an encounter like the one described in various branches of Jewish mysticism. The use of this abbreviated 'format' rather than sentences or phrases perhaps shows that this was either an early sketch of an idea or something that Celan wanted to remain private.


This part does help to clarify elements of the above 'equation' but it also brings further complications into the mix.

It's worth remembering that in the 'darkness' section of the notes we have "The darkness of the poem = the darkness of death. The humans = the mortals".

This both clarifies and complexifies in one sentence:

Man is a soul creature; we do not get his image from the organisation of the chromosones, we get it, - not least! - his hippocratic face -

'Soul creature' makes explicit the difference between Celan's view as opposed to the scientific and reductive perspective of chromosones. It also points toward this from the speech itself- "The always-still of the poem can indeed only be found in the work of the poet who does not forget that he speaks under the angle of the inclination of his Being, the angle of inclination of his creatureliness." taken together this seems to say that poet must be mindful of the soul as a central and essential part of his existence.

Most of us will need some help with 'hippocratic' - the OED informs me that its secondary definition is: " Applied to the shrunken and livid aspect of the countenance immediately before death, or in a case of exhaustion threatening death: so called because described by Hippocrates". It is not clear whether Celan is using the adjective to indicate the moments before death or when we experience life-threatening exhaustion or when our face appears shrunken or livid for any reason. What is made clear is that man's ensouled image is visible in extremis which is probably linked with his death. This notion of exposure and some kind of revelation of the self at the point of death is a feature of most religions but also carries with it (I must admit) something of Heidegger's notion of the authentic.

This appears to intensify the link between the poet and mortality:

The poem as that which literally speaks-itself-to-death.

In the speech, Celan talked about the poem as 'being underway' and as carrying the potential for an encounter. I've taken this to mean an encounter with a reader or readers to whom the poem 'speaks' in an intimate way but perhaps I should now incorporate death as the true or ultimate destination of the poem. I've just noticed the use of literally which, with Celan, usually indicates that what follows must be read at face value rather than as a metaphor or other piece of flummery. So, rather than the poem's own death, this is probably the poem addressing its words to the fact of death, to mortality, to the general action of passing away.

Also in this part we have a couple of linked definitions of the poem/poetry:

Artistry and word-art - that may have the feeling of something occidental, evening-filling. Poetry is heart-grey, breath-clouded, breath-marbled .. language in time.

which is further elaborated with-

Re- heart-grey language in time:

... it builds, from the direction of death, onto the counter-cosmos of the mortals, - it builds like language, from the under in a under the law of that which is invisible because near and nearest. It had has all its dimesnions in itself: depth and distance-


Poems are not accumulations and articulations of "word material," they are the actualizing of something immaterial, language-emanations carried through life-hours, tangible and mortal like us. These hours are, especially in the poem, our hours - this is one of them; we wri hours have no phenotype; we still write for our life.

I'm reading an odd mix of Buber and Heidegger into the above but it does seem to indicate that poetry consists of or is infused with the essentials for life- the beating heart and the breathing lungs but that it is also within time, rather than something eternal. This is further elaborated in the next note which indicate that the poem 'builds from the direction of death' which presents a number of puzzles.

We think of a life or an existence as preceding death but then does this counter-cosmos run time in the opposite direction and, if so., why is it said to belong to the mortals (us)? The image of the poem building like language may refer to the way in which a particular language develops by adding vocabulary or modifying the rules of grammar but it may also be the way that the idea of language, as well as the idea of the poem develops and accrues density or weight in time. This doesn't much help with precise definitions / explanations. I'm now reading more Buber than Heidegger into 'actualizing' and bring 'language-emanations' into the mix as supporting evidence. The emphasis on the hours that belong to us may, as well as reflecting the Heideggerian take on time and existence, may also contain a nod in the direction of Buber's idea of momentary gods: " God does not arise for us out of inherited tradition, writes Buber, but out of the fusion of a number of 'moment Gods'."

The other startling phrase is the statement that we are still writing for our life which doesn't seem to follow from the rest of the sentence. When we say we are 'running for our life' we usually mean that we are running in order to avoid extreme and imminent danger. If these hours referred to at the beginning of poem reflect momentary gods and Heidegger's idea of 'throwness' with regard to our movement towards death then there is the sense of writing as perhaps something existentially authentic which validates or otherwise promotes our individual lives in the face of mortality.

Person and language.

This part puts more detail into the notion of the poem as "language actualized, set free under the sign on a radical individuation". I think there are two distinct definitions of 'actualised' that may be important here, the first is "To make actual or real; to carry out in practice; to realise in action" and the second is a term from liguistics: "To vocalize or articulate (a speech sound). Also intr.: (of a speech sound) to be articulated in a particular way". We may also need to bear in mind a more recent definition- "to fulfil one's potential".

The OED also provides a number of definition of 'individuate':

So a poem is the result of language being made real and/or articulated in a particular way by means of rendering language into a form that is distinct or unique.

I've set out the above because some of the notes in this part are rather gnomic:

All that has been transmitted is only there once, as voice; its reappearance, its respective present is a becoming-voiced of what has stepped back and is stored in the voiceless; decisive for its new appearance is its new voice; problems of style, themes etc. are co-extensive, not co-essential with poetry. (of the same origin)

It would seem from this that one of the ways that poems get made is by reviving or realising the potential of a voice that has become silent and that this is to be contrasted with a poetic theme and form that are not essential to the poem but nevertheless accompany it.

With a slightly different spin we have this sentence:

The poem: a self-realisation of language through radical individuation, i.e. the unrepeatable speaking of an individual.

Which might indicate poems that are made when language makes itself real by means of human speech. I'm taking this to mean the ordinary speech of any person rather than a specific unrepeatable kind of speech which is somehow set off from the everyday.

Perhaps more revealing is another formula:

    person, secret, presence

             but: question concerning the limit and unity of the person

    the poem as I-quest?
                       Death as the principle creating unity and limits 
                       thus its omnipresence in the poem-
    -i-  The poem as the I becoming a person: in conversation-awareness of 
         the other and the stranger. The active principle thus a You 
         assumed ("occupiable") this way or that- (death as You?)

In the darkness section of the notes it is said that the poem is "dark born" and that "the darkness of the poem = the darkness of death", the above would seem to indicate that it is the fact of our mortality and/or death itself that is present in every part of the poem and that this presence is due to both the unity that death provides and the limits that it sets.

Many of Celan's poems are addressed to a 'You' and here we have the suggestion that death may always be part of this 'you' even when others are addressed too, but there is also a question mark which suggests that Celan is in some doubt about this- as there is also with 'I-quest?'- this carries more than an echo of the long-lived critical view that all poems tell us more about the poet than they do about their apparent theme. I'm not of this view although I do feel that the 'I-quest' may play a small role in most poems. It could be argued that Celan's choice of themes may tell us what sort of person he was but I don't think that many of these can be seen as intent on self exploration and exposure.

I'm also reading Buber's central 'I and Thou' thesis into the above but I readily concede that this is because I want it to be there.


For us ordinary readers, the notes at the back of this translation are invaluable. The Meridian speech refers to the poem as being 'under way' without being particularly clear where this way might lead. The 'Direction' part of the notes give us some further pointers.

Celan was an enormous admirer of the work of Osip Mandelstam and Celan makes use of Mandelstam's imagery to make this point:

-and through the contemporary rubble (heaped up daily before us, the daily before us u the poem comes. "like Egyptian m. (mummies) provided with everything necessary for life" toward us, toward each one of us.

The editors have helpfully traced this to part of Mandelstam's essay 'On the nature of the Word';

Can one equip such a boat (meant is "the frail boat of the human world") for such a long journey, without furnishing it with all the necessities for the so foreign and cherished reader? Once more I would compare the poem to an Egyptian funerary boat. In this boat everything necessary for life is provided. Nothing is forgotten.

I think that it's reasonable to point out that much more critical attention should be given to Mandelstam and less to Celan's German predecessors.

So the poem moves towards each of us potential readers and these readers may be considered to be both strange and thought warmly of. The poem carries everything necessary for survival on our journey towards death. I read Celan's later work as being primarily 'about' survival and this idea of putting a comprehensive survival kit into the poem as it makes its way does seem to 'fit'.

In this part there's also a quote from one of Celan's poems:

Rhythm in the poem: that is unrepeatable, fateful sense-movements towards something unkown that lets itself perha at times so sometimes be thought as a you: "by the lightsense you divine the soul". They are even there when they are most voiceless, language-conditioned.

The quote is from 'Sprachgitter' which was published in the collection of the same name in 1959, the year before the speech was given. This is Michael Hamburger's translation:

    Eye's roundness between the bars.

    Vibratile monad eyelid
    propels itself upward,
    releases a glance.

    Iris, swimmer, dreamless and dreary:
    the sky, heart-grey, must be near.

    Athwart, in the iron holder, 
    the smoking splinter.
    By its sense of light 
    you divine the soul.

    (If I were like you. If you were like me.
    Did we not stand
    under one trade wind?
    We are strangers.)

    The flagstones. On them
    close to each other, the two
    heart-grey puddles
    two mouthsfull 
    of silence.

I'm not going to begin to attempt a full reading of the above other than to point out that 'heart-grey' is described in the notes as a quality of the poem and that in the speech Celan offers the view that the 'absolute' poem must be the silent poem and perhaps the last three lines may refer to both the poet and the reader as two heart-grey mortals filled with the potential silence of this poem.

I could go on for a very long time about the breath notes but I'll finish with this remarkable extract from the Direction section:

    8.22.60. -

                 /  voice―rhythm―   
    person, secret, presence  

                 but: question concerning the limit and unity of the person
    the poem as I-quest?                                            /
                                    Death as the principle creating unity and limits, thus its omnipresence in the

           The poem as the I becoming a person: in conversation―awareness of the other and the
           stranger. The active principle thus a You assumed ("occupiable") this way or that,―(death)
           as You?)

(I've tried to reproduced the above as it appears on the page but my limited HTML skills have let me down (again): the sloping lines should be continuous and the dashes should be longer. Sorry.)

There are a couple of important 'points' that I take from this, the first being the existentialist awareness of the absolute fact of our mortality and the second is this interrogation of the poem, the quest for the self, the thing that is filled with death and as a kind of process into personhood. I'm reading this notion of conversation as part of Celan's view of the poem as carrying (embodying) the potential for an encounter with this other, this stranger. One of the persistent puzzles confrontng Celan's readers is the identity of the addressee ('you') in his work and death is one of those possibilities that is put forward but here I'd draw attention to the question mark, as if he is asking himself who or what this you might be.

The use of 'occupiable' as a quality is very redolent of the later work with its concern with what is needeed to carry on surviving the world. I think it's important to recognise again the provisional nature of this particular adjective in 1960, in both brackets and quotation marks in conjunction with a capitalised 'you'. The dating of this particular note is unusual in these workings-through although Celan did date all the drafts of his poetry. The date placed at the top here might suggest that he saw these reflections as having some particular importance even though they are quite hesitant.

The full text of the drafts and notes is to be found in The Meridian, final version - drafts - materials' which have been translated by Pierre Joris.