Paul Celan: Notes on Breathturn.

'Breathturn' (Atemwende) is the title of a volume of poems that Celan published in 1967. It is a central idea given in the Meridian speech:

Poetry: that can mean an Atemwende, a breathturn. Who knows, perhaps poetry travels this route - also the route of art - for the sake of such a breathturn? Perhaps it will succeed, as the strange, I mean the abyss and the Medusa's head, the abyss and the automatons, seem to lie in one direction- perhaps it will succeed here to differentiate between strange and strange, perhaps it is exactly here that the Medusa's head shrinks, perhaps it is exactly here that the automatons break down for this single short moment. Perhaps here, with the I - with the estranged I set free here and in this manner- perhaps here a further Other is set free.

The 'Breathurn' section of the notes has four parts:

  1. breathturn;
  2. involution;
  3. leap;
  4. reversal - the foreign as the most known - Jewishness.


This part of the notes has only five entires, the last of these is perhaps the most explicit:

  Lenz: the Medusa-likeness of poetry - to face you with silence it takes 
  your-false-breath away; you have come
    ////   to the breathturn

'Lenz' is the subject of an unfinished novella by Georg Buchner. Celan's speech was given in response for reveiving the Buchner literary prize. The historical Lenz was a friend of Goethe and a poet and dramatist who became mentally ill and was found dead in a Moscow Street in 1792. Wikipedia tells me that the unfinished novella has been seen by some as 'a precursor to literary modernism'.

Here again we have the silence of the poem and its power to shock and startle. The reader's false breath is taken away by the poem and places him or her at the site or place of this turn which may (or may not) be a simple intake of not false breath.

Medusa turned everyone who looked at her into stone thus rendering them motionless and silent, in the above quote from his speech, Celan seems to indicating that the breathturn of the poem can/will reduce Medusa's power. We probably need to think about the falseness of the breath, this isn't either stale breath or bad breath- it is false and this could mean something that is dishonest or incorrect or not genuine/authentic. Of course, with Celan, it could refer to all three possibilites plus several others that I haven't thought of. Then there's the question of what might this breathturn do to the false breath. If we read it as akin to a gasp for breath then it could be something that refreshes us and enables us to go on living- this would fit perhaps too neatly with my view that the poetry is primarily involved in survival.

This entry adds a bit more context;

To face with silence:

The whole it tightens compacts \turns poem \ around the pain, so much with so much that has been spiritualised clarified into spirit to no avail tighten the unworthy one to have stepped to have come to you; it silences you;

I think the amount of crossings out here indicate that Celan was addressing his own pain and (to no avail) his quiet desperation. This starts and ends with silence- in the speech Celan offers the view that "the poem shows, unmistakably, a strong tendency to fall silent" which brings into question the precise identity of the 'you' addressed here- is it the act of facing terrible and catastrophic things with silences that silences others or is this 'you' a God who has become silent in the face of those events?

Whatever is meant, it does seem that pain and silence are important elements to consider when reading and thinking about the poems.

This is another definition:

I had survived some things, - but survival hopefully isn't "everything"- I had a bad conscience; I was looking for- maybe I can call it that? - my breathurn.

This 'bad conscience' may be referring to what is termed survivor guilt but some sources suggest that Celan blamed himself for not trying hard enough to persuade his parents to leave their house on the night that they were captured. Which ever of these might apply we come back to survival and to breathturn/poetry with the power to fix or ameliorate those negative self-thoughts.

Without too much psycholgising, the 'hopefully' gives some of the game away- he is hoping that life isn't simply a struggle for survival but he doesn't know this personally because he's still locked into his own fight.


The above noun has several meanings and it would appear to be used in different ways in this part of the notes. We'll start with a further definition:

the language of the poem: involutive → by its lightsense you divine the soul: the creaturely as the poem's horizon-

The delivered speech describes that poet as speaking "under the angle of inclination of his Being, the angle of inclination of his creatureliness" and this odd quality is applied to the poem's horizon. A horizon can be a framing device, a destination, a limit or the point at which the sky appears to touch the land but none of this is helpful unless we can tackle this creature. I think it's clear that Celan isn't just talking about humans, this term occurs in several places in the notes, and I do recall some denseish, Heidegger-related debate about which things had Being and which didn't and this use of creature may be another way of ascribing this quality to living things. Being or Being-ness as the poem's limit also sounds a bit existential but I'm probably clutching at straws (again).

I think there's slightly firmer footing to be had with the poem's language. The book's German editors give both 'regression' and 'rolling up' as the respective German and French definitions, with the German term applying to biology. As a confirmed monoglot, I can't comment on either of these but the OED does have a couple of equally appropriate alternatives:

  1. the action of involving or fact of being involved; implicit comprehension or inclusion;
  2. rolled inwards at the edges.
The third meaning that I'd like to think about is the second definition from the OED:
An involved or entangled condition; entanglement, complication; intricacy of construction or style (as in a literary work or the arrangement of words in a sentence); also concr., something complicated; an intricate movement, a tangle, etc.

The second of these is a botanical term applied to leaves and petals and Celan was a keen and very knowledgeable botanist. So, the use of 'involution' in this part might refer to regression or rolling up or being involved. However, I'm arguing for the language of the poem (as opposed to the poem itself) having this slight curling effect at the far reaches of the poem. My only other evidence for this supposition is the additional note which Celan inserted in this part:

The poem is with itself, it has also taken back the song it has proved→folding→involution.

The third definition is clearly relevant but, to my small brain, seems to be at odds with the material that Celan was working towards. The work becomes increasingly terse and on the page seems anything but an intricate construction but perhaps this refers, as well as the 'leaf' analogy, to the complexities created by the further development of his radical ambiguity.

The part about the lightsense (sight?) divining the soul and that this sense belongs to, or is created by the language of the poem rather than the poem itself is fascinating. It seems to suggest a process of both seeking out and of making the soul sacred.

Celan was always concerned about seeing and not seeeing, about light and dark but I hadn't realised how much this was given emphasis in Die Niemandsrose, the first collection published, in 1963, after the Meridian Address. This is Michael Hamburger's translation of EIS, EDEN:


    There is a country Lost, 
    a moon grows in its reeds,
    where all that died of frost
    as we did, glows and sees.

    It sees, for it has eyes,
    each eye an earth, and bright.
    The night, the night, the lyes.
    This eye-child's gift is sight.
    It sees, it sees, we see,
    I see you, you see me.
    Before this hour is ended
    ice will rise from the dead.

A quick tour of the of interweb reveals that the original 'lyes' (Laugen) can mean 'an alkali burn of the eye' as well as the verb to 'leach', the former 'fits' closer to 'lyes'. This particular poem seems to suggest eye's that discover in the sense of communication rather than amoving towards the soul. The moon (laden with many, many meanings) also provides light I'm taking it that the 'coutnry Lost' is Eden but this loss might refer to the millions that were murdered by Nazi Germany- an act that stripped away any illusions we might have had about just how civilised we might be. As I've noted on the page on 'Breath', the 'you' of the poems may be death or the inescapable fact of our mortality.

I'll admit that the above isn't representative of Celan's work, it rhymes and contains more reptition than usual but it does show how some of the ideas in the Meridian notes were carried forward.


This part veers from the reasonably accessible to the implacably obdurate. I'll start with the latter, I've attempted to reproduce this as it appears on the page:

       Original and reproduction are the same
       the yearning to become world-free
       the gaze not the
       the gazed at, not the unlocked enigma

(Pierre Joris, the translator has inserted the original 'Anschaung' after 'gaze' on line three of the verse- this is usually because there isn't a sufficiently precise English equivalent.)

Plotinus (204-270CE) was the philosopher that founded the school of thought that we now call Neoplatonism. As well as being immensely influential in the later stages of the Roman Empire, his writings form one of the key texts of the Jewish mystical tradition. The editors tell me that the above stanza is a riff on elements of Neoplatonic thought based on elements of Plotinus' Enneads. Osip Mandelstam was a Russian poet who fell victim to one of Stalin's purges and whose work was much admired by Celan.

The original phrase from the first line is to the effect that the original and the reproduction are the same but only for as long as the original still exists. The poem (see below) can enable the 'leap' out of contingency. The gaze could be a reference to the Neoplatonic idea of contemplation of the Godhead, or it might not.

I don't think an intimate knowledge of all things Neoplatonic is essential to an understanding of Celan's work but it does need to be borne in mind, at least in outline, when reading the later poems. I am however of the view that Mandelstam is an essential poet that everyone should read and think about although I have no idea whatsoever what his name is doing at the top right hand corner of this note.

Thankfully things become clearer with:

It is the - ancient - double movement of the poetic: as the world is delivered in the world something -what? becomes world-free

Another note says 'the escape from contingency' which goes some way to clarifying what might be intended by 'world-free' in that this isn't some kind of death-wish but a desire (as with most strands of mysticism) to be rid of worldly or material concerns. It can also be read as a striving towards the existential idea of the authentic life. What I think is perhaps more important is this notion of the poem or the poetic delivering the world in the world because that is an element that I can recognise in many of the poems.

With regard to leaping, we have these:

The poem is the place where all synonymity stops; where all tropes and everything inessential is led ad absurdam; the poem has, I believe, even there where it is most visual, an anti-metaphorical character; it is untranslatable; the image has a phenomenal aspect, recognisable through perception. -What separates you from it, you cannot bridge; you have to take the decision to leap.


Word-material - that has its, could have a certain, weight; poetry is a leap; one should not weight oneself down, when one wants to set over - and return. Language is invisible.

So the poem is poem-as-poem that is against any sort of metaphor, that has no space for the language tricks but which we can still recognise/understand/get hold of by means of our perception or senses. The reader must elect to take the leap to and with the poem in order to break free or gain some freedom from the contingency that holds us all back. The thing to emphasise is the fact that it is the decision to leap that is important, perhaps more so than the leap itself.

Being sensible, I'm going to glide over the invisibility of language because I don't understand it and cannot fathom why it occupies this particular place in the notes.

Reversal - the foreign as the most own - Jewishness.

This part of the notes contains some of the most explicit references to the Holocaust and the fate of the Jews. Some of these paragraphs seem to capture much that is essential in the poems:

    The Almondeye:
       -not only the almondeye that was extinguished early,
    one also reads in a description by Edith Stein:
       only when you'll have recognised the Other and foreign as what is
       most your own and
    yourself ... this relation to the most foreign as the most brotherly 
    is what the poem wants to
    create: not through its theme, but through its being.

The almond-shaped eye is the primary sign of Jewish beauty, an image that recurs in the poems. The editors quote from Stein's 'On the Problem of Empathy'- "The constitution of the foreign individual is the condition for the full constitution of ones own". They don't mention that Stein was born a Jew but converted to Roman Catholicism in 1922. She later entered a Carmelite monastery and was deported to Auschwitz and gassed in 1942. She was beatified in 1987.

This concern with the Other is reflected in the final version of the Address:

But I do think - and this thought can hardly surprise you by now - I think that it had always been part of the poem's hopes to speak on behalf of exactly this strange - no, I cannot use this word this way - exactly on another's behalf, who knows, perhaps on behalf of a totally other.

So, the poem is, by means of its existence, trying to bring that which is most Other into the closest possible relationship with the self which gets modified in the Address into the poem as hoping to speak on behalf of this most Other.

Our relationship with the Other is a key part of Jewish thought.

The reference to being 'extinguished early' is usually about as clear as Celan gets with regard to the Holocaust but this part of the notes has:

    Ricercar...                                  re B.

    Your reversal - what is that? Only when Is it the word from the almond-
    eyed beauty, that I hear you repeat, varied most opportunistically? Only when
    with your most own pain you'll have been with the crooked-nosed and yiddy and
    goitery dead of Auschwitz and Treblinka and eslewhere, will you also meet the 
    eye and the almond. And then you stand with your thinking in falling 
    silent thinking in the pause which reminds you of your heart, and don't speak
    of it any more And only later, speak after a while later, 
    of yourself. In the In this "later" in the there remembered
    pauses, in the cola and mora your word speaks; the poem today - it is a breathturn 
    crestimes \Kammzeiten\ and soul-turn that's how you recognise it. -be aware of it.-

Those familiar with Celan's work will recognise a number of central themes here;

It's only fair to point out that I've spent the past few months to work out 'Kammzeiten' and how this might fit into the turn of the soul and the turn of the breath and of the difference between recognition and awareness. I still haven't got very far but I am stunned by the relative clarity of the other 'points' and these are informing my ongoing engagement with the work.

As for 'Ricercar' I can recommend Wikipedia as a first port of call but still wouldn't like to guess as which of the many meanings is intended here.

The final few notes in the Breathturn section give the clearest picture of the relationship between Celan's Jewish identity, inculding his cultural identity, and the nature of the poem. This is perhaps the most explicit:

Not by speaking of offence, but by remaining unshakably itself, the poem is becomes offence―becomes the Jew of Literature―The poet is the Jew of Literature―One can jewify, though that happens rarely, yet does happen from time to time. I believe jewifying to be recommendable― hooknosed-ness purifies the soul. Jewification that to me seems to be a way to understanding poetry, and not only exoteric poetry―

This seems to be one of the clearest, least ambiguous statements in the notes and it does give readers the opportunity to think about the unshakability of poetry and what 'jewification' might entail.