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Paul Celan and the Darkness of the Poem.

This is the most surprising aspect of the notes as it doesn't really appear in the final speech, except perhaps as an aside- "if not the congenital darkness, then however the darkness attributed to poetry for the sake of an encounter from a - perhaps self-created- distance or strangeness". The notes however reveal a much more central role in the making of the poem:

Imagination and experience, experience and imagination, in view of the darkness of the poem today, make me think of the darkness of the poem qua poem, thus of a constitutional, a congenital darkness. In other words: the poem is born dark; it comes as the result of a radical individuation, into the world as a piece of language, thus, i.e. as far as the language manages to be world, laden with world.

There's also this:

I do not speak of the "modern" poem, I speak of the poem today. And to the essential aspects of this today- my today, for I do not speak on my own behalf- belongs its lack of a future: I cannot keep from you that I do not know how to answer the question, toward what in the direction of which morrow the poem is moving; if the poem borders on such a morrow, then it possesses darkness. The poem's moment of birth, ladies and gentlemen, lies in darkness. Some claim to know that it is the darkness just before dawn: I do not share this assumption.

hold it to be congenital, or better, constitutive. The poem is dark qua poem.

So we have an unusually clear idea that the poem begins with darkness, it is born dark because this darkness is an essential element of what it is, the darkness is congenitally entwined into the poem which comes to us 'laden with world'.

This is, of course, quite different from our ideas and picturings of inspiration which is usually thought of as a kind of spontaneous/sudden and light-filled event where everything suddenly becomes very clear indeed.

I do want to explore what this pervasive dark might be about but first I need to mention 'nowness' and the importance (to Celan) of dates. It's important to recall that the notes were put together in 1959 and 1960, at the height of the Cold War and when the various forms of existentialism were de rigeur amongst most European intellectuals. For twenty five years everyone had lived under the shadow of the atomic bomb with the knowledge that a nuclear war would probably kill everyone on the planet. In Celan's case this is probably attenuated or sharpened by the existential concerns about living the 'authentic' life at the breaking crest of the present. There is another issue about dates, earlier in his career Celan had been accused by Claire Goll of plagiarising her late husband's work. Goll persisted with this unfounded accusation which served to exacerbate Celan's already fragile mental state. The surest way of rebutting this kind of accusation is to date every poem that you write, a practice that Celan continued until he threw himself into the Seine in 1970.

So, the Cold War added a genuinely terrifying dimension to not knowing what the future may bring and living in the present must tolerate or accept this radical uncertainty. Given the reality of Mutual Assured Destruction, it is easy to see the attraction of existentialist thought to a generation of bright intellectuals and this emphasis on the 'nowness' of the moment is alluded to again and again in the notes.

As a lifelong reader of the work, I haven't been conscious of this congenital darkness in Celan's poetry. I've been conscious of a struggle with big themes and universal/essential problems but I didn't read these as having this congenital darkness. In fact, I'm still struggling to fit this into my response and (always tentative) understanding.

For me, these notes throw up the following questions:

Fortunately, we are given some help-

The darkness of the poem = the darkness of death. The humans = the mortals. Therefore the poem, remaining mindful of death, counts amongst the most human side of man.

This would seem to indicate that the poem is born in or alongside the knowledge of mortality and that the darkness may be the complete darkness that we experience when we die.

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