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Paul Celan's Harbour and Grandeur.

Like most Celan fans, I get tongue-tied when trying to describe the value of his work and the profound effect it has on the attentive reader. This then is a probably inept, attempt to think about one of the longer poems in Another Way.

Hafen was published in the Atemwende collection in 1967. As ever I'm using the Joris translation because I trust it more than the others. The Other Way is to try to relate this to what Longinus said about the Sublime. I've been reading his tract and some of the related contemporary criticism and his components of this tricky quality are present in abundance in what I think of as Great Poetry, especially Milton, Dante and Spenser. The S word is full of dangers and follies so I'm going to clarify what this particular reader intends it to indicate. The OED's ninth definition comes close with: "Of a feature of nature or art: that fills the mind with a sense of overwhelming grandeur or irresistible power; that inspires awe, great reverence, or other high emotion, by reason of its beauty, vastness, or grandeur" except that it's overblown. I know this is heresy but adjectives like 'overwhelming' and 'irresistible' don't apply to poetry and never have. These, together with nouns like 'awe' and 'reverence' are inherent props in the world of the Poem's inflated view of itself. However, this lifelong sceptic is prepared to acknowledge that sublime poetry elevates and inspires the reader by creating a sense of grandeur and power. In fact, the arduity mark of greatness is the amount of sustained grandeur that runs through a poem. By this measure I would argue with reasonable confidence that Paradise Lost comes out top every time, closely followed by Dante's account of Purgatory.

James I Porter's The Sublime in Antiquity gives this list of ingredients that Longinus identifies in creating the sublime 'effect'.:

Emphases as in the original, punctuation tidied up.

It's now time for a short rant, this is a clear and workable list but it is seriously marred by the occasional use of Obscure Terms. I started arduity in an attempt to combat this academic snobbery because it intimidates non-academic readers like me. This is further compounded by references to Homer and Demosthenes which I don't understand, probably because they're badly expressed but my point remains. Incidentally, 'hyperbata' is the plural of 'hyperbaton' which the OED defines as "A figure of speech in which the customary or logical order of words or phrases is inverted, esp. for the sake of emphasis. Also, an example of this figure".

It's a long list but even in the first few centuries after Christ these were Big Concerns and some of the above appear to have more than a little bearing on Harbour which, for the later Celan, is a Long Poem. This I find scary, I was first attracted to Celan because most of his later work is very short and this particular callow youth was lazy but also had the hunch that compression was the future, lit-wise. I'm less lazy but wary of the effort involved in getting some sense out of this level of sustained density. Having that in mind, the longer material does seem to have a chance of ticking more of the above boxes:




   HARBOR

Sorehealed: where-,
when you were like me, criss-
and crossdreamt by
schnappsbottlenecks at the
whore table

-cast
my happiness aright, Seahair,
heap up the wave, that carries me, Blackcurse,
break your way
through the hottest womb,
Icesorrowpen-,

where-
to
didn't you come to lie with me, even
on the benches
at Mother Clausen's, yes, she
knows, how often I sang all
the way up into your throat, hey-diddle-doo,
like the bilberryblue
alder of homeland with all its leaves,
hey-doodle-dee,
you, like the
astral-flute from
beyond the worldridge-there too
we swam, nakednudes, swam,
the abyssverse on
the fire-red forehead=unconsumed by
fire the deep-
inside flooding gold
dug its paths upward-,
                       here,
with eyelashed sails,
remembrance too drove past, slowly
the conflagration jumped over, cut
off, you,
cut off on
the two blue-
black memory-
barges,
but driven on now also
by the thousand-
arm, with which I held you,
they cruise, past starthrow-dives,
our still drunk, still drinking
byworldly mouths-I name only them-,

till over there at the timegreen clocktower
the net-, the numberskin soundlessly
peels off-a delusion-dock,
swimming, before it,
off-world-white the
letters of the
tower cranes write
an unname, along which
she clambers up, to the deathjump, the
cat, the trolley, life,
which the sense-
greedy sentences dredge up, after midnight,
at which
neptunic sin throws its corn-
schnapps-colored towrope,
between
twelve-
toned lovesoundbuoys
-draw well winch back then, with you
it sings in the no-longer-
inland choir-
the beaconlightships come dancing,
from afar, from Odessa,

the loadline,
which sinks with us, true to our burden,
owlglasses all this
downward, upward, and why not? sorehealed, where-,
                                                    when-
hither and past and hither.

According to Joris' notes, this poem emerged from a visit Celan made to Hamburg for a couple of readings in early 1964. The clocktower has a copper roof which is is now green, the cranes can be seen as comprising the letters A and H.

We now come to the newly patented greatness-meter, a way of reading that counts how many of the Longinus qualities can be found in the poem and whether or not they 'work' in context. Here's the Hafen trial run-through:

Immense Heights or Profound Depths.

Here we have the 'abyssverse', 'astral-flute' and 'starthrow-dives', both of which are universal poetry examples of these qualities. The first compound might indicate some kind of poem as an abyss which is profoundly deep, some kind of poem with the qualities of any abyss (profound depth). In English at least it might also indicate a poem that is Very Bad. Stars and things cosmic are recurring features / ideas in the later work. This instrument has obviously cosmic qualities but is alo said to be beyond (outside of) earth. We'll come to this later but the third element might gesture towards the gaming clubs of downtown Hamburg which, in the first half of the sixties had a reputation for Extreme Sleaze. This tentative hunch comes from the use of 'star-die' in 'Todtnauberg' but that's probably getting too lit crit, especially for those new to the work. The flute is freighted with myth going back to antiquity. The beyond the world trope and others like it have been taken to suggest that Celan was deploying a kind of anti-poetry in order to destroy the Poem and all things poetic. I'm of the view that this is completely wrong, Celan's view was that The Poem and each poem sprang from something primordial and elemental.

Extreme Motions or Changes.

For me, the most extreme, violent and upsetting motion is; 'but when I sang all / the way up into your throat'. This is because of the inversion, except for exhaled breath, things travel down and through the throat. I have this image of the singer, rather than the song, moving into the throat from within the body of the 'you' which is about as extreme as things poetic can get. There's also coughing, retching and belching but I'll stick with my first reaction as the extremity. There's also these two 'heap up the wave, that carries me, Blackcurse, / break your way / through the hottest womb,' which carries an extreme motion in the heaping up of the wave which suggests the beginning of a storm and the motion of passing through this mysterious womb, a thing that is normally figured as something complete and impervious to being carried through.

Gaps and Contrasting Depths/Heights.

There is the obvious downwards and upwards movement of the 'loadline' which might refer to the rising and falling of the tide, which doesn't seem a big enough contrast.The only other bits I can make a more than usual tenuous case for relate to the barges and the buoys. The first are said to be 'cut off' which implies that a gap is created. The rope might create a similar gap. As described above, Hafen does contain heights and depths but they don't appear to be contrasted either by proximity or context.

Limits Revealed in their Transgression.

The surface of water can be thought of as a limit between two different environments, the body breaking that surface can bring death so we also appear to have the 'line' between life and death. Not only are we sinking but so is the loadline that sounds as if it's holding us up and thus keeping us alive. The breaking surface of the womb is the transgression of a limit, as is the jumping over of the conflagration.

Unthinkably large masses and quantities and surfaces.

As above, both the astral flute and the abyssverse would at least gesture towards this level of bigness. The sea, as a complete entity, is also unthinkably big especially when figured in three dimensions.

Bold or sudden expansions or compressions.

If, as seems possible, the 'inside flooding gold / dug its paths upward-,' refers to a volcanic eruption then this would seem to be a bold and expansion. Wouldn't it?

Cosmic magnifications of non-cosmic events.

Unless we take the abyss as cosmic then it is difficult to apply this ingredient to any part of the poem. Of course, there may be several instances that this small brain has overlooked.

Excellences and / or perfections.

As above I can't identify any of these in the poem.

Lasting or everlasting qualities.

The poem has the 'worldridge' which will probably last as long as the planet does, there's also the astral flute which suggests cosmic qualities. The abyss is usually thought of as something eternal.

The sea is another lasting feature. Hamburg has been a trading port for more than a thousand years.

Sharp collisions and contrasts.

By far the most obvious contrast is 'owlglasses all this / downward, upward and why not?' although putting the contrasting elements together may not be a particularly sharp collision. In his notes Joris explains that 'owlglasses' is, at best, an approximation for the German connotations of to reflect and a fool. This context is therefore not much help in gauging the nature of the up / down contrast. On slightly firmer ground, we have 'hither and past' which is a contrast if this OED definition is taken: " Up to this point (of time, or of discourse, etc.); till now, thus far, hitherto". Both of these pairs are concerned with direction and are direct contrasts. It may not be for others but for me both of these are unexpected intrusions into the poem.

Sharp antagonisms and tensions.

I'm going to glide over this one because I don't understand it's difference to some of the others and because the example given is less than helpful.

Uncontainable forces.

Volcanic eruptions, conflagrations and perhaps the heaping up of the sea are all uncontainable forces. We can't block up a volcanic vent, all we can do is to move people at risk further away. Conflagrations are, initially at least, out of control. As we're currently learning, the destructive force of tidal movement is often impossible to contain.

There's also the 'Blackcurse', many people in the not too distant past believed in the efficacy of curses and thought that they couldn't, once uttered, be reversed or mitigated. In this instance, the womb might be a volcanic magma chamber and breaking it would lead to the uncontainable eruption.

A vivid and terrifying collapse of form and order.

I'm not sure about either vivid or terrifying but conflagrations, by definition, and erupting volcanoes entail such a collapse. My uncertainty is about whether the way the poem uses these images or what they signify. I'm not at all sure that their presence is intended to strike terror into the heart of the reader.

Indefinability

Those who have paid any kind of attention to Celan's later work will know that much of it deliberately denies what we think of as clear definitions, that the work is both mysterious and packed with ambiguities. Here, the most explicit indefinable is the unname. Joris provides a source which points out that some of the crane structures in Hamburg Dock can be read as spelling out 'AH' which is then identified as Adolf Hitler. Celan was a Holocaust survivor, both his parents were victims and he saw his role as that of bearing witness to this unrestrained genocide. It would be fitting / appropriate therefore to identify Hitler as the unname but there's also the possibility that this refers to the name of God in the Jewish tradition.

Some of the compound words appear to defy an 'ordinary' definition:

I can make a very tenuous stab at most of these but all of them present too many options for a single 'meaning'. Obviously this isn't the place to do serious delving.

Ephemerality or evanescence or epiphanic appearance/disappearance.

This one is trickier than most, especially as all three are quite different. I'm going to ignore most of the various definitions of these terms and take ephemeral as something insubstantial and a minor component of the matter in hand, evanescent as fleeting and an epiphany as a sudden and shocking vision or intervention.

The 'bilberryblue alder', taken as a mythological symbol, might seem to be ephemeral but Celan was a keen and adept amateur botanist and references to the natural world were always carefully chosen. The other possible piece of ephemera is the 'off-world-white' because, in my h4ead, colours are fairly peripheral and insubstantial and being 'off-world' might suggest something immaterial.

The 'deathjump' is my sole contender for evanescence but only if this is taken to be a suicidal leap rather than a structure or point from which to leap. Either way, connecting suicide to the initials of Adolf Hitler in this way is a remarkable piece of the Poetic.

A sudden conflagration can be thought of as epiphanic, as can an eruption which has often been taken to signal the displeasure of the Gods. Both of these are sudden and can be very destructive indeed.

Blinding moments.

These don't seem to feature in the poem, there are plenty of destructive events but I don't think that any of them can be feasibly described as momentary.

Overwhelming focus on details.

There are some poems that do detail to great effect, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight springs to mind, but this isn't one of them. There is detail but it isn't given the kind of obsessive attention that might overwhelm the reader. The apparently nautical passage that starts with dredging and continues down to Odessa carries the most detail but even that is sparse and very economical.

Moments of intense and vital danger, risk, and crisis.

Starting with this kind of danger and risk, both being cut off by a conflagration and clambering up to the 'deathjump' would appear to meet these criteria. Climbing up to a height might not in itself be particularly intense but the use of this particular noun would suggest that the clamberer intends to commit suicide. The eruption of a volcano with its flows of desteuctive gold and the fact that 'we' are sinking are crises. On a more abstract level, Hitler presented the very real risk of extermination to the Jews of Europe and plunged the planet into a major crisis.

Sudden and profound awareness of vitality.

I'm going to avoid this one because I'm a coward and don't really understand it. I don't know what I'd be looking for, esp as the 'p' adjective covers a great many meanings.

Natural, mythical, divine, or literary phenomena embodying any of the above.

I'll note the big word bollocks and move on to the above which seems to be a repetition of things already mentioned, here's a few of very many examples:

Forces that work against nature and nature's laws.

This final ingredient is horribly complicated but I'll do what I can. Swimming beyond the worldridge would seem to be an act that undermines the natural laws. The abyssverse in some of its many possible meanings seems to do the same if we take this to be an abyss/chasm that has poetic qualities rather than the other way round. Something that is 'sorehealed' is a contradiction that doesn't conform to natural laws. For centuries the common view was that suicide is an act against nature. The upward movement of molten lava is an extremely violent natural force as is a conflagration.

Conclusion.

The main thing for me is that I now feel less daunted by Hafen and at least know how some of the devices and conceits might be intended to work. With this in mind, for similar challenges, I'm sufficiently convinced and confident to try this out before paying closer attendion to the poem. For example the longer work of John Peck may yield fruit in this way as might David Jones' Anathemata.

I've resisted the temptation to delve into meaning because this is much more about a more objective road-testing of a method of evaluation. As indicated, I'm not entirely convinced by some of the criteria and not entirely sure if the myth element could be used with other contemporary work. What's been useful for me has been the opportunity to think a bit more about how the poem works, how the various aspects have been put together to create a unified whole. I also find that I'm thinking more about the presence of movement and destructive violence in the work of other poets. In this it would appear that Milton is ahead of Dante and that Spenser is ahead of Ariosto in this respect but I'm going to have a closer look at all four. Begrudgingly I have to confess that Wordsworth's The Prelude might earn a Very High Score but I'm not going to check.

As ever, and especially with Celan, these are initial and provisional comments- I reserve the right to change my mind at any time. However it may be that other readers of difficult work may wish to have a go at doing this kind of thing for themselves.

Recent

David Jones and the Importance of Reading Work Aloud..

Why Sir Geoffrey Hill is Right about the Poem.

Geoffrey Hill's Soul.

Infusing with J H Prynne

David Jones, In Parenthesis as Documentary.

Paul Celan's wordwords from Timestead.