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Reading Paul Celan.

Reading Paul Celan

I bought the original Penguin selection which was translated by Michael Hamburger when I was a spotty-faced fifteen year-old. The reason for this purchase was simple, most of the poems are short and I have the attention span of a small but angry gnat. I was also of the view that literature in the West was moving steadily towards greater compression, I was also reading Becket's residua which seemed to confirm this 'trend'. I had little idea of Celan's reputation or 'place' in European poetry but I became increasingly absorbed to the extent that most other work of the early seventies seemed rather ordinary and mediocre. For the last 44 years I've been involved in this material in that it inhabits and accompanies my life- only Edmund Spenser has had the same effect.

According to George Steiner, reading Paul Celan will change your life and it has to be said that this is not an outrageous claim. In the last decade of his life Celan produced a body of work that many consider to be the finest poetry of the 20th century. The poems are usually short, invariably terse but packed with meaning and contain some of the most startling images ever written.

I first wrote this page in 2010 and since then we've had Pierre Joris' brilliant translation of Celan's notes in preparation for the Meridian Address which means that a re-write is in order.

The work is notorious for its extreme ambiguity and for its refusal to compromise. Paul Celan was many things and we can prioritise these in different ways:

I'm not of the view that you can encapsulate the work in this way, I'm not confident that this list of roles/identities is in anyway helpful but I would rather start with what the man was rather than what he thought because it is these aspects that seem to underpin the work.

The work can be seen as a struggle for survival, that each poem can be read as a gasping for breath, as an extended cry in the hellish light of day. This gives the impression that this is a bleak and unforgiving realm but they also open up immensely productive trains of thought in the attentive / careful reader. I think that I need to be clear that this isn't therapeutic verse, none of these poems contain easy or soothing answers but they do demand/initiate a completely different way of thinking. Given Celan's background this isn't by any means a comfortable process but it's what probably what Steiner meant with his 'life changing' quip. Celan made it clear on more than one occasion that is poems were 'under way' and carry within them the potential for encounters with those readers to whom the poem speaks.

Early work.

Celan's reputation was made by his Todesfugue that many took to be a fitting response to the view that art was impossible after the Holocaust. This is the first stanza:


     Black milk of daybreak we drink it at sundown
     we drink it at noon in the morning we drink it at night
     we drink and we drink it
     we dig a grave in the breezes there lies one unconfined
     A man lives in the house he plays with the serpents
     he writes when dusk falls to Germany your golden hair Margarete
     he writes it and steps out of doors and the stars are flashing he whistles his pack out
     he whistles his Jews out in earth has them dig for a grave
     he commands to strike up for the dance

Although the poem brought Celan an audience across Europe, he grew to resent expectations that he should pursue work in a similar vein.

Later work.

After about 1960 Celan produced increasingly terse and ambiguous work that lost him most of his readership and met with increasing critical disapproval but this material shows us, like no other, what poetry can and must achieve. Set out below is the Michael Hamburger translation of 'Go Blind' which was published in the 'Atemwende' collection in 1967:

Go blind now, today:
eternity also is full of eyes -
in them
drowns what helped images down
the way they came,
in them
fades what took you out of language,
lifted you out with a gesture
which you allowed to happen like
the dance of the words made of
autumn and silk and nothingness

I can't claim to have a full understanding of this but it is a poem that has stuck under my skin for the last forty years. I find it beautiful, terrifying and compelling and I don't want anyone to tell me what it may 'mean'. This is just one of many intense experiences that I've had with Celan and when reading him I know (as with Milton) that I'm in the presence of greatness. I could, for example, spend the next five thousand words exposing the brilliance of "drowns what helped images down / the way they came" and another five thousand on what might have helped images (back) down and why 'drowns' is absolutely correct. I've recently (2014) discovered that Mandelstam is the source for the last line.

Starting to read Celan

Celan rewards both care and attention but the work also requires a tolerance of ambiguity and an acceptance of the secret or hidden. Some of the questions that might be asked of 'Go blind' might be:

The above list is just a starting point for where an attentive reading may (or may not) take us and many people will be deterred by the absence of obvious or even feasible solutions- this is inevitable but this does not in anyway detract from the brilliance and magnitude of the material.

The translation problem.

For those of us that aren't fluent in German, the choice of translator is very important. Celan had a keen interest in the origins of words and the way that meanings change over time, he also used double and treble meanings to maintain a level of ambiguity in his work. Whilst it is important to recognise that each translation in effect creates an entirely new poem, there is a need with Celan to try and maintain this level of ambiguity and to reflect the way the lines sound in the original. Michael Hamburger and Pierre Joris have probably managed this with the greatest skill but it is up to individual readers to select the translations that they are most 'comfortable' with.

For a specific example of the translation dilemma, please see the Celan in translation page whereby I worry over and complain about the differences between the above and the Joris translation. Pierre has also wirtten an insightful and helpful essay on the challenges facing the translator with particular reference to 'Todtnauberg'. I also have to point out that John Felsteiners' prizewinning translations aren't very good and his notes are less than adequate.

The Meridian Notes and Related Material.

The Meridian Address was given when Celan was awarded the Georg Buchner Prize in 1960 and is considered by many to be the most important statement about poetry since 1945. In it Celan sets out his own views as to what poetry and the making of poems involves. The translation of his preparatory notes into English was published in 2011 and contain many staggering insights that should be read by anyone with an interest in the contemporay poem. The materials are divided into sections, these are what I consider to be the main ones:

Darkness came as a shock to me because of its emphasis on the primordial dark as an essential part of the poem: "hold it be congenital, or better, constitutive. The poem is dark qua poem".

The Poem section contains many indications of how Celan's work may be read: "The poem speaks of the first and most accidental things as if they were the last ones. The near is at the same time the infinitely distant; if it has thre opacity of what stands oppositie it, it also has the brightness of the faraway".

Breath provides many further key observations. This is one- "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 -; hours have no phenotype; we still write for our life"

Breathturn is the title of Celan's 1967 collection and this section contains some of the most oblique remarks, this is one of the more transparent: "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".

I'll provide two quotes from the Encounter section because of the focus on the reader: "The attentiveness of the reader: a turning-toward the poem". and - "With that (conversation) the poem is as self-encounter encountering the other - and vice-versa.

Celan and ambiguity

The ambiguous nature of Celan's work has been the subject of much debate. 'Todtnauberg' is one of Celan's best known poems and yet the critics are divided as to its meaning. The title is the name of the village where Martinn Heidegger had his famous hut and the poem commemorates Celan's visit there in 1966. The debate is about whether this is a poem of reconciliation or of continued disappointment. Celan was a keen reader of Heidegger's work yet was deeply troubled by his membership of the Nazi party and the poem refers to his hope that Heidegger would address this troubling connection. Both sides of this divide have put forward strong arguments but the poem remains stubbornly elusive. Although I side with the disappointment faction on this, it has to be said that we will never (ever) know which way this remarkable poem is facing and should therefore stop wasting our collective energies.

This level of ambiguity pervades all of Celan's later work and readers perhaps need to accept that meaning can operate at two or three levels at the same time.

Celan likened his poems to messages in a bottle stating that only the few readers that found them would be able to fully grasp their meaning, he also rejected the charge that they were obscure.

Anders Olsson quotes Celan in conversation with Hugo Huppert:

And as regards my alleged encodings, I would rather say: ambiguity without a mask, is expresses precisely my feeling for cutting across ideas, an overlapping of relationships. You are of course familiar with the manifestation of interference, coherent waves meeting and relating to one another. You know of dialectic conversions and reversals - transitions into something akin, something succeeding, even something contradictory. That is what my ambiguity (only at certain turning-points, certain axes of rotation present) is about. It stands in consideration to the fact that we can observe several facets in one thing, showing it from various angles, "breaks" and "divisions" which are by no means only illusory. I try to recapitulate in language at least fractions of this spectral analysis of things: related, succeeding, contradictory. Because, unfortunately, I am unable to show these things from a comprehensive angle.

I think this is a more than adequate riposte to those who stumble over the radical ambiguity of the later work because life is messy and does contain many, many 'facets in one thing' and nobody can find the 'comprehensive angle' or truly panoptic view of these simultaneously occurring facets. Celan should nevertheless not be criticised for attempting this task by means of his maskless ambiguity. Of course, 'without a mask' is itself packed with a number of competing meanings....

Having reviewed and amended the above, I realise that I've omitted most things about Celan's life. He worked as a translator in Paris and his mental health issues eventually led to him comitting suicide by drowning in 1970. From 1949 onwards Celan was relentlessly attacked by Claire Goll who accused him of plagiarising her husband's work. This had a further de-stabilising effect on Celan.