Pierre Joris on Paul Celan's 'new' language.

I've written recently about Breathturn into Timestead, Pierre Joris' remarkable translation of Celan's later work but now the FlashPoint journal has published an interview conducted by Doug Valentine with Pierre that is worthy of more than a little readerly attention.

I'll start with a couple of default arduity positions: Paul Celan is the most important poet of the 20th century; Pierre Joris has consistently produced the most accurate translations into English of Celan's work and has also written cogently about some of the trickier aspects of the later poems, These positions are not negotiable and are unlikely to change.

In both the interview and his introduction to the collection Pierre suggests that Celan was not writing in German but in the process of creating and exploring the possibilities of a new language. This is from the interview:

The special difficulties have to do with Celan's use of German: he creates a German language that is very distant from any spoken language. Nor is it the classical German literary language.

And this is from the introduction:

The new language of the addressed "you", which here seems to be the poet himself his new "beamwind"- language, aims to erode the "gaudy chatter" of the early work, and lead into a bare northern landscape of snow and ice: nordwhar, "northtrue," as another poem puts it, where the true "unalterable testimony" which it is the poet's job to create can be found located deep in the ice as an "Atemkrystall", a "breath crystal."

This kicks off a whole range of thoughts in my head, these are some of them:

I've been of the view that this emphasis on language is misplaced, that this factor comes a long way down the last of factors that we need to bear in mind when paying attention to the later work. This may be because the subjects of the work itself are so expansive and problematic and challenging that we find some comfort in dealing with something that we, as readers, feel a bit more comfortable with.

I still think that the language factor gets more attention than it should but am now prepared to concede that, certainly in the later work, this 'newness' is an integral part of most of the poetry, one that we cannot afford to ignore. So, this is an attempt to think about whether there's a balance to be had. I'm going to use Pierre's translations here because he says " If I have one specific rule in mind it is to stay as close as possible to the original, to remain as literal as possible in my translations of Paul Celan" and this is borne out by my comparisons between his work and the more 'poetic' translations of Michael Hamburger.

I'm also going to pay some attention to what Celan says in the 'Language' section in Pierre's translation of his notes for the Meridian address which was given in 1960.

As ever, what follows is provisional and tentative but hopefully it will provoke others into reading/encountering the work.

The best place to start is with the work. This is Flowing from the Atemwende collection:

celled sleepingden.

partition traveled 
by graysquadrons.

The letters are breaking formation,
the last
dreamproof skiffs-
each with 
part of the still
to be sunken sign
the towrope's culturegrip.

One of the main devices of the later work is the use of compound words created by joining words together and here we have several examples but first I'd like to think about these letters that are 'breaking formation' which seems to indicate that there's a battle with language going on. In military terms, to break formation is usually to disperse under the onslaught of an enemy attack. We then come to these letters which are more likely to be the letters of the alphabet rather than things that are sent in the post. So, these letters, the things that make up language, are under attack and are in the process losing their original / traditional form. The question then is; who or what is responsible for this attack?

The obvious candidates here would appear to be either the circumstances of the political culture in which we live or the poet himself. Perhaps Celan feels compelled to 'attack' and make new because of this context. For Celan, this context would be focused on the Holocaust and its aftermath with the fifties and sixties politicians keen to minimise and gloss over this atrocity. There's also an argument that it is the responsibility of the writer / artist / poet to fundamentally challenge the previous means of expression.

Before we proceed with any of the other statements that appear to be made, it may be as well to incorporate another aspect of the interview:

For me, his work is that of both a witness and visionary, keeping the horrors of the past in mind while trying to construct a better future, by working on making language responsible, i.e. able to respond to the challenges the post-war presented - especially to his mangled mameloshen, German. The sarcasm comes in with the realization that the totalitarian world the defeat of the Third Reich should have brought to an end, was being kept alive - & not only in Germany, beneath a veneer of democracy. The later years' psychic troubles, the confinement in psychiatric hospitals, the pharmacological straight-jackets he was forced into, etc. would only increase the sarcasm - though I don't feel that he ever lost track of the 2 directives of witnessing & visionary exploring.

(The interweb talls me that Mame Loshen is 'mother tongue' in Yiddish).

I must admit that I hadn't considered 'making a better future' as a key aspect of Celan's work, I've probably been sufficiently absorbed in the essential task of bearing witness, taking the plaintive cry at the end of the brilliant Ashglory: "No one / bears witness for the / witness" as the primary focus of the later work. With this idea of creating a responsible language in mind I think it's possible to read Flowing is a new light. I'm of the view that the Holocaust, more than any other was the defining event of the twentieth century because the killing was industrialised and planned so that the killing could be carried out as efficiently as possible. I'm not by any means seeking to minimise the genocidal famines caused by Stalin and Mao but these weren't carried out as a vile exercise in racial 'purification'. Given that this was carried out by a nation that considered itself as the apogee of world culture and philosophy, it cannot be surprising that those writing in German felt a responsibility to transform it by making it new.

This is, of course, a thankless task. As J H Prynne has pointed out, language is inherent to the best and worst of us and a search for something that isn't mired in the atrocities that are still being committed is bound to failure. I'd argue that the task for poetry, perhaps more than other forms of expression, is to explore the possibilities of modification rather than transformation.

With regard to this particular poem, it would seem to my small brain that we start with something about dreams which may, or may not, be about both hopes for the future and memories of the past. Now, I thought a skiff was simply any kind of small boat but the OED tells me that it is especially " one attached to a ship and used for purposes of communication, transport, towing, etc" which adds some further insight into the rest of the poem.

If the dream is a hope for the possibility of in some way preventing further acts of genocide by creating a responsible language then the skiff is dreamproof as it ignores and minimises the this particular atrocity. One of the most disturbing features of post-45 Germany was the refusal of most adults to deny either their involvement or complicity in the Holocaust - hence the sarcasm that Pierre refers to.

The 'sign' here that's caught in the grip of post-Enlightenment Europe is the language that needs to sink / drown to make way for something new. This is still to be sunk which implies that this will occur at some point in the future. The last line indicates that the cultural dominance that held sway in Germany before the rise of the Nazis still retains its hold to keep the calamitous errors and irresponsible languages afloat.

Now, feeling rather pleased with the above guesswork, it's probably useful to pay some attention to what Celan has to say in his notes prepared for the Meridian Address (also translated by Pierre). As there are a lot of notes then it can and should be argued that I am ripping a few out of context and using these unrelated shards to make my case. I accept this and plead guilty, my only excuse being that I'm not attempting anything definitive but try to provoke / entice a wider conversation by expressing an opinion.

In the notes 'poem', 'language' and 'actualization' are frequently linked. To start with, this is a longish but important extract from the Address itself:

This always-still can only be a speaking. But not just language as such, nor, presumably, just verbal "analogy" either.

But language, actualized, set free under the sign of a radical individuation that at the same time, however, remains mindful of the borders language draws and of the possibilities language opens up for it.

This 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 inclination of his Being, the angle of inclination of his creatureliness.

Then the poem is - even more clearly than previously- one person's language-become-shape, and, according to its essence, presentness and presence.

The Address is seen as Celan's main statement of his poetics and I would argue these four brief paragraphs inform the very core of his later work. For our current concerns, I'd like to draw attention to the second paragraph. I'm taking it that 'actualized' here relates to the fulfillment of potential more than to becoming real or actual. So there's this tension in the poem, any poem, between potential freedoms and language-imposed constraints. This also indicates that being 'set free' doesn't entail making new.

These are some of the notes that might be relevant:

From the Darkness section:

There exist in thinking not only logically determined courses, there are also insights. To these insights, this one for ex. can belong: when the poem achieves certain syntactic or sound formations, it is forced into tracks, which lead it out of its own realm, i.e. out of the actuality that co-determines its necessity. There exists, in other words, a language-taboo specific to the poem and only to it, which not only holds for its vocabulary, but also for categories such as syntax, rhythm or articulation; from the unspoken, some things become understandable; the poem knows the argumentum e silentio. There thus exists an ellipsis, which one must not mistake for a trope or, worse, for stylistic refinement. The god of the poem is undisputably a deus absconditus.

For those, like me, who have forgotten their third form Latin, an 'argumentum ex silentio' is an argument from silence, i.e. an argument based on what an historical source doesn't say rather than what it does. According to the wonders of the interweb, 'deus absconditus' is a term used by Thomas Aquinas to denote a god who has consciously left this world to hide elsewhere".

These two are in sequence in the same section:


Someone:each one of us can become this someone, "Someone has to be there", writes Kafka


The poem - an endless vigil

I've read and written about the notes but I hadn't paid sufficient attention to this ellipsis which stems from 'a language-taboo' that somehow withholds aspects of itself so that the reader has to grasp the argument from nothing that the poem points towards. In terms of a 'new' language, Celan is talking about the present here and, given his emphasis on actualizing, it may be these syntactic and sound formations that carry a potential yet to be fulfilled- a progression rather than a break with the past.

Fortunately, there is a sub-section headed Poem and language in the notes and these seem especially relevant:

The poem is inscribed as the figure of the complete language; but language remains invisible; that which actualizes itself - language - takes steps, as soon as that has happened, back into the realm of the possible. "The Poeme", writes Valéry, est du langage a létat nascent, language in stau nascendi, thus language in the process of liberation.

Which is immediately followed by:

The poem is the place where synonymity becomes impossible: it only has its lang and therefore its meaning level. Stepping out of language, the poem steps opposite language. This opposition cannot be sublated.

The poem would therefore seem to be written in language that is moving towards some kind of freedom and the poem is a place where similarity/equivalence cannot occur. There is also an undeniable opposition between the poem and the language from which it is constructed.

I'm going to leave it there for the moment but I do want to emphasise that, 55 years after the notes were made and nearly fifty years after Atemwende was published, those of us who claim an interest in serious work need to pay close attention to and learn from this work.

I'd also like to place on record once again my personal gratitude to Pierre Joris for producing this essential work in English, an invaluable gift to us all.