Paul Celan and 'The Poem' in the Meridian notes.

This section of the notes has three subsections, the first of these is called 'Opacity of the poem'. The OED definition of opacity is- " Obscurity of meaning; resistance to interpretation; impenetrability; an instance of this" so it may be entirely reasonable to expect some kind of defence or explanation of the 'resistance to interpretation' in Celan's work. However, these notes were compiled and the speech was made before the work started to get really tricky. It could be that he was aware of this trajectory in 59/60 and was preparing a rationale, an explication is advance of the fact.

When we get to the opacity notes themselves things do not suddenly become clear. I was expecting something in the same mode as Celan's strenuous denial of obscurity, as reported by Michael Hamburger. However, what we get adds another dimension that, as with darkness, isn't immediately apparent in the work:

Who has already seen through, has, before he perceives, and looks at,has, whom we before the (he) the poem fills itself before him to him the poem appears in all its- also, to be understood in its geological sense - thickness, it has the him it fills itself with the darkness of what stands opposite; an erratic language block, it faces you with silence. It throws your talk back at you until your breath (and) turns The poem does not speak of the offence; - even there it still gives you a chance.

Given that the previous section 'darkness' has made the equation "darkness = death" and has pointed out that darkness is always present as an integral part of the poem, one feasible hypothesis is that this darkness can be expressed in, or takes the form of, geological thickness. One of the aspects of this particular kind of thickness is its durability, most types of geological strata are incredibly durable and thickness might be (erroneously) seen as a sign of that durability. I've reoproduced the bits that Celan crossed out because I think they might help us discern what he's trying to say.

A quality of the poem is identified here as geological thickness which I'm taking to be the depth of the strata although I accept that it might be about the density of the rock. If the darkness here does stand for or signify mortality rather than the act of dying then this standing opposite emodied this erratic language block can be read as an ongoing riff on distinctly modernist concerns- the subjective and seemingly omnisicent and eternal existence of scientific progress brought up hard against the equally obdurate fact of our death.

We then move on to the 'erratic' problem. I'm taking erratic to mean something that occurs or flares up at radically uneven (and hence unpredictable) intervals and also something that does this in a way that is either destructive or unhelpful. The 'darkness' section refers to the poem being born dark into the world as 'a piece of language' which isn't that far removed from a 'language block' and in the address speaks of the absolute poem as being the silent poem. None of this context is much help when working out why this language block could be said to be erratic when all the other elements (darkness, silence, geological thickness, death and mortality) seem to be obdurately static ot, at least, resistant to fluctuation.

The final element that needs to be noted/contextualised is the turn of breath - which is something that is preserved in the address and is also ('Atemwende') the title of one of Celan's later collections. Here, it is the poem that turns your/the reader's breath by turning your talk back at you. I may be jumping to a numbr of hasty conclusions but I think we're in poem as mirror territory in that one of the main functions of art, and a prime indicator of artistic worth or value, is the ability of creative expression to express or encapsulate how it is for us in all the myriad details of our existence. This ability can cause a shock of self-recognition which might be marked by a sudden gasp for breath- a turn of breath. I think it's fair to point out that this is only the seventh or eighth attempt I've had at breathturn in the last forty years and that the above definition is as flawed and provisional as all the others.

The Meridian Address was made in 1960, Celan's next volume of poems, 'Die Niemandsrose', which contains this short poem:

    WHAT OCCURRED? The boulder left the mountain.
    Who awakened? You and I.
    Language, language. Co-earth. Fellow-planet.
    Poor. Open. Homelandly.

The course? Towards the undubsided. Your course and mine was the boulder's flight. Heart and heart. Ajudged too heavy. Grow more heavy. Be more light

I'm not claiming that this is a direct precis of the 'The poem' section, what I am pointing out is that the 'You' here might very well be the figure or the idea of the poem itself which is awakened as this boulder left the mountain and both the poem and the poet together follow the flight, as opposed to fall, of the boulder. 'Heart and heart' seems to acknowledge or point towards this dual identity and 'too heavy' may reflect the view of some of Celan's readers that his poetry was becoming too obscure.

In the 'darkness' section of the notes Celan describes the poem as being "laden with world" which would tie in the 'language. Co-earth. Fellow-planet' with the instruction to 'grow more heavy'. All this is, of course, inspired guesswork but it does seem an extension of 'The Poem' section of the notes. Given Celan's use of ambiguity, the Holocaust could be seen to be the product of something breaking free from the normal standards of civilisation and Celan's poetry is 'woken' by this truly terrible break and he is thus compelled to write. Celan's heart was heavy in particular because he had lost both parents in German labour camps.

I must stress that all of the above is provisional, tentative and subject to complete change/amendment at any time in the future but it does give some idea of how best to approach this brilliant but difficult work.

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.