Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

It is Celan’s great accomplishment to be able to transport the reader into a crystalline mind space. Celan refused to interpret any one of his poems, saying that repeated reading should suffice. His most extended commentary on the nature, function, and experience of art is contained in “The Meridian,” his 1960 Georg Büchner Prize acceptance speech. Art, he says, is ubiquitous and capable of transformation. This explains the constantly changing imaginative inner landscape of “Cello Entry” as exemplified by the metamorphosis of evening into something that can be climbed like a tree and then into animal matter with lungs. There are no constraints. Celan’s remarks about the function of art are particularly apposite. A poem, he says, can signify a turn of breath, a unique short moment. One writes to release something else, and there is no telling how long its effect will last. Turn of breath, or Atemwende, is the title of the collection containing “Cello Entry.” The turn of breath in this poem is the solitary line that does not further the phantasmagorical visions but rather registers their effect: “something grows true.” The space between images, the time between breathing out and breathing in, these are the moments of stasis that allow the mind to move into another dimension.

Celan’s poems are designed to communicate with receptive readers, to facilitate a meeting of minds. They are conceived as conversations, albeit often conversations of despair. At the end of his acceptance speech, Celan describes his experience of the creative process: “I find something—like language—immaterial, but earthly, terrestrial, something circular, meeting up with itself again over both the poles and—happily—going through the tropics en route—: I finda meridian.” Celan finds the meridian when he succeeds in bringing disparate images into line, giving that line the tension of a circle and making it visible to the reader. It is a helpful construct that does not permit any element of the poem to be dropped from the interpretation. “Cello Entry” is an indivisible entity. It is not primarily about a cello or about any of the fantastic images that follow or their derivation. It describes a mind space in which stream-of-consciousness images synthesize with sudden meaning, providing a moment of truth. That truth encompasses the poet’s own reality, human history, and alternate universes. It is accessible to all who have pondered their own existence.