From the time of his early successes in the 1950’s when Paul Celan received several important German literary prizes to the publication of his later work, most of it published posthumously in the early 1970’s, this Jewish Romanian poet has steadily gained in stature. Many consider him to be not only the outstanding German poet of our time but perhaps the major European poet of the later twentieth century. He was born Paul Ancel—Celan was an anagram adopted in 1947, when his earliest poems were published in a Romanian periodical—in Czernowitz, Bukovina. In 1942, his parents were deported and died in a Nazi extermination camp. Celan escaped but was in a labor camp until 1944. After the war, he continued his studies, worked as a translator and publisher’s reader, and in 1947 went to Vienna. There he published his first collection of poems, Der Sand aus den Urnen (1948; sand from the urns). Because of the many misprints in this volume, he withdrew it from publication and reprinted the poems in Mohn und Gedachtnis (poppy and memory), which appeared in West Germany in 1952. In 1948 he left Vienna and settled in Paris, where he took up the study of German literature, married, and became a lecturer at the Ecole Normale Supe’rieure. He committed suicide in Paris in the spring of 1970.
Celan’s German readers responded to the demands his early poetry made on their conscious and unconscious need to confront the horrors of Adolf Hitler’s “final solution”—the systematic murder of millions of Jews in the death camps. Celan did not preach to his readers. On the contrary: On one level the poems ignored the question of German guilt by their refusal to deal with the Holocaust directly or realistically, “but only by an art of contrast and allusion that celebrates beauty and energy by commemorating their destruction” (Michael Hamburger, Paul Celan: Poems, New York, 1980). On the other hand, by the very fact that they were written in German, in a German of consummate beauty and energy, German readers felt themselves addressed and even cathartically purged by Celan’s poems. The famous poem “Todesfuge,” which juxtaposes the “golden hair of Margarete” and the “ashen hair of Sulamith”; which addresses death as “the master from Germany” but ambiguously seems to condemn both victim and victimizer to an endless ingestion of what constitutes one of the most famous oxymorons of modern poetry—“Black milk”; which has been orchestrated for choral singing in German schools—this poem conveys as powerfully as anything Celan ever wrote the secret at the heart of his poetry:
To experience light, one must know darkness. This slim volume collects whatever prose the editors could gather from all the corners of Celan’s short life. These fugitive pieces are like the scattered notes of a master builder; they provide clues to the controlling ideas behind the difficult and dazzling language of his poetry. Perhaps the speeches he gave in acceptance of his literary prizes reveal with the greatest directness and simplicity what underlies the intense obscurity of his poetry. In January, 1958, he received the Literature Prize of the Free Hanseatic City of Bremen. In his short acceptance speech, he underscored the drama of what it meant for a Jewish survivor of the Holocaust to return to life through language, the very language of his tormentors. With infinite tact he acknowledges that by awarding him the prize, the inhabitants of Bremen seem to have recognized their stake in his recovery of reality:
Only one thing seemed reachable, close and secure amid all losses: language.… But it had to go through its own lack of answers, through terrifying silence, through the thousand darknesses of murderous speech.… in this language I tried, during those years and the years after, to write poems: in order to speak, to orient myself; to find out where I was, where I was going, to chart my reality.
Two years later, in 1960, the city of Darmstadt awarded him the Georg Buchner Prize. This time he responded with a...
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