Paul Celan’s poetry can be viewed as an expressive attempt to cope with the past—his personal past as well as that of the Jewish people. Close friends of the poet state that Celan was unable to forget anything and that trivial incidents and cataclysmic events of the past for him had the same order of importance. Many of his poems contain references to the death camps, to his dead parents (particularly his mother), to his changing attitude toward the Jewish religion and toward God. In his early collections, these themes are shaped into traditional poetic form—long, often rhymed lines, genitive metaphors, sensuous images—and the individual poems are accessible to conventional methods of interpretation. In his later collections, Celan employs increasingly sparse poetic means, such as one-word lines, neologisms, and images that resist traditional interpretive sense; their significance can often be intuited only by considering Celan’s complete poetic opus, a fact which has persuaded many critics and readers that Celan’s poems are nonsense, pure games with language rather than codified expressions of thoughts and feelings which can be deciphered by applying the appropriate key.

Mohn und Gedächtnis

Mohn und Gedächtnis, Celan’s first collection of poetry (discounting the withdrawn Der Sand aus den Urnen), was in many ways an attempt to break with the past. The title of the collection is an indication of the dominant theme of these poems, which stress the dichotomy of forgetting—one of the symbolic connotations of the poppy flower—and remembering, by which Celan expresses his wish to forget the past, both his own personal past and that of the Jewish race, and his painful inability to erase these experiences from his memory. Living in Paris, Celan believed that only by forgetting could he begin a new life—in a new country, with a non-Jewish French wife, and by a rejection of his past poetic efforts, as indicated by the withdrawal of his first collection.

Mohn und Gedächtnis is divided into four parts and contains a total of fifty-six poems. In the first part, “Der Sand aus den Urnen” (“Sand from the Urns”), Celan establishes the central theme of the collection: The poet “fills the urns of the past in the moldy-green house of oblivion” and is reminded by the white foliage of an aspen tree that his mother’s hair was not allowed to turn white. Mixed with these reflections on personal losses are memories of sorrows and defeats inflicted upon the Jewish people; references to the conquest of Judea by the Romans are meant to remind the reader of more recent atrocities committed by foreign conquerors.

The second part of Mohn und Gedächtnis is a single poem, “Todesfuge” (“Death Fugue”), Celan’s most widely anthologized poem, responsible in no small part for establishing his reputation as one of the leading contemporary German poets. “Death Fugue” is a monologue by the victims of a concentration camp, evoking in vivid images the various atrocities associated with these camps. From the opening line, “Black milk of daybreak we drink it at sundown . . .”—one of the lines that Claire Goll suggested Celan had plagiarized from her husband—the poem passes on to descriptions of the cruel camp commander who plays with serpent-like whips, makes the inmates shovel their own graves, and sets his pack of dogs on them. From the resignation of the first lines, the poem builds to an emotional climax in the last stanza in which the horror of the cremation chambers is indicated by images such as “he grants us a grave in the air” and “death is a master from Germany.” While most critics have praised the poem, some have condemned Celan for what they interpret as an attempt at reconciliation between Germans and Jews in the last two lines of the poem. Others, however, notably Theodor Adorno, have attacked “Death Fugue” on the basis that it is “barbaric” to write beautiful poetry after, and particularly about, Auschwitz. A close reading of this long poem refutes the notion that Celan was inclined toward reconciliation with the...

(The entire section is 1692 words.)