Celan, Paul (Pseudonym of Paul Antschel) 1920–1970
Born in Rumania of Hasidic Jewish heritage, Celan is generally regarded as the finest lyric poet to write in German since Rilke. His parents were victims of the Nazi extermination, and Celan himself was interned in a forced labor camp from 1942 to 1943. The anguish of the Holocaust can be felt in his work, often manifested in a dark, melancholy imagery; this is especially evident in his most famous poem, "Death Fugue." Celan's is surreal, lyrical poetry, often elusive and dreamlike. His images are unusual, his diction pure. Also a translator of French and Russian, Celan adapted the works of Mandelstam, Rimbaud, Valéry, and Char. He committed suicide at the age of forty-nine.
Celan is the author of the most famous poem written after the war, "Fugue of Death," which treats the atrocities of the concentration camps in a remarkable montage technique that seems to transcend the possibilities of linguistic expression. His early volumes, Mohn und Gedächtnis (Poppy and Memory, 1952) and Von Schwelle zu Schwelle (From Threshold to Threshold, 1955), capture impressions of his chassidic background and reveal the influence of French surrealism on his poetry. The untranslatable titles of the next volumes, Sprachgitter (1959), Die Niemandsrose (1963), Atemwende (1967), and Fadensonnen (1968), show Celan's attempt to dissociate his poetry from conventional imagery. Bold oxymora and daring catachreses characterize his pursuit of new linguistic tools. His images often seem to be ciphers of his complex existence rather than mere visual impressions. (p. 396)
Diether H. Haenicke, in The Challenge of German Literature, edited by Horst S. Daemmrich and Diether H. Haenicke (reprinted by permission of the Wayne State University Press; copyright © 1971 by Wayne State University Press), Wayne State University Press, 1971.
Celan's poetry [in Speech-Grille and Selected Poems] reminds me of that of the English poet Christopher Middleton. The words in it tend to stand away from each other and be little poems in themselves. The images are startling and in perfect focus, yet the whole poem is like something one has never seen before, a machine dreamed up by Kafka, or a painting by Ernst or Klee….
Here is the beginning of a poem by Celan:
Lichtgewinn, messbar, aus
Rot, im Gespräch
mit einigem Gelb.
Mr. Neugroschel [Celan's translator] records the English equivalents of these strange words:
Light-gain, gaugeable, from
with some yellow.
A riddle? It turns out that the poet is looking at the rubble in a vacant lot beside train tracks, and the rest of the poem discloses what we encounter often in Celan. He is writing not so much with words as with anguish. It will be remarked, I think, that words became things to a whole school of late twentieth-century poets. The scholars [of the future] will trace this metamorphosis back to Mallarmé and the Dadaistes, but they will have an aesthetic problem of some intricacy when they try to account for the hardware-like brilliance and distinctness of words in such a poet as Celan.
Nouns dominate Celan's poetry, and verbs tend to be negligible or so surrealistic as to abandon their dictionary meaning. An eye weeps stones. Voices are nicked in the green. Nothingness is borne into windfalls (Nichts in den Windbruch getragen).
Celan is undoubtedly a distinguished poet. His distinction, however, puts him severely beside or perhaps ahead of his time. Kafka in 1910 was speaking to the Europe of 1940. Celan's angular, odd precision with things beyond a sense of the precise may well be written for lonely readers in pressure-chamber outposts in the anthrax forests of Mars. (p. 701)
Guy Davenport, in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1972 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXIV, No. 4, Winter, 1971–72.
The Germans are not the only objects of scorn in Celan's poetry. The traditional God of Judaism and Christianity is another, and these objects of scorn—I hesitate to say hate, although it would perhaps be valid—are certainly quite closely related to each other…. Celan's pessimism cannot be explained in terms of a general post-Nietzschean conviction that God is dead; it is rather a very specific form of theological thinking found in a number of contemporary Jewish poets and philosophers…. Celan's poems sometimes display an awareness of the role of Christianity in the historical development of anti-Semitism. The poem "Spät und tief" …, for example, while alluding to Jewish "guilt" in the death of Christ, denies the possibility of the Resurrection, in effect reversing or refuting the Christian symbolism contained in the poem. Much of Celan's verse is profoundly pessimistic and correct interpretation is facilitated if the poems are approached with the historical background in mind. (p. 26)
[An important technique used by Celan in his hermetic poetry] is based on an apparently arbitrary succession of images and exclamations, a kind of stream-of-consciousness, often marked by verbal associations and word plays….
The complexity of the word associations is considerable, as is the significance of their implications. The word Mandel in this poem is applied to the Jewish people, to the hair of the Jews killed...
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Poetic language, in [Celan's] view, has become a rescuing device, a mode of speech barely audible and yet of sufficient intensity to wrench the poem back from the verge of its self-abolition in the realm of silence…. [When] Celan speaks of the poem's tendency towards silence he is speaking not in terms of an aesthetic absorbed from outside … but in terms of the more immediately commanding dictates of personal emotion.
For silence, in Celan's work, is felt not only as a negative situation, but also as a force…. [The premise of the early poem 'Chanson einer Dame im Schatten' is that the] man who speaks too soon is ruined and a mysterious silence triumphs: and hence, despite the poem's obvious sexual implications, it is impossible not to read it as being to some extent also a metaphor of the poet's situation—that the spoken word must ever yield to the potency of what Celan will later term 'das erschwiegene Wort'…. Rilke's consciousness of the overwhelming force of 'das Unsägliche'; Valéry's 'tumulte au silence pareil'; Eliot's concept of the 'inarticulate' on which the poet is compelled to make continual raids—from none of these does Celan … seem very far removed. But to say this is to ignore an all-important component of Celan's region of silence—the role, therein, of violence…. The specific sorrow to which Celan's poems most constantly refer is that caused by the Nazi death-camps, and he returns by frequent implication to the inadequacy of words to render the magnitude of this theme…. The word sought, the word 'nach dem Bilde des Schweigens', is thus one which will be commensurate with the horror it expresses and which will yet at the same time, transform it. At its simplest level silence, in Celan, implies death and the majority of his poems are in fact explorations into the realm of the dead. But here, of course, is the paradox—that the poet can explore silence only by means of its opposite condition, words. And thus silence is both desired and feared, desired as the region in which the beloved dead have their being, and feared because, by its very nature, it constitutes a threat to the poet's sole means of ingress. Hence, if the poet's attitude to silence fluctuates, so does his attitude to words. (pp. 127-29)
In Celan's third collection of poems, Sprachgitter (1959) there occurs an obvious change in, or refinement of, poetic technique. Characteristic of the earlier volumes, Mohn und Gedächtnis (1952) and, to a lesser extent, Von Schwelle zu Schwelle (1955) is a strong element of incantation, a somewhat sotto voce incantation of overtly hypnotic effect. But in Sprachgitter this element has receded: and although the final poem in the collection, Engführung (the German term for the stretto of a fugue) explicitly evokes a musical parallel, the music of these poems is much closer to that of, say, Webern, than to any incantation—sparse, intensely compressed and glacially beautiful: the product, one may feel, of a resolution that the poet's themes shall not become 'wild / überwuchert von Worten'.
Yet this paring down of the poet's means of expression is accompanied by an increased preoccupation with the range of expressive power which language possesses—and, concomitantly with this, with its expressive limitations. This last phrase is ambiguous, and I mean it to be: for it is characteristic of the paradoxical temper of Celan's poetic mind that ideas or situations which logically would be regarded as contrarieties can co-exist and even fuse with each other on the same linguistic plane. Hence it isn't simply playing with words to state that the phrase 'expressive limitations' implies in addition to its primary meaning the suggestion that the very limitations of language may themselves be expressive. 'Words, after speech, reach/into the silence' Eliot has it: and it is this realm, extending from the insufficient spoken or written word to the territory of silence, that Celan's poems have it as their immensely difficult task to explore. The word is the product of the living, silence that of the dead; the word may affirm, silence may negate the affirmation. Yet, as any careful reader of Celan will testify, this negating effect of silence presses heavily upon the poet's consciousness, acting, indeed, as a kind of challenge. It seems, in fact,...
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Dreams and dream imagery constitute an important, if far from pervasive theme in the postwar German lyric….
At first glance, Celan seems to stand in the surrealist tradition…. Celan's own poetry of the first three postwar years abounds in images and stylistic devices which have a close affinity with those typical of surrealistic verse….
Celan's dream imagery is puzzling. In many cases individual images and entire poems at first defy explication. At the risk of seeming to oversimplify this complex problem, I propose that the following three theses provide the necessary basis for gaining access to the enigmatic dream world of Celan's poetry: 1) Celan … is a Holocaust poet, and...
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