Celan, Paul (Pseudonym of Paul Antschel) (Vol. 10)
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.
Diether H. Haenicke
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.
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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...
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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...
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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 the dream world in his early poetry is related to the phenomenon, often noted in literature on the Holocaust, that for the victims reality had become a nightmare; 2) many of Celan's early poems, whether the word dream is explicitly mentioned or not, resemble the images of a dream, and on the basis of the first thesis, these dreams are nightmares; 3) Celan's use of dream imagery did not remain constant but underwent one significant break (in 1948) and a series of subsequent gradual modifications….
Accounts of the Holocaust, autobiographical as well as scholarly, contain frequent comparisons between life in the camps and a nightmare. Especially interesting is a comment by Terrence des Pres [from The Survivor: An...
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