Celan, Paul (Pseudonym of Paul Antschel) 1920–1970
Born in Rumania of Hasidic Jewish parents, 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 dark, melancholy imagery; this is especially evident in his most famous poem, "Death Fugue." Celan's poetry is surreal, lyrical, 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. Celan won the Georg Büchner Prize in 1960. (See also CLC, Vol. 10.)
The German-language poet Paul Celan has almost achieved the status of a living classic in spite of, or perhaps because of poetry that nearly defies access. Critics generally agree that he traces his intellectual ancestry from a heritage of hermetic brilliance with antecedents in Hölderlin and Trakl as well as in the European symbolist tradition. Celan has indirectly acknowledged the latter debt in his translations from French and Russian symbolism. But two closely related factors in Celan's background have almost escaped notice, perhaps because they are so foreign to the mainstream of German letters: the mystical tradition of Eastern European Judaism embodied in Hasidism, and the thought of this tradition as refined and transmitted to the twentieth century by Martin Buber….
In nearly all Celan's works since the mid 1940's he undertakes something poetically quite similar to what Buber characterizes as the religious quest for a Thou….
[For both Celan and Buber, the] meeting of man and what is "over against" him, i.e., a Thou, leads to one's realization of self. Man is totally isolated in a world of objective experience. For Buber the way out is essentially an artistic one, since one transforms the "Es-Welt" (It-world) of external experience and things (Erfahrung, Gebrauchen) into a "Du-Welt" (Thou-world) of almost mystical contact (Beziehung) through the act of speech. In a sense then, the I makes possible the existence of a Thou, since by addressing the person or object "over against" him, man leaves the isolated It-world of experience to enter the intimacy of personal contact…. (p. 110)
Celan shares Buber's view of man's isolation. Most of his poems focus on the act of poetic speech as the only meaningful way out of this condition. He conceives of language as being essentially dialogical. As a phenomenon of language, a poem is … directed at someone or something in an attempt to meet this Thou, this "other reality."… As a logical extension, Celan posits the concept that despite its isolation, the poem brings about the same encounter with a Thou which for Buber is possible through speech or phantasy. (p. 111)
Buber's chief concern is with God, while Celan's works are preoccupied with meaningful poetic speech. When Buber talks of the It-world, he usually means objects located in the landscape; Celan's poems locate them in the poetic imagination. Yet the terminology in … [the last paragraph of Gespräch im Gebirg] emphasizes the strong affinity that ties Celan's world to Buber's. Here the creative ego seems to view the earth (die Erde) as language (die Sprache), or at least as an objective form of language experience. It is lacking the personal pronouns I and Thou. It is so totally impersonal that it almost duplicates Buber's It-world of experience with which there can be no meaningful contact. This passage can offer a key to interpreting many of Celan's poems, for it helps...
(The entire section is 1228 words.)
[Celan was dissatisifed with many of his early poems collected in Der Sand aus den Urnen (The Sand from the Urns, 1948).]
Many of these early poems are written in rhyme and most are—at least at first glance—rather romantic. More significantly, perhaps, several of them are intensely personal, especially "Nähe der Gräber" ("Nearness of Graves" …) and "Schwarze Flocken" ("Black Flakes" …). The former poem consists of five rhymed couplets, each of which is a question addressed to the poet's dead mother. The final couplet is especially poignant…. These lines offer a rare insight into Celan's mind. It was obviously difficult for him to continue to write poetry in German, yet he felt compelled to do so. Critics have noted the paradox that Celan was forced to write in the language of the Nazis, but have not sufficiently emphasized its importance…. Celan was in fact intimately aware of the dilemma, and especially of the implications of the German rhyme, since rhyme, as a poetic device, specifically draws the attention of the reader to the language itself. This is one of the reasons why rhyme is used sparingly in his poetry, and it is for this reason also that the places in which it is used tend to be, at least in all but the earliest poetry, quite intense and bitter. (pp. 47-8)
Many readers today find the poems of Mohn und Gedächtnis [Poppy and Memory, 1952] and, to an even greater extent, of Der Sand aus den Urnen, to be old-fashioned and hence unappealing. Certainly the vocabulary is in no sense "modern," and the style—especially on account of the long dactylic lines and frequent genitive metaphors—is likewise reminiscent of a bygone era. But it would be wrong to deny that many of these early poems, which in the 1940's attracted the attention of sensitive critics, remain impressive examples of Celan's poetic talent. If they are viewed as personal and avowedly irrational statements relating to Celan's personal tragedy, the impact of at least some of them is undiminished even today. (p. 59)
[The two poems "Corona" and "Todesfuge"] contain numerous allusions to theological and literary sources as well as to Jewish history. Some of these allusions are quite clear whereas others are much less obvious. But they are all functional and contribute to the effect of the poem, and hence must be discussed. It is, of course, quite possible that the poems contain allusions not referred to in my interpretation. On one level, "Corona" ("Crown," "Wreath," …) is a "Widerruf" ["poetic refutation"] of the poem "Herbsttag" ("Autumn Day") by Rainer Maria Rilke…. (p. 60)
Basically, Celan turns Rilke's resignation into a positive assertion, and the absence of the word "Lord" in Celan's formulation implies a rejection of the acceptance of God's will which is implicit in Rilke's phrase. The speaker of "Herbsttag" sees that a period of restlessness and loneliness is approaching and is prepared to accept this condition. The speaker of "Corona," on the other hand, cannot say "Lord, thy will be done." He does not accept as the will of God the fact that autumn is inevitably coming, autumn with both its traditional values of loneliness, barrenness, and death, and its specific significance for Celan. He not only refuses to accept the apparently natural phenomenon that the trees will soon be leafless and barren, but he demands a complete reversal of nature: now even the stones must begin to bloom. As is usually the case, Biblical and related religious imagery and references form an integral part of the "Widerruf." (pp. 61-2)
The rhythm of ["Corona,"] as always in Celan, closely corresponds to the succession of thought and emotion. The long, flowing dactylic rhythm of the first stanza is replaced by a series of short lines, each consisting of a single image which is, at first glance, apparently autonomous. The growing impatience of the speaker is emphasized by this device. The rhythm of the third stanza is again smoother, suggesting the hope promised by the relationship with the beloved—the lover and the Jewish people. Impatience is, once more, suggested in the final lines, especially by the repetitions of the phrase "Es ist Zeit." The final line is set apart as a separate stanza, emphasizing the urgency of the statement. The alteration of emotions between patience and impatience, hope and frustration, finds adequate expression in the complex shifts of rhythm with the poem.
The impatience and the urgency present in the final lines of "Corona" are clearly explained by the next poem, "Todesfuge." (p. 67)
["Todesfuge"] is basically a description of a concentration camp, from the perspective of the victims who are the speakers in the poem. It is also a poem of frustrated love. Sulamite represents not only the Jewish people, but also the beloved of each individual speaker. Many of the phrases, especially those relating to the man, the Nazi official, are realistic descriptions of some aspect of the camp, such as "a man lives in the house," "he whistles his dogs to his side," and "in the evening he writes to Germany" (most of the camps were, in fact, outside of Germany). Some of the images describing the atrocities in the camp are slightly distorted but still easily recognizable: "shoveling a grave in the air" refers not only to cremation, but also to the responsibility of the Jewish prisoners for doing the actual physical work involved in keeping the instruments of death functioning. The ashen hair of Sulamite suggests the typical dark color of the hair of the Jews, as well as the effects of the cremation. The references to singing and playing allude to the actual existence of orchestras in some camps…. Other images apparently far removed from the realities of the camp are in fact based on equally real physical objects; the "black milk" which the speakers drink and the commandant's playing "with serpents" suggest, of course, alienation and evil, but also allude to the clouds of smoke issuing from the crematories and to the commandant's whip, respectively. (pp. 69-70)
Celan's [earlier] descriptions of the pictures in "Edgar Jené und der Traum vom Traume" … come to mind. Jené's paintings from the years 1945 to 1948 are, at the same time, beautiful and terrible, in much the same manner as "Todesfuge." But to Celan's way of thinking, this kind of "irrational" interpretation of reality is truer than that given by statistics or "objective" sociological studies. The essence of Auschwitz, and of life, Celan would argue, is more faithfully portrayed by Jené's paintings or by "Todesfuge" than by the statistical statement "6,000,000 Jews were killed by the Nazis." Art captures the terrible reality of the fact, which the objective statement simply fails to convey. (p. 71)
The title literally means "Fugue of Death," and some critics see an additional meaning suggested by a word play on the German "Fuge," which is pronounced much like the Latin "fuga," "flight."… It can, however, be said with certainty that the poem corresponds in a general way to the structure of the fugue, especially in its utilization of counterpoint.
Much of the poem's...
(The entire section is 2952 words.)
[Celan's] "Fugue of Death" ("Todesfuge") is perhaps the most celebrated poem on the subject of the Holocaust in Western Europe. During his years of alienation (and, presumably, incarceration), only one thing, Celan reports, remained attainable in the midst of the other casualties of war: language…. During those years and the ones following, Celan continues, he sought to write poems using that language, seeking direction and orientation, "in order to design for myself a reality." A living language lacking a vocabulary to describe what it has "seen," a poetic voice echoing silence as well as speech—these are two of the paradoxes that constitute the ingredients of Celan's poem, and much of the literature that...
(The entire section is 1107 words.)
[A] poet is not vaguely subjective or purely emotional, but makes choices from the objectively given lexical and grammatical tradition of the language; and poetry deals with words and relationships. Three factors … which might influence the poet's choice of language [are] the referential aspect, the phonological aspect, and their interrelationship within a poem's text. (p. 35)
[In considering Paul Celan's "Blume," the] first observation, obvious but important, is that the poem has five stanzas which, except for the second one, are dominated by the nominal style. In asking why Celan adopted this rather than the verbal style, one can suggest the poet's attempt at paring down the means of expression,...
(The entire section is 1124 words.)
The most extraordinary case in [the] category of rhythmic innovations is Paul Celan. In addition to the abandoning of traditional meters, one can observe in his poetry the disintegration of syntax and word formation. Celan does not give up the relatedness to grammar completely, however, and thus points towards a metagrammar. This development culminates with the volume Niemandsrose (1964)….
Because of the danger of mannerism, in his later volumes Celan turned for the purpose of his metagrammatical intentions from the disintegration of grammar to the combination of incongruous images and to the juxtaposition of signifying and signified aspects of the words in conjunction with the rhythmic...
(The entire section is 231 words.)
Paul Celan had no wish to be a confessional poet, except in so far as all poets are confessional, because they must be true to their own experience. Even in the early "Death Fugue," his most famous and most widely anthologized poem, the personal anguish was transposed into distancing imagery and a musical structure so incompatible with reportage that a kind of "terrible beauty" is wrested from the ugly theme. Realists and literalists among Celan's critics were to object to his "aestheticizing" of the death camps. Yet the power and pathos of the poem arises from the extreme tension between its grossly impure material and its pure form. The impossibility of writing poems after Auschwitz, let alone about Auschwitz, has...
(The entire section is 1297 words.)
Celan's is a poetry of the nonexplicit, the unutterable. It could have sprung fully formed from the head of Wallace Stevens's snow man, for it stems from a consciousness which not only "beholds" but also gives image to the "Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is." Celan recreated the German language, evidently picking up where Rilke left off in 1926 (for example in the rose-eye poem "Arrival"). Celan's language—peculiar, idiosyncratic, transformational, at times almost incomprehensible—seems the only one capable of absorbing and expressing a world changed by the Holocaust. His language and poetry issue from the urgent need to communicate, to speak the truth that lies in deeply ambiguous metaphors....
(The entire section is 455 words.)