Celan, Paul (Pseudonym of Paul Antschel) (Vol. 19)
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.)
James K. Lyon
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...
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[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,...
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Lawrence L. Langer
[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 succeeded it. The "Fugue of Death" seeks to create a reality about another reality in which speech proved lethal and silence laden with terror while the victim trembled helplessly between the two; the poet, drawing his inspiration from this dilemma, is simultaneously attracted and repelled by it, in Celan's lucid formulation, "chafed by and seeking reality" but steering relentlessly toward the goal of making it available to the reader. Celan regards the poem as a species of conversation, and thus essentially of the nature of dialogue…. (pp. 9-10)
The unusual pattern of "Fugue of Death," with its repudiation of normal punctuation and grammar, its fragmentary phraseology, its insistent return to a few dark metaphors and...
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[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, which is a function of the nonverbal style. That this suggestion is plausible can be demonstrated on the phonological and semantic level. Thus the lightness of the vowels in such words as "Stein," "blind," "Finsternis" points to abstraction rather than fullness; the meaning of the words indicates a non-communicative realm, the realm of silence and blindness.
Basic to the structure of the poem is the antithesis "Blume/Stein," an antithesis begun with the contrast of the poem's title and the first line ("der Stein"). This antithesis alerts us to the dichotomy of "Blume" and "Finsternis" and the conjunction of opposites in the phrase "Blume—ein Blindenwort." An analysis of the other aspects of the poem will help determine...
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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 qualities of the words. (p. 142)
[The] reciprocal conditioning of rhythm and language, which takes place without regard to the everyday logic of language and establishes a totally genetic rhythm, corresponds to Celan's poetic intention to assert himself in the self-realization of the creative act vis-à-vis all earthly and cosmic relations. This is the ultimate poetic consequence which he drew from the experience of persecution and exile, and it corresponds to the principal concept of his imagery, a mystical process, which culminates in a cosmic equivalence. (p. 143)
Klaus Weissenberger, "Poetic Rhythm and the Exile Situation," in Protest—Form—Tradition: Essays on German Exile...
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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 become a critical commonplace. Celan knew that even he could not hope to do so directly, realistically, but only by an art of contrast and allusion that celebrates beauty and energy while commemorating their destruction. Though he turned against his "Death Fugue" in later years, refusing permission to have it reprinted in more anthologies, that was because he had refined his art in the meantime to a point where the early poem seemed too direct, too explicit. Meanwhile, he had also found a place for ugliness in his poems—but in poems that were judged to be private and "hermetic." Yet the anguish, the darkness. the shadow of death are present in all his work, early and late, including the most high-spirited and sensuous. (p. 16)...
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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.
Michael Hamburger's chronological selection [in "Paul Celan: Poems"] spans Celan's entire poetic production…. [Most] American readers know only his poem "Todesfuge," or "Death Fugue."…
Its richly sonic, dactylic lines (spoken by the inmates of a camp), while typical of Celan's mastery of form, content, texture and sound, are hardly indicative of the direction his composition would later take. A comparison of it to the related fugal stretto "Engführung" ("The Straitening"), written some 13 years later, reveals, to use a word coined by Celan, "leap-centuries" of change…. In the interim Celan's lines and language have splintered, his music has become more strident, his landscape more austere; in sum, his...
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