The Poem

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 697

“From the Beam” is a short poem composed of nineteen short lines of free verse. It is a spare, tight poem, and some of the lines (in the translation) consist of a single word. Poets who compress their thoughts to the fewest possible words, claiming that “less is more”—the less on the surface, the more beneath—are known as minimalists. Paul Celan identified with no school of poetry, but this poem, which uses only sixty-odd words in its nineteen lines, exemplifies the concentration of the minimalist poets.

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This poem is one of Celan’s last poems and was first published posthumously. Celan’s suicide, like that of the American poet Sylvia Plath, was followed by the discovery of a powerful series of poems that the poet had left ready for publication. “From the Beam” illustrates the strong attraction of death experienced by one who had lost so much in the concentration camps and in the war that he could never again participate fully in the life of the world. Celan’s final poems are intense expressions of pain that almost defy explication. This poem uses nautical imagery to illustrate the bond the speaker feels with the dead, here depicted as a drowned or submerged “other” whom the poet addresses as “you.”

In this difficult poem, the speaker is identified or associated with a ship. At times the speaker seems to be running the craft, but at other points he seems to be almost one with the ship, seeing with its “beacon” and feeling with its “drop-keel.” (While in some poems there is reason to distinguish the speaker’s thoughts and feelings from the poet’s, there is no reason to do so in this one.)

The poem begins with an invitation to an unknown other to come in, down from “the beam”—presumably the crossbeam of the ship. There may be the suggestion of a crucifixion image. In the rest of the poem, the “you” is addressed as down, below, or under, probably under the sea. The “you” has been sacrificed, and the pain of the loss is borne permanently by the speaker, who describes “[the] scream/ enshrined” of the being or person who is “below,/down below.” The speaker is drawn toward the submerged other; as the speaker is still among the living, he is whole-handed, “with fingers”—able to grasp or to write. The other, the submerged one, has arm-stalks which “multiply.” The German word wuchern, here translated as “multiply,” actually means to grow flourishingly, not a characteristic one would ordinarily apply to the dead. Using the word here suggests an unhealthy growth, forms beneath the water suffering sea-changes into monstrous shapes. The “beacon” broods instead of the “one-starred heaven,” an obscure reference which may suggest the individual consciousness of the speaker as opposed to the shared consciousness of Jewish heritage. Alternatively, it may suggest simply that the only light is his own, if the beacon is taken to be a part of the ship rather than on land. Interpretations are mainly speculative at this level, but the line evokes the image of a single, “brooding” light: an intensity of mind. The keel of the boat, which draws up, is used to “get a reading from you”—to establish communication with the dead, or with the unreachable other. The horror of the poem is in the image of the speaker reaching out with his fingers toward the figure underneath, who has only arm-stalks to be grasped or with which to grasp.

The identity of the other is never established with any clarity. The “you” addressed is Celan’s dead, and perhaps also that part of himself that was lost with his family in the Holocaust. Usually Celan describes the dead as ashes in the air, bringing to mind the Holocaust furnaces. The unhealthy, unearthly “down below” that calls him in this poem is unusual for Celan. These depths which conceal corpses bring a wealth of other associations including Sigmund Freud’s description of the unconscious, the deepest part of the psyche; the sea-death-transformation images in William Shakespeare’s The Tempest (1611); and the Phlebas the Sailor passage in T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922).

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 383

The short, spare lines of “From the Beam” emphasize each image and give the impression that the poem itself is something painful being dredged up, word by word, image by image, from depths more happily left unplumbed. The form is stark and without any ornament at all, let alone the complex elaboration that rhyme and rhythm would provide.

The group of poems from which this work is taken, Schneepart, or “Snow-Part,” consists of works containing intuitively rather than logically related images in poems of separation and loss. The collection, left ordered as Celan wished them to be published after his death, consists mostly of brief, untitled poems which emphasize isolation, loss, and fragmentation by their disconnected form as well as their images of amputations, breaks, and holes. (These poems are identified by their first lines in lieu of titles.) Celan commented once that language was the only thing which remained whole for him after the war; these late poems show that language, too, can be broken down and fragmented.

The major image of the ship dominates the poem; technical nautical language fine-tunes the metaphor. The “beam” of the first line is the main crossbeam, if literally translated. The drop-keel is a keel that can be cranked up in order to pull the boat ashore; thus the conclusion of the poem, “with the drop-keel/ I get a reading from you,” suggests a lowered part of the boat’s bottom dragging the depths, feeling for remnants of the lost other, trying to “read” the sea’s floor.

The repetition of words in a poem of such brevity and compactness heightens the intensity and places emphasis on the thoughts reiterated. The lines “You are below,/ you are down below” show both the feeling of loss and the distance between the speaker and the “you” addressed. The compulsion of the fatal attraction of the submerged addressee is stressed by “I go, I go.” Unable to stay in his own element, the speaker is indivisibly bonded to the one underneath the surface. “With fingers” is another repeated phrase, and it suggests the act of grasping and perhaps of writing. His grasp is an attempt at communication or closure. The speaker wishes to establish a sustaining link with history, but history has no hand with which to clasp his.

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Themes