The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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.

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...

(The entire section is 697 words.)