Other Literary Forms

Paul Celan’s literary reputation rests exclusively on his poetry. His only piece of prose fiction, if indeed it can be so described, is “Gespräch im Gebirg” (1959), a very short autobiographical story with a religious theme. Celan also wrote an introductory essay for a book containing works by the painter Edgar Jené; this essay, entitled Edgar Jené und der Traum vom Traume, (1948; Edgar Jené and the Dream About the Dream, 1986), is an important early statement of Celan’s aesthetic theory. Another, more oblique, statement of Celan’s poetic theory is contained in his famous speech, “Der Meridian” (1960), given on his acceptance of the prestigious Georg Büchner Prize. (An English translation of this speech, “The Meridian,” is available in the Winter, 1978, issue of Chicago Review.)

Discussion Topics

What recurrent images and symbols show Paul Celan’s preoccupation with the Holocaust?

Are there any glimmers of light in the darkness of Celan’s poetry? What are they?

How do Celan’s experiments with language fit in with the content of his poetry?

What role does silence play in Celan’s poetry?

What elements of music and dance do you see in “Death Fugue”? What relationship does the music have with the underlying theme?

One critic said that poetry was impossible after the Holocaust. Why might one believe this assertion? Discuss Celan’s poetry in the light of this comment.

How does Celan use his own and his family’s experience of the Holocaust in his poetry?

How does the poetry of Celan add a dimension to what is generally taught about the Holocaust?

Celan uses neologisms, invented words, to express ideas he could not find words for. His translators have tried to represent these with invented English words. What effect do Celan’s neologisms have?

How does Celan’s description of the Holocaust compare with others you have read in both poetry and prose?

Achievements

Paul Celan is considered an “inaccessible” poet by many critics and readers. This judgment, prompted by the difficulties Celan’s poetry poses for would-be interpreters seeking traditional exegesis, is reinforced by the fact that Celan occupies an isolated position in modern German poetry. Sometimes aligned with Nelly Sachs, Ernst Meister, and the German Surrealists, Celan’s work nevertheless stands apart from that of his contemporaries. A Jew whose outlook was shaped by his early experiences in Nazi-occupied Romania, Celan grew up virtually trilingual. The horror of his realization that he was, in spite of his childhood experiences and his later residence in France, a German poet was surely responsible in part for his almost obsessive concern with the possibilities and the limits of his poetic language. Celan’s literary ancestors are Friedrich Hölderlin, Arthur Rimbaud, Stéphane Mallarmé, Rainer Maria Rilke, and the German Expressionists, but even in his early poems his position as an outsider is manifest. Celan’s poems, called hermetic by some critics because of their resistance to traditional interpretation, can be viewed sometimes as intense and cryptic accounts of personal experience, sometimes as religious-philosophical discussions of Judaism, its tradition and its relation to Christianity. Many of his poems concern themselves with linguistic and poetic theory to the point where they cease to be poems in the traditional sense, losing all contact with the world of physical phenomena and turning into pure language, existing only for themselves. Such “pure” poems, increasingly frequent in Celan’s later works, are largely responsible for the charge of inaccessibility which has been laid against him. Here the reader is faced with having to leave the dimension of conventional language use, where the poet uses language to communicate with his audience about subjects such as death or nature, and is forced to enter the dimension of metalanguage, as Harald Weinrich calls it, where language is usd to discuss only language—that is, the word “death,” and not death itself. Such poems are accessible only to readers who share with the poet the basic premises of an essentially linguistic poetic theory.

In spite of all this, much of Celan’s poetry can be made accessible to the reader through focus on the personal elements in some poems, the Judaic themes in others, and by pointing out the biblical and literary references in yet another group.

Later Years

Celan’s poetry after Die Niemandsrose became almost inaccessible to the average reader. As the title Breathturn indicates, Celan wanted to go in entirely new directions. Most of the poems in Celan’s last collections are very short; references to language and writing become more frequent, and striking, often grotesque, portmanteau words and other neologisms mix with images from his earlier poems. There are still references to Judaism, to an absent or cruel God, and—in a cryptic form—to personal experiences. In the posthumously published Schneepart, the reader can even detect allusions to the turbulent political events of 1968. The dominant feature of these last poems, however, is the almost obsessive attempt to make the language of poetry perform new, hitherto unimagined feats, to coerce words to yield truth which traditional poetic diction could not previously force through its “speech-grille.” It appears that Celan finally despaired of ever being able to reach this new poetic dimension. The tone of his last poems was increasingly pessimistic, and his hopes, expressed in earlier poems, of finding “that ounce of truth deep inside delusion,” gave way to silence in the face of the “obstructive tomorrow.” It is the evidence of these last poems, more than any police reports, which make it a certainty that his drowning in the Seine in 1970 was not simply the result of an accident.

Celan’s poetry can be understood...

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Bibliography

Baer, Ulrich. Remnants of Song: Trauma and the Experience of Modernity in Charles Baudelaire and Paul Celan. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2000. Baer sees a basis for comparison of the nineteenth and the twentieth century poet. Bibliographical references, index.

Bernstein, Michael André. Five Portraits: Modernity and the Imagination in Twentieth-Century German Writing. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 2000. Compared with Celan are four other German poets and philosophers: Rainer Maria Rilke, Robert Musil, Martin Heidegger, and Walter Benjamin. Includes bibliographical references, index.

Block, Haskell M. The Poetry of Paul Celan. New York: P. Lang, 1991. A collection of papers from a conference at the State University of New York at Binghamton in 1988.

Chalfen, Israel. Paul Celan. New York: Persea Books, 1991.

Colin, Amy D. Paul Celan: Holograms of Darkness. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991.

Del Caro, Adrian. The Early Poetry of Paul Celan: In the Beginning Was the Word. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1997. A detailed treatment of the early volumes Mohn und Gedächtnis (1952) and Von Schwelle zu Schwelle (1955).

Felstiner, John. Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew. 1995. Reprint. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2001. Illuminates the rich biographical meaning behind much of Celan’s spare, enigmatic verse. Includes bibliographic references, illustrations, map, index.

Fioretos, Aris. Word Traces: Readings of Paul Celan. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994. Close readings. Bibliographical references, index.

Glenn, Jerry. Paul Celan. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1973. Biography and criticism of Celan’s work. Includes a bibliography of Celan’s work.

Rosenthal, Bianca. Pathways to Paul Celan. New York: P. Lang, 1995. An overview of the varied and often contradictory critical responses to the poet. Illustrated; includes bibliographical references, index.

Wolosky, Shira. Language and Mysticism: The Negative Way of Language in Eliot, Beckett, and Celan. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1995. A useful comparative study that helps to place Celan in context. Bibliographical refernences, index.

Bibliography

Baer, Ulrich. Remnants of Song: Trauma and the Experience of Modernity in Charles Baudelaire and Paul Celan. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2000. Baer sees a basis for comparison of the nineteenth and the twentieth century poet. Bibliographical references, index.

Bernstein, Michael André. Five Portraits: Modernity and the Imagination in Twentieth-Century German Writing. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 2000. Compared with Celan are four other German poets and philosophers: Rainer Maria Rilke, Robert Musil, Martin Heidegger, and Walter Benjamin. Includes bibliographical references, index.

Block, Haskell M. The Poetry of Paul Celan. New York: P. Lang, 1991. A collection of papers from a conference at the State University of New York at Binghamton in 1988.

Chalfen, Israel. Paul Celan. New York: Persea Books, 1991. (See Magill book review) A biography of Celan’s youth and early career. Includes bibliographic references.

Colin, Amy D. Paul Celan: Holograms of Darkness. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991. (For more on this title, see Magill’s Literary Annual review). An overview of Celan’s cultural background as well as postmodernist textual analysis.

Del Caro, Adrian. The Early Poetry of Paul Celan: In the Beginning Was the Word. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1997. A detailed treatment of the early volumes Mohn und Gedächtnis (1952) and Von Schwelle zu Schwelle (1955).

Felstiner, John. Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew. 1995. Reprint. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2001. (See Magill’s Literary Annual review) Illuminates the rich biographical meaning behind much of Celan’s spare, enigmatic verse. Includes bibliographic references, illustrations, map, index.

Fioretos, Aris. Word Traces: Readings of Paul Celan. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994. Close readings. Bibliographical references, index.

Glenn, Jerry. Paul Celan. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1973. Biography and criticism of Celan’s work. Includes a bibliography of Celan’s work.

Rosenthal, Bianca. Pathways to Paul Celan. New York: P. Lang, 1995. An overview of the varied and often contradictory critical responses to the poet. Illustrated; includes bibliographical references, index.

Wolosky, Shira. Language and Mysticism: The Negative Way of Language in Eliot, Beckett, and Celan. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1995. A useful comparative study that helps to place Celan in context. Bibliographical refernences, index.