Poems of Paul Celan

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1419

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Paul Celan’s experiences as a German-Romanian Jew during World War II form the basis for his spare, devastating poems. Michael Hamburger’s English versions follow all the subtleties of the German originals, and, in the later poems, which are rich in neologisms and multiple meanings, Hamburger brings sharp insight as well as tremendous verbal flexibility to his translations. Hamburger’s prefatory critical essay gives a clear basic introduction to Celan’s work as well as illustrating some of the problems of translating it. This volume prints both the original German and the English translation, on facing pages.

Celan was born Paul Antschel in 1920 in Chernovtsky, Bukovina, a German settlement in Romania. His studies were interrupted in 1941 when the Jews were interned. His parents died in a concentration camp; this loss, particularly that of his mother, sets the tone for much of his poetry. He settled in Paris after the war and adopted Celan as his name. Re never recovered from the horror of the Holocaust, however, and although he married a Frenchwoman, had children, and became more and more widely known as a poet and translator, his deepening melancholy led to his suicide by drowning in 1970.

Celan claimed that language was one thing that remained intact for him after the war, but his poems show the progressive disintegration of language as even this center fails to hold for him. In the first collections of his work, language seems to be indeed the only firm ground, but it gradually becomes an abyss into which the poet, spiraling, descends, taking with him the reader and the world. This selection, part of which was published in 1980 as Paul Celan: Poems, spans his career, from Mohn und Gedaichtnis (poppy and memory), which appeared in 1952, through three posthumous collections. Read through, the sequence establishes a thematic cycle:

the mourning of the Holocaust; the attempt to establish a new, cosmopolitan identity and the failure of this attempt; and the reidentification with the Jewish heritage. Stylistically, the poems become more complex and gnomic as they proceed, until some of the final poems in the collection are nearly impenetrably hermetic and mysterious.

The first poems center on the concentration camps and the poet’s mother’s death. Set in autumn, the season of her death, they are relatively direct, emotional, and personal. Their somber descriptions of nature reflect the losses they recount. One begins: “Aspen tree, your leaves glance white into the dark.! My mother’s hair was never white.” The poems are filled with moss, clouds, bracken, mold, dusk, hair, halflight, and soft things. The most famous of them is “Todesfuge” (”Death Fugue”), a direct examination of the concentration camps, which begins, “Black milk of daybreak we drink it at sundown,” and uses the “black milk of daybreak” as a refrain linking the images of the camps and contrasting the “golden hair” of Margarete, the Aryan, and the “ashen hair” of Shulamith, the Jew, The poem, like the others, is preoccupied with “the grave you will have in the clouds”—the smoke from the ovens, which was the only grave of the Jews. Metaphorically, Celan breathes this air throughout the poems; it infuses them with darkness and sadness.

These poems, however, do not have completely straightforward surfaces. Their use of nonrational associations in the tradition of French surrealism helps them build to an intense emotional pitch. “Tallow Lamp,” the first poem in the book, begins, “The monks with hairy fingers opened the book: September.” “In Front of a Candle,” from the second collection, is an attempt to exorcise grief through the distancing effect of ritual:

in the name of the third, who piles upwhite stones in the centre,—I pronounce you freeof the amen that drowns our voices,of the icy light on its edgeswhere, high as a tower, it enters the sea,where the grey one, the dovepecks up the nameson this and the other side of dying:you remain, you remain, you remaina dead woman’s child,to the No of my longing consecrated.

The poems of the middle group are less personal and more concentrated. In them, the grief becomes abstract and generalized. The imagery is more emblematic:rose and stone, clock and star. The poems often describe the failure of the survivor to recover, to re-create himself in another identity. Other themes are the failure of God to help His people and the alienation of the Jews in their present fragmented, unsponsored condition. “Psalm” explains:

A nothingwe were, are, shallremain, flowering:the nothing—, theno one’s rose.

Language, too, is unreliable. As the title of one collection, Sprachgitter (1959; Speech-Grille and Other Poems, 1971), implies, speech comes through a mesh or grille that filters and distorts. A number of poems express the failure of language to rebuild, to reconstitute anything lost, and some show its dissolution. A poem that begins “No more sand art” concludes,

Your question—your answer.Your song, what does it know?Deepinsnow,   Eepinnow,     Ee—i—o.

In many of these poems, the “I” has been replaced by “you,” “we,” or the third person. Some are difficult to understand and contain enigmatic allusions, but the pure lyrical denial of even the most difficult poems comes through in all its intensity, leaving even the reader who is intellectually befuddled feeling “the dance of the words made of/ autumn and silk and nothingness.”

The last poems are the most dense and complex. Many of these were first published in the posthumous collections. These poems repeat some images from the first collections, but here the images are stripped, left without explanation. The “I” reappears, as well as the second person, but the second person has no clear referent. In the first poems, “you” referred to a distinct individual, usually the dead mother. In the next group, the referents blur and multiply. In these concluding poems, the “you” is sometimes the poet’s wife or lover, but the pronoun often suggests a mystical Other, the God that does not care or is not there, the Shadow. These poems, too, are for the most part sharply negative; they lack the begrudged sense of possibility that occasionally strays into the poems of the second group. Many of them seem to be cryptic fragments rather than fully developed poems. They were collected and arranged by others; Celan’s intentions for these poems are not known. An example from Schneepart (1971; snowshare), atypical only in its clarity, illustrates both the difficulties and the strange appeal of these works:

Whorish othertime. And eternitybabelled around the edges, bloodblack.Mud-coveredwith your loamy locksmy faith.Two fingers, far from a hand,row their way towards the swampyvow.

Belief has been violated; the integrity of the faithful self has been ravished by the events of the past—the “whorish othertime.” Yet even the fragments of self are possessed by a will to believe, and thus fingers (those which bold the pen?) are compelled back in the direction of the “swampy vow.” In general, these late poems express variants on the theme of what Celan describes in one as the “Illegibility! of this world.” The world finally can be neither read nor written. All communication fails. Sex with a beloved can be a solace, but it is a limited one, a metaphor for the desired communion that cannot be. In their expression of a desperate, doomed attempt to communicate with the Other, these poems too cast their spell.

Celan’s critics claim that he has aestheticized the experience of the concentration camps. Yet the pain of the Holocaust is neither lessened nor explained away by the art of these poems; rather, it is shared on a level which cannot be reached by realistic description. Much has also been made of Celan’s “negative theology” or “theology of denial,” hints of which can be seen in the poems quoted above. Throughout the poems, Celan connects his repeated negatives—nothing, never, no one, none, no—with sacred numbers and imagery central to Christian or Jewish mysteries. These combinations accumulate and crescendo to produce the fevered pitch of the “No of my longing consecrated.” It is this focus on nothing, absence, and loss that gives his work its lyric intensity. If indeed the work constitutes a one-sided argument with God, then the ferocity with which the poet listens to His silence is a kind of piety. Paul Celan is certainly one of the most important poets to emerge from World War II, and Hamburger has done a great service in making these poems accessible to the English-speaking reader.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 38

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