Paul Celan

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From whichever direction we approach it - as plain readers of poetry, as critics or literary historians, as biographers or sociologists, or as translators - Paul Celan's work confronts us with difficulty and paradox. The more we try to concentrate on the poem itself, on its mode of utterance, which includes both theme and manner, the more clearly we see that difficulty and paradox are of its essence. As for 'placing' his work within the body of German literature after 1945, or against the larger background of international modernism, all we can be certain of at this point is that it occupies a prominent, isolated and anomalous position. With Nelly Sachs, this German poet, born of a Jewish family in Romania, shared an obvious preoccupation with the holocaust which he survived in body but not in spirit; and a not so obvious debt to Jewish history, tradition and mystical thought. Yet, apart from their essential differences in poetic practice, Nelly Sachs was a German poet before the holocaust turned her into a Jewish one. Like other assimilated German Jews she had to look for her Jewish heritage - with the help of Gentile friends, as it happened. Paul Celan spent his formative years in a Jewish community that had recently ceased to be within the boundaries of the Austrian Empire; and most of his productive years were spent in France. His poetic affinities were French, Russian and even English, as well as German. Among his German contemporaries, the one closest to him in sensibility and manner was Johannes Bobrowski, a resident in East Germany with distinctly Christian allegiances. Literary scholars and historians have only begun to survey Celan's background, to unravel his complex affinities and uncover the sources of many seemingly cryptic allusions in his poems.

As a translator I have profited by their researches, particularly by those of Dietlind Meinecke and of Joachim Schulze, to whom my thanks are due. As a translator, again, and as a reader of Celan's work, I insist on the essential difficulty and paradox of his poetry. It is the difficulty and the paradox that demand a special attention to every word in his texts, and this attention is something other than what is normally meant by understanding. I am by no means sure that I have 'understood* even those of his poems - a very small part of his total output - which I was able to translate. But the darkness in Celan's poems, their leaps and bounds, their haltingness and their silences, all these are inseparable from their authenticity and their fascination.

Paul Anczel - 'Celan' was an anagram adopted in 1947 when his first poems appeared in a Romanian periodical - was born at Czernowitz (now Chernovtsy), Bukovina, on 23 November 1920. After attending school there he paid his first visit to France in 1938, as a medical student in Tours, but returned to Czernowitz in the following year to study Romance languages and literatures. In 1940 his home town was occupied by Russian troops, but he was able to continue his studies until the following year, when German and Romanian forces took over and the Jews were herded into a ghetto. In 1942 his parents were deported to an extermination camp. Paul Celan managed to escape, but remained in a Romanian labour camp until he was able to return to Czernowitz, which had been re-occupied by the Russians, in December 1943. In the following year he took up his studies again until 1945, when he left the Soviet Union and settled in Bucharest as a translator and publisher's reader. In December 1947 he moved to Vienna, and in July 1948 - after the publication of his first book of poems, which he later withdrew - he settled in Paris, where he took up the study of German literature, obtaining his Licence esLettres in 1950 and becoming a teacher of German literature at the ^cole Normale Superieure. After his marriage that year to Gisele Lestrange, Paris remained his home until his suicide in April 1970, at the age of fortynine.

Most of the poems in his first collection were reprinted in Mohn und Gedächtnis, which appeared in West Germany in 1952 and won him immediate recognition, confirmed by an invitation to the Gruppe 47 in the same year. His next collection, Von Schwelle zu Schwelle, followed in 1955. Between 1957 and 1967 Celan received a number of prizes and awards, including the Georg Büchner Prize in i960. A speech delivered by Celan on that occasion, Der Meridian, is one of the very few prose pieces which he published and an important comment on his own work. With the publication of Sprachgitter (1959) and Die Niemandsrose (1963) Celan's work moved into a second phase. These two crucial and central collections were followed by Atemwende (1967), Fadensonnen (1968) and, posthumously, by Lichtzwang (1970) and Schneepart (1971). Celan's many translations into German included poems by Rimbaud and Valery, Apollinaire, Michaux and Andre du Bouchet; a selection from Shakespeare's sonnets, and poems by Emily Dickinson and Marianne Moore; and selections of poems by Blok, Mandelshtam and Yesenin. At an earlier period he published translations into Romanian of Russian prose works.

These basic facts of Celan's biography may indicate something of the anomaly and extremity of his position as a poet. What the facts do not reveal, and his productivity seems to belie, is that the loss of his parents and his early experience of persecution left indelible scars. Throughout his later years he suffered acute crises and breakdowns that seriously affected both his personal and his professional life. One such crisis occurred soon after his emergence as a poet, when he was accused of having plagiarized the work of Yvan Goll, the Franco-German poet with whom Celan became personally acquainted in 1949. Since Celan's early poems linked up both with German Expressionism and French Surrealism, movements with which Goll had been associated, certain stylistic features were bound to be common to both poets. If Celan had not been predisposed towards paranoia, the foolish and protracted controversy that ensued could not have hurt him; as it was, it obsessed and unbalanced him to a degree far in excess of the cause. I recall a later meeting with Celan when he was similarly obsessed with the 'treachery' of one of his publishers, who had decided to re-issue the poems of a ballad-writer popular during the Nazi regime. Towards the end of his life the crises became more violent and more disruptive.

Paul Celan was not a confessional poet. Even in the early Fugue of Death, his most famous and most widely anthologized poem, the personal anguish is transposed into distancing imagery and a musical structure so intricate that a kind of 'terrible beauty' is wrested from the ugly theme. Realists and literalists among Celan's critics objected to this 'aestheticizing' of the death camps. Yet the power of the poem arises from the extreme tension between its grossly impure material and its almost pure form. A great deal has been written about the impossibility of writing poems after Auschwitz, let alone about Auschwitz. Even Celan could not do so directly, realistically, but only by an art of contrast and paradox that celebrates beauty and energy while commemorating their destruction. Though he turned against his Fugue of Death in later years, refusing permission to have it reprinted in more anthologies, it was because he had refined his art in the meantime to a point where the Fugue of Death seemed too direct, too realistic. Yet the anguish, the darkness, the shadow of death are present in all his poems, early and late, including the most high-spirited and sensuous.

The aspiration towards a pure or absolute poetry was pervasive in France among poets of almost every school, and it was not necessarily felt to be incompatible with political and ethical commitments. Like Paul Eluard and, Rene Char, among the French poets to whom Celan felt close, he did not feel constrained to sacrifice the freedom of his art to an 'engagement' beyond it. At his most difficult, most elliptic and paradoxical, he insisted that he was not a hermetic poet but one out to communicate, describing his poems as 'ways of a voice to a receptive you', a 'desperate dialogue' and 'a sort of homecoming'. Another way of putting it is that his poetry never ceased to be rooted in experience, extreme experience that could not be enacted in any manner less difficult than his. The hiatuses, the silences, the dislocations of normal usage belong to what he had to say and to the effort of saying it.

If Celan's poems were meant to be hermetic they would be less difficult, since they would save us the effort of making sense of them. That is why the earlier verse, though purer, is less difficult than the later. Any reader familiar with the kind of poetry whose progression is one of imagery rather than argument will know how to read the earlier poems, whose diction too is closer to established conventions. From Sprachgitter onwards the images grow sparser and more idiosyncratic, the syntax more broken, the message at once more urgent and more reticent. The existing resources of language become inadequate. Celan begins to coin new words, especially compound words, and to divide other words into their component syllables, each of which acquires a new weight. The process of condensation and dislocation is carried further in the following collections. Both verse lines and whole poems tend to grow shorter and shorter.

One exception, the long poem The Straitening, exemplifies the change. Its German title, Engführung, is a technical term for a device employed in the composition of fugues. Its counterpart in English usage would have been the Italian word 'stretto'. This points to the precedent of Celan's earlier poem Fugue of Death, and a comparison between the two longer poems shows just how daring, condensed and cryptic Celan's art had grown in the thirteen years separating them. Although the form of the later poem is an even closer approximation to fugal composition with words, I decided not to use the technical term for the title. (The French translation by Jean Daive, which was authorized by Celan, does use the technical term, Strette.) A German reader of the original text not versed in the art of counterpoint would take the title more literally as a 'narrowing' or reduction; and since this wider, thematic connotation would not be conveyed by the strictly musical term, I looked for an English word that would at least suggest it. Ambiguity, in any case, occurs throughout this poem.

The later poems included in the present selection are those that were not rendered totally untranslatable by ambiguity, play on words or a degree of uncertainty as to what the poem is about that would have made translation little more than guesswork. It was a question not of whether I could catch this allusion or that - many must have escaped me even in poems which I did translate - but whether I could respond to the gesture of a poem as a whole. If the gesture of the poem made sense, the oddities of diction and usage, including the ambiguities, could usually be reproduced in English, with certain modifications due to the different characters of the two languages. German, for instance, lends itself to the formation of compound words in a way that English does not. German also permits nouns to be preceded by complete clauses that qualify them, a peculiarity of the language that was especially congenial to Celan when the movement of his poem had come to be governed by breath units rather than by metrical or syntactic units.

Und du: 

du, du, du 

mein täglich wahr- und wahrer

geschundenes Später 

der Rosen -;

where the German capitalization of nouns helps to bring out that the adjective 'später' has been turned into a noun, has had to be transposed as follows:

And you:

you, you, you

my later of roses

daily worn true and

more true -:

A structurally faithful rendering would have demanded:

And you: 

you, you, you 

my daily true- and truer

worn later 

of (the) roses -:

with the added substitution of a stronger word than 'worn' to convey the sense of misuse or abuse implied by the German word 'geschunden’.

Those lines are from a poem of Celan's middle period. More puzzling neologisms abound in the later collections, as in this short poem, Once:


I heard him, 

he was washing the world, 

unseen, nightlong, 


One and Infinite, 



Light was. Salvation.

The German word corresponding to 'ied' is Uchten. Since it comes after 'vernichtet* (annihilated) it could be the infinitive of a verb that is the positive counterpart of 'annihilate', and that is how it was construed by a reviewer for The Times Literary Supplement, who translated it as 'ihilate'. This new verb would not be more far-fetched than other neologisms of Celan's, since in Middle High German, which he knew, there was a positive Uht9 (aught) corresponding to the negative 6 niht9 (nought). My authority for 'ied' is Paul Celan himself. When I last met him, in April 1968, he was convinced that I was the author of the anonymous review in question and would not accept my repeated denial. He explained that Uchten9 was formed from the personal pronoun 'ich9 , so that it was the third person plural of the imperfect tense of a verb Uchen9 ('to i'). An equally ambiguous word formation is to be found in the poem Etched Away From, but Celan did not comment on the translation offered by the same reviewer of Atemwende. I refer to

das hundert-

züngige Mein-

gedicht, das Genicht

rendered there as

the hundred-

tongued my-

poem, the noem.

*Mein-gedicW could indeed mean 'my-poem', but it could also mean 'false poem* or 'pseudo-poem', by analogy with the German word 'Meineid', a false oath. Possibly Celan had both senses in mind when he coined the word. In translation the ambiguity had to be resolved, and after much pondering I decided in favour of 'pseudopoem', although 'Meineid' is the only modern German word that preserves this sense of 'mein. Paul Celan was a learned poet with an outstandingly rich vocabulary derived more from reading than from practice in the vernacular, since he spent little time in German-speaking countries. Since he also knew Yiddish, he was closer to the medieval roots of the German language than contemporaries who grew up in Germany.

Negation is a strikingly recurrent feature not only of Celan's new word-formations but of his later poetry in general. The seemingly negative theology of his great poem Psalm has been shown to have antecedents in both Jewish and Christian mysticism, and Celan is known to have been well versed in both. Less expUcitly than in Psalm, something of this theology is prefigured in early poems like The Jugs. Celan's religion - and there can be no doubt as to his profoundly religious sensibility, whatever he may have believed or not believed - had to come to grips with the experience of being God-forsaken. Negation and blasphemy were the means by which Celan could be true to that experience and yet maintain the kind of intimate dialogue with God characteristic of Jewish devotion.

(Celan жаратқан жаңа сөздердің ішінде терістеу сипатты сөздер үнемі қайталанып отыратын ерекше қасиетке ие. Ақынның бірегей шығармасы «Psalm» да ырықсыз деңгейде тілге тиек болатын дінге қатысты ойлам христиандық және индуизмдік түс алады. Осы екі дін туралы Celan терең түсінікке ие болған. Ертеректегі өлеңдерінде айталық, «The Jugs» шығармасында осы жағындағы қасиет айқын көрініс табады. Celan-ның шығармашылығында діннің салмағы бөлек және ақын бұл жағында өте сезімталдығымен көзге түседі. Ол қаласа да, қаламаса да өзін тасанды сезінгені анық. Бұл бастан кешкен болмысына орай дінен бас тарту немесе оған біржола берілуге барып соғатын бірегейлік емес, қайта басқа бір тұрғы – Жаратушымен байланысты сақтап қалған өзгеше болмысты -  индуизмдік қасиетті көрнектілендіріп тұр.

Бастару мен соған қатысты теке-тірестен туындайтын қайшылық, ақынның ертеректегі тағы бір туындысы «Speak, You Als» да көзге түседі. Өлеңде «Бастарту, бөлініп қалу ма?» дейтін тіркес бар. Шығармада қараңғылықтың салмағы басым, ақын «қараңғыда ғана адам шынын айтады» дегенге саятын ұстынмын анықтайды. Біз жарық пен қараңғы, өмір мен өлімнің тартысы соңғы кезеңдегі Celan шығармашылығының түп қазғығы болғанын білеміз...)         

At the same time negation and paradox served him as a basic stylistic principle, as expounded in the early poem Speak, You Also. In that poem he exhorts himself to 'keep yes and no unsplit', to admit enough darkness into his poems, because 'he speaks truly who speaks the shade'. With its dialectic of light and darkness, life and death, this poem anticipates the whole of Celan's subsequent development, as well as linking the formal aspects of that development - the reduction carried further from book to book - with the inner necessity from which they arose:

Thinner you grow, less knowable, finer.

This applies to the poems as much as to the poet; and so does the star image, towards the end of the poem, that stands for the urge towards the transcendence and resolution of paradox present in Celan's work right up to the posthumous collections.

One thing sets Paul Celan's work apart from that of most of his German coevals: he had hardly any use for realism of a kind that merely imitates and reproduces, for what Northrop Frye has called 'the low mimetic'. Direct social comment is not to be found in his work, though it became increasingly realistic in a different sense - the widening of its vocabulary to include twentieth century phenomena and technologies. From Die Niemandsrose onwards invective becomes prominent in Celan's poems, though the invective is as rich in cryptic allusions and intricate word-play as every other mode that he employed. He was realistic, too, in doing full justice to 'the foul ragand-bone shop of the heart'. Yet the 'inwardness' of his poetry places it in a line of descent that runs from Hölderlin through Rilke to Expressionism. As a very short late poem attests, he found Brecht's poetry of social and political comment too 'explicit'. One reason is that he wanted poetry to be open to the unexpected, the unpredictable, the unpredeterminable. His poems were 'messages in a bottle', as he said, which might or might not be picked up. That element of risk was as necessary to them as the need to communicate. On the few occasions when he spoke about poetry in public he spoke of it as a process, a groping forward, a search. Paradoxically once more, he spoke of its practice, and the practice of any art, as a driving of the practitioner into the 'inmost recess of himself, his narrowest place, and as a 'setting free'. That, incidentally, is one reason why the title of his poem Engführung means more than the technical term 'stretto' could possibly convey to an English reader. 

No feature of Celan's later poems is more characteristic of their openness and mysteriousness than their unidentified personal pronouns, the 'you' that can be the woman addressed in a love poem or an alter ego or a deity; the 'he', 'she' or 'they' that enters a poem without any introduction or explanation. Most of these persons have no existence or significance outside the poem. It is the poem that creates them or discovers them. A reader can either relate himself to them through his own experience and imagination or he can not, in which case the message in the bottle has not reached him. If it does reach him it will tell him something of which he was not aware before reading it. That is the distinction of poetry like Celan's, poetry always close to the unutterable because it has passed through it and come out on the other side.

Such poetry demands a special kind of attention and perhaps a special kind of faith in the authenticity of what it enacts. Without a similar attention and faith it could not have been written, since the risk is shared by writer and reader. Speaking about poetry, Celan quoted this definition by Malebranche: 'Attention is the natural prayer of the soul.' It was this quality of attention that I had in mind when I referred to Celan's religious sensibility. The more we read Celan's poems, the more his kind of attention imposes itself as the only adequate response to them.

The present selection from Celan's successive collections, with its inevitable concentrations on poems more easily accessible than many others, could not encompass the full range of his work, which becomes most rewarding when read in its entirety. We need to know his recurrent images before we can appreciate their modifications and transmutations from poem to poem. This book will serve its purpose if it permits English readers to make a start. It seems very likely that Celan's work will be widely translated, for a long time to come.

Michael Hamburger

Penguin Modern European Poets  – «Paul Celan: Selected Poems»

Yves Bonnefoy: Ол сөзбен ауырды

H.G.Gadamer :Жарықшада гүл ашқан роза

Paul Celan: Fugue of Death

Paul Celan Allerseelen All Souls Day

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