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Paul Celan as Existentialist Poet

Marc Jampole
October 27, 2016


by Marc Jampole

from the Autumn 2016 issue of Jewish Currents

Discussed in this essay: Breathturn into Timestead: The Collected Later Poetry, by Paul Celan, translated from the German by Pierre Joris. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014, 736 pages.

MOST PEOPLE know poets by one or two poems — often an early effort that called attention to the poet or exemplified her or his first stylistic breakthrough. Very few poets share the happy fate of Shakespeare or Eliot to have more than one or two of their works enter the literary pantheon.

For the post-World War II Romanian Jewish poet, Paul Celan (1920-1970), the poems that define him for most readers are two early works, “Todesfuge” (“Death Fugue,” published in 1948) and “Corona” (1952). “Black milk of dawn we drink you at dusk,” opens all four verses of “Todesfuge,” announcing a post-Holocaust poetic universe expressed in a language that is both lush and stripped down to essentials. The poem describes life and death in a concentration camp, something Celan experienced firsthand.

He was born as Paul Antschel to a German-speaking Jewish family in Northern Bukovina. Like many European Jews caught in Hitler’s vise, he was the only one of his family to survive the war after enduring about two years in a Romanian labor camp. In “Todesfuge,” Celan weaves into fragmented descriptions of daily life in a concentration camp the repetition of a number of haunting phrases, including, “There’s a man in this house who cultivates snakes,” and “Death is a gang-boss aus Deutschland.” Throughout his writing, whatever the stage, is a focus on the Holocaust — in particular on the guilt, shame, anger and anxiety felt by survivors.

“Todesfuge” hit the international poetry world with a force comparable to that of Eliot’s “Wasteland” or Wallace Steven’s Harmonium. The reading public, in German and every other language into which “Todesfuge” was translated, immediately recognized that Celan had developed a new sense of language to grapple with the possibilities of love, community, and humanity during an apocalypse. After fleeing for Vienna and then Paris after the communist takeover of Romania, Celan soon established himself as one of the major post-war poets writing in German.

“Corona,” from Celan’s second collection, Mohn and Gedächtnis (Poppy and Memory, 1952), is found in virtually all anthologies of international, German, and Jewish poetry covering the 20th century, and with good reason. It uses sensual imagery such as “Autumn eats out of my hand” and “We sleep like wine in the conches,/like the sea in the moon’s blood ray” to paint a picture of two lovers on an autumn day, so in love that they are ready to announce it to the world. They stand at a window nakedly embracing, and perceive the people looking up from the street at them. Throughout, the poem drops suggestions of darkness, as if the love were transgressive or offensive in the bleak world in which it has bloomed — for example, “We speak dark truths” and “It is time the stone made an effort to flower.” The dominance of time in the first and last stanzas lends a sense of foreboding, because in poetry, time is usually short and fleeting or long and uncaring. To be in love and to make love are acts of defiance against the horrors of the Holocaust and the degradations of time. This realization gives enormous power to the last lines:

it is time they knew!
It is time the stone made an effort
to flower,
Time unrest had a beating heart.
It is time that it became time.

It is time.

A NEW VOLUME of Celan’s late poetry that places the original German next to the translated English reminds us that there is more to Celan than the two poems we see in anthologies. In Breathturn into Timestead, Pierre Joris translates and provides exquisitely detailed commentary and notes to Celan’s last six books (three of which appeared posthumously), written at a furious pace during a five-year period before his 1970 suicide by drowning in the Seine River at the age of 49. But Celan’s late work, after he took what Joris and other critics call a stylistic “turn” into hermeticism and while he was in and out of psychiatric wards, also makes us confront basic questions about the relationship of a poem to its audience.

Late Celan is exceedingly difficult, even for the erudite reader. He creates a new language that looks like German and has many of the characteristics of German but with new vocabulary and syntax. The building blocks of Celan’s late poetry include:

• The creation of new words out of existing ones, such as “Lunatic-bowels,” “The heartscriptcrumbled,” or “breathdistress.” Examples of these new words appear on virtually every page of poetry in Breathturn into Timestead.

• Long adjectival phrases, many of which include one or more of his new words: “the baroquely cloaked, language-swallowing showerroom” and “of the from afar un-/damaged/captured/son” serve as ready examples of Celan’s complicated grammar in his late poems.

• A shortening of line length, often to one word, which gives a sense of isolation to phrases and creates a sparse universe built of lush imagery.

• Mixing the abstract with the concrete, or physical things with ideas or states of mind: “In the liquefied names/the dolphins dart” has dolphins (concrete) swimming in names (abstract); “The crutch in the valley” turns a physical or mental aide into a geographic formation.

• Studding the lines with references to religion, art, history and cultural artifacts, e.g., “Ashrei,/a word without meaning,/trans-Tibetan,/injected into the/Jewish/Pallas/Athena’s/helmeted ovaries” references a Jewish prayer said during all three daily services, non-Indo-European languages, the treatment of Jewish women by Nazis, and Greek mythology.

• Muddled confusion, often followed by clarity, which I believe could reflect the cycle of Celan’s mental state during each day.

Other 20th-century poets such as Wallace Stevens, Louis Zukofsky, Ives Bonnefoy and certain language poets have used similar poetic devices, but Celan took these rhetorical building blocks to extremes. He also had the advantage of building new words and complex phrases in German, a language that encourages such syntactical flourishes, so that Celan’s late work sounds both natural and new at the same time to readers of German. It is a wonder that Joris manages to capture this nuance in flow so well in his accurate English translations. Anyone with a cursory knowledge of German or even Yiddish will enjoy reading Celan’s imagery and syntax in the original. Joris’s translations are, however, so true to the German in both meaning and emotional tone that a lack of German will serve as no impediment to entering Celan’s poetic universe.

JORIS’S 170 pages of commentary for 227 pages of poetry explains some of Celan’s imagery and many literary and historical allusions, and also has copious references to Celan’s life. But going back and forth between the poem and the notes can blunt the impact of the reading, turning it more into solving a puzzle than experiencing a poetic epiphany. It also slows down the reader, who may have to read the poem several times, just to pick up all the references in the notes. While Joris analyzes all six of Celan’s books in detail, he doesn’t have the space to comment on each and every one of the more than 400 poems in the collection, so for many of them, readers are on their own.

I would, however, assert that readers of late Celan who follow Wallace Steven’s advice about how to approach modern (and now contemporary) poetry will find Breathturn into Timestead to be an exhilarating emotional and intellectual experience. Stevens advised people to experience modern poetry as one does works of abstract visual art. You may not know why they are beautiful, but you can experience their beauty. The visual experience to which Stevens refers are the sensory elements -- line, color, balance, texture -- and the emotional feelings the work of art evokes through the interplay of these elements.

In poetry, the sensory elements include rhyme, alliteration, assonance, rhythm, spacing (momentarily silences) and punning. The feelings and realizations that these elements help the meaning of the words to conjure is the essence of what defines poetry: the epiphany, the sudden manifestation or perception of the essential nature or meaning of something. The epiphany is the “aha” moment that makes the reading of a poem worthwhile.

All good poems have at least one epiphany, often at the end, and sometimes more. Their presence is about the only thing that links every single one of the multiple styles of poetry now being written, a list that includes confessional, language, concrete, rhyming, traditional, blank verse, ekphrasic, epistolary, hip-hop, prose, haiku, ghazal, occasional, narrative, collage, simultaneous, visual, neo-beat and abstract poetry.

Just as the various elements of an abstract painting evoke an emotion, so can the sensory elements of a poem evoke an epiphany. In Celan’s late poems, these epiphanies run the gamut of emotions, including a sudden overwhelming sadness, joy, defiance, calm, acceptance, horror, and annoyance.

This reviewer first breezed through each poem without referring to the notes or trying to understand the narrative or meaning. My impressionist reading enabled me to revel in the beauty of the language, the cleverness of the compound words Celan creates, and the odd musicality built as much on silence as on sound. His wonderfully strange poetics produce epiphanies in many, if not all of the poems. This approach yielded many hours of reading pleasure before I even turned to the translator’s notes.

Let’s take a look at two of the shorter poems in Breathturn into Timestead, starting with “Evening,” from Breathturn (1967):

Evening in
Hamburg, an
Endless shoelace — at
The ghosts gnaw —
Binds two bloody toes together
For the road’s oath.

The image is stark and surrealistic: a shoelace that never ends binding two bloody toes even as ghosts gnaw at it. The road’s oath is another Celan combination: the concrete road with the abstract idea of an oath. The implication is that the shoes are in tatters and the toes have been walking a long time. Joris’s note tell us that the poem was composed when Celan was in Hamburg for a few days in November 1964. More importantly, it references a sentence that Celan underlined in an essay by Israeli philosopher Hugo Bergmann, in which Bergmann suggests that in a time of persecution, the Jew who is serious about “the sanctification of the Name” should “refuse to knot the shoelace in the manner of the heathens.” With this knowledge, the beautifully surrealistic image at the center of the poem immediately transforms into a description of a Jew on the road, fleeing a pogrom or marching towards a work camp. The “bloody toes,” a synecdoche representing both a Jew and all Jews, are bound together by the “endless shoelace” of tradition and history. The gnawing ghosts could represent the burden of Jewish history on each Jew or the burden of Judaism’s oppressors -- it matters naught. In either case, the poem uses Bergmann’s exhortation to create a vivid conceit that depicts the eternal Jew, wandering from one disaster to another.

In “Before My” from Timestead (1976), the intimacy of a moment of love described cryptically at the beginning of the poem suddenly opens up into the realization of possible doom:

Before my
sheet lightening knee
the hand comes to stand
that you
passed over your eye,

a jingling
gathers certainty
in the circle I drew
around us two,

sometimes, of course,
heaven dies
in advance of our

The notes tell us that Celan composed the poem in August 1969, and that “the circle I drew” repurposes an image from a poem by the Romanian Nina Cassian, which Celan had translated into German: “I draw a yellow circle/on the white sheet.”

There are many things the poem never tells us: Whose hand passes over the eye? What is the jingling? Despite these mysteries, or perhaps because of them, the poem erotically depicts in sketchy detail what takes place between two people in bed “before my/sheet lightening knee.” The love is not an act of defiance, as in “Corona,” but a safe refuge in “the circle I drew.”

Another mystery is what constitutes the heaven that dies in the turn of the last stanza. Is it an orgasm or the act of love? Or is it the relationship between two people that we call love? Or is it literally heaven, destroyed by the horrors of the Holocaust?

But the emotional meaning of the poem does not hinge on what heaven is, because heaven dying “in advance of our/shards” always disrupts the serenity and beauty of residing within a circle of jingling certainty. However or wherever we take the imagery, we arrive at the same emotional location: the sense of an impending loss of great consequence.

I BELIEVE it is safe to assume that Celan read enough kabbalah to know the concept of shards. The kabbalist Isaac Luria proposed that ten vessels originally were supposed to contain God’s emanations, but they were shattered and scattered. These shards make up our world (the phrase tikkun olam refers to their reunification through human mitsves).

“Our shards” may refer to the entire world, or it may refer to the world of the lovers’ circle. Again, it doesn’t matter. That the shards survive the death of heaven strongly suggests that heaven is a set of ideals, or even a religion. Perhaps heaven is a love that dies before a relationship. I favor the idea that it is the world itself, still alive even though the Holocaust has destroyed its meaning by proving that no deity exists. To my reading, Celan’s “jingling certainty” is what we feel in the “circle” of religion. Whatever it is that Celan meant, we feel what the loss of it means to the survivors, the “shards.” Like so many poems throughout Celan’s life, the real topic is loss.

It is easy to think of Paul Celan’s work as “survivor” poetry, and certainly it is full of the guilt, anger, shame and sense of loss that survivors often feel. Like many readers do with the mentally ill Sylvia Plath, Robert Lowell, Anne Sexton, and John Berryman, we could also view Celan’s work through the lens of biography — tracking the sinking of an articulate, imaginative soul into insanity. But when I read Celan, certainly including the wonderful poems of Breathturn into Timestead, I can’t stop thinking of Camus’ Sisyphus rolling that rock up the hill, day after day, despite the apparent meaninglessness of it all. No matter how horrible and godless the universe, Celan constantly reaffirms life through his sensual interactions with it — through love, to be sure, but also through feeling the warmth of light, the flow of water, the sound of people, the observation of things. So much of his poetry displays this defiance of death by the act of living. Most of all, he defies the meaningless of a post-Holocaust universe through his sensual play of words and ideas, his creation of new meaning and new beauty out of “shards.” He is the great poet of Existentialism.

Marc Jampole, a member of our editorial board, is a poet and writer who runs Jampole Communications, a public relations and communications firm in Pittsburgh. He blogs several times a week at OpEdge.