Poetic Meridian of Paul Celan

To hear the axis of Earth, Earth’s axis
– Osip Mandelstam

The first time I heard about Paul Celan was many years ago, back in Moscow. There was a remarkable publication by a well-known translator from German, Solomon Apt, in a popular literary magazine, Foreign Literature. There was a brief introduction and several poems translated by Apt from Paul Celan. I remember a feeling of recognition, as if I saw some sign; I felt something very important for poetry and philosophy, different from anything I had ever experienced reading about a poet and some of his poetry. 

For me, those were the years of youthful wastefulness of time, also of preparation to emigrate, to escape from the suffocating air of the Soviet Union. Later—the first years of emigration, kind of sleepwalking years, entering a new life, settling down. Then, in a few years, already in the United States, I started writing poetry in English. However, during all those years, the poetry of Paul Celan was calling me, living in me, and didn’t let go. Sort of as a lasting desire for a narcotic, incidentally tried once in my youth. Therefore, much later, I decided to come back to his poetry in earnest. At that time, as I started an MFA program at Vermont College, I began reading everything about Celan in English I could get my eyes and hands on.

An unexpected connection with Celan turned out to be a wonderful Romanian-American poet, Nina Cassian. Nina apparently was a friend of his from the early period in post-war Bucharest. It was really one degree of separation, through one handshake. Interestingly, Celan himself, in his letters, compared a poem with a handshake; that is, with a gesture, expression, and direct speech—handshake. This could be one of the definitions of poetry. Nina Cassian was, in her own right, a great, famous European poet from Romania who made her home in America quite late and started writing in English in her late fifties, an unusual, amazing phenomenon. She became a well-known American poet of European origin, a leading, so-called bilingual poet, an eternal “displaced person” in American culture.

Once I was walking up Lexington Avenue on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. It was a humid autumn day in October, and I was on my way from Lenox Hill Hospital, where I worked. I noticed Nina Cassian’s name on the announcement of a poetic seminar in the Unterberg Poetry Center at 92Y. I read some of her poems in the New Yorker and was very interested in her poetry and in her personal story. A little later I read one of the books about Paul Celan, about his youth and early art, and in the footnotes I noticed Nina’s name. She was mentioned as a close friend of Celan in Bucharest in the late ’40s. They both were in the same social circle of young artists and poets who survived the war. Nina was a young poetess and, as she was telling me later, unfortunately at that time she didn’t understand the special place and significance of Celan’s figure in the art. The direct relation to Celan’s persona amazed me. I particularly value direct speech, personal communication, and one-handshake separation. In those footnotes I noticed the citations of some of Celan’s expressions, words, what he said to her, and she to him. I find such touching personal feeling precious.

Shortly after, I called New York City information and—amazingly—immediately received a telephone number for Nina Cassian. She lived on Roosevelt Island, between Queens and Manhattan—a strange, somewhat artificial bedroom community. Roosevelt Island reminds one of a ship made of stone landed in the East River between the two large living spaces of Queens and Manhattan. As Nina answered the phone, she was at first apprehensive and cautious. But after she heard my explanations and strange, heavy Russian accent, which she immediately recognized, she invited me to visit. She sounded abrupt and matter-of-fact. Over the phone I didn’t tell her anything about myself or what I do, but, as if she guessed, she issued a command: “And don’t forget to bring your poems.”

At the moment I went to see Nina with one purpose—to feel some direct connection with Paul Celan. I didn’t have any special hopes related to our meeting and discussions. I thought that, as an older female American poet, she would offer some decaf tea with crackers, and I wouldn’t be able to smoke for couple of hours, but it would be certainly worth it. Unexpectedly, everything turned out quite differently. Nina was a whisky drinker and a heavy smoker. So we drank the whole bottle of whisky (Teacher’s, Nina’s household scotch), filled the entire ashtray with cigarette stubs, got into a quarrel, and after that became close friends. We got into an argument, first of all, because Nina really admired Marina Tzvetaeva and I liked Anna Akhmatova better. We even managed to exchange some sharp words about our own poetry, mine being too cerebral (not at all!) and hers too feminine, Tsvetaeva-like (not at all!). Later we changed our opinions completely, both in the opposite directions.

Our encounter impressed me so much that as I was driving out of Roosevelt Island, I didn’t notice a sobriety stop on the Queens side. That was a roundup of the NYC Police Department. However, as I opened my window, I had such a reflective, thoughtful expression on my face that a police officer couldn’t even imagine that a person with such an expression just had a half bottle of whisky in his body. Magically, he let me go.

By that time Nina Cassian had lived in New York for more than ten years, writing very successfully in English and continuing writing in Romanian. She escaped Bucharest in the last years of the horrendous dictatorship of the Ceausescu couple. The story goes that as the secret police of Romania were searching the apartment of her old friend, they found his diary with some satirical verses by Nina addressed to the Ceausescu couple. At that moment, however, she had already been in the United States for a year, teaching at New York University. Still, she got the information that officers of the Securitate were beating her old friend in the prison. There were rumors about mortal bleeding caused by liver rupture. It became obvious that, for Nina, there was no way back to Romania. She got stuck in New York and, in several years, had become a well-known American poet.

She was talking about Celan and her meetings with him for a couple of hours. It was a magical connection of details, direct speech, and their live conversation. It is most precious in literature. She told me about her last encounter with Celan in Paris, shortly before his death by suicide. Quite possibly she was the last person of his circle who saw the great poet alive. During this meeting he was editing her translations of his poems from German to Romanian. Unfortunately she didn’t remember the details of his comments and his precise advice related to choosing the right words and corrections to the text. According to Nina, Celan’s concentration on the text was amazing, despite the deep depression which afflicted him during this last period of his life. She remembered that they’d had some red wine and ham sandwiches. She noticed that the face of her friend had become somewhat heavier and puffier.

Paul Celan is a rare phenomenon in art. He is unique not only because of the power of his genius, but also because of his place as the eternal “artist-foreigner” which he willingly or unwillingly occupied. He didn’t completely belong to any culture and, at the same time, benefited from several cultures because of his unusual sensitivity and depth of feeling. A very important feature of his art is an ambivalent relation to his native German language, the language of his poetry.

Celan was raised in a middle-class Jewish family in Bukovina, Chernovtsy, in the central part of Eastern Europe. Until 1918 it was part of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire. During Celan’s life this region was under the jurisdiction of several different governments: Austrian-Hungarian Empire, Romania, Soviet Union, German occupation, Soviet Union again, eventually part of Ukraine. Celan was bilingual; his native languages were German and Romanian. However, while his literary and cultural upbringing, like Franz Kafka’s, was mainly related to the German culture, he also heard Romanian and Ukrainian languages around him in that region. Therefore, Celan lived at the crossroads of three cultural traditions: Jewish (his origin), German, and Romanian, with some influence of the Hungarian culture. For the last twenty years of his life, until his premature death in 1970, Celan lived in Paris (his French was absolutely fluent). He was married to a French woman, a Catholic of noble origins. This was a wonderful graphic artist, Giselle Lestrange.

The twentieth century gave us several great writers, thinkers, and philosophers who belong not only to a certain culture but to the entire world: Franz Kafka, Vladimir Nabokov, Samuel Beckett, Joseph Conrad, Robert Muzil. One can add, with some comments and remarks, Joseph Brodsky to this list. These are the representatives of the world’s Acmeist (or, rather, post-Acmeist) culture.

These writers occupy a special place in the world culture because of their unique features and the greatness of their gifts, but also because of the special historical situation that occurred in the twentieth century. Each of these artists had his own historical and personal circumstances, but here was something common to all of them: they were moved, shifted from their native cultures elsewhere, and they created their art not necessarily in their native tongue, or else in a language different from the one surrounding them during their creative life. The most important thing is that they were immersed in their own inner world, having created it from several layers of language and culture. Therefore they achieved deep spirituality, almost independent of the surrounding culture and language.

Samuel Beckett did not write in his native language, and he skillfully used this departure from language, apparently having experienced some fear in front of the “second language,” yet achieving his artistic goal. This conflict emphasizes the poetics of his artistic speech. Celan’s experience is closer to the experience of James Joyce—that is, creation of his own language, but with penetration into the extreme depth of his native language. Both these geniuses used all the resources and facets of the language with the creation of their own artistic language out of the native one. In some ways these are antagonistic, ambivalent relations with the native language. Thus James Joyce created his new English language, and similarly Paul Celan created his new “anti-German,” “anti-Nazi” German.

Jewish origins played an important part in Celan’s art and in his mentality. He received a serious Jewish education in Chernovtsy, although never being formally a religious Jew. But Hebrew words and Jewish mysticism and symbolism are very significant in his art. It is enough to remember “Psalm,” one of the most known poems by Celan, based on Jewish religious symbolism.

In his earlier years in Chernovtsy and also during the relatively short period of his life in Bucharest after the war, Celan was also writing poetry in the Romanian language. Interestingly, later on he didn’t accept his early poetic exercises in Romanian. Again we have to be thankful to Nina Cassian, who translated those early Romanian poems by Celan into English, and they were recently published as a separate book.

In essence Celan was a multilingual writer: German and Romanian, fluent English (translations from Shakespeare and Emily Dickinson), and French (twenty years of teaching at the college in Paris). He was also proficient in Russian and translated Mandelstam, Esenin, and Lermontov. Letters to his wife were written in French.

Curiously, Celan felt negatively about creating poetry in two languages, which is strange, considering his developments at the cultural crossroads and knowledge of several languages, and his unique talent as a translator. In the sixties he gave an interview to a French literary magazine in which he expressed his distress over poetic creation in two languages. Celan identified poetry as a “unique moment in language.” However, according to Nina Cassian, his earlier poems in Romanian showed his ability to write live and unique pieces of art in the Romanian language.

Celan finished his life in Paris at the age of forty-nine, throwing himself into Seine from Mirabo Bridge. It was not far from the place of his last resort, his last apartment, the place where Nina Cassian visited Celan. There were several strange circumstances related to his death. First of all, it is well known that Paul Celan was a very good swimmer, growing up on the banks of a rather significant river (Prut). He was a strong man who liked hiking in the mountains of Bukovina. His method of suicide is yet another mystery; however, perhaps that choice was not incidental. Let’s remember the gas poisoning of Sylvia Plath and the “typically American” death of Ann Sexton, who committed suicide by slamming her car into the garage door of her own house on a quiet, peaceful New England street. Remember Mayakovsky’s bullet and the hanging of Esenin.

Nina Cassian wrote an extensive essay about Celan which was published in the end of the ’80s in Parnassus, an American literary review magazine. Nina mentioned that Celan lost a dear friend in his youth—a woman who drowned in the Black Sea by the seafront of a Romanian resort. The shadow of this tragedy was cast over Celan’s entire life.

Interestingly, Celan was influenced very little by the fabric of everyday life around him, including the landscape and other daily things. The real images around the poet, for instance in the poems “Koln, Cathedral” or “At the Station,” are only the backdrop of the internal drama of the poet. With his poetic vision Celan saw in a landscape, in his surroundings, the layers of drama and tragedy superimposed on the flow of time. We can call it “poetic archeology.” To a certain degree it is similar to Joseph Brodsky’s art. It is the relative autonomy of Brodsky’s English language poetry related to the surrounding American reality. Apparently it didn’t interest Brodsky too much and, again, served mostly as a backdrop to the philosophy and development of the internal conflict. Paul Celan mainly existed and created in his own inner world, in his own developed poetic German language.

Fame came to Celan in a relatively early period of his artistic activity. Interestingly, it occurred not so much because of his innovations in the German poetic language and his astonishing, unique eschatological lyricism. It happened mainly because of the political significance of his poetry, related to the circumstances of the mid-twentieth century (his famous poem “Death Fugue”). Quite probably Celan would be less well known if not for this poem, the most anthologized German poem in the twentieth century. The appearance of this poem right after the war coincided with the period of “denazification” of Germany. Therefore Celan was glorified as a famous “poet of the Holocaust.” This apparently reflects only a part of his significance in the literature of the twentieth century. Celan’s achievements in the development of a unique poetic language are unprecedented. The weight of a word in his poems is very substantial. He managed to achieve a powerful poetic effect with a minimal set of the most precise words-metaphors. This is a rare situation, when a poetic emotion is delivered not only with the right words and with the use of the instrument of metaphors; but, as the German language allows such a construction, emotion-word-metaphor becomes itself a poetic event.

The most significant German poet for Celan was Rilke; in Russian poetry—Mandelstam. Celan translated an entire book of his poems. His translations of Shakespeare’s sonnets and Emily Dickinson from English are well known, as well as Mallarme from French.

There are some dominant themes in Celan’s art: a memory of his mother, who perished in a Nazi concentration camp; the Holocaust; the poetry and figure of Osip Mandelstam. There is an interesting and characteristic guess by Paul Celan that Mandelstam perhaps survived Stalin’s concentration camp, was released, and later perished at the hands of Nazis in the occupied territories during the war. This is quite characteristic for Celan’s mentality: understandable fixation on the theme of the Holocaust and, to a certain degree, remaining, possibly subconsciously, trending to idealization of Soviet Russia.

It is well known that in the beginning of World War II, Celan, as well as many other urban educated Jews, greeted the Soviets in the zone of “liberation” by the Red Army. While attending university in Chernovtsy, he was part of a sympathizing circle. Years earlier, in high school, Celan distributed underground materials in support of international brigades in Spain against the Fascist regime of Franco. However, unlike many of his contemporaries who later found themselves in Soviet Stalin’s concentration camps, Celan sensed where the wind blew and, after the war, escaped Bucharest, which was under Soviet rule. It was in the end of ’40s when he first went to Vienna but became desperate in this desolate, anti-Semitic, imperial postwar city. He moved to Paris, where he lived the last twenty years of his life, teaching at the college, lecturing in École normale supérieure.


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“Death Fugue,” a famous poem by Celan, although written by a very young poet (in his early twenties), nevertheless shows an incredibly high control over the poetic form in combination with a maturity and depth of focus. This poem uses the structural principle of the fugue—imitation of the superimposition of several voices which become combined into one central theme. In this great piece of art, besides the obvious main theme—the Holocaust and the loss of his mother, to whom he was very close—there are other, less visible, deep layers: an idea of a diaspora, not belonging, and searching for the Almighty. At the same time, acceptance of the absolute loneliness and estrangement of man: “You’ll have a grave in the clouds.”

Undoubtedly the deep crisis in Celan’s art was related to the loss of his parents, the complete loss of the world of his childhood, and also the entire collapse of European Jewry. In a certain, albeit negative, way, it served as a powerful emotional and energetic source for his art. However, it’s important to remember that the poetic creativity and intuition of a poet are autonomous phenomena and are only partially subject to influence from the outside world. We can remember Joseph Brodsky’s words about Mandelstam, saying in one of his essays that Mandelstam was the greatest poet in the period of his first book, Stone; that is, before the Revolution and Russian Civil War, before all those horrors that he lived through in the consecutive years. In other words, the art of the great artist develops despite destructive and suffocating influences of the horrible circumstances in the artist’s life. The same relates to Marina Tzvetaeva and Anna Akhmatova, although these circumstances certainly influence the coloration, tone, and especially choice of themes in their art.

The rationale of Celan’s suicide is not quite clear. It is known that the poet lived through a clinical depression, was hospitalized for some time, and was treated with electrical shock and other methods of the time. He also experienced a longstanding eschatological complex related to the events of the war and the postwar years. This was the psychological backdrop of the main period of Celan’s art. We don’t know if depression influenced his creative process, especially in the last period. Nina Cassian claims that Celan was always writing in his “clear” periods, when he was completely in control of his writing. This was the conscious and sober work of an experienced writer. It is known that Celan continued his translation work even in the psychiatric hospital. It is very unfortunate that Celan had to live through a period of an unfair accusation of plagiarism by the widow of French poet Ivan Goll. Even though the accusation was unfair, the widow threatened Celan with court proceedings, there were incriminating articles in the press, and there is no doubt all this worsened his depression.

His depression was likely exacerbated also by the atmosphere of increasing anti-Semitism which was developing in Europe about ten to fifteen years after the war. There is a known event when Celan found a disgusting anti-Semitic note on the lectern at one of his public readings in Germany. His psychological condition was also influenced by his close friendship and constant correspondence with another great German poet, Nobel laureate Nelly Sachs. She originated from a well-to-do Berlin Jewish family, before Nazi rule, with a steady household and a large house in the center of Berlin. Nelly managed to escape to Sweden, where she suffered from a paranoia of prosecution in quite serious form, related to anti-Semitic threats. In the postwar period the Swedish Nazis were quite active and capable of creating a significant anti-Semitic campaign of threats.

Later on, in the sixties, Celan developed an almost ambivalent relation to his greatest poem, “Death Fugue.” This poem, at the time in Germany, was used as almost a pedagogical instrument of the denazification and rejuvenation of society—in other words, as a political tool. There is a well-known expression by Adorno: “Poetry after Auschwitz is impossible.” However, the experience with “Death Fugue” shows that poetry is possible after concentration camps, provided that it’s created at such a high poetic and emotional level.

“Death Fugue” is not to be considered only as an antifascist poem on the theme of the Holocaust. All Celan’s poems related to the Holocaust bear deeper psychological, cultural, and philosophical meaning. They cannot be considered only as strong poems written on a certain “topic.” Celan was always trying to detach himself from the excessive politicization of poetry. For him, for understandable reasons, the events of the war and the catastrophe of European Jewry equaled the end of entire era, the collapse of civilization. This was because of the unimaginable quality of the so-called “telescope effect” in his art; that is, the transition and unexpected changes of the “landscape” of a poem related to the masterful use of the shift of the “point of view”: close vision, farsighted vision of the time and subject of consideration. Therefore the shifts in vision and appreciation of time in Celan’s poem are difficult to comprehend from the point of view of “normal” human understanding. What he was doing in his poems apparently can be discussed, analyzed, and interpreted from the point of view only on the biblical and philosophical level and not in the aspect of the regular historical-sociological analyses.

Celan experienced a feeling close to admiration for Martin Heidegger, who, as is well known, was a member of the Nazi party and, even in the postwar years, never publicly turned away from his prewar activities.

Some of Celan’s collections were illustrated by his wife, Giselle Lestrange, a French Catholic graphic artist. She insisted that the significance of the Jewish themes in Celan’s art should not be exaggerated by literary circles. This was happening after the poet’s death, during various symposia and seminars related to his work.

The Jewish theme naturally played a significant role in his art: Celan’s interest in Israel; his immediate translation of a famous Evtushenko poem, “Babii Yar,” from Russian into German (it was published in Germany in 1961). Eventually, after long delay, Celan visited Israel. This visit touched him deeply, and he was even planning to move to Israel. However, it never happened. Probably the reason was his fear of likely isolation, of not being able to adapt to the Israeli culture.

Celan was interested in the writings of Martin Buber, especially in his Hassidic tales. Celan grew up in Bukovina in Eastern Europe—the region of the original development of the Hassidic culture. Therefore he felt some historical and cultural relation to their roots. Celan was disappointed with his futile attempt to establish a connection with Martin Buber in Israel. There is a strange paradox: his unsuccessful connection with Martin Buber and established, long-term liaison with the philosopher Martin Heidegger, who had some Nazi background. Celan and Heidegger corresponded for years, which culminated with a visit of Paul Celan to Heidegger’s university (University of Freiburg). In 1967 Celan delivered a lecture and a reading in front of an audience of one thousand, events obviously organized by Martin Heidegger. The next day they also met in private, when Celan visited Heidegger at his “hut” in the mountains. It will always remain a mystery, what they were talking about during their lengthy stroll in the mountains, but the very fact of this conversation is symbolic and metaphorical. Mountains played a significant part in Celan’s psyche.

Arguably, Celan was the greatest German language poet of the second part of the twentieth century, or perhaps of the entire twentieth century. However, the German language of his poetry is rather a translation from the regular German into a nonexistent language created by Celan—his own, internal German. This is an opinion of translators and Celan scholars George Steiner, Pierre Joris, Michael Hamberger, and John Felstiner. This is an unusual case in the history of poetry—translation from the translation. Hence the special method used by Celan: his famous new word creation. This is perhaps an attempt to detach from the regular, everyday, orderly German language of the Nazi period.

The cultural phenomenon of Nazi Germany represented a much broader historical and philosophical event than simply the official political newspaper language of Nazi Germany from 1933 to 1945. The spirit of it and, naturally, language as a reflection and part of the national spirit existed much longer—appearing long before the establishment of the Weimar Republic. So it’s not surprising that such an artist as Paul Celan developed a love-hate relationship with the German culture of the beginning and mid-twentieth century. Naturally, first of all it occurred on the level of language and its usage in poetry.

There is a special link, similarity, and likeness in the career and destiny of Paul Celan and Franz Kafka: personal, historical, and in their strange position of not belonging completely to any culture. This was regardless of the fact that they were developing in a quite specific culture—the German language culture. But in that milieu their unique, autonomous genius “mutated,” first of all in their relation to their native tongue. George Steiner, in his classic work After Babel, remarks that as a writer, Kafka is placed between the Czech and German languages, but his creative world had very close links with the Hebrew and Yiddish languages. As a result Kafka developed profound feelings for the opaqueness of the language and, in some sense, of the conceptual impossibility of direct human relations on the level of language. Here we can add that perhaps this is the origin of Kafka’s development into a genius metaphorical poet, although utilizing a seemingly prosaic method. It is known that Kafka called this method “illusion of the speech.”

Celan expressed his views on poetry probably best in his two poems “In Variable Keys” (1945) and “Standing in a Shadow” (1967), as well as in his brief essay “Meridian.” The latter he delivered as a speech on the occasion of receiving his Georg Buchner prize in 1960. Celan compared language with a meridian extending through human personal and communal national conscience. Both of the above-mentioned poems expressed Celan’s search for the deep core of poetry—“above the language.”

In his poem “Landscape” (Atemwende collection), Celan renders, with a great artistic, surrealistic power, the feeling of the oppressive atmosphere of the petty everyday life of common people on the original artist. The poem shows the landscape being transformed into monstrous creatures and body parts. Actually, Celan was rather close to the surrealistic artistic movement of the middle of the twentieth century and not infrequently used images related to that school.

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It is known that Celan actively participated with a group of young Romanian surrealist artists in the first postwar years in Bucharest. Apparently he was not formally included in the group but socialized with them and, to a certain degree, was probably influenced by this development. This circle was connected with the Andre Breton Artistic School in Paris. Once this group of Romanian artists visited Andre Breton in Paris at the end of the ’40s/early ’50s but without Celan. Celan, in his poetry, approached the deepest structures of the subconscious of the language, the so-called “Universal Units” of pre-language subconscious information. According to Noam Chomsky, the concept of these Universal Units supposedly related to all languages, or at least to a certain groups of languages related to each other. To a certain degree it was also developed by George Steiner in his well-known book After Babel.

It is important to emphasize that Celan operated within clearly recognizable language structures, observing all the norms of syntax and grammar. However, he used a characteristic approach—the creation of new combinations of words, “double words.” Such operations with language are more natural for German; still recognizable as German, unlike English or Russian. The characteristic examples of such new language formations could be found in his poem “Fadensonnen” in the collection Atemwende (“Breathturn”). Celan used, in this poem, two words of new formations—“Sunrays” (not characteristic for German) and “Light Tone.” This is typical for Celan—combining in one word the subject, the object, and movement related to that object. Sometimes two distant entities, sometimes conflicting with each other and therefore mutually enhancing each other. As a result he created a unique method in poetry: the creation of a one-word metaphor. This is a situation when a word itself becomes a metaphor without additional explanations or comparisons, a method quite uncharacteristic for talkative and suggestive Russian language and, therefore, poetry.

The poet utilized the syntactical pliability of German (which possesses that hard sound) and brought it to the extreme. He successfully used the strong rhythmic effect, ideally rendering the breath of a poem. This was achieved by frequent unexpected shifts from one line to another, especially when he used the confluence of simple words into one complex word; for instance, even in the title of the collection—Atemende (“Breathturn”)—in one word.

Therefore Celan, with his precise poetic intuition, utilized unique qualities of the German language, at that being able to maintain the main recognizable, logical line of a poem. That is where the difficulty of the translation of German poetry originates, especially Celan’s poetry. Any Celan poem is so unique that any one of them could be called most characteristic for him. Celan lived not only through the Holocaust but through the entire preceding German history and development of the German language.

Paul Celan is a great master at using pauses and silences in his poetic language. This untranslatable silence is felt not as a lack of sound but as a pause in speech directed straight at the listener or reader. This is the silence or pause that harbors the deepest potential of poetic speech. This is Mandelstam’s “sound remote and dull” in his early poem: a pause in the street noise, silence of the ocean during the calm, of the ravine before one can hear the fall of a rock.

This is the expectation of truth and the possibility for the reader to interpret the silence in any way with a mathematically endless number of variations of the meaning. This is a meaning that the author kept in mind, perhaps subconsciously.

It is not incidental that most of Celan’s poems are fairly short. They condense a large amount of information concentrated in sounds and complex words. The weight of one word is great, unlike words characteristic of Russian poetry—talkative, extensive, and excessive. German language gives such an opportunity to condense meaning into a smaller number of words. An example is the entire story and view of the whole era concentrated in a relatively short poem: “Koln, at the Station.”

Interestingly, this system of use of pauses and poetic silence is not characteristic in general for Russian poetry. Language itself perhaps is more important here; Russian is less hard than German or English, more inflective, organically reflecting the curves of “the Russian soul.”

The metaphorical qualities of Celan’s poetry are phenomenal, practically incomparable and unrepeatable. The deepest layers of poetry in his work surface and become extremely effective. Usually, in the works of other authors, these deep layers are masked by the layers of the cadence, rhyme, and metaphors. In Celan’s work word connotations and semantics of the metaphor frequently do not have a direct, simple explanation or even an obvious meaning. However, an attentive reader could feel that despite the opaqueness, this is the most precise and, as a matter of fact, the only possible combination of words that leads to the completion of a poem. This impresses the reader tremendously as something completely “logical” and, on the subconscious level, being unique and singularly truthful. The reader feels, along with the author, the emotional energy of a poem, a power stream, regardless of the abstract images present in a poem.

In Celan’s poetry the reader can find unpredictable images or metaphors in almost every line of the poem. It is curious that Celan used, not infrequently, anatomic images and metaphors related to the body. Quite likely that has something to do with the early beginning of a medical career in his early years in France. Celan entered medical training in Tours before the war. He went there from Chernovtsy and spent some months, perhaps a year. It is possible that the usage of medical terms stemmed from his intuitive, precise feeling of the semantic difference of these “medical words” from “common poetic language.” This gives a different metaphorical coloration to the poetic language.

The most commonly used words in Celan’s poetry are blood, snow, and stone. These are the main word-symbols for Celan, and also eye, retina, and heart. There is probably some connection with the selection of words and metaphors in Rilke, like in Rilke’s poem “Exposed on the Mountains of the Heart.”

The word “stone” is possibly related to a profound affinity of Celan to the poetry of Mandelstam. His translations of Mandelstam’s poetry render the central position of the notion of stone and architectural features in poetry by Mandelstam. Hence the architecture in his poems: mountains, “hills of Toscana,” “cool mountain air,” etc. Perhaps it mattered that Celan spent months during the war in a labor camp, working on construction and repair of the stony mountain roads and in the quarry. That was forced labor during the German Occupation during wartime with other young Jews from Chernovtsy. Older people, including Celan’s parents, were sent to special camps in Ukraine, and most of them perished there. Amazing that Celan continued his writing work and translations in the labor camp.

Famous Russian literary scholar and linguist Yuri Lotman, in his book Analysis of the Poetic Text, noted that the power of poetry is characterized by the high level of information which is achieved by unexpected sharp shifts of the poetic stream. Therefore it should be unpredictable for the reader what awaits in the next line, in the next stanza. The dynamic tension is achieved by a link between the relative regularity of the cadence and the unusual use of language and metaphors.

Precisely these qualities are characteristic of Celan’s poetry. It is probably related to the title of one of his last collections, Atemwende (“Breathturn”), 1967. In fact this is probably a definition of his method. That implies the poet probably operated on the level of the primordial units of the language, intimately connected with the physiology of breath, and breath during speech.

In his later years, his last period of artistic work, Celan’s method becomes even less traditional and metaphorical, his language more economical, tight but, at the same time, unpredictable and unexpected. Celan’s method significantly changed and developed from the first collection, Mohn und Gedachtnis (1952), including the famous “Death Fugue,” to the last collections, Schneepart and Seitgehoft, published posthumously in 1971 and 1976. One could notice the use of unusual lexicon and his avant-garde approach in the early works. However, they were still closer to traditional poetry and sometimes represented almost a poetic narrative: “Memory of France,” “In Memory of Paul Eluard,” “Schibboleth.”

In his later period, Celan’s poems become shorter and occasionally represent one long sentence and lines representing one or two complex, newly created words. The German language allows such syntactical and grammatical experiments, which create an extremely unusual type of poem. Celan’s images become more abstract and represent unexpected and amazing structural units of the language. One has an impression that these later poems are concentric circles, composed of three intimately linked units: language—thought—emotion, the circles becoming narrower and tighter.


“I hear the axe has flowered.
I hear the place can’t be named.
I hear the bread that looks at him
heals the hanged man,
that bread his wife backed him.
I hear they call life
the only refuge.”

            (Adapted by A.G.)


Paul Celan found his last refuge at “the place that cannot be named” in 1970 aged forty-nine. The tremendous significance of his poetic heritage becomes more and more actual and relevant in the process of the cultural and linguistic exchange in our era of globalization and migration of people and souls (era of DP). Paul Celan was one of the few artists who expressed the dark spirit of the time and understood the meaning of the twentieth century with great and tragic precision.


Projected Letters is a literary magazine dedicated to publishing the best new and established writing from around the world.