Celan a note

(I warn, this is the bloggiest piece of writing I’ve ever posted here. I didn’t have the energy to twist and pose it into writing written. It is influenced by Empson and Yglesias and Brad DeLong.)

Considering an application for the Harper-Wood studentship, I thought I might submit my intimations of Celan, promising to make a book of them, if I can learn the language. But the terms of the studentship demanded that I lie (not its fault): one doesn’t need to travel abroad, really, to teach oneself or to be taught German, and the only relevant trip I could think of would have been to the death camps, which felt obscene and made vivid to me the obscenity of so trivial and lucky a person versioning the work of this poet. But I want eventually to have a book of them, the intimations, because behind versioning if not ambition is love. Celan has been well served by his translators into English (I disagree with
Coetzee: Fairley, Hamburger and Joris are the best), but only the Hill of Tenebrae has made English poems of him. To do so requires a departure from the sense of the German, which is why I wouldn’t touch, say, the immediate ‘Todesfuge’: something about the work from Sprachgitter on, though, is in its idiosyncrasy suitable for free translation. If the poems work through effects, if they make their meanings in readerly time, then one valid mode of translation is certainly to try to get the effects right rather than the words. This is all necessary because Paul Celan is one of the best lyric poets. Somebody wrote of his Mandelstam that it was an act of possession, and Celan, for this reader, has had possessing power. I might have said ‘the best modern poets’, except ‘modern’ is vague and I haven’t read all the moderns, and I don’t know German, don’t forget. Why I’m not squeamish about the last disqualification is, no poet in translation has ever affected me like Celan has (across nearly all his translators). You will notice none of them is anything close to so important a poet in their own right. So the argument must be that Celan is better in German; I don’t know if this argument is sound (what have I overlooked?); but I can construe him in parallel texts and see where the poetry is that the English has lost, and that he is one of the best lyric poets. People like Heaney and Walcott, our current best of course, are nothings and nobodies beside him. (Again I say this out of love, and this is a way in which the history of poetry really is a running-race: Heaney hasn’t made me love him and Celan has. Read this. Celan gets a lot of his power from this unassimilable thing that ‘became true’ in the forties of the twentieth century; he is poetry’s south pole. But the poetry is not in the matter. There is Schindler’s List, then there is Atemwende. I now have a sort of loyalty to him that is I suppose irrational and is incredulous of critics like Clive James*, who waves away the corpus apart from ‘Todesfuge’ with complaints of obscurity, difficulty, whatever falls short of the scientific clarity we find consistently in Shakespeare.) For the moment let’s agree that standard ambiguity is the same words meaning two true, maybe contradictory things. Celan’s ambiguity is different: he will tend to write two contradictory things that are true or false. In Fadensonnen he writes:

die kleine Gauklerpredigt der Stille.

Es ist, als könntest du hören,
als liebt ich dich noch.

(I was going to ‘do a reading’ of this poem but the idea reminded me of one of my own bad lines, ‘A shimmer I had tactics to pin down’. Mr James don’t you see how the avoidance of explicitness is here at work, is not the foggy refuge of a ruined man? Here I don’t want reportorial clarity on what’s ‘going on’.) To this end we may mistranslate the insistence to
Hamburger which is wonderfully suggestive of an honest unawareness of how people would in practice read him: ‘ganz und gar nicht hermetisch’. Celan is hermetic wholly and not at all.

For Though We Fell

Eloquent of carnage and denial,
behind-beyond the Soul
witness breathes:
‘Nowhere to fall from.’

I came across an etymology of ‘Seine’ that
suggested it meant ‘the gentle one’ and I thought that quite Celanian, given his death. But Wikipedia says it doesn’t mean ‘gentle one’, it means ‘sacred river’—probably. This mistaking and uncertainty and the circle of it is all the more Celanian, I feel. I will quote with many before me Karl Kraus: ‘My language is the common prostitute that I turn into a virgin.’ This is often how writers—Dryden for example—think. Celan turned the whore of Endlösung into a purity his own, and deflowered it again.

* ‘Number Me Among the Almonds’, Poetry, vol. 189, February 2007, p. 392.

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