Introduction to Paul Celan
Pierre Joris

    (Note: Pierre Joris' extensive introduction presents a poignant capsule biography, as well as a spirited engagement with Celan's shifting methods, contrasting the early "Death Fugue" with the middle-period "Stretto" with the later "Radix Matrix," taking us inside the work of translation so that we experience the poetry's vivid complexity as life-and-death. Please get the book when it appears early next year!

    The brief excerpts below are chosen as epitomes of Celan's poetic reaction to his family's and his people's  history, and as characterizations and explanations of his later work, which in our selection above begins roughly with the poems translated by Joris.-Ed.)


Thirty four years after his death, Paul Celan's status as the greatest German-language poet of the second half of the twentieth  century seems assured. His oeu-vre - roughly 900 pages of poetry distributed over 11 volumes, 250 pages of prose, more than a thousand pages of published correspondence and nearly 700 pages of poetry translated from eight languages  -  has by now received massive critical attention, amounting to an astounding 6000 plus entries, including reviews, essays, memoirs and books in a dozen or more languages. And yet the work continues to be to a great extent terra incognita,  a vast territory with uncertain, shift-ing borders, a map on which the unexplored sections by far outweigh the few areas that have been sketched in, reconnoitered. . .

    The Celanian dynamic is. . . not simple-minded or one-directional: it involves a complex double movement - to use the terms of Empedocles - of philotes (love) for his mother('s tongue) and neikos (strife) against her murderers who are the originators and carriers of that same tongue. He is caught in this love/strife dynamic, the common base-line or ground of which (as Grund, ground-but also, and simultaneously so as Abgrund, abyss) is the German language,  irrevocably binding together both the murdered and the murderer, a dynamic which structures all of Celan's thinking and writing. . .

    Celan himself, when asked about the difficulties of the poems, insisted that they were in no way hermetic and that all one had to do was to read them again and again. At the same time he claimed  a necessary opacity for poetry today, first of all because the poem is "dunkel" (dark, obscure) due to its thingness, its phenomenality. In a note toward his essay "The Meridian" he writes: "Regarding the darkness of the poem today, imagination and experience, experience and imagination let me think of a darkness of the poem qua poem, of a constitutive, even congenital darkness. In other words: the poem is born dark; the result of a radical individuation, it is born as a piece of language, as far as language manages to be world, is loaded with world. . . 1"

    The reason why "Death Fugue," as against the late poetry, exercises such a fascination and is so "readable," is essentially that its poetics are still rather traditional: the relationship between word and world, between signifier and signified, is not put into question. It is a poem that still, somehow, maybe desperately, believes, or wants to believe, or acts as if did believe in the fullness of utterance, in the possibility of representation. This fullness of language presupposes a fullness of being, a being who speaks and in whom both language and what language talks about are grounded. As against nearly all of Celan's subsequent poetry, the one thing not questioned in "Death Fugue" is the one who speaks, and the place from which that one speaks. The poem is written/spoken by a "survivor" who adopts the persona of a "wir,"  who speaks in the name of a "wir" - the "we," of the murdered Jews: "Black milk· we drink you in the evening, we drink you at noon, we drink and drink· we dig a grave in the air. . . "

    That the dead can speak, or that a "survivor" can speak for them, that there can be a witnessing to their death, this is what Celan is going to radically put into question. . .

    This is not the place to enter into a detailed analysis of this question of inversion. Suffice it to say that Celan's "Niemand" is clearly not a simple negative, the negation of a "someone." Rather it is the possibility of the impossibility of the poem itself, and that possibility of the impossibility of the poem is the only possibility that Celan will grant the poem after Auschwitz. It is from this no-place, this abyss that the poem speaks. It is that "Niemand" who does the witnessing in the verse: "Niemand zeugt fŸr den Zeugen." Nobody witnesses for the witness. The impossible/possible poem witnesses for the witness. What Celan-as a "survivor," i.e. as someone who should be dead, because he comes/is there after death, as someone whose life is in suspension, is a mere supplement of death-bears witness to, is another, a new way of speaking, the only way possible after the Shoah. . .

    [Breathturn] is the first book after what is called Celan's "Wende" or "turn" which I have elsewhere described as follows: "The poems, which had always been highly complex but rather lush with an abundance of near-surrealistic imagery & sometimes labyrinthine metaphoricity · were pared down, the syntax grew tighter & more spiny, his trademark neologisms & telescoping of words increased, while the overall composition of the work became much more Îserial' in nature, i.e. rather than insisting on individual, titled poems, he moved towards a method of composition by cycles & volumes."2 This Îturn" had been prepared for some years, and can already be seen at work in the differences between the poetics of "Death Fugue" and those of "Stretto," as discussed above, though they become more radical, not to say absolute, from Breathturn onward (the title itself speaks of the "turn"). Already in 1958 Celan had suggested that for him poetry was no longer (if it had ever been) a matter of "transfiguring" (verklŠren). he wrote that "given the sinister events in its memory," the language of German poetry has to become "more sober, more factual·'grayer'." This greater factuality checks a core impulse of the lyrical tradition, it's relation to the Îlyre,' to music: "it is... a language which wants to locate even its Îmusicality' in such a way that it has nothing in common with the Îeuphony' which more or less blithely continued to sound alongside the greatest horrors." The direct effect of giving up this Îeuphony' is to increase the accuracy of the language: "It does not transfigure or render Îpoetical'; it names, it posits, it tries to measure the area of the given and the possible. . . "

    If the first volume that announced the late work and its radically innovative poetics had been called Breathturn, to indicate that a turn, a change was needed - had in fact taken place - then the title of this, the next volume [Threadsuns], spoke of a new measure, of new measures, to be accurate. Of those new measures needed in a world seen as "greyblack wastes" to link the above and the below, the inside and the outside, the tree-high thought and the wastes, because, Celan goes on, "there still are/songs to be sung," poems to be written even under the duress - Lightduress will be the title of the next collection - of the present condition. Even if these poems are "beyond mankind" - beyond any older humanistic category of aesthetics. (As he told Esther Cameron at this time: "But I don't give a damn for aesthetic construction.") His writing had moved toward such a post-aesthetic, post-humanist condition nearly from the start, even if early work, say the Todesfuge, achieves this only through a acidly sarcastic use of a traditional aesthetic form. It was the late work that would realize this condition, exactly. Or, as Hugo Huppert remembers Celan's words:

"I don't musicalize anymore, as at the time of the much-touted ÎTodesfuge,' which by now has been threshed over in many a textbook... As for my alleged encodings, I'd rather say: Polysemy without mask, thus corresponding exactly to my sense of the intersection of ideas (BegriffsŸber- schneidung),  the overlapping of relations. You are aware of the phenomenon of interference, the effect of waves of the same frequency coming together. .... I try to reproduce cuttings from the spectral analysis of things, to show them in several aspects and permeations at once... I see my alleged abstractness and actual ambiguity as moments of realism3.

            On 6 April 1970 Paul Celan wrote in a letter to his friend Ilana Shmueli: "When I read my poems, they grant me, momentarily, the possibility to exist, to stand."