Poet of the Great Massacre

Poet of the Great Massacre

Poems of Paul Celan

translated and with an introduction by Michael Hamburger
Persea Books, 350 pp., $24.95
Paul Celan
Paul Celan; drawing by David Levine

The character of Paul Celan’s work raises the question how far poetry can be—is—a central human activity in our time. Even when Milton played with the thought of writing a poem “doctrinal to a nation,” at first having in mind an Arthuriad, such a project, in a lively form, was scarcely possible. Milton had in mind Homer and Virgil. Homer was certainly doctrinal to a nation, a principal source of moral and theological ideas current in Hellenic culture, and this was the ground for Plato’s attack upon his poems—they taught false doctrines and offered bad examples. Virgil was not the shaper of a culture but rather the celebrant of a certain moment in the history of the Roman republic. His real triumph was in the Middle Ages, when he is taken to be a prophet, or a magician, and in the early modern period:
his single words and phrases, his pathetic half-lines, giving utterance, as the voice of Nature herself, to that pain and weariness, yet hope of better things, which is the experience of her children in every time.1
What the poet’s role may now be is obscure. With the rise of industrial society and the drying up of oral culture we are overcome with doubts over the significance of poetry. We hesitate to make big statements, even though we may be confident that poetry in its manifold shapes is still an important part of our culture, that within the great secular shifts in the outlook on the world the poets are still nibbling at their pens and bringing themselves to write. But we cannot now think of the poets as their publics thought of Byron and Wordsworth. The direct relation Byron and Wordsworth had to their own time seems no longer possible today. Everything that comes within the Modernist movement employs modes of discourse and sequences of images that are oblique; such poetry is on the whole inaccessible to many readers and perhaps to all readers unprovided with some kind of commentary.
This transformation of poetry is linked with stylistic changes in other arts as well. In successive periods poets have felt unable to write “in the old way,” just as other artists could no longer paint or compose in the old way, and have cast about for new styles, new voices. The old styles and voices persist, sometimes without great change, as in Philip Larkin’s work, more often as elements in a new way of speaking. Milton and Pope are thus present in Wordsworth’s The Prelude. Sometimes the old voices are used for particular purposes, as when in Don Juan Byron uses the voices of Dryden and Pope in a satirical, mocking way. Sometimes, the use of the old is startling. It startles me to find Skelton’s voice in Yeats; and this goes with the use of quotation, as in The Waste Land and the Four Quartets; the effect is arresting just because it starts up against the background of a new kind of discourse. Some wish to argue that more is involved, more than I have so far suggested, in the dislocations of syntax, the fracturing of common uses, the breaking of ordinary semantic connections, that begins with Mallarmé and Rimbaud; and they fly to the terminology of linguistics, and see the received link between signifier and signified as having been broken, sometimes through a felt pressure to diversify the poetry and escape banality and stock responses, sometimes because what the poet has directly in mind is unassimilable to the older poetic modes. This last consideration is, as we shall see, decisive for Paul Celan’s work, and especially for his later work.
Much of his poetry, and this is plain in his earlier work, is “about” the great massacre of the Jews in the death camps of the Third Reich. (I prefer, with others, not to use the term “holocaust”; a holocaust is traditionally a burnt offering to the God of Israel, and even those who on account of the massacres wish to repudiate the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob don’t—I think—want to use “holocaust” with such savage irony.)
There are in Celan’s poetry two other presences: the Russian poet Mandelstam, done to death by Stalin; and—this shakes the mind—the philosopher and Nazi Martin Heidegger, to whose disintegrative pressure on the German language Celan is manifestly indebted, and to whom—or rather to whose house—Celan consecrates a poem.
Little of Celan’s poetry, then, can be thought to be self-referential or hermetic. Most of the poetry is obscure, some of it grievously so. But however oblique may be Celan’s manner of proceeding, and however much he takes on this manner because he feels the moral force of Theodor Adorno’s saying that it is impossible to write poems about—or after—Auschwitz, the obscurity can always in principle be dissipated by a commentary. The poems are “messages,” as he himself insisted, like messages in bottles cast into the ocean. Some of the bottles may be lost; if they are not lost it is a matter of chance which person gets hold of a particular message. The message, when it is taken out of the bottle, turns out not to be the polished aphorism of a mandarin but a Delphic pronouncement, portentous, teasing, mysterious, beautiful. (This insight, along with much else, I owe to George Steiner.2 ) The poems are messages, then, but not directed to an elected public and are in a form of discourse that doesn’t readily yield up its meaning.
His most famous poem, often translated and much commented on, anthologized, a subject of study in German schoolrooms, is “Todesfuge,” “Death Fugue” in Michael Hamburger’s translation. It is one of the least Delphic, most available, of the poems. The phrases with which it begins transfix us:
Schwarze Milch der Frühe wir trinken sie abends
wir trinken sie mittags und morgens wir trinken sie nachts
wir trinken und trinken
Black milk of daybreak we drink it at sundown
we drink it at noon in the morning we drink it at night
we drink and we drink it…
This is incantatory and provokes a recognizably poetic response in us, and the rest of the poem, painful as it would be if it were a matter of direct reporting, a direct account of the reduction of human beings to ash and smoke, doesn’t travel too far from the obscenity of the death camp and the incident that is one of the occasions of the poem. The commandant of the camp impressed gypsy musicians into a band and ordered them to play the tango and other dance measures to accompany the processions of victims to the ovens. Of course, in the end the musicians themselves perished, presumably in silence. Later Celan seems to have distanced himself from this poem, in part because it was used in the immense scholastic discussions of German guilt, in part because he found it too direct in its references to the bitter realities.
In his introduction to the poems Hamburger suggests that we should compare “Todesfuge” with the later “Engführung” (“The Straitening”); we shall see, he urges, “how daring, cryptic, and spare Celan’s manner has become” in the thirteen years since “Todesfuge.” Without a knowledge of the poet’s life, dates, and situation it would be a rare and penetrating reader who would be able to guess at the poem’s ultimate reference. It is plain from this late section that the extremes of human horror provide the ground of the poem.
In der Eulenflucht, beim
versteinerten Aussatz
unsern geflohenen Händen, in
der jüngsten Verwerfung,
Kugelfang an
der verschutteten Mauer:
At owl’s flight, near
the petrified scabs,
our fled hands, in
the latest rejection,
the rifle-range near
the buried wall.
In “Todesfuge” there is a fair amount of more or less explicit material; here in “Engführung” the material is deliberately hidden, as though he is constructing a deep parable and choosing not to provide a key. “He that hath ears to hear, let him hear.”
From the collection Die Niemandsrose (1963) to his death in 1970 Celan’s poetry becomes more fragmentary and obscure. It is often sharply beautiful, but it has seemed to some critics to have sense only in relation to a private world. His last years seem to have been unhappy and he had severe paranoid episodes. Paranoid beliefs are rarely quite groundless, and there was something right in his feeling that the world was ranged against him. In particular, quite unjustified charges that he had plagiarized the work of Yvan Goll troubled him severely. One who was not predisposed to have a paranoid vision of the world would have shrugged it off, finding the accusation preposterous. All the same, the dense obscurity is not, at least for the most part, a sign of mental derangement; it is rather the sign of an attempt to work into his poetry, in his own idiom, material that belongs to the harsh public world. He is not—he protested he was not—a hermetic poet.
Many themes, alongside the dominant theme of the great massacre, are present in the later poems. There are some exquisite love poems; and there is much that is religious, a wrestling with the deepest and most troubling problems in Judaism and Christianity. He stands within the tradition of Meister Eckhart and the later developments of “negative” theology. He is far removed indeed from the optimistic theodicy of Leibniz and from German liberal theology, Jewish or Christian.
I choose for comment, using Hamburger’s translations, some of the more accessible poems. First, “Tenebrae”:
We are near, Lord,
near and at hand.
Handled already, Lord,
clawed and clawing as though
the body of each of us were
your body, Lord.
Pray, Lord,
pray to us,
we are near.
Wind-awry we went there,
went there to bend
over hollow and ditch.
To be watered we went there, Lord.
It was blood, it was
what you shed, Lord.
It gleamed.
It cast your image into our eyes, Lord.
Our eyes and our mouths are so open and empty, Lord.
We have drunk, Lord.
The blood and the image that was in the blood, Lord.
Pray, Lord.
We are near.
Almost certainly the title refers to the Holy Week—the week devoted to the contemplation of Christ’s Passion—office of Tenebrae (ironically, abandoned in the recent liturgical reform). The Eucharistic imagery is plain; the body and blood of the suffering Christ, and what goes with the savage eating—clawing—of the spiritually famished, are central images in the poem. (The reference is also, I take it, to the Passover meal.) The great inversion—we feel it like a blow—is that the relation between the Lord and those who are participants in the rite (not a ritual act but the actual bloody processes of living and dying in the camps) is the reverse of the traditional relation; the Lord is comforted, reassured that we are near; he is asked to pray to us; and there is a dreadful ambiguity about “It was blood, it was what you shed, Lord.”
A very different poem strikes me as full of charm, soberly beautiful.


Led home into oblivion
the sociable talk of
our slow eyes.
Led home, syllable after syllable, shared
out among the dayblind dice, for which
the playing hand reaches out, large, awakening.
And the too much of my speaking:
heaped up round the little
crystal dressed in the style of your silence.
In German the last three lines are:
Und das Zuviel meiner Rede:
angelagert dem kleinen
Kristall in der Tracht deines Schweigens.
But it is the poetry of indictment, the expression of what might without absurdity be called God’s dereliction that remains with us. A short poem linked to “Tenebrae” is:


I heard him,
he was washing the world,
unseen, nightlong,
One and Infinite,
Light was. Salvation.
(“annihilated,/ied” is the translator’s rendering of vernichtet,/ichten.)
The supreme expression of the poetry of indictment is undoubtedly “Psalm.”
No one moulds us again out of earth and clay,
no one conjures our dust.
No one.
Praised be your name, no one.
For your sake
we shall flower.
A nothing
we were, are, shall
remain, flowering:
the nothing-, the
no one’s rose.
our pistil soul-bright,
with our stamen heaven-ravaged,
our corolla red
with the crimson word which we sang
over, O over
the thorn.
Celan stands within the tradition of Hölderlin and Rilke and it seems the common judgment of competent critics that his achievement is not less than theirs. Despite the difficulties his work offers the reader, he is a public poet, a writer concerned with the great events of the time. He stands in the same relation to the world of the massacres as does the author of Lear to the cruelty, poverty, and madness of his time. And just as in Lear the horror is not diminished or tempered, so in Celan’s work the death camps and what went on within them are not made less terrible. But we have also to say, though the analysis of this isn’t clear, that in each case the effect of the poetry is that we do in a mysterious way come to a new understanding of the horror, though not, emphatically not, through our being reconciled to it. On the contrary, it is the poetry that keeps the crust of familiarity from forming.
Michael Hamburger’s translation is a great achievement. Any translation is an arduous business; but to translate Celan is uncommonly arduous. It is not the job of the translator to make what is obscure clear but to give us an equivalent obscurity. I once heard a man say that a certain modern translation of Paul Celan’s letters made them understandable for the first time. I thought this a dubious compliment and a misconception of what a good translation is for. Celan’s being a polyglot, with Romanian, French, Yiddish, Hebrew, English (he himself made a remarkable translation into German of Shakespeare’s sonnets) under and sometimes on the surface of the poetry, presents the translator with peculiar difficulties.3 So far as I can judge, Hamburger has come close to overcoming them. It is a memorable volume and will influence our moral outlook and the practice of poetry for a long time to come.
  1. 1 John Henry Newman, An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent (London, 1870; 1906 pp. 78–79. 
  2. 2 See his commentaries on Celan and his work in The Times Literary Supplement (February 10–16, 1989), and The New Yorker (August 28, 1989). 
  3. 3 A penetrating discussion of the difficulties of the translator of Celan is ” ‘Ziv, that light’: Translation and Tradition in Paul Celan,” by John Felstiner, in The Craft of Translation, edited by John Biguenet and Rainer Schulte (University of Chicago Press, 1989). 


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