This might take some time, I’ve been adding some stuff to the Celan section of arduity with regard to the notes and drafts to the Meridian, a book which was published in 2011. In the course of looking through the notes I came across a reference to the “breath-units” and “(Buber)”. Now, I’d normally see this as vindication of the view (nearly wrote ‘fact’) that the thought of Buber was more influential in Celan’s poetry than Martin Heidegger ever was. To some this may seem a small and trivial point but it’s one of the view bits of lit crit that are important to me simply because putting, as many still do, the poetry within distinctly German brackets (Heidegger, Rilke, Holderlin etc) is missing the point.
We now come to the Charles Olson element in this revelation. Aficionados of all things Cambridge will know that Charles Olson produced in 1950 a statement of poetics, ‘Prospective Verse’ which contained this:
And the line comes (I swear it) from the breath, from the breathing of the man who writes, at the moment that he writes, and thus is, it is here that, the daily work, the WORK, gets in, for only he, the man who writes, can declare, at every moment, the line its metric and its ending—where its breathing, shall come to, termination.
Here is Maurice S Friedman’s (1955) description of the Bible translation into German undertaken by Buber and Rosenzweig:
The translation is set in the form of cola (Atemzüge) rhythmic units based on natural breathing pauses. These serve the purpose of recapturing the original spoken quality of the Bible.
Given that Celan gave his speech in 1960 it is likely, according to my small brain, that (as a literary translator) he would have been aware of the Olson manifesto but it is Buber’s name that appears in the notes. Given that Olson was fairly ploymathic, it may be equally reasonable to suppose that he was aware of the rationale behind Buber’s translation.
The reason that this apparent similarity struck me is that I’m an undiluted fan of both and really want them to be singing from the same song sheet if only because the breath principle undermines many centuries of syllable and rhyme-based notions of form and structure.
The only problem that I have as a reader is that I don’t see this breath-unit mularkey reflected in the subsequent work of either poet but this may be because I haven’t been looking. In my head, Olson has always been more about what the line does rather than what it is. With Celan, the vast majority of lines seem to be too short to be ‘breath-units’.
I can however see how both poets were attempting to struggle free from the traditional constraints of verse and produce work that was a conscious challenge to what had gone before. There’s also the fact that poems were spoken before they were ever written down and that the breath is probably a more authentic unit in this regard than the metre.
Olson’s ongoing concern with the line is much more in evidence in ‘Maximus’ and this goes back at least as far as his time at Black Mountain College in the early fifties, in a letter to Robert Creeley he remarks what a pleasure it is to talk with Cy Twombly about the line because they both had the same view. Obviously this is not the place to juxtapose the Twombly line(s) against those of Olson but it is to suggest that Olson might be more concerned more about what the line can do rather than as a measurement of breath.
I’m going to try and illustrate this with Olson’s poem about his dad which starts of in fairly conventional fashion:
I have been an ability - a machine - up to now. An act of "history", my own, and my father's together a queer (Gloucester-sense) combination of completing something both visionary - or illusions (projection? literally lantern slides, on the sheet in front-room Worcester, on the wall and the lantern always getting too hot
The minor breaks with tradition consist of double spaces between words and lines starting in the middle of the page and some passages with bigger indents than the rest.
The end of the poem has lines which are impossible to put into HTML, some slant upwards forming a curve which is followed by a circle of text which starts with two upwardly slanting lines in the middle, the words then go anti-clockwise in a circle. After the circle is more or less complete, there is a way line that is upside down before we conclude with lines that slant down / up / down / up ending with ‘Forever Amen [...]‘
I would argue that the very variable line length in ‘Maximus’ does not relate to the exhalation of breath but is more concerned with what that physical length achieves as well as the occasional use of block capitals and lines from one word to another and the use of single and double underlines. I am however more than prepared to be proved wrong, I’ll readily confess to having only a superficial knowledge of the Projective manifesto but it does seem to be contradicted in the work.
Olson is much more accessible than Celan but both of them have a clear interest in line length and the shape of the poem- this ‘Vom Grossen’ from the Atemwende collection:
BY THE GREAT Eye- less scooped from your eyes: The six- edged, denialwhite erratic. A blind man's hand, it also starhard from name-wandering, rests on him, as long as on you, Esther.
Any attempt to pay attention to the above must, I would argue, delve around the Eye- / less line break and have a look at six- / edged as well to try and get an idea of what’s going on with line length and whether this is just about structure and shape or whether these breaks place a different kind of emphasis on the sense. What I think is reasonably clear is that single syllable lines can’t be counted as ‘breath-units’ unless each line break is meant to signify a pause for breath but this seems to spoil the run of ‘starhard / from name-wandering’ which is a completely brilliant phrase in itself but which would be marred with a pause.
Incidentally, Pierre Joris has recently posted Two uncollected Celan poems on his blog from 1968.