Tag Archives: the meridian

Pierre Joris, clinamen and the Deleuzian Celan

This started with me asking a few questions about what might be meant by ‘the angle on inclination’ in the Meridian and developed into a more extended and helpful discussion with regard to pushing and pulling and the nature of fatefulness. Celan’s best translator, Pierre Joris (who spent seven years producing the English version of the notes to the speech), made a contribution by confessing that he’d nearly used ‘clinamen’ instead because of the connections that he sees between Deleuze and Celan.

Let me say that Pierre has spent more time thinking about Celan’s work than anyone currently on the planet and I readily concede that my knowledge of either Celan or Deleuze is extremely scant by comparison. What follows is simply an attempt to work out what a Deleuzian Celan might look like.

Coincidentally, I’ve been approaching Deleuze from the Whitehead (as opposed to Foucault) angle of late and I’ve now had some time to mull this unlikely partnership over. Staring with the reasonably obvious, Celan’s main philosophical ‘influences’ came from Martin Buber and Martin Heidegger and not from anything remotely post-structural and Deleuze is increasingly seen as a leading figure in the development of post-structuralist thought

Peirre acknowledges that this pairing is also about his need for there to be an affinity between these two (“the vagaries and vanities of translation”) and this is always a danger. There have been times when I’ve read a far stronger neo-platonic theme into ‘The Faerie Queene’ because I want Spenser to be devoutly following Ficino even though the evidence for this level of devotion is decidedly thin, there’s also the occasions when I want Marvell to be cleverer than he (probably) is.

Celan is however radically ambiguous and attempted to explain this is conversation with Hugo Huppert:

And as regards my alleged encodings, I would rather say: ambiguity without a mask, is expresses precisely my feeling for cutting across ideas, an overlapping of relationships. You are of course familiar with the manifestation of interference, coherent waves meeting and relating to one another. You know of dialectic conversions and reversals – transitions into something akin, something succeeding, even something contradictory. That is what my ambiguity (only at certain turning-ponts, certain axes of rotation present) is about. It stands in consideration to the fact that we can observe several facets in one thing, showing it from various angles, “breaks” and “divisions” which are by no means only illusory. I try to recapitulate in language at least fractions of this spectral analysis of things: related, succeeding, contradictory. Because, unfortunately, I am unable to show these things from a comprehensive angle.

The link/affinity with Deleuze may spring from the ‘several facets in one thing’ that are to be shown from a variety of angles all of which sounds a bit similar to Deleuze’s insistence on the multiple rather than the single and linear.

This is not the place to provide even a brief overview of Project Deleuze but in this instance it might be worthwhile considering how he defines ‘clinamen’ in ‘Repetition and Difference':

Ancient atomism not only multiplied Parmenidean being, it also conceived of Ideas as multiplicities of atoms, atoms being the objective elements of thought. Thereafter it is indeed essential that atoms be related to other atoms at the heart of structures which are actualised in sensible composites. In this regard, the clinamen is by no means a change of direction in the movement of an atom, much less an indetermination testifying to the existence of a physical freedom. It is the original determination of the direction of movement, the synthesis of movement and its direction which relates one atom to another. ‘Incerto tempore’ does not mean undetermined but non-assignable or nonlocalisable.
If it is true that atoms, the elements of thought, move ‘as rapidly as thought itself’, as Epicurus says in his letter to Herodotus, then the clinamen is the reciprocal determination which is produced ‘in a time smaller than the minimum continuous time thinkable’. It is not surprising that Epicurus makes use here of the vocabulary of exhaustion: there is something analogous in the clinamen to a relation between the differentials of atoms in movement. There is a declination here which also forms the language of thought; there is something here in thought which testifies to a
limit of thought, but on the basis of which it thinks: faster than thought, ‘in a time smaller .. .’. Nevertheless, the Epicurean atom still retains too much independence, a shape and an actuality. Reciprocal determination here still
has too much of the aspect of a spatia-temporal relation. The question whether modern atomism, by contrast, fulfils all the conditions of a structure must be posed in relation to the differential equations which determine the laws of nature, in relation to the types of ‘multiple and non-Iocalisable connections’ established between particles, and in relation to the character of the ‘potentiality’ expressly attributed to these particles.

I’ve quoted this at length to try and avoid ripping thins out of context but it is still packed with the worst aspects of Gallic ‘density’. Deleuze is perhaps a little clearer in the preceding pages where he emphasises multiplicities- “The Idea is thus defined as a structure. A structure or an Idea is a ‘complex theme’, an internal multiplicity – in other words, a system of multiple, non-localisable connections between differential elements which is incarnated in real relations and actual terms.”

I have no clear idea of what aspects of this particular clinamen it is that Pierre sees in Celan so I’m going to make a few guesses. Celan defends his use of ambiguity by saying that reality is open to a number of different perspectives and that his work attempts to express this. Deleuze appears to be saying that a reductive perspective disregards the relationships between and across these particles and that this is a fundamental error. I would argue that there are similarities between the two perspectives but there are also major differences. Before spelling out what these might be I need to confess that I do see ‘Process and Reality’ hovering in the Deleuzian background at all times even though this is often at variance with the facts. So, Whitehead’s relational perspective which prioritises the many over the one is reflected in what Deleuze is saying and there is no doubt that Celan would share some notions of a multiple rather than a singular reality. I’m not sure that he’d embrace the relational emphasis and he would really struggle with other elements of Deleuzian thought. He would probably reject the quite radical view of time and the above quote does have the ‘only at certain turning points’ qualifier whereas Deleuze insists on ‘multiplicities’ at all times regardless of turning points. There’s also a playfulness that is at the heart of Project Deleuze that is absent from Celan’s life and work.

I am happy to accept that ‘angle of inclination’ can have several meanings and an awareness and validation of the multiple over the singular might be one of them. The other thought that occurs to me is that Prynne does radical amibiguity too and his ‘is this the one inclined’ quip from ‘To Pollen’ may also signal a recognition of the same quality but this would probably take us to Merleau-Ponty as well as Whitehead…

Readers will be delighted to know that I’m now going to stop thinking about the Meridian and return to the poems.

Paul Celan, Osip Mandelstam and fateful language

Plough match 2012 # 17 Julian Winslow

The last post on Celan’s term ‘the angle of inclination’ attracted some debate and a very helpful contribution from Pierre Joris (Celan’s best translator who also spent seven years of his life producing the English version of the notes for the Meridian), I thought that I’d return to this issue and add a few more elements into the ‘mix’.

For those unfamiliar with Celan’s work, it is probably sufficient to say that he was the greatest poet of the 20th century and that his later work embodies much of what poetry must be about. The notes made in preparation for the Meridian offer a crucial insight into Celan’s poetics- the Meridian address is the only time that he expressed his views on poetry in any depth. I’ve paid intermittent but close attention to the notes since last summer and have learned a number of things which appear to be reasonably central to Celan’s practice:

  • the poem comes from a primordial darkness and this blackness is “congenital” to the poem;
  • the poem carries the potential for an encounter and the encounter between reader and poem is both tactile and intimate;
  • the poem is described as being “under way” en route to some “other”.

I’m reasonably confident of the above but there are many other aspects that are resistant to ‘easy’ interpretation. One of these is the use of the ‘angle of inclination’ which I speculated about in the last post. To recap this is what Celan said in the address:

This always-still can only be a speaking. But not just language as such, nor, presumably, not verbal “analogy” either.

But language actualized, set free under the sign of a radical individuation that at the same time, however, remains mindful of the borders language draws and of the possibilities language opens up for it.

This always-still of the poem can indeed only be found in the work of the poet who does not forget that he speaks under the angle of inclination of his Being, the angle of inclination of his creatureliness.

The the poem is – even more clearly than previously – one person’s language-become-shape and, according to its essence, presentness and presence.

Last time I speculated that this angle may refer to being leant forward so as to pay close or respectful attention to something. In response, Courtney Druz suggested that this might refer to a “bending under pressure” whilst Tom D’Evelyn made this observation- ““Inclination” may point to the intersubjective understanding of otherness. The I is opened to the other by transcending itself, the self that is “intended” in time towards an object, and this transformation of the self creates a space where Being may show its “otherness” as inclination: a point of entry into this space. The pressure Courtney mentions is a “pull” that co-operates with the opening self to open the space.” Pierre Joris put forward a Deleuzian perspective- “I’ll confess to problems with the translation of Celan’s term “Neigungswinkel” — which I eventually returned to its most literal translation as “angle of inclination”. For many years —the whole book took 7 years (meager? fat?) to translate — I used the term “clinamen” which in its Deleuzian inclination had seemed useful & accurate to me & my own thinking about PC. Vagaries & vanities of translation.”

In responding to these I came across a more detailed paragraph which I should have included in the initial post:

The poem that I have in mind is not surface-like: nor is this changed by the fact that even recently, with Apollinaire or with Chr. Morgenstern, one had the shape poem, rather, the poem has the (complex a double spatial depth of the soul of the) spaciality of the who demands it of the soul and indeed a complex one: the spaciality and tectonics of the one who demands it of himself and the spaciality of the of his own language ie (language which) not simply of language as such but of the language which configures and actulizes itself under the special angle of inclination of the one who speaks and thus the poem is fateful language.

(The words in brackets are the ones that Celan crossed out in his notes.)

The next paragraph expands on ‘fateful':

“Fateful”: a highly contestable word, I know; but let it function at least as an auxiliary word; as auxiliary word for ex., for the description of an experience: that one has to emulate one’s poem, if it is to remain true; that concerning this or that poem one has to ask oneself if it hadn’t been better to have left it unwritten; that (one) even (the) most (pronounced, most articulated) literal irreality form speaks the language of the imperative: “You must pass through here, life!”

(The words in brackets are again the ones that Celan crossed out in his notes.)

So, there are now some additional words and phrases that we need to think about. I’m taking ‘the one who speaks’ to be the poet or the maker of the poem and that the poem actualizes itself because it is made by the poet who has this ‘special’ angle of inclination. It is because of this process that the poem is said to be ‘fateful’ language.

Let’s give some consideration to this ‘highly contestable word’, fateful has five definitions in the OED:

  • Of a voice or utterance: Revealing the decrees of fate; prophetic of destiny;
  • Fraught with destiny, bearing with it or involving momentous consequences; decisive, important. Chiefly of a period of time;
  • Marked by the influence of fate; controlled as if by irresistible destiny;
  • Bringing fate or death; deadly;
  • Having a remarkable fate; of eventful history.

Given what we know about Celan, it is likely that this contestable word is being used as a combination of both the first and second definitions although the fourth definition may also be intended, the notes have “Death as the principle creating unity and limits, this its omnipresence in the poem.” but we do have to tease out whether this is Celan the follower of Heidegger or Celan the depressive…..

With regard to “You must pass…”, the notes contain “poems are narrows: you have to go through here with you life – ” with an additional comment that was put in later- “…..not all the poems one writes: no one is a poet through and through…”. So poems carry or are laden with fate/destiny and also carry death and that the poet has a kind of duty to ‘emulate’ the poem- in another version of the ‘fateful’ paragraph this is “one has to live according to one’s poems”.

The Notes also contain Celan’s radio-essay on “The poetry of Osip Mandelstam” which contains this: “These poems are the poems of someone who is perceptive and attentive, someone turned toward what becomes visible, someone addressing and questioning: these poems are a conversation.

Celan was a fervent admirer of Mandelstam’s work and had translated it from the Russian, here I think the idea of turning towards something that becomes visible may also provide context for ‘inclination’.

I think Courtney is right that the leaning forward is also experienced as a burden, as a responsibility to bear witness for the other- which requires an openness and careful attention. The imperative to bear witness to the fate of the Jewish people is a recurring theme in Celan’s work which is made more difficult and complex by the fact that his mother tongue was German. “Tenebrae” has ‘we’ going to look at the bodies in mass graves but it is also set out as a prayer that addresses God directly.

So, inclination may combine- attention, reverence, the burden of responsibility toward the other or otherness and may also be concerned with all of the above working to expose an aspect of truth or reality.

As always with Celan all of this has to be provisional and I haven’t begun yet to address Pierre’s ‘clinamen’ and the Deleuzian Celan but I do find it very useful to try and think these things through.

Drafts, notes and poems.

Yesterday the multi-talented Zachary Bos sent me two pdfs, one of a Geoffrey Hill pamphlet entitled ‘Preghiere’ which was published in 1964 and the other of ‘The Kensington Mass’ by David Jones which was published in 1975, a year after Jones’ death.

With regard to the second of these the publishers (Agenda Editions) explain that this is an unfinished draft of a poem that Jones had been working on until his death. The text of the book consists of a tentative draft of part of the poem together with fragments from Jones’ handwritten notes which have been collated by Rene Hague who also provides some explanation. Jones’ notes are reproduced at the end of the book.

I have mixed feelings about reading material that may not have been intended for publication. In general I think I’m against it because we don’t know if those poets would have wanted their drafts to be read by others and doing so can feel a little bit grubby and intrusive.

The above purist stance falls apart when we come to specific examples- ‘Edgar Allen Poe and the Jukebox’ is a collection of Elizabeth Bishop’s “uncollected poems, drafts and fragments” which contains 16 drafts of ‘One Art’ thus giving the reader the privilege of seeing a truly great talent at work. To those of us that might feel queasy about this kind of prying, the blurb quotes John Ashbery- “For those who love Elizabeth Bishop, there can never be enough of her writing. The arrival of this trove of manuscripts is therefore a stupendous event.” So, one justification would appear to be that it’s okay if the poet didn’t publish that much stuff during his or her lifetime. The counter argument goes that Bishop was meticulous about deciding what could be (by her very high standards) published and what couldn’t which is why a relatively small amount was made public.

Paul Celan presents a different kind of problem. James K Lyon’s “Paul Celan and Martin Heidegger: an Unresolved Conversation 1951-70″ which (among other things) makes extensive use of Celan’s marginalia in books by Heidegger in order to examine the relationship between the two. As a fan of all things Celan, I should be delighted by this but it turns out to be far too speculative:

During his intense reading of Wrong Paths in 1953, a passage on the nature of poetic language in the essay “What Are Poets For?” prompted Celan to enter double lines and write the word language [Sprache] in the margin. The passage reads, “Being, as itself, marks off its domain, which is measured (temnein, tempus) by Being’s being present in the word. Language is the domain (templum), viz. the house of Being . . . [the] temple of Being” (Das Sein durchmisst es selbst als seinen Bezirk, der dadurch bezirkt wird [temnein, tempus], dass es im Wort west. Die Sprache ist der Bezirk [templum], d.h. das Haus des Seins . . . [der] Tempel des Seins, G 5:310). In connecting humankind’s dwelling in the temple of Being with the poet’s role as a seer in that temple, Heidegger made an allegorical move that must have appealed to Celan’s belief in writing poetry as a higher calling.

Only a few days after finishing Wrong Paths, Celan again encountered the image of language as the temple or house of Being in Heidegger’s Letter on Humanism, where it occurs in at least nine passages. His underlining of several of
those passages suggests that they caught the poet’s attention and probably left a trace in a poem he wrote soon after reading A Letter on Humanism.

This is from p32 but the whole book is peppered with ‘must haves’ and ‘probablys’ which doesn’t inspire confidence. The other reasonably obvious point to make is that underlining can signify a whole range of things as can making a double line in the margin. Most of us who make these kind of marks know that they have a wide range of meanings and connotations, as a mark to return to to reconsider/evaluate, as a mark of approval, as a mark of something that seems important or as something to denote disagreement or condemnation etc etc.

There’s also the voyeuristic/intrusive element in this. It is very, very unlikely that Celan made these marks in the knowledge that they would be scrutinised and made the subject of a book. What we know of his widow, Giselle, it is very unlikely that she would have given permission for an exercise of this kind. The other issue that I have with Lyons is that he makes a number of assumptions about the meeting between Celan and Heidegger at Todtnauberg when the fact is that we will never know what took place.

I also have Pierre Joris’ magnificent translation for Celan’s notes and drafts for The Meridian Address which continues to absorb me – I’ve written about it several times because I think it gives us a deeper insight into his poetics. The only moment of voyeuristic grubbiness has been felt when he equates Sophie Goll with Goebbels. The other redeeming aspects are that Giselle gave permission for poetry to be published after his death and that Celan retained these notes even though he no longer had need of them- he committed suicide over 9 years after the Address was made. The German editors have provided notes to explain some of the references but these don’t make the leap in speculation so there aren’t any must haves or probablys. For example, there is a lengthy citation for a French phrase used by Celan that identifies the source that Celan alludes and the version that was in his poession. There’s also a short entry on Kropotkin that identifies his anarchism and one oh his works- the editors do not then suggest that Celan was also an anarchist because that would be a probably.

Rene Hague was Jones’ greatest friend and would not have participated in the publication of ‘The Kensington Mass’ if he felt that this was in any way contrary to what his friend would have wished. His explanatory notes are a delight and I think this is an example of the right mix of respect and judgement that these situations require:

Our inclination will be to include as much as possible; but we have, unfortunately, to remember that David’s method was the exact opposite. We may comfort ourselves, however, by remembering, too, that little or nothing (I believe) was destroyed, and work which had been put on one side (e.g. Balaam’s Ass) would later be reinstated.

Hague goes into detail as to his reasons for ordering the drafts in this way but the drafts themselves are also included so we can follow the way these decisions have been made.

Given that Jones is one of the great modernists, as with Bishop, anything that adds to the sparse work that we have has got to be important, especially when compiled out of friendship and affection.

Paul Celan and inclination.

This is intended to be a series of questions that I don’t know the answer to.

Paul Celan was awarded the prestigious Buchner prize in 1960, his acceptance speech was published as ‘The Meridian’ and last year Stanford University Press published Pierre Joris’ translation of the notes than Celan made for the speech.

The Meridian contains this-

This always-still can only be a speaking. But not just language as such, nor, presumably, not verbal “analogy” either.

But language actualized, set free under the sign of a radical individuation that at the same time, however, remains mindful of the borders language draws and of the possibilities language opens up for it.

This always-still of the poem can indeed only be found in the work of the poet who does not forget that he speaks under the angle of inclination of his Being, the angle of inclination of his creatureliness.

The the poem is – even more clearly than previously – one person’s language-become-shape and, according to its essence, presentness and presence.

As a lifelong reader of Celan, this has caused me all kinds of problems because it seems to be quite central to his poetics. I can manage “language actualized” and “a radical individuation” but stumble over the repeated “angle of inclination” and it appears that awareness of this is what separates poems that have/are ‘always-still’ from those that have/are merely “already-no-longer” which appears to differentiate between those poems that have “presentness” and those that don’t. This all seems reasonably straightforward until we get to the “inclination of Being” which isn’t.

Turning to the notes for assistance I find: “The poet’s being-directed-toward-language (being inclined?)” and “…a language that presences, that fulfils itself under the singular angle of inclination of being”- neither of these are particularly helpful but the second one does at least takes us a bit further away from ‘Being’ with its connotation of ‘Being and Time’ and all that this entails.

‘Inclination’ has two main meanings, ” The fact or condition of being inclined; deviation from the normal vertical or horizontal position or direction; leaning or slanting position; slope, slant.” and “The condition of being mentally inclined or disposed to something, or an instance of such condition; a tendency or bent of the mind, will, or desires towards a particular object; disposition, propensity, leaning.” It would seem that it is the first definition that is meant because of being under the angle of inclination.

If however someone is inclined then they may be giving that thing special attention as when we need to lower our head so as to see a text or an image more clearly or to give something our undivided attention. In the Meidian Celan quotes Malebranche- “Attention is the natural prayer of the soul.”

It’s also important to recognise that this quality of the poem can only be found in those poets who are mindful of where they speak. To be under an inclination might be to have taken shelter or it may indicate being under the influence exerted by this angle or by the fact of this angle. According to my very sketchy memory, Heidegger amy use the idea of ‘creatureliness’ to distinguish those things that have Being from those that don’t but this isn’t particularly helpful with the angle image.

As well as showing a preference and paying increased attention, being incline can also denote expressing an affinity or solidarity with someone, it can also signify reverence, we bow our heads when we pray. Further context might be available from J H Prynne and Geoffrey Hill who both use inclination in a way that seems to nod towards Celan.
This is from the sixth poem in Prynne’s ‘To Pollen’ sequence:

................................Or does that tell
you enough, resilient brotherhood is this the one
inclined.........................................

This is from poem 14 from Hill’s ‘Clavics’-

Guide pray, the mentally disadvantaged
Safe to Urbino; Yeats and your author
Photomontaged,
Graciously inclined each to the other.

Of course, I want both of these inclinations to be nods towards Celan and in putting my case I can mention the poems that both poets have dedicated to Celan, the many bad references to ‘breathturn’ in ‘Orchards of Syon’ together with the direct address to Celan’s lover, Ingeborg Bachmann. I can also make a fuss about Prynne’s analysis of ‘Todtnauberg’ in his ‘Huts’ essay. Both seem to directly address the reader and both appear to refer to the poet inclining.

The counter argument is that Celan is referring to the ‘slope’ of the poet’s existence rather than to the living, breathing individual that both Hill and Prynne seem to be writing about.

So, the other area of exploration would be the poems themselves but clues aren’t easily located. This might be the closest we are going to get:

SIGHT THREADS, SENSE THREADS, from
nightbile knitted
behind time:

who
is invisible enough
to see you?

Mantle-eye, almondeye, you came
through all the walls,
climb
on this desk,
roll, what lies there, up again,

Ten blindstaffs
fiery, straight, free,
float from the just
born sign,

Stand
above it.

It is still us.

I do not want to get into speculation about what all of this remarkable poem may be ‘about’ but I do want to point out that it is in part about the writing process in that the ‘you’ is instructed to climb on the poet’s desk and roll up the material that lies there (again). So, given that we are unlikely to be talking about lino or carpets, it is a reasonable guess that these are scrolls that have been unrolled by the poet. If we think of the new sign as something that has been created after the scrolls were unrolled and their contents revealed then I think we might be getting close to inclination as reverent attention because scrolls have both religious and historical connotations, especially in the Jewish faith. ‘Almondeye’ is one of the ways that Celan refers to those who were slaughtered by the Germans.

In another part of the Meridian, Celan refers to the poem being on the edge of itself and it seems to me that the defiant last line enables to poem to watch itself in the making.

Of course this is entirely provisional and subject to much further revision but thinking about this has made me reconsider the whole process of poetry making and that has to be a good thing.

Using Celan to read Celan

I’ve used ‘I know you’ as an example of what a short poem can do and now I want to try and use Celan’s notes for ‘The Meridian’ to think bit more about this remarkable poem.

I’m going to use the Pierre Joris translation of the poem because it makes ‘sense’ and the Felstiner doesn’t. This is the German followed by the Joris-

(ICH KENNE DICH, du bist die tief Gebeugte
ich, der Durchbohrte, bin dir untertan.
Wo flammt ein Wort, das fur uns beide zeugte?
Du-ganz, ganz wirklich. Ich - ganz Wahn.)

(I KNOW YOU, you are the deeply bowed
I, the transpierced, am subject to you.
Where flames a word, would testify for us both?
You - all, all real. I - all delusion.)

Joris’ note to the poem states that it was written in 1965 for Gisele, Celan’s wife and that it has been the subject of much critical attention and analysis. I haven’t read any of this so I may be about to unwittingly say what has already been said.

If we take the poem as an address to Gisele then the above can be read as referring to Celan’s mental illness and the effect that this has had on their relationship. Closer examination however reveals several other elements that need to be thought about but I’d like to start with the obvious first.

By 1965 Celan’s mental illness was reasonably well-established and he was receiving electro-shock treatment as a way of reducing the severity of the episodes. Since about 1960 Celan and Giselle had periods of living apart primarily because of his ‘difficult’ behaviour which included bouts of paranoia.

So, Gisele is the one who is deeply bowed or weighed down by the poet’s illness and behaviour, he is the one who is fixed and defined by his condition whilst remaining devoted to Giselle. There is a problem about acting as witness to the difficulties that exist between them. In the final line Celan contrasts his own symptoms with his wife’s sanity and groundedness.

I’ve already said that this superficial reading speaks to me because of my bipolarness and the effect that this has had on my marriage so I think (or I like to think) that I can identify with the tone of the address and with the circumstances that these things may have been said. I also think that the poem strikes another blow for those of us who wish to see Celan taken out of the Holocaust and Heidegger boxes beloved of so many critics. In fact I’d like to claim Celan for madness and Kropotkin in thinking about the later work.

Of course, as with all things Celan, things are rarely straightforward. There is the brackets problem, the choice of adjectives, the ‘you’ problem and the incredible complexity of the third line. Some of these are helped, but not resolved, by the Meridian notes and we’ll need to start with the notion of the encounter.

The Brackets.

We know from the notes and the address itself that Celan thought of the poem as the opportunity for an encounter and that this encounter is both personal and tactile (conversation and handshake). A poem written by husband to wife at a time of marital stress carries more than a degree of intimacy and this may explain the brackets within which the entire poem is placed- as if these four lines are marked off or in some way removed from the rest of the collection. If this is the case, and it may very well not be, then there is the decision to publish problem. If we are to read this as a quiet cry of desperation which acknowledges the pain caused by madness and the brackets as a sign of privacy then publication does seem a bit odd.

Brackets are also used to enclose information that isn’t essential to what surrounds it but serves to add additional context or clarification. In the above paragraph I could have let ‘personal and tactile’ stand without further qualification but chose to add two of the specific examples that Celan provides to make his point. I think I did this for two reasons- the first being to justify my paraphrase, especially my use of ‘tactile’ and the second was to clarify that by ‘intimate’ I was not intending any kind of sexual connotation. I think that I chose brackets rather than commas to indicate that this element wasn’t essential to my argument or train of thought and should be seen as additional or supplementary.

With regard to this poem, it may be that the brackets here also denote information which is not essential for reading the rest of ‘Atemwende’ but which nevertheless ‘informs’ elements of the other poems. It could be that Celan was trying to indicate that his mental anguish and the difficult relationship with Gisele underlay the other poems in the volume or that he was trying to amplify one particular theme that occurs in other poems.

Some people may feel that I’m paying too much attention to something that may simply be a rather mannered device but Celan never did things without giving them careful consideration and it is very unlikely that the brackets are where they are just for ‘effect’.

The You Problem

There are many yous in Celan’s work and the addressee can be God, his parents, a lover, other victims of the Holocaust or a combination of these. You can also refer to friends and acquaintances. The yous are rarely identified in the poems and their identity has to be worked out by the rest of the poem and this isn’t always possible. In this instance things make a lot more ‘sense’ if we identify all four yous as referring to Giselle although this might not be the case with the you that Celan is subject to. As with most of Celan’s later work, things may only become a little clearer if the rest of the poem is placed under the closest scrutiny.

I Know You.

The seems like a very direct and unambiguous statement until we ask whether a wife would need to be told that her husband (for the previous twelve years) knew her. So perhaps we need to consider what kind of knowledge this might be and the reasons for placing it at the start of the poem. The phrase could signify that the poet knows all there is to know about Gisele and this could then be seen as some kind of threat- I know all of your secrets and I’m now going to divulge these to the world. The phrase may also indicate the start of an encounter triggered by this recognition. If we recognise a friend that we haven’t seen for a long time then we may start this encounter with a handshake so Celan may also be indicating that this is the start of a specific and real encounter rather than the idealised one that his poetry usually aims for (the message in a bottle motif from the Bremen Prize speech).

The other intention may be to announce the poet’s credentials in saying what he is about to say- I know you and my knowledge of you leads me to say these things. Of course, some of these things appear to be contradictory.

The Bowed Subject problem.

If this poem is in part ‘about’ mental illness then the description of Gisele as ‘deeply bowed’ may refer to the pressure that Celan’s condition has placed upon her and weighed her down. At the beginning we therefore have an acknowledgement of the damage that Celan’s behaviour and irrationality has caused- in the early sixties Celan had to move away from the family home because of fears for the safety of Gisele and Eric, their son. Ths seems to be contradicted a little by the second line where the poet declares himself to be ‘subject’ to Gisele. So, if this second ‘you’ is his wife then there is some kind of paradox- my behaviour oppresses you and wears you down yet I (who am mad) remain your subject and will therefore do your bidding. Of course ‘subject’ has many other connotations and meanings but it does seem that at a primary level this apparent paradox is being expressed.

Transpierced

I’ve said before that this describes for me the experience of mental illness, the feeling of being both wounded and immobilised at the same time, the sense of being slowly robbed as the episode intensifies until I arrive at the point where nothing can be done/thought/said. Because I’ve received a lot of attention from mental health professionals over the last five years, I’ve had many attempts at summing up the experience of being severely depressed but I’ve never come close to anything as accurate and telling as this.

The Witness Problem.

Jacques Derrida has written at length about the meaning of Celan’s question about witnessing for the witness at the end of ‘Aschenglorie’ and the third line seems to take us in the same direction but closer examination reveals that the question here is of a completely different order. ‘Where flames a word’ isn’t asking about who will witness or how this will be done but about the place in which a word/language will be born that will testify for them both which is asking something much more specific and personal. Is it this word that Celan the poet is searching/questing for? Is this why the poem is published?

I’m taking the last line at face value, referring to the difference between the afflicted poet and his mentally healthy and grounded wife but I do have to ask if the last two lines are in the right order. It does seem that the there are a series of statements in lines one, two and four but that line three poses the question that arises from these statements. As I said at the beginning, line three is wonderfully complex and brilliantly crafted and (with my fondness for great endings) I’m puzzled as to why Celan should order thing in this way.

The Notes to the Meridian are published by Stanford University Press and are widely available.

What short poems do

When I was 15ish, I was of the view that poetry was about compression, that it’s primary purpose was to condense and intensify life as it is lived. I hadn’t arrived at this conclusion from any deep knowledge or understanding but I did know that Paul Celan had written the most obviously important poetry that I had come across and that the more austere later works were staggeringly good. This view was solidified by Samuel Beckett’s ‘Lessness’ which seemd intent on paring things down in a similar way.

Over the last forty years I’ve weaned myself off this early certainty and discovered the many joys of the longer poem and the pleasure to be gained in losing myself for page after page. The problem with having Celan for a template has meant that very few poems have met my early standards and those that do tend to be part of a sequence rather than a ‘stand alone’ poem. I was thinking about this the other day when writing about Andrew Marvell’s ‘Garden’ sequence and found myself trying to work out what I look for in short poems.

The first and most obvious quality is brevity but the kind of brevity that says a lot without appearing to try whilst the second is about depth or perhaps profundity but a depth that is worn lightly and thus avoids ramming the ‘point’ down my throat. The third is about a good start but a better finish in that the opening should attract my attention and hold my interest whilst the end should be both sharp and accomplished.

I want to use four short poems to try and demonstrate what I mean, I’ve chosen these because I think that they are successful in their own right (although three do belong to a sequence) and because they all manage to kick off a series of related thoughts which may or may not have been part of the original intention.

Reitha Pattison’s Fable I

I’ve written about this recently but I want to use to show just how much a few lines can hold:

A reflection: dog dropped meat
into dog and meat and evil were
rewarded in cold fronts on level
markers of repast left in the dish
after lights out; nights strung about
in stern cosmetic aches. Provisions
were got in and some still starved.
Providence is one solid thing, tight
far-off agrarian work ethic another.

The first element relates to fables and various other forms of the same kind of thing. Emblem books during the 16th and 17th centuries made great use of these stories so I’ve been led back to Whitney and the popularity of the emblem form and the conscious use that Spenser and others made of emblems. The illustration in Whitney’s great collection of the dog and his reflection is remarkable in its directness.

I’ve also been reading Alistair Fowler on the impact of the epigram on what is referred to as the English Renaissance and beyond and Pattison’s Fables do share many epigrammatic features which has brought me to think again about the use of such forms as life lessons and their equivalents in the popular culture of today.

The mix of Providence and an agrarian work ethic is startling because the two are not obviously related and it’s taken me a while to think this through. Providence is defined by Alexandra Walsham as a the “sovereignty of God and His unceasing supervision of and intervention in the earthly realm” whereas ‘work ethic’ is a term used by Weber to ‘explain’ the relative economic success of Protestant northern Europe when compared with the Catholic south. The story of the ant and the grasshopper tells of a grasshopper who does little during the warm summer months and an ant who puts stores food for the winter. Of course, the grasshopper has no food and starves having been rebuked by the ant for his idleness. The original point is reasonably straightforward but Pattison plays with it to bring other dimensions to bear.

Geoffrey Hill’s poem LI from ‘The Triumph of Love’

I am aware that the above sequence really needs to be read in its entirety in order to be fully appreciated but this particular poem meets all of the above criteria and succeeds in its own right. It also provides what is perhaps the central point of the work as a whole:

Whatever may be meant by moral landscape
is for me increasingly a terrain
seen in crass section: igneous, sedimentary,
conglomerate, metamorphic rock-
strata, in which particular grace,
individual love, decency, endurance,
are traceable across the faults.

This is particularly satisfying because it’s a quite statement in the middle of some quite dramatic flourishes which attempt to encapsulate some of the worst aspects of the 20th century and provides the key as to why we have come through those appalling experiences. So it’s a kind of riposte to those who see only brutality and mindless slaughter but it’s also a self-contained statement of faith in a ‘particular grace’ and the finer qualities that each of us possess and which run across and outweigh our many and various ‘faults’. It is a remarkable statement and one that continues to provoke a number of questions- as a more or less committed atheist, the notion of grace means little to me but I would argue that the other three qualities do play a huge part in getting us through although I’m not entirely sure that the geological analogy works for me it is still remarkably accomplished, keenly felt and a brilliant statement of quite a complex and nuanced position.

Andrew Marvell’s Poem VI from ‘The Garden’

I’ve written recently about another poem in this sequence so I don’t intend to repeat myself here. This particular poem stands out from the others both for its tone and for the things that it appears to be saying which ‘work’ on a number of different levels:

Meanwhile, the mind, from pleasures less
Withdraws into its happiness:
The mind, that ocean where each kind
Does straight its own resemblance find;
Yet it creates, transcending these,
For other worlds, and other seas;
Annihilating all that's made
To a green thought in a green shade.

I’m firmly of the view that Marvell has never been given his due and I think the above is an example of both masterful control and an ability to say complex things in startling ways. Nigel Smith’s commentary tells me that the above continues to give critics fertile ground for controversy and debate but I just think that it’s very, very well put together and contains a satisfyingly high level of ambiguity. ‘Green’ had a number of connotations apart from those relating to the environment in the 17th century, as did ‘shade’ and the contrast of these thoughts with the more psychological description is at odds with the rest of the sequence but also indicates just how different this period was from our own- something we tend to overlook especially when thinking about the English Civil War. I’m currently pursuing the role of green in the period and it is fascinating.

Paul Celan’s ‘I know you’

I want to finish with this because I started with Celan and he is the best and what follows demonstrates this. We often think of Celan primarily as Jew and in relation to the Holocaust but the four lines below were written to/for his wife, Giselle. By the early sixties the marriage had become strained primarily because of Celan’s ‘difficult’ behaviour which was due to his mental health problems. As someone who has similar problems, I read it as an exposition of the kind of tensions and pain that such issues can cause:

(I KNOW YOU, you are the deeply bowed,
I, the transpierced, am subject to you.
Where flames a word, would testify for us both.
You - all, all real. I - all delusion.)

This has also generated swathes of critical attention and debate but for me it’s heartbreakingly accurate, the use of ‘transpierced’ speaks to me at a very deep and personal level and the third line encapsulates so much of the desperation that many of us go through. It is also fitting that the entire poem should exist in a bracket.

There are very few poems (of any length) that manage to speak to me in this way and I remain awed by Celan’s incredible ability to make difficult things very solid. I’ve been thinking about the Meridian notes a lot recently and this for me embodies what Celan says about the poem as creating an opportunity for the encounter with the reader that is almost tactile. This does that for me.

Maybe and Perhaps in Prynne and Celan

I think it is reasonable to suggest that the two most accomplished poets since the Second World War might be quite good at prose. I’ve been re-reading Celan’s ‘Meridian’ address and Prynne on ‘The Solitary Reaper’ and it strikes me that they may both be using the same rhetorical sleight of hand but with slightly different aims in mind.

The devices that I have in mind are:

  • “it may be” and “maybe” (J H Prynne);
  • “permit me” and “perhaps” (Paul Celan).

These are chosen because they are used frequently and express emphasis rather than doubt.

Before going any further with this entirely whimsical speculation, it might be as well to identify some definitions. The OED provides a number of definitions for perhaps:

  1. A1. Expressing a hypothetical, contingent, conjectural, or uncertain possibility: it may be (that); maybe, possibly. A1a. Modifying a statement or question;
  2. B 1. An instance of ‘perhaps’ used to qualify a statement; an expression of possibility combined with uncertainty, suspicion, or doubt; a doubtful statement;
  3. B 2. Something that may or may not happen, exist, or be the case; a possibility.

The following are the non-colloquial definitions of maybe:

  1. (adv) Possibly; perhaps. Occas. with dependent that-clause;
  2. (noun). What may be; a possibility; a speculation, esp. (usually in negative contexts) about a possible alternative outcome;
  3. (adj) Which is or are possibly to come; potential, possible.

“It may be” is (certainly in Prynne’s usage) giving a bit more formality to the speculation or suggestion whereas “permit me” is ostensibly asking to be allowed to do or say something.

‘The Meridian’ is the fullest statement that we have of Celan’s poetics and has been the subject of endless debate by both lit crit and philosophy types (and those in between). I don’t intend to add any more to this but I do want to think about this:

“Poetry: that can mean an Atemwende, a breathturn. Who knows, perhaps poetry travels this route – also the route of art – for the sake of such a breathturn? Perhaps it will succeed, as the strange. I mean the abyss and the Medusa’s head, the abyss and the automatons, seem to lie in one direction – perhaps it will succeed here to differentiate between strange and strange, perhaps it is exactly here that the Medusa’s head shrinks, perhaps it is exactly here that the automatons break down – for this single short moment? Perhaps, here, with the I – with the estranged I set free here and in this manner – perhaps here a further Other is set free?”

Perhaps the poem is itself because of this … and can now, in this art-less, art-free manner, walk its other routes, thus also the routes of art – time and again?

Perhaps.

Perhaps one can say that each poem has its own “20th of January” inscribed in it? Perhaps what’s new in the poems written today is exactly this: theirs is the clearest attempt to remain mindful of such dates?

But don’t we all write ourselves from such dates? And toward what dates do we write ourselves?”

This passage is the part where Celan sets out the bones of his praxis before going into further detail. ‘Perhaps’ is used in other parts of the Address but nowhere near as frequently as this. Needless to say, perhaps here denotes certainty rather than doubt, in fact it has a blue flashing light on its head to make sure that we do pay attention to the very precise statements that are being made. The entirely deliberate single word paragraph underlines the point. Some might feel that Celan is over-egging the pudding but this is far from the case, he does want his audience to think about what poetry is and does and to emphasise in German to his German audience the crucial importance of January 20th- the date when the Germans drew up the plans for the Holocaust.

Prynne’s use of ‘maybe’ is less concentrated but frequent enough to be noticed. I’ll start with ‘Huts’ which was published in Textual Practice in 2008.

“This hut is a place of fear and oppression, but the narrator makes these visits as if compelled by a poetic vocation to do so. It is a more extreme recourse than the guidance which took the author of the ‘Ode to Evening’ to his mountain hut; and yet there is maybe a relation in both between the idea of elemental refuge and human speech at the wellspring of poetic origin.”

This ‘maybe’ should be read as ‘definitely’ in that the link as described here forms the basis of the essay’s argument.

When I started out on this particular diversion, I wasn’t aware of the next example and I’m not cainig that it proves my point but it is odd:

It is time to turn to a recurrent theme in Heidegger which left its mark on the thought of Celan and maybe also on some deep features of his composing practice. As is well-known enough, Heidegger’s conception of primal metaphysics is bound up with a poetic understanding of early Greek and subsequent language usage, and it is this element that attracted Celan to intense study of Heidegger’s work over a wide range and for many years. For example, ‘urspru¨ngliches Sprechen’ (‘primordial speaking’) emerges as a recurrent concern in Celan’s reading notes on Heidegger’s Was Heisst Denken (What is Called Thinking) first published in 1954. And during his intense reading in 1953 of Holzwege (Wrong Paths), first published in 1950,21 which I recall myself studying with great ardency
more than forty years ago, Celan encountered and marked up a primal idea stated thus: ‘Die Sprache ist der Bezirk [templum], d.h. das Haus des Seins. . .[der] Tempel des Seins’ (‘Language is the domain (templum), viz. the house of Being. . .[the] temple of Being’).”

This ‘maybe’ conceals a lot more than certainty, Prynne wants this Heideggerian theme to have made its mark on Celan’s practice because it made a similar mark on Prynne who was reading Heidegger with ‘great ardency’. Here is not the place for any kind of discussion on the nature of the Heidegger / Celan dynamic nor is their space for speculation on why Prynne should feel the need to place his personal experience here at this point in the essay. What is important is that ‘maybe’ is again being used (with a smaller flashing blue light) to make us sit up and pay attention.

In the interests of balance, this is the third and final instance from ‘Huts':

“By this evidence the hut-place is not idyllic but is the site of alienation and its social costs. And as for
Heidegger’s upgrading of the hut or house to ‘the temple of Being’, recall the comment of Peter Shaw as cited by Johnson, that ‘the hand which cannot build a hovel may demolish a temple’; maybe they both were thinking of the history of Jerusalem.”

The history of Jerusalem isn’t taken any further and, of course, we will never know what either Shaw or Heidegger had in mind so perhaps this ‘maybe’ is being used in its ‘proper’ sense.

The final and rather amiguous example comes from the “Difficulties in the Translation of “Difficult” Poems” essay which was published in the third issue of the Cambridge Literary view. I think this might be a case of fluttering to deceive:

“If these many directions are developed so as to produce strong contradiction and self=dispute then the method may become a dialectic practice, in which poetic form and expression are brought into internal contest with themselves and with each other.”

The “may become” variation is used ostensibly to add and element of doubt as to whether contradiction and self dispute do become ‘a dialectic practice’ when Prynne knows that these elements define dialectic analysis. So, the phrase may be used here to add emphasis but it also adds a bit of distance for our author as this paragraph is probably the clearest statement we have of Prynne’s praxis.

I am tempted to go through the other recent essays but I have a feeling that they will confirm much of the above. I am going to return to the books on Herbert and Wordsworth to see if there are any further variations. I’ve also started to look at the notes to the Meridian for more instances of ‘perhaps’ And this is before I’ve made a start on the poems.

Incidentally, I’d forgotten just how good ‘Huts’ is even though I still only agree with about 7% of it.