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.

Paul Celan’s Encounter with Poetry

These are a few thoughts on the ‘Encounter’ section of the Notes to the Meridian, they follow on from the pieces on ‘Breathturn’ , ‘The Poem‘ and ‘Darkness‘ although what follows should be able to be followed without reference to the other three.

I was going to start this with an extended discussion of the use of ‘encounter’ in the finished speech but I now realise the this is probably the most ambiguous term that Celan uses and gives the opportunity for a wide range of definitions and emphases. Briefly,  it seems to be referred to as the meeting between the poem and the other, on whose behalf it speaks. Celan also describes the poem as being ‘under way’ and encountering many things and individuals along its journey. Finally, there is the encounter with the reader which seems here to be quite different from the ‘message in a bottle’ analogy used in the earlier Bremen speech.

The notes are divided into three sections: ‘Encounter with the Poem’; ‘the dialogical poem’ and ‘The conversation with things’, I only want to deal with the first one here because ther’s a lot in it.. I’d like to make it clear that the selection below is entirely subjective, I am quoting the bits that are important/relevant to me and and the views expressed are not intended to be definitive.

Encounter with the Poem.

This section alternates between the reasonably clear and the very dense. I’ll start with some of the clearer ones-

“The attentiveness of the reader, a turning-toward the poem”

and then-

“aisthesis is not enough; the….., noesis is not enough…..; what is needed is personal presence, what is needed is conversation; conversation(s) and entertainment are two different things; conversations are demanding, strenuous.”

This sounds a bit like Keston Sutherland’s point about the need to pay attention to ‘serious’ poetry but Celan seems to be going further with this, the notions of ‘personal presence’ and conversation between the poem (poet) and the reader suggest an intimate and quite physical relationship, a theme which is developed further on in this section.

Incidentally, ‘aisthesis’ is glossed in the notes as ‘sense perception’ but it’s a bit more complicated than that (as you’d expect with Celan). ‘noesis’ is not glossed probably because the editors didn’t want to enter into speculation about the difference between the two terms. It’s also important to recognise that intellect and perception are not dismissed as being unnecessary but they are insufficient and need the ‘personal presence’ if the encounter is to be successful although it is acknowledged that this conversation/reading not be easy.

In my initial piece on the notes, I expressed surprise at the centrality of darkness to Celan’s thinking about poetry and I still find it difficult to square with the Celan that has been in my head for the last forty years. It is true that this darkness is referred to in the Meridian but the notes demonstrate Celan’s insistence that primordial darkness is at the very centre of poetry and that this darkness is ‘congenital’ to the poem.

This insistence is at it’s clearest in this long note-

Even for the one, -and before all for the one, for whom the encounter with the poem belongs to the quotidian and self-evident, the encounter has to begin with the darkness – of the self-evident, what makes every encounter with a stranger strange.: “Camarado, who this is no book, who touches this, touches a human”

Only by this touch – that is not a “making contact”- comes the way to intimacy. Aisthesis is not enough here, man is more than his sensorium; it is a question of conversation, as it is a question of language: (noesis does not suffice; it is a question of the angle of inclination in which one came together; it is a question of fate, as is the case with every real encounter, of the here and Now, the place and the hour.

The quote is from Whitman and the editors point out that this particular poem expresses Whitman’s essential qualities. Evrything after ‘suffice’ was added later.

This section is important to me on several levels, it first of all pulls together and adds emphasis to the connection between the darkness, the poem and the encounter with the reader and the way that this encounter is both intimate and a “conversation”. The bit about making every encounter with a stranger strange probably needs to be tied in with what Celan says about the relationship between art and poetry but also with the other as the subject of poetry.

The other intriguing remark is about the ‘angle of inclination’ which here refers to both poem and reader. In the speech we have this:

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.

I’m using the Joris translation of the speech but I do seem to recall that the Felstiner version is more ambiguous about what this inclination refers to, whether it is the act of reading or the creation of the poem.

As well as being a wonderfully evocative and (to my mind) accurate image of the doing poetry business, I also need to point out that it may have been picked up by both Hill and Prynne.

W B Yeats is an abiding spirit withing the ‘Clavics’ sequence and I do need to give this more thought but in Poem 14 we have:

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

Which would seem to encpsulate the role/actions of Hill as a reader of Yeats in the sense that Celan was pointing to.

A different take is presented by Prynne in the sixth poem in the ‘To Pollen’ sequence:

on brand simulation perfect pitch. Or does that tell
you enough, resilient brotherhood is this the one
inclined. Could one refused to the preset match hurt

I’ve written about both these inclinations in the past but I’d only seen Hill comparing himself to Yeats rather than as Yeats’ reader- which does make much more sense now that I’m more familiar with Clavics. As for Prynne, this is one of the very few coherentish remarks in ‘To Pollen’ and it focuses exclusively on his role as the maker of the poem. It also carries more than a degree of arrogance, referring to himself as ‘the’ one inclined as if there can be no other. Reading this again has reminded me that I do need to write something in the very near future about the way Prynne and Hill think about their readership…

As both Hill and Prynne are fluent in German and admirers of Celan, I’m making the not unreasonable assumption that they both read these notes when they were published in Germany in 1999. It does seem that Hill has made more use of the reciprocal nature of the poet/reader business than Prynne. This is odd because Prynne seems to be making a similar point about readerly activity in his commentary on ‘The Solitary Reaper’.

I don’t know very much about Whitman aoart from his role at the ‘Brooklyn Eagle’ but I am surprised that Celan should quote from him here as Whitman’s energy and exuberance does seem more than alittle at odds with the austere and terse Celan that I have in my head.

The last extract that I want to use is lengthy but it does (I think) indicate how readerly attention should proceed:

The poem as poem is dark, it is dark because it is the poem. Under this congenital darkness I do not mean those Lichtenbergian clashes of books and readers’ heads, where the hollow sound does not always come from the book; to the contrary, the poem wants to be understood, it is exactly because it is dark that it wants to be understood as poem, as ‘poem’s dark. Each poem thus demands understanding, will to understand, learning to understand that is, (but let this secondary phenomenon be mentioned here for the last time, a true understanding and in no way some “To enter into the co- or re- production, as fastidiously suggested these days on the federal and other levels. The poem, as I said, wants to be understood, it offers itself up to an interlinear version, even demands it; not that the poem is written in view of this or that interlinear version; rather the poem carries, as poem, the possibility of the interlinear version, both real and virtual; in other words: the poem is in its own way occupiable. I want to insist on the fact that here I am using the term interlinear version as an auxiliary verb; more specifically; I do not mean the empty lines between verse and verse, I beg you to imagine these empty spaces as spatial, as spatial and – temporal. Thus spatial and temporal, and, for this too I beg you, always in relation to the poem.

There exists, I return to this here already, because nothing can be lost sight of, no co-, no re- production; the poem is, because it is the poem, unique, unrepeatable, (unique too for the one who writes it and from you and I who are reading it, may not expect anything other than just this unique shared knowledge.) Unique, unrepeatable, irreversible on the other or on this side of any esotericism, hermeticism, etc.

There’s enough here to keep the academic Celan industry busy for decades but to me (as an amateur reader) the important points are the presence of the congenitally dark, the notion of poem as poem per se (which neatly expresses some of my more awkward thoughts) together with this personification of the poem as someone who wants to be understood and is on his or her way. There’s also this very strong and repeated rejection of the notion of the reading or the poem as being integral to its production and (instead) an incredibly firm (“I beg you”) strong emphasis on the poems relationship to time and space.

As a further thought, and this doesn’t please me, there is a discernibly Heideggerian flavour to the encounter section which is altogether of its time and place (Paris in the late fifties) but seems to get in the way of, rather than inform my understanding of the work. I realise that this position verges on the heretical for most other devotees.

For any Celan devotee, this is essential stuff and reveals, at least to this reader, a range of different themes and emphases that are only hinted at in The Meridian. I’m now going to have to spend some time with the poems (as poems) and ponder why ‘occupiable’ is underlined….

Maurice Blanchot is a poet

What follows is based only on the occasional reading of ‘The Writing of the Disaster’. I’m going to try and show how some of Blanchot’s prose ‘fragments’ in this particular book can/must be considered as poems. I do not intend to give a full description of what this exceptional book has to say because I’m not sure that I’m able to but I do want to draw it closer within the scope of poetry.

I’m not going to provide my own definition of poetry but propose to rely on Celan and Prynne because they are by far the most accomplished exponents of late modernism and may therefore know more than me. I perhaps need to admit that these two are also chosen because aspects of their definitions enable me to make a coherent case for Blanchot.

I’ve been reading ‘The Disaster’ since the beginning of the year and have tried to read it in isolation from the rest of his work, I’ve also tried to ignore what others have said about him with the exception of an interview given by Emmanuel Levinas after his death. This is all by way of saying that I am not by any means a Blanchot expert, indeed I find that this book is best approached in a quite chlid-like way.

Prynne on self-removal

“If then the poet in this kind is under pressure of conscience to be fully active within the disputed territory of poetic thought, at maximum energy and indeed vigilance, riding through the supple evasions and sudden blockages of language just prior to its emergent formation, how can the result be other than some testimonial to the power of the creating poet, an inscribed scriptural witness?9 I believe the answer to be that strong poetic thought does indeed demand the unreserved commitment of the poet, deep-down within the choices and judgements of dialectical composition;
but before the work is completed, the poet must self-remove from this location, sever the links not by a ruse but in order to test finally the integrity of the result. Indeed, until this removal is effected, the work cannot be truly complete, so that the new-discovered and extended limits of poetic thought form the language-boundaries of the new work.”

This is from ‘Poetic Thought’ and I want to look at the centrality of ‘self-removal’ to the process of composition in order to verify the ‘integrity’ (or validity) of the work. I’d like to start by asking if this is actually possible, if any of us are able to detach ourselves completely from the creative process. I think I’m in agreement with the sentiment, if poetry is to show ‘how things are’ then the diminution of what Foucault refers to as the ‘fascist within’ must be a step in the right direction. It is important to recognise that Prynne sees this as an essential step and not a some optional extra just as it is to view his alter output from this perspective. What isn’t mentioned here is the fact that this kind of denial of self does not create a vacuum but a space than can be occupied by the other.

Paul Celan and the totally other.

This is from the Meridian address made in Darmstadt in 1960

“But I do think – and this thought can hardly surprise you by now – I think that it had always been part of the poem’s hopes to speak on behalf of exactly this strange – no, I cannot use this word this way – exactly on another’s behalf – who knows, perhaps on behalf of a totally other.“.

(Emphasis as in the original).

When Celan refers to the poem he is referring to poetry as a whole and here he allows himself to talk about the purpose of poetry, indicating that it should focus on speaking on behalf of others rather than expressing the emotions and thoughts of the poet. I hope that the similarities with the Prynne statement are reasonably obvious, both seem to be saying that denial of the self is crucial and Celan goes further by indicating that speaking on behalf of a ‘totally other’ is essential in poetic composition.

Prior to my recent encounter with Blanchot, I’ve always been suspicious of references to ‘the other’ because it seemed to reflect some distinctly continental notion of the world that I felt was unduly hollow and pretentious. I had tried to apply notions of this otherness to my own position as a mad person and how insanity might constitute an exemplary form of otherness but this wasn’t helpful. I;ve long since recognised that we all have some responsibility for the bad things that occur in the world and that a politically quietist position is justifiable in these terms but I hadn’t given any credence to the demands that Celan’s other might make.

Blanchot the poet.

Maurice Blanchot was concerned with many things but one of the central ‘planks’ of “Writing the Disaster” is the nature of our relationship to the other. This is not presented in a moralising way, in fact Blanchot spends a lot of time complaining about the insistent nature of these demands and the fact that the needs of the other can never be truly met / addressed. The book is composed of prose ‘fragments’ some of which contain only one sentence whilst other can run to a couple of pages.

In order to make my case it isn’t sufficient for me to show that Blanchot has the same objectives as Prynne and Celan, I also need to show that the language that he uses is in some way ‘heightened’. There are many possibilities but this seems to make my point=

“From the moment when the imminent silence of the immemorial disaster caused him, anonymous and bereft of self, to become lost in the other night where, precisely, oppressive night (the empty, the ever dispersed and fragmented, the foreign night) separated him and separated him so that the relation with the other night besieged him with its absence, its infinitive distantness – from that moment on, the passion of patience, the passivity of a time without present (absent time, time’s absence) had to be his sole identity, circumscribed by a temporary singularity.”

I think there’s enough poetic language use going on here to make the case but what is remarkable is the way in which passages like this stay in my brain, the way that poems do. I haven’t got my brain around what exactly might be meant by the disaster but this is a distinctly poetic work that I’m happy to live with.

Paul Celan and Breathturn (Atemwende)

I was going to plunge straight into another enthusiastic and starry-eyed account of the Meridian notes and then cleverly attempt to tie this into what Prynne says about startling verse and end by having another look at the various solutions to the above problem by Geoffrey Hill. This seemed to be fairly well thought through until I realised that there may be some readers who have never read any of Celan and another group who do not share my enthusiasm.

I’m therefore going to begin this by providing some background and som e indication of why I think the work is vitally important. Celan was born a German speaking Jew in Romania in 1920, his parents died during the holocaust, Celan was in a labour camp but survived and after 1945 made his way to Vienna and then to Paris where he worked as a translator. Celan s probably still best known for ‘Death Fugue’ a poem that many saw as a fitting riposte to Adorno’s quip about any form of poetry being impossible after Auschwitz. The poem received universal acclaim and was taught throughout Germany. Although Celan lived and worked in Paris, his poetry was written in German.

All of Celan’s output can be seen as a response to the Holocaust but it increasingly becomes a challenge to the poetic and to language. This became increasingly radical and the work after 1960 became increasingly austere, focusing almost exclusively on ‘fundamental’ issues. This later work was rejected by many of Celan’s earlier admirers although a few did see it as the emergence of a crucially important voice in European literature. Celan experienced severe bouts of depression during most of his adult life and killed himself by throwing himself into the Seine in 1970 at the age of 50.

Celan is a poet of extremes, the later work confronts poetic form and convention and tackles issues that most of us would rather not think about. Celan’s admiration of the works of Martin Heidegger have led a swathe of critics to write about Celan purely in terms of German existentialism which conveniently overlooks his enthusiasm for Martin Buber and ongoing interest in Jewish mysticism.

I think I need at this stage to try and give some illustration of the development of Celan’s work. This is from ‘Death Fugue’ which was published in 1952 but was probably written towards the end of the Second World War:

He calls out more sweetly death death is a master from Germany
he calls out more darkly now stroke your strings then as smoke you will rise into air
there a grave you will have in the clouds the one lies unconfined

(This is the Michael Hamburger translation)

And this is the entire text of ‘Eroded’ which was published in ‘Atemwende’ in 1967. This is the Pierre Joris translation:

ERODED by
the beamwind of your speech
the gaudy chatter of the pseudo-
experienced-my hundred-
tongued perjury-
poem, the noem

Hollow-
whirled.
free the path through the men-
shaped snow,
the penitent's snow, to
the hospitable
glacier-parlours and -tables

Deep
in the timecrevasse,
in the
honeycomb-ice
waits a breathcrystal,
your unalterable
testimony.

This, it has to be said, is one of the more ‘accessible’ poems in ‘Atemwend’ but I’ve used it to denote the change in ‘register’ and because it has the breath word, the importance of which will become apparent.

One of the things that JH Prynne and Geoffrey Hill have in common is that they have both written overtly Celan-related poetry. Prynne’s ground-breaking ‘Brass’ collection contains ‘Es Leber der Konig’ which is subtitled ‘For Paul Celan 1920-1970′. This is how the poem ends:

                                     Only
the alder thrown over the cranial push, the
waged in completeness, comes with the animals
and their watchful calm. The long-tailed bird
is total awareness, a forced lust, it is that
absolutely. Give us this love of murder and
sacred boredom, you walk in the shade of
the technical house. Take it away and set up
the table ready for white honey, choking the
white cloth spread openly for the most worthless
accident. The whiteness is a patchwork of
revenge too, open the window and white fleecy
clouds sail over the azure;

it is true. over and
over it is so, calm or vehement. You know
the plum is a nick of pain, is so and is also
certainly loved. Forbearance comes into the
stormy sky and the water is not quiet.

Hill’s ‘Tenebrae’ collection contains ‘Two Chorale-Preludes on Melodies by Paul Celan’ This is the second poem (entitled Te Lucis Ante Terminum’ and subtitled ‘Wir gehen dir, Heimat, ins Garn…..) in its entirey:

Centaury with your staunch bloom
you there alder beech you fern,
midsummer closeness my far home,
fresh traces of lost origin.

Silvery the black cherries hang,
the plum-tree oozes through each cleft
and horse-flies syphon the green dung,
glued to the sweetness of their graft:

immortal transience, a 'kind
of otherness', self-understood,
BE FAITHFUL grows upon the mind
as lichen glimmers on the wood.

I’m going to resist the temptation to do a ‘compare and contrast exercise’ because that would be yet further digression. I’ve included the above simply to demonstrate that both of our finest poets have paid close and respectful attention to Celan. In his essay ‘Tacit Pledges’, Hill makes this observation:

Take as our correlative an entry in Wittgenstein’s ‘Notebooks 1914-1916′ which became formulation 5.64 of ‘Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus’ of 1922, the year in which Housman brought out ‘Last Poems’ and Eliot published ‘The Waste Land:

“Here we see that solipsism strictly carried out coincides with pure realism.”

“The I in solipsism shrinks to an extensionless point and there remains the reality co-ordinated with it.”

The grammar of modernism in its closest matching of Wittgenstein’s statement appears as the semantic and syntactical catalepsis of the last poems of Paul Celan and the final plays of Samuel Beckett.

Now we can move on to the aforementioned ‘breathturn’- in 1960 Celan was awarded the Georg Buchner Prize for literature and the Meridian is his acceptance speech. It is the most detailed description of Celan’s poetics and has been discussed and argued over ever since.One of the more crucial paragraphs is this-

Poetry: that can mean an Atamwende, 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 is exactly here that the Medusa’s head shrinks, perhaps it is exactly here that the autonomous break down – for this single short moment? Perhaps here, with the I – with the estranged I set free here and in this manner – perhaps a further other is set free?

So it would appear that this breathturn is linked with the process of making poetry and poetry itself. It will also be noted that the reference is sufficiently ambiguous to put a whole range of explanations on it.

The recently published notes that were made in preparation for the speech however cast a surprisingly different light on the issue. There is a section entitled ‘breathturn’ which is divided into four subsections (‘breathturn’, involution’, ‘leap’ and ‘reversal – the foreign as the most own – Jewishness’), the first of which contains this:

I had survived some things – but survival \Uberstehn\ hopefully isn’t “everything” -, I had a bad conscience: I was searching for – maybe I can call it that? – a my breathtuurn …

This may introduce a more specifically biographical dimension nto things. It is thought that Celan felt guilty that (on the night that they were rounded up) he had been unable to persuade his parents to go into hiding. Given the reference to his own survival, his ‘bad conscience’ may well refer to this event.

Hill also addresses the breathturn problem with several different attempts at interpretation during ‘The Orchards of Syon’ together with an odd address to the dead Ingeborg Bachman, Celan’s lover when he was living in Vienna, speculating on Celan’s taste in women.

So, for those of us convinced of Celan’s centrality to modernist verse, ‘breathturn’ is a keyword and this latest revelation should cause most of us to go back to the drawing board. I think it’s fair to say that most readers have centred on the poem as a result of something called a turn of breath. In my head, I’ve combined this with the ‘breathcrystal’ to arrive with a definition that’s about the transformational aspect of doing poetry.

Waiting for a breathturn as a means of resolving or dealing with or coming to terms with a bad conscience moves us into much more personal territory. If ‘Eroded’ is in part about how Celan felt about the success and reputation of ‘Death Fugue’ then ‘breathcrystal’ can be seen as the product of bearing witness to the Holocaust. I’m not sure how far this gets me but there are two further references to ‘breathturn’ in this sub-section of the notes.

I’m now stumbling reluctantly into the ‘voyeur’ problem which in this instance combines with the reliability problem. I’ve decided that I don’t have a problem reading stuff that wasn’t intended for publication and any queasiness I might have had was swept away by the publication of some of Elizabeth Bishop’s drafts in that the only reason these hadn’t been published was the fact that she set herself such stupidly high standards. Celan’s notes are a little different, what we know of him leads me to believe that he wouldn’t have been comfortable with this level of exposure and he made a deliberate choice to litter the speech with ambiguities and loaded terms that he was probably happy to let stand. On the other hand, he did keep the notes and he kept them in a way that could be followed- there are dates and there are headings so it can be argued that he is putting his thought processes on display for the benefit of some future reader(s).

On balance I’m reasonably okay with paying some attention to the notes which contrasts with the extreme queasiness I feel when trying to read the Lyons book which is based on Celan’s marginalia in the Heidegger books that he possessed. I’ve written about this before, suffice it to say here that I don’t think that this is an appropriate or helpful exercise. So, having drawn my personal line in the sand (drafts and notes good, marginalia unutterably bad) I can now address the reliability problem. The next section in the notes also contains the ‘b’ word but three quarters of the section has been crossed out (this includes the ‘b’ word). Given that these notes shed additional and very helpful light on our quest for a definition, this does throw up some interesting questions:
1. What it mean to draw a single diagonal line over two lines of text?
2. How much weight can we give to anything in these two lines when compared with text that hasn’t been crossed out?
3. Wouldn’t it be easier to ignore everything that’s been crossed out?
4. Didn’t Derrida once say something quite deep about this crossing out business?

You will be delighted to know that I don’t intend to dwell at all on the last of these. Sorting out the first three will be best achieved by looking at the notes in question.

The first two lines are underlined and set out like this-

there too it still gives you a chance
to it faces you with silence

The next two lines are struck through with a single line going from bottom left to top right:

maybe we can remember the the medusa-likeness of poetry remember it faces you 
with silence it takes your breath away: you have come to a breathturn

So, given that we can’t ever know why this was crossed out, we have some further context to work with. The ‘b’ word is also a manifestation (effect) of our encounter (another key word) with poetry (the poem). These four definitions- poem, catharsis, doing poetry, effect of poetry aren’t easy to reconcile but I’m happy to have more definitions/ambiguities to think about than a single ‘clean’ resolution. Life and poetry don’t work like that.