Many, many people have written about Celan but most of it is as ‘difficult’ as the poetry itself so I’m going to try to be as clear as possible. I started with Michael Hamburger’s translations of 1970 or thereabouts when I was in my mid-teens. The initial attraction of the later poems were they were short and sparse and seemed to be saying something profound. I bought Hamburger expanded selection in the early nineties and then bought the Felstiner biography and translations.
Celan rose to fame with ‘Todesfugue’ which is a poem written in response to the Holocaust. This is referred to by many critics as the response to Adorno’s view that there can be no art after Auschwitz. Whilst Todesfugue is a brilliantly angry response to the Nazi regime and made Celan’s name as a poet it is not as significant as his later work which is praised by some as being the towering achievement of 20th century literature and derided by others as too obscure and relentlessly difficult.
What I like about most of the late stuff is that I get more from it with each reading and the poems that mean the most to me have over the years attached themselves to the inside of my skull. I have carried this with me since I was fifteen-
Go blind now, today:
eternity is also full of eyes
drowns what helped images down
the way they came,
fades what took you out of language,
lifted you out with a gesture
which you allowed to happen like
the dance of the words made of
autumn and silk and nothingness.
To my mind, this is so beautiful that to speak of what it may be about is almost irrelevant but I think we can surmise that it alludes to the creative process especially when you consider what Celan said in the Meridian address. Here he speaks of the poem holding on to the edge of itself and following its ‘inmost nature, presentness and presence’.
It appears to me that Celan was concerned in creating the poem that was free of poetry, the perfect poem that almost stands outside of language, on the brink of silence. This, of course, is laden with risk and it is to Celan’s credit that he dedicated himself to this pursuit through bouts of depression and increasing critical derision.
The perfect poem never arrived but along the way Celan created enough attempts to inspire the rest of us to follow in his path.
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