The Meridian

I’m not entirely sure whether the recently published translation of the drafts and notes that Celan made for his Meridian speech is a volume for Celan devotees or whether it demands wider attention. Either way, Pierre Joris has done a magnificent job translating this material into English for the first time.
I’ve said before that Celan is the most important 20th century poet. To me this seems so self-evident that it doesn’t need any further qualification- the work continues to speak for itself and to demand our attention. ‘The Meridian’ is the name given to Celan’s acceptance speech when he was presented with the Buchner Prize at Darmstadt in October 1960 and has been argued about ever since as it contains the most detailed description of Celan’s poetics. The notes are a revelation and demonstrate the care that Celan took to arrive at the speech as it was delivered.
Before I get into the material itself, I’d like to make a couple of observations. The index of proper names shows that there are more references to Mandelstam than anyone else and that there are far more references to Buber than there are to Heidegger. This may only be significant to me but it may take us some way from the Heidegger / Holderlin obsession that seems to infect most Celan critics.
Before we go any further, I recognise that I have in the past been more than a little critical of the J K Lyons tome which is a close reading of the notes made in the Heidegger books in Celan’s possession. I’ like to argue that the Meridian material is different in that there is less room for speculation / guesswork in that the notes were made with a specific aim and can ( to some extent) be followed through- this is not the case with the Heidegger marginalia.
I haven’t yet fully got to grips with the editorial cross referencing but the final speech appears first followed by drafts and revisions which are in turn followed by sections headed ‘Darkness’, ‘The poem’, ‘Breath’, ‘Breathturn’, ‘Encounter’, ‘Hostility to art’ and ‘Time critique’.
‘Darkness’ is the one that (so far) I have paid most attention to. Celan always vigorously denied that he was an obscure or hermetic poet, expressing the view that his poems were like messages in a bottle that could be understood by those that they reached. The speech (in response to the charge of obscurity) has: “This is, I believe, if not the congenital darkness, then however the darkness attributed to poetry for the sake of an encounter from a – perhaps self-created – distance or strangeness.” Now we have:

In other words, the poem is born dark, it comes as the result of a radical individuation, into the world of language, thus, i.e. as far as language manages to be world, laden with world.

So, it would appear that Celan does actually see this darkness as congenital, one of the sub-sections of the notes is heade “The congenital darkness of the poem”. A first reading might lead us into the specific experiences of Celan as a holocaust survivor and manic depressive, we may postulate that anyone who sees his role as one of witness to Nazi atrocities may be inclined to see these events as clouding or occluding poetry in an absence of light. Things may however be a bit more complex. I’m taking ‘congenital’ in its fullest sense of something present since the beginning, something that is resistant to attempts at alteration and that has a degree of implacable inevitability.
The notes also contain two quotes from the Psalms, the first (in Latin in the original) is:

Night is my illumination.

The second is in Hebrew and is translated by the editors as:

…and night shines like the day, darkness is like the light.

I think this demonstrates that Celan was thinking of poetry as a whole and that this kind of ‘illuminating’ darkness is inherent to every poem regardless of its time or subject matter. It also indicates the strength of Jewish belief and mysticism that goes to the root of his poetics.
It’s important to stress that I am not in any way advocating that we should abandon or ignore the clear influence of Husserl and Heidegger but rather suggesting that critical attention needs to be a bit more balanced. End of shortish rant.
Of course, none of this would be useful if we weren’t able to relate it to the poems. Thus far I’ve added a number of additional dimensions to ‘Erblind’ and ‘Aschenglorie’ in that the ash and the blindness both now have more of a paradoxical quality that I’ve missed for the last forty years.
Every time I read and think about Celan I realise again just how fundamentally good his stuff is. For anyone who shares this view ‘The Meridian’ is absolutely essential. I haven’t begun to scratch the surface and know that it will keep me busy for many, many months- I haven’t yet allowed myself to look at the ‘Breathturn’ Section…..


3 responses to “The Meridian

  1. Your other post about Celan (that I commented upon) and our exchange prompted me to buy Selections ed. Joris and Hamburger’s Selected – you’ve triggered a powerful interest (and some expense).
    I read The Meridian speech in Selections yesterday, a speech to love. Your quotes on darkness had me rapidly rereading as I was thinking he did say that (though in my copy the quote from the speech talks only of obscurity not darkness after quoiting Pascal) — but again you have prompted me to think. I think you’re quite right about the importance of Jewish belief. I have been wondering how I read the speech yesterday to myself and I think reading what you have written that i am thinking of the darkness or lack of clarity of the poem is referring to the limits of language, hence perhaps a congential nature, it cannot be what it is setting out to depict or show what the poet sees and in fact this is made more difficult by strangeness (am not 100% sure yet how I understand that) and distance, for which I definitely read other people reading it for example. Then that this problem is set up relates to the possibility of the breathturn?
    Excuse me if this is something a less neophyte Celan reader is already aware of. I thought it worth sharing (I may leanr better from your response!) and also to let you know how you have inspired me to (at long last) really start to read Celan.

    • I’m really pleased that you’re reading Celan and I remain of the view that the Meridian is the most important statement on modernist poetics. The absolute / congenital nature of the darkness that lies at the beginning of the poem (or poetry) is the most striking aspect of the notes because (as I read them) this is the darkness before language, before life and absolute in the sense that there is nothing else. Of course Celan is an extremist and is familiar with a wide range of mental and emotional ‘darks’ but it is a challenge that he should place the poem in this absolute void. The notes suggest that the poem has this extreme dark in its dna even as it presents the opportunity for encounter with the ‘absolute’ other…

      • I shall look forward to reading the notes. I agree about the darkness before language, and that is exactly why the limitations of language come to the fore I think and why it is intrinsically dark, or part of what he is saying when as you say this is complex.

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