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:

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

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

in the timecrevasse,
in the
waits a breathcrystal,
your unalterable

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:

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.


3 responses to “Paul Celan and Breathturn (Atemwende)

  1. Thank you for this insightful commentary on Celan, which I will need to revisit.

    Although it takes a more personal and not very scholarly view of Celan, you might like to look at the blog entry I recently wrote on his work:

  2. Dear Bebrowed, I really enjoy your posts and would certainly like to hear more about Celan and Prynne. Do you have any idea why both Hill and Prynne refer to plums? Is there a Celan connection? The other trees in Hill seem to be from “Kermorvan,” a poem to which Hill is obviously gesturing.

    • I’m pleased that you enjoy them, I like to think that that’s what it might be about. With regard to Hill, the Kermorvan connection is one I hadn’t worked out, the first poem is his take on ‘Eis Eden’ and it is fascinating to see where he ‘takes both of these.
      I have no idea about the plums but I’ve promised myself that this is a Celan week so I’ll let you know if I come across anything.
      Have just posted something more on the Meridian which you might enjoy.



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