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….

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