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 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.


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