Tag Archives: buchner prize

Paul Celan and inclination.

This is intended to be a series of questions that I don’t know the answer to.

Paul Celan was awarded the prestigious Buchner prize in 1960, his acceptance speech was published as ‘The Meridian’ and last year Stanford University Press published Pierre Joris’ translation of the notes than Celan made for the speech.

The Meridian contains this-

This always-still can only be a speaking. But not just language as such, nor, presumably, not verbal “analogy” either.

But language actualized, set free under the sign of a radical individuation that at the same time, however, remains mindful of the borders language draws and of the possibilities language opens up for it.

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.

The the poem is – even more clearly than previously – one person’s language-become-shape and, according to its essence, presentness and presence.

As a lifelong reader of Celan, this has caused me all kinds of problems because it seems to be quite central to his poetics. I can manage “language actualized” and “a radical individuation” but stumble over the repeated “angle of inclination” and it appears that awareness of this is what separates poems that have/are ‘always-still’ from those that have/are merely “already-no-longer” which appears to differentiate between those poems that have “presentness” and those that don’t. This all seems reasonably straightforward until we get to the “inclination of Being” which isn’t.

Turning to the notes for assistance I find: “The poet’s being-directed-toward-language (being inclined?)” and “…a language that presences, that fulfils itself under the singular angle of inclination of being”- neither of these are particularly helpful but the second one does at least takes us a bit further away from ‘Being’ with its connotation of ‘Being and Time’ and all that this entails.

‘Inclination’ has two main meanings, ” The fact or condition of being inclined; deviation from the normal vertical or horizontal position or direction; leaning or slanting position; slope, slant.” and “The condition of being mentally inclined or disposed to something, or an instance of such condition; a tendency or bent of the mind, will, or desires towards a particular object; disposition, propensity, leaning.” It would seem that it is the first definition that is meant because of being under the angle of inclination.

If however someone is inclined then they may be giving that thing special attention as when we need to lower our head so as to see a text or an image more clearly or to give something our undivided attention. In the Meidian Celan quotes Malebranche- “Attention is the natural prayer of the soul.”

It’s also important to recognise that this quality of the poem can only be found in those poets who are mindful of where they speak. To be under an inclination might be to have taken shelter or it may indicate being under the influence exerted by this angle or by the fact of this angle. According to my very sketchy memory, Heidegger amy use the idea of ‘creatureliness’ to distinguish those things that have Being from those that don’t but this isn’t particularly helpful with the angle image.

As well as showing a preference and paying increased attention, being incline can also denote expressing an affinity or solidarity with someone, it can also signify reverence, we bow our heads when we pray. Further context might be available from J H Prynne and Geoffrey Hill who both use inclination in a way that seems to nod towards Celan.
This is from the sixth poem in Prynne’s ‘To Pollen’ sequence:

................................Or does that tell
you enough, resilient brotherhood is this the one
inclined.........................................

This is from poem 14 from Hill’s ‘Clavics’-

Guide pray, the mentally disadvantaged
Safe to Urbino; Yeats and your author
Photomontaged,
Graciously inclined each to the other.

Of course, I want both of these inclinations to be nods towards Celan and in putting my case I can mention the poems that both poets have dedicated to Celan, the many bad references to ‘breathturn’ in ‘Orchards of Syon’ together with the direct address to Celan’s lover, Ingeborg Bachmann. I can also make a fuss about Prynne’s analysis of ‘Todtnauberg’ in his ‘Huts’ essay. Both seem to directly address the reader and both appear to refer to the poet inclining.

The counter argument is that Celan is referring to the ‘slope’ of the poet’s existence rather than to the living, breathing individual that both Hill and Prynne seem to be writing about.

So, the other area of exploration would be the poems themselves but clues aren’t easily located. This might be the closest we are going to get:

SIGHT THREADS, SENSE THREADS, from
nightbile knitted
behind time:

who
is invisible enough
to see you?

Mantle-eye, almondeye, you came
through all the walls,
climb
on this desk,
roll, what lies there, up again,

Ten blindstaffs
fiery, straight, free,
float from the just
born sign,

Stand
above it.

It is still us.

I do not want to get into speculation about what all of this remarkable poem may be ‘about’ but I do want to point out that it is in part about the writing process in that the ‘you’ is instructed to climb on the poet’s desk and roll up the material that lies there (again). So, given that we are unlikely to be talking about lino or carpets, it is a reasonable guess that these are scrolls that have been unrolled by the poet. If we think of the new sign as something that has been created after the scrolls were unrolled and their contents revealed then I think we might be getting close to inclination as reverent attention because scrolls have both religious and historical connotations, especially in the Jewish faith. ‘Almondeye’ is one of the ways that Celan refers to those who were slaughtered by the Germans.

In another part of the Meridian, Celan refers to the poem being on the edge of itself and it seems to me that the defiant last line enables to poem to watch itself in the making.

Of course this is entirely provisional and subject to much further revision but thinking about this has made me reconsider the whole process of poetry making and that has to be a good thing.

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Paul Celan and the Poem

The last time I wrote about Celan’s notes for The Meridian speech I focused on the ‘Darkness’ section since then I’ve been paying some attention to the section entitled ‘The Poem’.
Before we go any further I want to give some thought to the wisdom or otherwise of reaading and writing about extracta from someone else’s notes. There are a number of obvious dangers. The first of these is to seize upon an isolated note and extrapolate a whole series of conclusions. For example in ‘The Poem’ section there is a note that says simply ‘Plotinus’ in splendid isolation. Keen as I am to find neo-Platonism in everything I could use this to demonstrate that Celan’s well-established interest in Jewish mysticism had led him (via Scholem) to the founder of neo-Platonic thought and his influence on Jewish texts. There is not one bit of solid information in the rest of these notes to substantiate this but some might consider it to be worth a shot. Something similar can be said about the single reference to Maurice Blanchot although the editors do point out what this actually refers to. The second danger is what might be described as one of authenticity. In the previous piece on this I quoted from the notes to show that Celan was indeed thinking about ‘congenital’ darkness as the primary component of the poem. My only evidence for this is that the point is made with great clarity and examples in those notes. I then have to face the uncomfortable fact that this was watered down to “This is, I believe, if not the congenital darkness then however the darkness attributed to poetry…..” We also need to recognise that the Meridian is the only detailed statement that Celan made about his poetics and the notes and drafts ahow that he took immense care over what was said. So, this dilution is deliberate even though the emphasis throughout the ‘Darkness’ section is on this quality being the essential and inherent component. The question then should be more about the dilution than reading the notes as being the authentic version.

‘The Poem’ notes are divided into three sections, the first of these is ‘The opacity of the poem’ which is a kind of logical continuation from the preceding notes on ‘Darkness’. With the above reservations in mind, this section is striking (I’ve left out the incomplete words):

The already tight/compact: it fills itself compacts itself around the Dark, -with the sense of that which stands against it; an erratic language-block, come from your own, a for you too available depth and height and distance, faces you with silence even there it still gives you a chance.

I’m ready to concede that for those who don’t rate Celan, the above will be just further proof that he wasn’t a ‘proper’ poet but one who chose to wrap himself up in increasing degrees of obscurity. For the rest of us, this should be fascinating. For a start, I think I detect a menacing component to the poem that isn’t in the speech but is reasonably clear, being faced with silence but still being given a chance especially if we read this as the language block giving the chance rather than the silence. Given the earlier references to the dark as originary, it is probably important to recognise that the process starts with the already ‘compact’. From 1960 onwards Celan’s poems became increasingly sparse and terse, does the compact refer to poems were the language has already been pared down before it is compacted around (and not inside) the Dark? And why is ‘dark’ capitalised? Why should the language-block be described as erratic, is this to distinguish it from the poem? Another note says simply “the sole hope: that the poem be there, once more, erratic-“, I’m not going to extrapolate anything from this other than to observe that here it is the poem that is described as erratic.
Then there’s the ‘you’ problem. Celan’s poetry makes frequent reference to ‘you’ without making clear who this ‘you’ is. It can refer to the reader, a lover, the poet himself or to God. Here, given the context, it probably stands for either the poet or the reader of the poem. Is the reference to ‘too available’ a response to those who would accuse Celan of hermeticism and obscurity? Is he saying that the process of making a poem (doing poetry) consists of this clash between the tight (compact) and the language block?
Needless to say, I could go on with this kind of speculation for a very long time but it does give a further dimension to my reading of the work and this is a very good thing in deed.
Now we come to what surprised me most about this section- it is littered with references to geology in general and the ‘lapidary’ in particular-

The stone is older than we are, it stands in another time: in the together conversation with it the one facing us with silence, we set ourselves in relation to the space from which it stands towards us: from this direction, the direction of our speaking, our words are given their share of colour and reach (magnitude).

The stone, as the other, the inorganic will more than that which in us is not plant- and animal-like: it becomes the spiritual principle: it reaches down into the depths, it rises up.

(‘resemble’ is underlined in the original. I’ve also omitted “we undertake the attempt” which follows “conversation with it” and is crossed out in the original.)

So, it is our relationship with this stone (which is very very old) that gives us the foundation (pun intended) of the poem. The stone is also to be thought of as ‘the’ (as opposed to ‘a’) spiritual principle which reaches down and rises up at the same time. I’m taking we to be the makers of poetry rather than humanity in general and I’m also assuming that this refers specifically to the making of the poem/poetry rather than any other more general activity. This geological aspect is new to me in terms of Celan’s poetics but it is remarkable how the rises/reaches contradiction features in his later work.
I feel the need to say again that Paul Celan is the most important 20th century poet and this book is essential reading for all those who recognise this fact.