Tag Archives: paul celan

Paul Celan, notes on the encounter

The notion of encounter is a key part of the Meridian address and a major theme in Celan’s later work. It’s also quite complex so I’ll start with its use in the Meridian speech and then proceed to the notes.

This seems to be talking about an encounter between the poem and the other:

Perhaps, I have to tell myself now- perhaps an encounter of this “totally other” kind with a not all too distant, with a very close “other” is – I am using here a familiar auxillary verb- is thinkable- thinkable again and again.

This elaborates on how the poem proceeds:

The poem is lonely. It is lonely and en route. Its author remains added to it.

But doesn’t the poem already at its inception stand in the encounter- in the mystery of the encounter?

The poem wants to head toward some other, it needs this other, it needs an opposite. It seeks it out, it bespeaks itself to it.

Each thing, each human is, for the poem heading towards this other, a figure of this.

The attention the poem tries to pay to everything it encounters, its sharper sense of detail, outline, sturcture, colour but also of the “tremors” and “hints,” all this is not, I believe, the acheivement of an eye competing with (or emulating) ever more precise instruments, but rather is a concentration that remains mindful off all our dates.

So, the poem is not an inert object, it goes out into the world and moves towards this encounter a meeting that have been brought into existence at the point when the poem was made/written. This is the kind of stuff that gives Celan his reputation for difficulty and has allowed his detractors more fuel than they deserve. I’ve always understood that the encounter occurs between the poem and the reader but the notes show that this is hopelssly simplistic.

The ‘Encounter’ section of the notes is made up of three parts:

  1. Encounter with the Poem;
  2. The Dialogical Poem;
  3. The Conversation with Things.

I’ll try to deal with each part in turn although there may be some overlaps along the way.

Encounter with the poem.

It’s important to recognise that the poem, for Celan, has agency- it is underway and it is attentive as it heads towards this other. This may seem odd but any writer produces work with a specific audience in mind even if this is a fairly broad group. Some of the more serious writers may have a specific aim in touching or influencing readers in a certain way and this points to a slightly more grounded rationale. I encounter books and poems and other texts all the time, some of these are first encounters and others are with old friends or aquaintances and I give them attention. Does Celan’s idea of the attention that the poem tries to pay allude to the elements placed by the poet to enable a reciprocal encounter to take place?

I’d like to report that the notes add weight to this incisive line of reasoning but instead we get:

The poem as poem is dark, it is dark because it is the poem. Under|with 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 interlienear 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 auxilliary word; more specifically I do not mean the empty lines between verse and verse; I beg you to imagine those empty lines as spatial, as spatial – and – temporal. Thus temporal and spatial, 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 this unique shared knowledge.) Unique and unrepeatable, irreversible on the other or on this side of any esotericism, hermeticism, etc – –

The arduity page on the darkness of the poem deals with the idea of primordial darkness (eqated with mortality) as where the poem comes from. We appear to have here this darkness as almost indistinguishable from the poem and that it is this darkness that leads to the poem’s desire to be understood. So, the encounter with the reader carries the potential for being understood but the poem in this encounter demands that the reader has the will (a very loaded noun) to understand and is prepared to learn how to understand.

The poem can also have this interlinear quality which is said to be both spatial and temporal and is differentiated from the ’empty lines between verse and verse’. This opens up a heap of possibilities:

  • Does this mean that we should pay attention to the significance of the placing of the line breaks?
  • Sould we be looking for each line break as indicating a shift in time and/or place?
  • Can we consider these qualities in the same way as the dark of the poem?
  • Does this interlinearity have the English sense of ‘reading between the lines’ – i.e. looking for the things that aren’t said or are occluded?
  • What exactly might have been meant by virtual in 1960, in this sense does it mean ‘nearly’ or ‘almost’ real?

The notes to ‘breathturn’ make use of Plotinus to make clear that ‘ Original and reproduction are the same / the yearning to become world-free’ which seems at odds with the apparent distinction made here although the second paragraph seems to insist that attention must be paid to those versions even though the poem, as poem, is unique

Celan denied the charge of hermeticism- something that was increasingly levelled at him during the last ten years of his life, he did however acknowledge that his work carried more than a degree of ambiguity. This denial seems to be undermined by the referal to the ‘other on this’ side of hermeticism.

These two paragraphs contain one of the most explicit statements of Celan’s poetics and it is again fascinating to see this insistence on the agency of the poem, as if it is a conscious and acting thing- it is the poem that ‘demands’ that ‘offers itself up’ that carries its darkness with it. The ‘giviing itself up’ can refer to surrender but also to scarifice for the sake of this interlinear version.

Christoph Lichtenberg was an eighteenth century scientist who apparently (according to the editors) asked the rehtorical question about the head and the book.

The other ‘significant’ extended passage is more explicit about the encounter:

Even for the one,- and beyond all for the one, for whom the encounter with the poem belongs to the quotidian and self-evident, this 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 from 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 the question of the angle of inclination under 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 text after ‘suffice’ is a later addition)

To get the obvious barriers out of the way first, the “Camarado” quote is from Walt Whitman’s “So Long”:

     Camerado, this is no book,
     Who touches this touches a man,
     (Is it night? are we here together alone?)
     It is I you hold and who holds you,
     I spring from the pages into your arms--decease calls me forth.

This might suggest an additional intimate and deeply personal element to the poem/reader encounter.

The OED defines aisthesis as ” The perception of the external world by the senses” and sensorium is ” The seat of sensation in the brain of man and other animals; the percipient centre to which sense-impressions are transmitted by the nerves”. .

Apparently ‘noesis’ is used in phenomenology to mean “a process or an act of perceiving or thinking, as opposed to an object of perception or thought; (also) the subjective aspect of an intentional experience”. All of this would seem to suggest that what we normally consider as our way of apprehending things will not suffice, that there needs to be a conversation and this needs to be under this enigmatic ‘angle of inclination’- an idea which is in the Meridian speech and which I’m still puzzling over:

This strange encounter with the stranger, in order to be real, needs to be focused on a conversation between the poet and the reader. This more than resonates with me because I’m only really keen on those poems and those bodies of work that give something in return for my readerly attention. As a very amateur and inept practitioner, I’m most pleased when a poem of mine develops in response to how audience members react. It’s when Celan goes beyond the ordinary workings of perception that I begin to struggle. The process works for me by explicable exchanges. I read a poem and then think about it. If I’m sufficiently intrigued and impressed by it then I will return to the text in the hope of finding things that weren’t initially apparent and which may give an entry point to what might be going on. I find this ongoing relationship to be both satisfying and involving.

Another brief note in this section appears to make my case for me;

The one writing and the one understanding poems remain complimentary to each other.

This is from the Meridian Address itself;</p.

This always-still of the poem can only be found in the work of the poet who does not forget that he speaks under the angle of inclination of his Being, of the angle of inclination of his creatureliness.

I’ve puzzled over this particular angle of inclination for a Very Long Time and keep coming back to a kind of attentive leaning forwards as an expression of care for the Other but I may (again) be entirely wrong…. but I’d like it to infer that our existence (Being) is intertwined with this concern and concentrated attention. i recognise that I’m ignoring the Heideggerian usage of both ‘being’ and ‘creatureliness’ because this particular emphasis seems in Europe in 2019 to be less than helpful.

The Dialogical Poem.

Many of Celan’s poems are addressed to a ‘You’ and this part of the notes deals with this and also expands further on what the encounter between poem and reader might be about. I’ve thought of the ‘you’ in Celan’s work as being either God or his parents or the Jews who were murdered or a lover or himself and I can produce examples where this appears to be the case. What I hadn’t given too much thought to is the ways in which may be addressed to the reader and these brief notes have caused me to reconsider.

I’ll start with something reasonably explicit-

I speak, in that I as I write my poems, in my own and most own matter. With that I hope, and that seems to me to belong to the last, because oldest, and still to be defended hopes of the poem, to promise also in strange matters. In the strangest matter; in the You-distance. At the perihelion of poetry. -The poem has, I am afraid . entered the phase of total You-darkness: it speaks in the strangest matter!-.

I speak alternately in the first and second person; by naming at times the one at times the other, I mean the same.the possi In the You-Darkness the possibility of the selfencounter x/ remains.

I have to document this I quote (Buchner): “…”

This is followed by a shortish horizontal line and beneath that this has been added later “x/ mystical motive-“.

So, this ‘you’ could be both the particular addressee of the poem and, at the same time, the reader of the poem. I’ve already described what Celan has to say on the darkness of the poem so I won’t dwell on this here but the Poem-darkness is a primordial darkness that is congenital/inherent in the poem and moves with it as it is underway towards the encounter. The reference to a ‘phase of total You-darkness’ suggests that there may be other phases that may not be You-dark or may not be totally You-dark. What is more important to me at least is this reiteration of ambiguity as in ‘I mean the same’ which isn’t quite the same as ‘I mean both at the same time’ but it’s close enough for my small brain at the moment. The other intriguing element is this business of the poem as a way to encounter the self or there is the chance of encountering the self in the You-darkness phase of the poem. Both of these do help with my encounter with the work. This is ‘Soviel Gestirne’ form the ‘Die Niemandsrose’ collection in 1963- I’m using the Michael Hamburger translation-

      SO MANY CONSTELLATIONS that
      are held out to us. I was,
      when I looked at you- when? -
      outside by
      the other worlds

      O these ways, galactic,
      O this hour, that weighed
      nights for us over into
      the burden of our names. It is,
      I know, not true
      that we lived, there moved,
      blindly, no more than a breath between
      there and not-there, and at times
      our eyes whirred comet-like
      towards things extinguished, in chasms,
      and where they had burnt out,
      splendid with teats stood Time
      on which already grew up
      and down and away all that
      on which already grew up
      is or was or will be-,

      I know,
      I know and you know, we knew,
      we did not know, we
      were there, after all, and not there
      and at times when 
      only the void stood between us we got
      all the way to each other.

This can be read as being addressed to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust and the proximity to the ‘you’ may refer to Celan’s near-death experiences in the German work camps. This would ‘fit’ with “the burden of our names” as having a recognisably Jewish name invariably meant death. I’m not going to dwell too long on capitalised time being splendid with teats only to note that teats are sources of sustenance and that the capital t usually denotes Heideggerian notions of existence. What I think is important here is that darkness or blindness seems to be an essential part or precondition of the encounter. The play on knowing and not knowing and presence and absence can be read as the paradoxical nature of the encounter, that it occurs in the dark and at the edge(s) of experience. Elsewhere Celan seems to be talking about the poem as containing the potential for an encounter with a reader who is able to fully apprehend it.

We now come to ‘cathexability’:

In the poem something is said, but in effect so that the said remains unsaid as long as the one who reads it will not let it be said to him. In other words: the poem is not topical, but can be made topical. That too is, temporarily, the ‘cathexability’ of the poem: the You, to whom it is addressed, is given to it on the way to this You. The You is there, comma even before it has come. (That too is a sketch-for-being \Daseinsentwurf\.)

(The german word at the end has been inseterted by the translator, Pierre Joris, to indicate that there isn’t an appropriate equivalent for this in English).

‘Cathexability’ is given in the preceding note as ‘occupiability’ and it is here that Celan insists that the reader must allow the poem to say what it needs to say. In a previous note however we have this;

The addressee of the poem is no one. No one is there when the poem becomes poem. to take the fate of that no one upon oneself is what leads to the poem –

This is where things begin to get tricky in that I’m not sure whether ‘oneself’ here refers to the reader or the poet. It may be that the poem can only be made when the poet assumes the ‘fate’ or potential for encounter upon himself. It could also be that the encounter only occurs when the reader accepts the same thing. Incidentally there are more than a few of the poems where the addressee is quite clearly identifiable as a real person.

The Conversation with Things

I’d like to report that this part of the notes provides further clear and unambiguous insights into the work but they don’t. The name of Osip Mandelstam occurs more than any other poet and it’s clear that his work is a presence in Celan’s poetry. Now, there is a long and convoluted debate to be had about the nature of this influence but here we have Celan’s personal take:

A word about the poems: By nearly none of his As for only a few of his contemporaries, and with that not only those writing not only those writing in the Russian language, are meant? for Osip Mandelstam born in 1891 the word in the poem are sign and signified the poem is the place. where what can be reached through language by the individual seems gathered is gathered; to make the perceived in the word “thing-fast” enters into an indissoluble connection with the what his (the individual’s) speechlessness with WHERE it thingfast its (indecipherable word meets the question after the whereto and the wherefrom of the one who speaks, voiced \stimmbegabt\ and voiceless at the same time, meets the wish to gain world and the wish, the original wish of the poet, thus, in the poem, to become free of the world.

For the things in the poem have a relationship with are related to those things that one calls the last ones.

I think we have here this important point, all of the following are the same;

  • the poem and the thing it writes about;
  • the poet who is voiced and the poet who is voiceless;
  • the wish to ‘gain’ the world and the wish to be free of it.

These kind of paradoxes will be familiar to readers of Celan’s work but I wasn’t aware that. in this, he saw himself as walking in Mandelstam’s footsteps. I’m not going to go over the arguments about the relationship between language and things because others do it much better but I do want to note this relationship which Celan contrasts favourably with the use of metaphor:

The reification, the becoming-object dialogue of the poem: in the vocabulary too (as indeed it has to is everywhere a question of self incarnation). A naming, that is before it is something else, always still an invocation (there too where it is a silent gaze): hence, from this naming the poem according to its Being is anti-metaphorical; what is transferred to the objects is at best the I: it is, from the naming of the silent consonant of the name

Why not give an extreme formulation? The poem is the unique, the untransferable real the present \Gegenwartige\

Asthe objective \Gegenstandliche\ it can also have the object’s muteness and opacity; it only wakes up thro in the true encounter, which it has as its secret. Therefore every real encounter is also remembrance of the poem’s secret.

(The last two paragraphs were added at a later date).

I think I can now be forgiven for being more than a little confused. What (exactly) might the ‘silent consonant of the name’ be? Is the self who incarnates itself the poem, the reader, the poet or the subject of the poem or any combination of these. Is the capitalised ‘Being’ a reference here to the wilder shores of Heidegger’s mystic streak? Is this secrecy that belongs to the poem in any significant way different from the charge of obscurity that so many have levelled at the work?

I’m reasonably okay with naming as invocation but I can’t make the leap to the silent gaze especially as we go straight back to the authentic name according to its Being or essence as being in opposition to metaphor. A brief galnce at the possible meanings of ‘gegenstandliche’ (objective, representational, concrete, graphical) leads me to believe that this could be a combination of any of these?

So, this last part of the encounter notes throws up much more debate than it resolves but parts can also act as an important marker for further reading of the work.

Thinking about the encounter in a wider frame leads me to consider whether the same term or idea can be applied to work by other poets. I think of myself as being in a relationship with the work of four or five poets and a component of that is attending to particular poems. For example, I have a complex but rewarding relationship with the work of Edmund Spenser and can chart in my head how my reading of the Faerie Queene has evolved over the last 20 years. In my head I think an encounter is more of s single short event rather than an evolving and involving relationship.

My initial experience of Celan’s work was almost 50 years ago and has much more of an immediate impact in that the poems were terse, mysterious and very powerful and the development of that relationship has been more of a series of a working through of what that initial encounter may have been about.

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Attending to Pierre Joris on Celan’s Threadsuns

I’ve spent some time writing about Paul Celan’s later poems since Pierre Joris’ translations of these were published in 2014. Up until this week, however, I hadn’t read any part of his introduction.

I rarely read literary criticism because I find most of it overly dense and at variance with my experiences as an ‘ordinary’ reader. The honourable exceptions are Jacques Derrida and Joris on Celan, J H Prynne, Geoffrey Hill and Ezra Pound on Most Things Poetic. I don’t agree with any of them but I like the way they think and, in turn, make me think. This is an example of that process.

There is a brief section on Threadsuns which is the title of a poem from the Breathturn collection and also the title of the following collection. This is the poem;

THREADSUNS
above the grayblack wastes.  
A tree-
high thought
grasps the light-tone: there are
still songs to sing beyond
mankind.

This has always struck me as bleak and despairing. The last couple of lines seem to indicate that the human race has finished rather than referring to somewhere other than earth. The ‘gray-black’ wastes’ may indicate those lands torn apart by the many slaughter of the second world war but also our world in the present.

Joris makes a couple of points that I’d like to attend to first:

For indeed, we no longer live, as the pural of the poem’s title immediately makes clear, under the cosy reassurance of a world held in place, centred around a or the sun, Helios, as it was called under the old dispensation.

and;

Ezra Pound lamented in the Cantos that “the center does not hold” – Celan knows that this is so because there is no single center, no single sun that can hold it all up, that, in fact, there has always been only a decentered multiplicity of centers.

I’m not entirely sure that this holds up, it is a position and a perspective that I (mostly) agree with but it’s not one that seems to be present in Celan’s work. I readily admit that I have no formal training whatsoever in either philosophy or literary criticisms but I am reasonably familiar with the work of the French post-Structuralists and would expect many more instances of this perspective if this was the case. This is a pity because Joris, as well as being the best translator of the work, one of Celan’s most astute readers.

My own tentative and provisional view would be that this is either or both a sun that emits different kinds of light and other stars in other parts of the galaxy / universe . In the same part of the introduction Joris points out that; “Celan insisted, and rightly so, I believe, on the fact that his poetry was directly linked to, and arose from, the real.” This would seem to indicate that the earth still revolves in a solar system with a single sun at its centre.

The Pound quote seems to be apt in this context. I’m not one of those that rejects all of Pound’s work because of his repellent anti-semitism and fervent support of Italian Fascism. I love his earlier work but am both bored and underwhelmed by large swathes of The Cantos which seems to me a very inconsistent piece of work indeed. The fuller quote is “things fall apart, the center cannot hold” which seems to point to a real 20th century phenomenon rather than something more abstract. As a retired anarcho-nihilist, I can readily identify with the last 120 years as a period of ongoing disintegration whereby things do break up and lose their grip but I think this is a real and material product of our times.

If we imagine these threads or beams bringing different qualities of light then it seems reasonable to suppose that these may lead to all of us having different perspectives on things.

I’ve found this poem so very bleak because it seems to hold a lament for the death of mankind and the planet on which we live. The final phrase can be qualified by ‘but they won’t be because it’s too late’.

Joris takes a different tack;

-then the title of the next volume spoke of a new measure, of new measures, to be accurate: of those new measures needed in a world seen as “grayblack wastes” to link the above and the below, the inside and the outside, the tree-high thought ann the wastes, because, Celan goes on, “there are / still songs to be sung” poems to be written under the duress – Lightduress will be the title of the next collection – of the present condition.

Again, I’m not convinced by this, the Breathturn collection contains more than a few references to poems and poets bearing witness to the horrors of the Holocaust. Leaving aside those tall thoughts for a moment, the wastes of the world may have been created by this catastrophic event which left nothing at all behind. The industrialised murder of many millions by ‘ordinary’ men was so destructive that nothing was left except these songs that must but can’t be sung.

Regular readers will now that I don’t think enough attention is paid by critics to Celan’s experience of mental illness and how this is reflected in some of his work. Because of my own struggles with severe depression, I may over-identify with this aspect but I still maintain that it is very present in the later work. I’m not of the once prevalent view that this work is inferior to the previous material and this decline was related to increasingly severe ‘episodes’ . Instead, I think the bouts of mental anguish, in this instance, enrich the work with a purity of tone which is devoid of all comfort and pretence. Here, might it be that these ‘grayblack wastes’ are also the result of mental as well as physical damage? That all human beings are emotionally traumatised by having to live the barbarities of modern life?

I’ll therefore read into these tall thoughts as being the product of mental distress and disturbance and the gripped ‘light-tone’ as being the, now lost, normal and the real. It also occurs to me that these thoughts could also be the kind of ‘refined’ thinking that came along with the European Enlightenment and, some would argue, led to the atrocities of the 20th century, especially the Holocaust.

This ‘light-tone’ is annotated by Joris;

“Light-tone” and “light-pitch” are literal trabslations of Lichton. if one considers the word as a Celanian composite. The German word, however, is also a German word in filmography, where it refers to the process of “sound-on-film” in which sound is inscribed as variations of light values on film.

Whilst this is helpful and intriguing, I’m more in favour of a gesture towards these tall thoughts trying in vain to lighten the ‘grayblack wastes’

In conclusion, I hope I’ve shown how thoughtful and clearly expressed criticism can provoke readers into re-thinking their own assumptions and feelings about this kind of work. I also need to express again the debt of gratitude that we all owe to Pierre Joris for his astute and intelligent translations of this brilliant but demanding work.

Testifying with Paul Celan. Again.

Before moving on with the above, I need to add a personal note about mental illness. I’m type 2 bipolar and was in a relationship with my wife from the age of 14 until 61 when she died. Between 2006 and 2008 I had three particularly severe episodes of depression that required admissions to hospital. The second and third of these came very close to ending our marriage. I therefore probably over identify with this that Celan wrote for Giselle, his wife in 1963.

(I KNOW YOU, you are the deeply bowed,
I, the transpierced, am subject to you.
Where flames a word, would testify for us both?
You - all, all real. I - all delusional.)

I’m not claiming a precise parallel here but I do find these four lines to be packed with stuff that speaks to me. Our relationship was healed by means of counseling as a couple in conjunction with psychotherapy for me. Because of our professional backgrounds we were very good at obtaining NHS services so both of these went on for years rather than months. It may not seem apparent but both of these processes involve the subjects in providing testimony and bearing witness of themselves in the hope of some kind of redemption or expiation.

Apparently this poem has been written about many times by critics concerned with meaning. I think I’m more concerned with effect, whilst acknowledging that there may be many different levels of ambiguity and portent. I have always recognised that these line speak of mental health and the resultant dynamic between ‘us both’. This is because of Celan’s self-identification as both ‘the transpierced’ and delusional.

For me, Giselle is bowed down because of the behavioural difficulties that come along with this kind of illness whereas Celan is stabbed across his body, in a way that damages both his lungs and his heart. I’ve never been entirely clear as to the inclusion of ‘am subject to you’ unless it refers to the fact that, when ill, we’re incapable of making decisions and these have to be made by our partner, we’re also very, very withdrawn.

This flaming also presents a few problems because of the many ambiguities. What we know is that, by this stage, Celan’s work was becoming increasingly sparse with each word and phrase carrying a great deal of significance. The question could therefore be strictly one of poetics as in where would a single word come from that could ‘do justice’ to all the nuances of this crisis. This requires reading ‘flame’ as something springing to life although this isn’t to ignore the Old Testament speaking from the burning bush.

I therefore think that this kind of testimony is very different from the one used in WORDACCRETIONS that I wrote about a couple of weeks ago. Most of the work is read as bearing witness to the horrors of the Holocaust. In this instance it does appear that something more intimate is going on. One of the indicators for this is the fact that the entire poem is in brackets as if cordoning it off from all the rest of the poems in the Atemwende collection. Writing about another poem (ASHGLORY), Derrida makes the slightly convoluted point that as soon testimony is made available then it ceases to be testimony. This is because, by its nature, testimony contains information that is only known by that individual. I like this particular convolution because it gives some emphasis to the essentially personal and intimate nature of providing this kind of material. It also points to the flaming as something destructive as well as creative.

There’s also some distancing going on in this line, it is a word that is testifying on behalf of the couple rather than they themselves. Without getting too lit crit, this is different from the final anguished three lines of ASHGLORY;

No one
bears witness for the
witness.

Here, there is no individual that bears witness of behalf of the witness instead of an element of language.

My own experience indicates just how hard it is for someone with this kind of illness to ‘open up’ about anything and how especially difficult it is for couples to collectively to disclose the very private and personal details of their lives together, particularly when these are in crisis.. In this respect the first statement is quite revealing perhaps saying that “I may be delusional, inferior to you and in all kinds of emotional and mental pain but I do know you like nobody else does”.

There is as well the ambiguity of the last line, if the poet is completely delusional then how is it possible for us to pay attention to his work and this poem in particular? This apparent self-abnegation might also be an angry retort to Giselle. One of the difficulties for the ‘sane’ partner is to know when the other is being delusional and when he/she is both rational and lucid. It is extremely unlikely that Celan, who may well have been very ill, was ‘all delusional’ all of the time but it is a barb that can be thrown by a partner as an expression of their exasperation and consequent anger.

To conclude, these four lines speak of a different kind of witnessing and testimony but make the same ‘point’ about how difficult and yet crucial it is that we perform this act.

Moving on, this is the last of the ‘testimony’ poems;

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

Evorsion-
ed,
free
the path through the men-
shaped snow.
the penitent’s snow, to
the hospitable
glacier-parlors and -tables.

Deep
in the timecrevasse
in the
honeycomb-ice
waits, a breathcrystal,
your unalterble
testimony.

As with WORDACCRETIONS, we appear to be dealing with geology and its processes but here there seems to be more about human activity. The poem’s addressee appears in the second line in terms of speaking and of language which wears away this false poetry. This ‘noem’ is said to be produced by many people or by many languages. In either respect this perjury could arise from the simple fact that no two eye-witnesses will give an identical account of the same event and a hundred people will contradict each other so much that it is difficult to establish what actually occurred. The same can be said for languages, one of the main skills of the translator of poetry is to tease out the intended meanings with all there nuances and put them into another language where a ‘like for like’ substitution may fail completely in conveying the full weight of what’s been said.

This ‘gaudy chatter’ indicates more than a degree of contempt for those who are chatting. Gaudy, for me implies something bright and colourful but at the same time tasteless and banal. To chatter is to spend time in trivial, unthinking conversation. I’m a cultural snob of the first order and have no time for either of these but I’m also well aware that part of this is a class foible, my bourgeois fear of and distaste for the crowd.

Perjury, however, is a deliberate act. It involves giving evidence, providing testimony, that you know to be untrue which it is why it is a criminal offence. This poem then is deliberately untrue rather than simply being the product of too many tongues.

We now return to geology. I was surprised to find that ‘evorsion’ isn’t in the OED but two minutes with the interweb tells me that it’s a geological term referring to “The formation of niches or potholes by erosion due to vortices of water”. We now have three different kinds of erosion: by sunlight; by wind and by water. Each of these reshape the landscape in a gradual and destructive way.

Snow and ice are recurring images in Celan’s work and ‘men’ is a loaded term in its angrily ironic reference to what the Nazi’s saw as the difference between the men of the Aryan race and the sub-human Jews. The penitent’s snow is completely new to me but another 20 seconds with the interweb tells me that it’s;

“Penitentes, or nieves penitentes (Spanish for “penitent-shaped snows”), are snow formations found at high altitudes. They take the form of elongated, thin blades of hardened snow or ice, closely spaced and pointing towards the general direction of the sun.

The name comes from the resemblance of a field of penitentes to a crowd of kneeling people doing penance. The formation evokes the tall, pointed habits and hoods worn by brothers of religious orders in the Processions of Penance during Spanish Holy Week. In particular the brothers’ hats are tall, narrow, and white, with a pointed top.

These spires of snow and ice grow over all glaciated and snow-covered areas in the Dry Andes above 4,000 metres or 13,120 feet. They range in length from a few centimetres to over 5 metres or 16 feet.

There is thus a path, big enough for a man to walk through, across a field of these strange structures which reaches these welcoming rooms. I am reasonably flummoxed ( lit crit term) by the hyphen or dash in front of ‘table’ because it’s unusual in Celan’s and suggests that the first part of a compound word is missing. Of course, that’s the only explanation that I can think of and I readily accept that there may be many others. It may be that the gaps there to indicate the repetition of ‘glacier’ from the beginning of the line but, in English at least, we understand that an adjective can refer to more than one noun.

Ice and snow have been taken to refer primarily to the harsh winters that his parents endured in labour camps in Ukraine. Ice also brings stasis, it prevents things from moving and causes pliable objects to become brittle. Glaciers, on the other hand, are mobile and transform the landscape significantly by means of erosion. A Crevasse in this instance is a deep and dangerous cleft in the ice which can move without any prior warning. Things temporal always disturb me a bit because the mention of time is likely to refer to the work of Martin Heidegger who I now see as both a vile anti-Semite and a charlatan.

However, on a reasonably superficial level, this crevasse could mark a split in time. Many victims of the Holocaust reported that they felt that history had simply stopped because of the unimaginable violence of what they were suddenly experiencing. The split, on this tentative and provisional reading could (might) indicate the temporal chasm opened up by the Holocaust.

Atemwende, the title of this collection translates as ‘Breathturn’ and this was of great importance to Celan. This is a note from 1960-

‘What’s on the lung, put on the tongue,’ my mother used to say. Which has to do with breath. One should finally learn also to how to read this breath, this breath-unit in the poem. In the cola meaning is often more truthfully joined and fugued than in the rhyme; shape of the poem: that is presence of the single, breathing one-

And this perhaps adds some context to the geological themes;

The stone is older than we are, it stands in another time; in the together conversation with it, the one facing us in 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).

As the stone, as the other, the inorganic will

    resemble

that which in us is not plant and animal-like: it becomes the spiritual principle, it reaches down into the depths, it rises up.

So, if we take these into account, the rocks of the planet are like our spiritiual component and it is breath that carries the truth. Elsewhere in his notes Celan refers to ‘breath units’ as the essential components of the poem. It is possible here to see the breathcrystal as such a unit that has been turned to crystal by the cold. The last two lines make it clear that this particular formation is now set and cannot be changed.

I’m not entirely sure that I agree with this assertion. Bearing witness to even the most horrific event in our history is obviously essential but testimony, once it becomes evidence comes into a very fluid realm whereby the facts of any event can begin to shift and blend into something quite different.
I’m not suggesting that Holocaust deniers shouldn’t be stringently challenged but I’m not entirely convinced that criminal prosecution is the most helpful response.

In conclusion, I hope that I’ve shown some of the main ways that Celan writes about the different types of witnessing and testimonies and how these ‘fit’ with the rest of his hearbtreakingly brilliant work.

Paul Celan’s Testimonies

Since all my recent attempts of re-enchantment with poetry have fallen flat on their face, the only book I took with me on a recent trip to Bolivia was the Pierre Joris translation of Celan’s Atemwende and was thus able to give some unfettered attention to the themes and issues raised in that collection. As with Prynne, Celan’s later work has an ability to completely absorb me and, on this occasion, for the first time in 30 months, I became well and truly hooked.

Amongst many things, my eye was caught by the references to testimony and testifying in three successive poems at the end of the first section of the collection. I’ve written before about what Derrida has to say about witnesses and evidence with regard to Ashglory from the first collection but I noticed other aspects with these three that I’d like to expand upon here.

The first poem of the three is Wortaufschuttung which begins with;


    WORDACCRETION, volcanic,
    drowned out by searoar.

Celan worked as a translator and one of his main creative concerns was language and its many uses. Here, accretion seems to point towards some kind of organic or natural accumulation and ‘volcanic’ could point to either an eruption or to lava flows Initially I took ‘word’ literally, as the collection of nouns, verbs and other parts that go to make up a single language but I’ve now more or less come round to the noun referring to individual languages with the image of the Tower of Babel at the back of my head.

The second line is slightly more awkward, to drown something out is to make a noise that prevents the original thing from being heard (although it is still making a noise. However, to drown someone is to immerse her in water until she dies. The last compound word would seem to point both these possibilities.

The other point that I’d like to make is Celan’s view that The Poem has its roots in the absolute blackness, in a kind of enveloping dark. In an unusually lit crit moment, I’ve had a glance at Celan’s notes for the Meridian Address and now want to throw this into the mix as a way of making a little more sense of what might be going on;

Thickness to be understood from the geological, and thus from the slow catastrophes and the dreadful fault lines of language – – –

This is from a section entitled Opacity of the Poem and may indicate that ‘accretion’ may be exclusively geological rather than everything organic or natural. Sadly things aren’t made any easier with the next part of the poem;


    Above,
    the flooding mob
    of contra-creatures: it
    flew a flag - portrait and replica
    cruise vainly timeward.

These are the kind of lines that have given Celan a reputation for Extreme Difficulty but I would maintain that paying some focused attention can reap rewards. It’s usually helpful to work out what is apparently being said. In this instance, there’s a flooding group of opposing creatures that may or may not be above the accretions. This mob raised a flag or standard as it proceeded. An unspecified portrait and replica move without success towards time. The flying of flags is a symbol of territorial identity and pride, the raising of a national flag can be the prelude to a military flag. The lose the flag in battle is a sign of defeat. On the other hand, ‘mob’ usually denotes an unruly and violent group intent on violence and destruction. The adjective may describe the way in which a large mob can suddenly occupy city streets and squares, as in the French and Russian revolutions.

The quality of being a creature appears at a crucial point in the Meridian Address;

But language actualized, set free under the sign of a radical individuation that at the same time, however, remains mindful of the borders that 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.

I’m reading, provisionally and tentatively, ‘contra creatures’ as those things which are against creatures and its quality which seems to be bound together with the business of poetry making. Being with a capital b is always a worry for me as, in this instance, is ‘timeward’ because they are both likely to refer to the work of Martin Heidegger and I don’t want to think too hard in that direction. Suffice it to say that Celan was a keen reader of Heidegger and his work also drew on various strands of mysticism. The two cruising objects are much more promising. We refer to a figurative portrait as a likeness and replicas are, by definition, perfect likenesses of their original. The questions here seem to be; what exactly are the originals of these two objects and why are they cruising in vain?

I now have a further confession to make, as well as being a Heidegger sceptic, I get a little bit irritated by Celan’s use of the dash which would appear to indicate different things in different places. In this particular stanza there is also a colon that should probably be a semi-colon. This is less than helpful.

The final stanza offers some clarifications of the above but also adds its own challenges;


    Till you hurl forth the word-
    moon, out of which
    the wonder ebb occurs
    and the heart-
    shaped crater
    testifies naked for the beginnings,
    the kings-
    births.

We’re now dealing with big things and with Celan’s never-specified yous. The word-moon is said to somehow produce this special ebb in conjunction with an unusual crater. This particular kind of moon has similarities with the accretion in line one but also has the ‘normal’ lunar ability to create tidal movement. The crater bears witness for the birth of kings. This would seem to indicate some parallels with the birth of Christ and perhaps other sagas and myths relating to royal babies. The ‘you’ addressed here could be:

  • God;
  • his parents who died in the Holocaust;
  • all the victims of the Holocaust;
  • a lover;
  • Giselle, his wife;
  • the reader.

It’s reasonable to suggest that testifying is a key concern in the last decade of Celan’s life. I’ve written before about the judicial and historical aspects of this act and its crucial role with regard to the Holocaust but here I’d like to think about other connotations. The first is religious, the OED informs me that ‘testimony’ also used in the Old Testament to denote “the chest containing the tables of the law and other sacred memorials” which I will return to shortly. The other straw to be clutched is geological in that the accretion of material is how rocks are formed and how strate can contain fossils and other indications of past events. Craters are formed by and thus testify either to the impact of meteorites on the earth or the eruption of volcanoes.

I must stress that I’m not trying to minimise the place of the Holocaust in Celan’s work, I just think that there are equally brilliant poems that attend to other matters. For WORDACCRETION I now seem to have a satchel’s worth of ideas and potential links. In assessing these it’s usually as well to bear in mind Celan’s self-confessed penchant for ambiguity.

The most apparent ideas seem to relate to beginnings and violence. There are several references to geological and cosmological processes and these are set alongside hurlings, drownings and floodings as well as volcanoes and a turbulent sea. When I was in primary school I was shown illustrations of what our early world might have looked like. This quite frightening image has stayed with me and is again evoked in this poem. Reluctantly I have to ask whether cruising ‘timeward’ is an indication of a period before time was created by the big bang or whether it relates to the more esoteric state of timelessness.

We then come to signs: words; replicas; portraits and heart-shaped craters all ‘stand’ for something else. perhaps the replica is the exception because they can be dismissed as fakes or used by forgers for financial gain. A volcanic eruption is a sign of a break or rupture in the earth’s crust. If ‘volcanic’ refers to the accretion of words then we would appear to have something violent and dangerous emerging in the form of language. These contra creatures could be those things that are not creatures, ie don’t have creatureliness, rather than things that are simply opposed to creatures. As I understand it, the idea of things having creaturely qualities is tied in Heidegger’s demarcation of those things which have Being and those that don’t.

The crater is in the shape of a heart and heart shapes generally stand for and relate to love which leads me tentatively and provisionally to suggest that some kind of redemption is going on. It is just about possible to read the first two lines as being about the Tower of Babel and the punitive creation of different languages so that people (beings) would lose their arrogant claims to be equivalent to God. I’d point to the portraits and replicas as being religious works of art depicting Christ and gracefully skim over both the word moon and the wonder ebb.

In addition, I’d also like to point out that secondary meaning of testimony and its role as the ‘keeper’ of the Mosaic laws and traditions. There’s also the practice of testifying your faith in some evangelical churches.

Of course, this is my subjective evaluation and should never be thought of as definitive. Hopefully it does offer a way of thinking about this material in a way that is helpful and rewarding. From my perspective, being able to become absorbed in this level of obduracy is a major indication that the process of re-enchantment has begun.

The many faces of the innovative poem

I’m in the process of revamping the arduity project and thus far I’ve got a new header, a couple of page layouts and some idea of direction. Instead of focusing only on difficulty, I’ve decided to include what I consider to be innovative work being made now and those that were made in the distant past. Which has got me to try and decide what I think I mean by the ‘I’ word. My initial thought was to base the definition on Pound’s “make it new” but then I decided that newness is probably an even more ambivalent quality.

In a wider sense the attraction of the new is tied up with the notion of progess, with the Enlightenment march towards a better future. This has since been exploited by capital in persuading us to buy the latest, newest, cutting-edgiest thing. What’s different for poets now is that we have this interweb thing to play with that allows is to do new things and disseminate our work in new ways. What arduity might be about is sketching out the historical ‘trend’ and attending to those who are making it new in the now.

In order to invite an argument, here is my current list of innovators and innovations with some attempt at a rationale. Obviously this is subjective and only contains poets and work that I like, primarily because I only ever write about work that I admire:

William Langland

The wonderfully flawed Piers Plowman is attributed to Langland. Unlike Chaucer, Gower and Hoccleve we don’t know who Langlan was although that hasn’t stopped critics from making assumptions. This aside Piers is innovative because it is the leading work of the fourteenth century Alliterative Revival and because of its ambition. The poem covers the usual range of God-rlated concerns but also covers the social issues of the day: regatery (what we would call cornering the market); the undeserving poor and the mendicant problem are just a few of the debates that take place within the poem.

Thomas Hoccleve

Hoccleve isn’t innovative in terms of form and most of his poems and translations are reasonably conventional. I thought about Hocclev’s treatment of mental health in the first two poems of the Series sequence but have now (provisionally) decided that this isn’t enough to count. He’s on this list in case I change my mind.

John Skelton.

Skelton is probably the least likeable of all British poets but he was a major figure between 1480 and 1520 or thereabouts. He is included here because of the first half of his Speke Parrot which is either completely bonkers or our most innovative poem before Spenser. The relationship between the bonkers and the newly made is often quite fuzzy but in this instance Parrot embraces both qualities.

Edmund Spenser

Constantly seeking to ‘overgo’ his predecessors and his peers, Spenser’s Shephearde’s Calendar and The Faerie Queene are both massive innovative with pre-existent genres and themes. For FQ Spenser devised his own form of stanza and laid the foundations upon which Paradise Lost was built. The Mutabilities Cantos are the first poems to do serious philosophy properly.

John Milton

Paradise Lost doesn’t rhyme, God plays a major role in the narrative. God is quite grumpy. It’s very clever on timing and astronomy. The first realistic portrait of evil in any language. There can’t be any argument, can there?

Andrew Marvell

Marvell wasn’t on this list until I re-read Upon Appleton House which may contain the most abstract lines of the 17th century. An Horatian Ode can also be read as an innovative (as well as masterful) use of ambiguity.

Robert Browning.

Sordello

Ezra Pound.

Infuriating, inconsistent, wilfully provocative and rabidly anti-semitic. All of these but without him we wouldn’t be doing most of the things we do now.

David Jones.

One of the finest poets of the 20th century, both In Parenthesis and The Anathemata make it radically new in terms of theme and ‘voice’.

Charles Olson.

I’ve only read The Maximus Letters and the letters to Creeley but I can confirm Maximus asa magnificent exploration of time and place and the many relationships therein. Some have disparaged Olson as ‘sub-Poundian’ but these are the ones who haven’t paid him sufficient attention.

Paul Celan.

Celan’s work after 1960 cut new ground as he continued to engage with the German language and his cultural past. A Holocaust survivor, Celan was constantly finding new ways to express what had happened to the Jewish People and to bear witness to the unimaginable trials of the dead.

Charles Reznikoff.

Nothing at all like him before or since. Testimony marks one of the great ruptures with the literary past.

Allen Ginsberg.

For writing the poem that defined a generation and a half. The political poem of the 20th century in a voice that was radically new and massively influential.

Geoffrey Hill.

A borderline case- see above. Am now in the process of re-reading in an attempt to decide on Mercian Hymns and Triumph. Will try not to dither.

J H Prynne

A constant innovator over the last forty years whilst (only just) managing to stay within the Late Modernist vein. Prynne’s uncompromising engagement with language has led others to denigrate his apparent obscurity. His work does resist a straightforward, conventional reading, but that’s partly the point.

Simon Jarvis

Just looking at a copy of Dionysus Crucified will give some hint as to Jarvis rejection of the norm and his intention to push the limits in quite surprising ways. Both The Unconditional and Night Office are defiantly metrical and the latter rhymes throughout. Some might complain that a revival of Pope’s intent and method isn’t making things anew but it certainly is in our current context/culture. Incidentally, his reading of Dionysus with Justin Katko is a stunning example of innovation with two voices.

John Bloomberg-Rissman.

The In the House of the Hangman project is a huge, dark mirror that speaks for the way that life is or appears be in the present. Bloomberg-Rissman’s daily furtle (technical term) through the interweb brings together an entirely new means of expression. It’s also quite monstrous in scope and ambition.

Vanessa Place.

Place is either staggeringly good or disappointingly average. Her Tragodia and her Full Audio Transcripts are an important and strategic intervention in the current malaise that is the Poetry Business. The work is like nothing before it and points to where the future might be.

Keston Sutherland.

Is an innovator for introducing Black Beauty into a very serious work about the murderously idiotic fiasco in Iraq and for writing with such disturbing honesty about his sexual desires and experiences as a child. I’m not entirely certain that these two make him an innovator per se but I’d never come across anything like either of the above before.

Jonty Tiplady

Some of us are of the view that Jonty represents/embodies the future of English poetry in his readiness to use other media and to take full advantage of the interweb in a complex dance of innovation and repression. Trillionaires.

The Allegory by the Pool.

John Kay started his piece in this morning’s FT by telling us he’d been having a break on a beach in a warmer clime and how this period of inactivity had caused him to try and work out why hotter countries tend to be poorer countries. I too have been away to a warmer place and intended to sip cocktails by the pool whilst spending much time with S Jarvis’ Night Office. This plan lasted until Day 2 when I had to concede that the contrast between the work and where I was lying was just too great. I did however have extensive backup on the variety of gizmos that accompanied us so all was not entirely lost.

Flicking through one of these I came across The Cambridge Companion to Allegory edited by Rita Copeland. Now, normally I hate the entire range of Companion / Handbook tomes that seem to proliferate these days but this one was in chronological order and I felt that an overview might be beneficial. In the past I’ve skirted around what Spenser called this ‘darke conceit’ because it appeared to be one of those lit crit terms that I try to avoid and because an initial bit of reading and reflection had led me to believe that things might be very complicated indeed.

So, I started off with the Greeks and discover that initial pre-Socratic readings were concerned with symbol, under-meaning and enigma. These come together to produce what Copeland describes as “the encoded expression of a mystical or philosophical truth, a manifestation of transcendental meaning that is at once immediate and remote” at which point several bits in my head came together at once. I’ve long ranted against the view held by some that poetry is in a privileged relationship with truth, I’ve poked fun at Heidegger and others who hold this position and have been generally derisive, the term ‘errant nonsense’ has been used.

I would have been more sympathetic to this notion of privilege had I been aware of the background, that poetry preceded philosophy as a means of doing philosophy and that this quest for under-meanings was a search for some kind of inner truth. I read further and it transpires that Origen and Plotinus had more than a little to do with this vein of thought which is odd because I’m a fan of both and hadn’t put either of them together with under-reading and truth.

As an aside, my interests in these two have been to do with philosophy / theology rather than poetry. As with the Church of England 1590-1635, it’s an attraction that I can’t explain.

Moving on, the Jarvis Project of demonstrating that poetry is an appropriate and fitting way to do philosophy suddenly (in my head) becomes much less wide of the mark and my previous criticisms of the Faerie Queene as a failed allegory now seem a bit silly. It therefore seemed sensible to have a think (by the pool, Green Hawaii in hand) about how this might inform my reading.

This new insight doesn’t mean that I’m any clearer in understanding this conceit but it does give it a framework by which to think about the very many complexities. If I start with that which is closest to hand, having Night Office as a title more than hints that the room in which the poem’s protagonist sits might represent this aspect of monastic observance as well. I’d understood that fairly obvious conceit on hearing of the poem’s title and I’d also worked out the train / stations of the cross trope but my reading thus far had missed the references to fragments of light as being moments of revelation that might occur when reading allegorical work. With all of this in mind, I’m going to have to start the work again. Sigh.

On further reflection, I’ve discovered that I like allegory in that most poems that speak directly to me have an element of the allegorical. The Wedding reception scene in Keston Sutherland’s Stress Position is a very clear allegorical description of acute mental distress, his Under the Mattress is an equally brilliant representation of the current dismality that masquerades as politics in the UK.

Up until the pool moment, I hadn’t thought of David Jones’ The Anathemata as standing for anything other than an exploration of Jones’ personal cultural clutter but it now occurs to me that the voyage recounted in Middle-Sea and Lear-Sea might have more to do with the projection of faith, the cenacle and art into the world rather than a straightforward journey through time and space.

In order to get my brain around the Neo-Platonic aspects of this I’ve started to read E R Dodds’ edition of Proclus’ The Elements of Theology. In his introduction Dodds draws a directish line from Proclus’ thought to Nature’s rebuttal of Mutability in Spenser’s Two Cantos of Mutabitie at the end of the Faerie Queene;

I well consider all that ye have said,
And find that all things stedfastnesse do hate
And changed be: yet, being rightly wayd,
They are not changed from their first estate;
But by their change their being do dilate,
And turning to themselves at length againe,
Do work their owne perfection so by fate.

This isn’t glossed by the usually reliable Hamilton to either Proclus or the more recent Neo-Platonics and the allegorical element resides in the names of the characters more than in the narrative but it does provide further thought especially as others are of the view that there is a strong NP thread running through the work. The notion of things turning to themselves and thus acheiving perfection apparently comes from Proclus.

As a further aside, Proclus makes the claim that explaining a thing involves simply describing how came about, a proposal which seems reasonable until you try to apply it in the ‘real’ world.

Returning to the conceit, I’ve stated quite glibly that the allegorical aspect of the first book of the FQ doesn’t work in that Redcrosse (holiness) isn’t holy and his journey to this stage is not by degrees of learning and improvement, as we might expect, but by stupid mistake followed by even more stupid mistake which eventually leads to scourging and contemplative enlightenment. I’d now like to qualify this by saying that Book I is an incredibly and defiantly complex way of saying many things at once and that I obviously need to be more attentive to these potential under-readings before rushing to judgement. I’ve read the whole poem more than a few times and with a fair degree of attention but I’ve missed completely the less obvious, more hidden, aspects of the relationship between Redcrosse and Una, the damsel who guides and supports his mission.

Paul Celan also calls for a more careful reading, if only to reject the view that all his work is allegorical. It still isn’t but it does do remarkable things with language, Todtnauberg is an account of a meeting between Heidegger and Celan that did take place but within it there are all kinds of metaphors and allusions that critics continue to argue about but it isn’t allegorical in there isn’t a set of equivalent conceits at work.Erblinde is a more likely candidate but, again, I can’t work out how the various images fit together so as to ‘stand’ for anything else than the words on the page.

I’m going to end as I started with Night Office and, on this occasion the role of the poet:

I will not say that I am a device.
The semicircle where my heavy lyre
gives up its hard notes: looks out over ice;
tall poplars to the right; one may admire
how in the distance that dome can entice
from its squat cupola to the entire
warehouse of print on which the state has fed
its house of authorships, its empty head.

Which is why I need to start from the beginning – again.

Information Quality: the Monstrous Poem

Continuing with my theme, I’d like to move on to monstrosity as one of those quality that often gets overlooked or misplaced. I need to say at the outset that the name of this particular quality is stolen from Keston Sutherland although the following elaboration is all mine. Given the response to all things gnarly, I think I need to make clear that these qualities aren’t indicators of worth, there are good monstrous poems in this world just as there are bad ones. There is also good gnarliness and bad gnarliness and sometimes these are in the same poem (Lycidas, Poly Olbion). As with the gnarly, many of the onstrous demand an almost physical engagement, a bit of a cognitive and often aesthetic struggle before they can be overcome.

Monstrosity: a definition.

A monstrous poem needs to be large and ranging in scope rather than in scale although scale can be an important factor. By scope I essentially mean the ‘range’ of subject matter although a range of perspectives on the same subject can contribute. There are some obvious candidates, Olson’s Maximus springs to mind but some others that are more nuanced and understated but nevertheless deal with a lot of Very Big Stuff. The following are tentative and provisional examples of what I’m trying to say.

Elizabeth Bishop’s In the Waiting Room.

Bishop was probably the most technically able poet of the 20th century and the above is one of her very best:

In Worcester, Massachusetts,
 I went with Aunt Consuelo
 to keep her dentist's appointment
 and sat and waited for her
 in the dentist's waiting room.
 It was winter. It got dark
 early. The waiting room 
 was full of grown-up people,
 arctics and overcoats,
 lamps and magazines. 
 My aunt was inside
 what seemed like a long time 
 and while I waited I read 
 the National Geographic
 (I could read) and carefully
 studied the photographs: 
 the inside of a volcano,
 black, and full of ashes;
 then it was spilling over
 in rivulets of fire.
 Osa and Martin Johnson
 dressed in riding breeches,
 laced boots, and pith helmets.
 A dead man slung on a pole
 --"Long Pig," the caption said.
 Babies with pointed heads 
 wound round and round with string;
 black, naked women with necks
 wound round and round with wire
 like the necks of light bulbs. 
 Their breasts were horrifying. 
 I read it right straight through.
 I was too shy to stop.
 And then I looked at the cover: 
 the yellow margins, the date. 
 Suddenly, from inside, 
 came an oh! of pain 
 --Aunt Consuelo's voice--
 not very loud or long.
 I wasn't at all surprised; 
 even then I knew she was
 a foolish, timid woman.
 I might have been embarrassed,
 but wasn't. What took me
 completely by surprise was
 that it was me: 
 my voice, in my mouth.
 Without thinking at all
 I was my foolish aunt,
 I--we--were falling, falling,
 our eyes glued to the cover
 of the National Geographic,
 February, 1918.

 I said to myself: three days
 and you'll be seven years old.
 I was saying it to stop the sensation of falling off
 the round, turning world. 
 into cold, blue-black space. 
 But I felt: you are an I,
 you are an Elizabeth,
 you are one of them.
 Why should you be one, too?
 I scarcely dared to look
 to see what it was I was.
 I gave a sidelong glance
 --I couldn't look any higher-- 
 at shadowy gray knees, 
 trousers and skirts and boots
 and different pairs of hands
 lying under the lamps.
 I knew that nothing stranger
 had ever happened, that nothing
 stranger could ever happen.

 Why should I be my aunt,
 or me, or anyone?
 What similarities--
 boots, hands, the family voice
 I felt in my throat, or even
 the National Geographic
 and those awful hanging breasts-- 
 held us all together
 or made us all just one?
 How--I didn't know any
 word for it--how "unlikely". . .
 How had I come to be here,
 like them, and overhear
 a cry of pain that could have
 got loud and worse but hadn't?

 The waiting room was bright
 and too hot. It was sliding
 beneath a big black wave, another,
 and another. Then I was back in it.

 The War was on. Outside,
 in Worcester, Massachusetts, 
 were night and slush and cold,
 and it was still the fifth 
 of February, 1918.

The beginnings of and nature of self-consciousness is a pretty big piece of ground but here we also have family, otherness and our prurient, arrogant interest in what was then thought of and depicted as the ‘savage’, World War One and what seven year old can see of others with a ‘sidelong glance’, and what time does.

I challenge anyone to find a single mite of clunk in any of the above but my point here is that huge subjects are covered in a way that feels conversational and completely unforced. The monstrosity arrives in full flow in the second and third stanzas which take us (whilst still in the waiting room) to a level of abstraction that requires several readings, some reflection / consideration before things become a bit clearer.

Paul Celan’s Aschenglorie.

I wasn’t going to do this because I probably write too much about Celan and about this poem in particular yet it does have that huge, sprawling scale but in a way that is completely different from Elizabeth Bishop. Like the above, it’s one of my favourite poems. Although Celan was a Holocaust survivor, it is a mistake to think of his work only in that context, as I hope to show:


ASHGLORY behind
your shaken-knotted
hands at the threeway.

Pontic erstwhile: here,
a drop,
on
the drowned rudder blade,
deep in the petrified oath,
it roars up.

(On the vertical
breathrope, in those days,
higher than above,
between two painknots, while
the glossy
Tatarmoon climbed up to us.
I dug myself into you and into you).

Ash-
glory behind
you threeway 
hands.

The east-in-front-of-you, from
the East, terrible.

Nobody
bears witness for the
witness.

Most of the writing on Celan’s later work is speculative and I certainly don’t intend to provide any kind of explanation for this piece of brilliance. For those who would like one, I’d suggest that Derrida’s Poetics and Politics of Witnessing is a better stab in the dark than most. I’d simply like to draw attention to the following subjects that may be being addressed here:

  • the current status/nature of those who died during the Holocaust;
  • language and the return from exile;
  • filial guilt;
  • Stalin and the displacement of ethnic groups;
  • suicide in the face of tyranny;
  • the problems facing/confronting the poet as memorialist.

What is brilliant about Celan is that he is able to pack so much into so few words. The first word, which is repeated further into the poem, brilliantly encapsulates the fate of victims but also the way in which they will continue- the image I have is of brightly burning wood beneath a light covering of ash, your hands will burn if you get too close. I like to think that Pontic erstwhile brings into focus the Greek speaking people of Pontus who lived on the Black Sea coast in what is now Turkey. Along with the Armenians they were subject to genocide at the hands of the Turks and then deported to Greece. It is said that the ‘native’ Greeks could not understand the type of Greek that these returnees spoke. The Tatar people were also moved en masse from their land in the Crimea by Stalin.

Of course, the implacable aridity and extreme ambiguity of Clean’s poem-making makes over-reading very, very likely but that should not stop any of us paying close attention to this almost magical body of work. My own sins in this regard read the ‘threeway’ as the meeting with the poet’s mother and father, both of whom were murdered by the Germans. The other big leap into speculation is the reported answer that Celan gave when asked what he did in labour camps during the war: “dug holes”. The last three lines are those that have caught the most critical attention, in his otherwise excellent essay, Derrida probably over-complicates this solitary, isolated act of witnessing and I’m never sure whether it’s a statement of fact or an anguished cry. The third bracketed stanza is gloriously complex and monstrous in itself and I hover between each of the eight or so readings that I have in my head, the breath rope may be a noose but it may also be the lines of bubbles rising from the mouth of some one (drowning) underwater, both possibilities cast the poem in a dramatically different way.

Sir Geoffrey Hill’s An Apology for the Revival of Christian Architecture in England.

This was published in the Tenebrae collection in 1968, following Mercian Hymns. The notes at the back of the original inform me that these thirteen sonnets were written for a number of contexts and this goes some way to explaining the monstrous scale of the sequence. The title is taken from Pugin- the leading proponent of the 19th century Gothic revival.

The sequence uses this to expand on England, colonial India, ruins, the English landscape and (as ever) martyrdom. Each of these are huge but the ‘thread’ running though them is one G Hill and his idiosyncratic ‘take’ on these things which, with the possible exception of India, have been lifelong concerns. I’ll give a few brief examples to try and show this scope. There are three sonnets entitled A Short History of British India, this is the second half of the second:

The flittering candles of the wayside shrines
melt into dawn. The sun surmounts the dust.
Krishna from Rhada lovingly entwines.

Lugging the earth, the oxen bow their heads.
The alien conscience of our days is lost
among the ruins and on endless roads.

Obviously, our imperial experiences in India are difficult to encapsulate in 42 lines but it would seem that Hill’s thesis is in part British arrogance and its resulting inability to understand or engage with the glorious complexity that is Indian culture. Whilst the critique is occasionally scathing, the tone is rueful and oddly elegaic.

The second sonnet is entitled Damon’s Lament for his Clorinda, Yorkshire 1654. I’m taking this to be a nod towards Marvell’s Damon and Clorinda which carries more than a nod in the direction of Spenser’s The Shepheardes Calendar. These are the first four lines:


November rips gold foil from the oak ridges.
Dour folk huddle in High Hoyland, Penistone.
The tributaries of the Sheaf and Don
bulge their dull spate, cramming the poor bridges.

And these are the last 3.5 lines:


................Why does the air grow cold

in the region of mirrors? And who is this clown
doffing his mask at the masked threshold
to selfless raptures that are all his own?

So this would seem to be perpetuating the distinctly English pastoral with a juxtaposition between the rural and the spiritual. The mysterious and allusive ending is in stark contrast with the clarity of the opening lines. This in itself is monstrously wrestleable. I also need to report that the recent Collected tells us that this particular sonnet is “an imitation of a sonnet by L. L. de Argensola” without specifying which sonnet. Of course, this information isn’t in the original edition. I don’t think this invalidates the Spenser-Marvell- Hill guess but it certainly throws something else into the pot.

Hill’s relationship with England has always been more than a little complex, he’s clearly a patriot and, as a red Tory, despairs of many elements of contemporary politics, especially our membership of the EU. He is also our best poet of the English landscape and his involvement with all things rural is unambivalent. This is the first part of The Laurel Axe which is the ninth sonnet in the sequence:

Autumn resumes the land, ruffles the woods
with smoky wings, entangles them. Trees shine
out from their leaves, rocks mildew to moss-green;
the avenues are spread with brittle floods.

Platonic England, house of solitudes,
rests in its laurels and its injured stone,
replete with complex fortunes that are gone,
beset by dynasties of moods and clouds

One of the epigraphs for An Apology is from Coleridge: “the spiritual Platonic old England” which adds another level of monstrosity to the sequence as a whole. Coleridge’s admiration for Plato is in itself unstraightforward but you don’t need to puzzle over this to appreciate the strength and brilliance of the above.

So, monstrosity of scale which seems more monstrous than the much longer Triumph of Love because so much is compressed into these 182 lines. I’m now going to spend a few days trying to subdue it into something more manageable.

<Simon Jarvis' The Unconditional.

I was going to use this as the example par excellence of monstrosity by means of digression and I was looking for a suitably digressive passages when I came across one of my v informative exclamation marks in the margin of page 179 and decided to use that instead, for reasons that will hopefully become clear as we proceed.

For those that don’t know, the Jarvis project is one of the most important of this century, his longer, formal work is a brilliant thumb in the eye at what we might think of as the literary establishment on both sides of the Atlantic for a number of different reasons. The above was published in 2005 and consists of a single poem containing about 235 pages of defiantly metrical verse. This is what caught my eye:

        Presuicidal choclatiera
coat morsels with a delicate agony
        for which their German reading long ago
was how the cost effective entrance fee
        ("In every line that Celan ever wrote
hovers a brooding ethical concern".
        poor penny dreadfuls of the critical sense
where the quotidian shopping carts unseen
        gather to give this hulking strut the lie
full of their viands for the evening pie.
        The worst that is thought and known in the world.
Precisely instead unriddable pleasures
        the poet gripped until he fathomed them wet.
(How precisely the joyful idiot is snubbed
        the couriers of singularity
can well arpeggiate as they now tread
        on underlings of idiotism who
know little of the sacrifices made
        by the sole selfers walking on their guts
(Tsk my resentimentful prosodist!
        Excellent rancour from the hilltop sire
When may we know what you yourself have lost
        or ever had to put up with in the rain?)))

This is horribly complex, at it’s heart it’s a rant at all things Continental but Derrida and co. (yet another technical term) in particular. Writing about the Holocaust is a huge subject as is writing about writing about the Holocaust as is the Adorno / Continental divide yet Jarvis takes these on together with a note of self-deprication at the end. I won’t argue with the notion that most of the critical writing on Celan is dire in the extreme but I don’t think that this is confined to one particular ‘sect’. I’ve gone on about this Adornian snobbery in the past and don’t intend to repeat myself. My point is that many many tomes have been written about writing about the Holocaust and many complexities have been examined yet Jarvis manages to encapsulate his fairly nuanced ‘position’ in one page and there’s a whole set of small monstrosities within.

So, I hope that I’ve demonstrated that this quality needs to be paid some attention. In writing the above I’v discovered a few other qualities (relentless monstrosity, monstrous ambiguity etc) which I’ll write about at a later date.