Tag Archives: tenebrae

Paul Celan, Osip Mandelstam and fateful language

Plough match 2012 # 17 Julian Winslow

The last post on Celan’s term ‘the angle of inclination’ attracted some debate and a very helpful contribution from Pierre Joris (Celan’s best translator who also spent seven years of his life producing the English version of the notes for the Meridian), I thought that I’d return to this issue and add a few more elements into the ‘mix’.

For those unfamiliar with Celan’s work, it is probably sufficient to say that he was the greatest poet of the 20th century and that his later work embodies much of what poetry must be about. The notes made in preparation for the Meridian offer a crucial insight into Celan’s poetics- the Meridian address is the only time that he expressed his views on poetry in any depth. I’ve paid intermittent but close attention to the notes since last summer and have learned a number of things which appear to be reasonably central to Celan’s practice:

  • the poem comes from a primordial darkness and this blackness is “congenital” to the poem;
  • the poem carries the potential for an encounter and the encounter between reader and poem is both tactile and intimate;
  • the poem is described as being “under way” en route to some “other”.

I’m reasonably confident of the above but there are many other aspects that are resistant to ‘easy’ interpretation. One of these is the use of the ‘angle of inclination’ which I speculated about in the last post. To recap this is what Celan said in the address:

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.

Last time I speculated that this angle may refer to being leant forward so as to pay close or respectful attention to something. In response, Courtney Druz suggested that this might refer to a “bending under pressure” whilst Tom D’Evelyn made this observation- ““Inclination” may point to the intersubjective understanding of otherness. The I is opened to the other by transcending itself, the self that is “intended” in time towards an object, and this transformation of the self creates a space where Being may show its “otherness” as inclination: a point of entry into this space. The pressure Courtney mentions is a “pull” that co-operates with the opening self to open the space.” Pierre Joris put forward a Deleuzian perspective- “I’ll confess to problems with the translation of Celan’s term “Neigungswinkel” — which I eventually returned to its most literal translation as “angle of inclination”. For many years —the whole book took 7 years (meager? fat?) to translate — I used the term “clinamen” which in its Deleuzian inclination had seemed useful & accurate to me & my own thinking about PC. Vagaries & vanities of translation.”

In responding to these I came across a more detailed paragraph which I should have included in the initial post:

The poem that I have in mind is not surface-like: nor is this changed by the fact that even recently, with Apollinaire or with Chr. Morgenstern, one had the shape poem, rather, the poem has the (complex a double spatial depth of the soul of the) spaciality of the who demands it of the soul and indeed a complex one: the spaciality and tectonics of the one who demands it of himself and the spaciality of the of his own language ie (language which) not simply of language as such but of the language which configures and actulizes itself under the special angle of inclination of the one who speaks and thus the poem is fateful language.

(The words in brackets are the ones that Celan crossed out in his notes.)

The next paragraph expands on ‘fateful’:

“Fateful”: a highly contestable word, I know; but let it function at least as an auxiliary word; as auxiliary word for ex., for the description of an experience: that one has to emulate one’s poem, if it is to remain true; that concerning this or that poem one has to ask oneself if it hadn’t been better to have left it unwritten; that (one) even (the) most (pronounced, most articulated) literal irreality form speaks the language of the imperative: “You must pass through here, life!”

(The words in brackets are again the ones that Celan crossed out in his notes.)

So, there are now some additional words and phrases that we need to think about. I’m taking ‘the one who speaks’ to be the poet or the maker of the poem and that the poem actualizes itself because it is made by the poet who has this ‘special’ angle of inclination. It is because of this process that the poem is said to be ‘fateful’ language.

Let’s give some consideration to this ‘highly contestable word’, fateful has five definitions in the OED:

  • Of a voice or utterance: Revealing the decrees of fate; prophetic of destiny;
  • Fraught with destiny, bearing with it or involving momentous consequences; decisive, important. Chiefly of a period of time;
  • Marked by the influence of fate; controlled as if by irresistible destiny;
  • Bringing fate or death; deadly;
  • Having a remarkable fate; of eventful history.

Given what we know about Celan, it is likely that this contestable word is being used as a combination of both the first and second definitions although the fourth definition may also be intended, the notes have “Death as the principle creating unity and limits, this its omnipresence in the poem.” but we do have to tease out whether this is Celan the follower of Heidegger or Celan the depressive…..

With regard to “You must pass…”, the notes contain “poems are narrows: you have to go through here with you life – ” with an additional comment that was put in later- “…..not all the poems one writes: no one is a poet through and through…”. So poems carry or are laden with fate/destiny and also carry death and that the poet has a kind of duty to ’emulate’ the poem- in another version of the ‘fateful’ paragraph this is “one has to live according to one’s poems”.

The Notes also contain Celan’s radio-essay on “The poetry of Osip Mandelstam” which contains this: “These poems are the poems of someone who is perceptive and attentive, someone turned toward what becomes visible, someone addressing and questioning: these poems are a conversation.

Celan was a fervent admirer of Mandelstam’s work and had translated it from the Russian, here I think the idea of turning towards something that becomes visible may also provide context for ‘inclination’.

I think Courtney is right that the leaning forward is also experienced as a burden, as a responsibility to bear witness for the other- which requires an openness and careful attention. The imperative to bear witness to the fate of the Jewish people is a recurring theme in Celan’s work which is made more difficult and complex by the fact that his mother tongue was German. “Tenebrae” has ‘we’ going to look at the bodies in mass graves but it is also set out as a prayer that addresses God directly.

So, inclination may combine- attention, reverence, the burden of responsibility toward the other or otherness and may also be concerned with all of the above working to expose an aspect of truth or reality.

As always with Celan all of this has to be provisional and I haven’t begun yet to address Pierre’s ‘clinamen’ and the Deleuzian Celan but I do find it very useful to try and think these things through.

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Reasons to like Geoffrey Hill

I’ve started to re-read Hill and have given some consideration to Tom Day’s view that Hill wants his readers to like him but then despises us for doing so. This isn’t going to be a lengthy analysis of the man’s psychology but rather why we should feel some affection for Hill as well as admiration for the strength of his work.

I’d like to start with why I find myself feeling genuine affection for Hill. First of all, he’s very, very clever and I like cleverness, his views and mine coincide on a number of subjects, we’re both against the teaching of creative writing and dislike ‘confessional’ poetry especially when written by Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath. We both like the work of Anselm Kiefer and the poetry of Paul Celan and we share a strong interest in the history of 16th and 17th century England. We’ve also had more than our fair share of mental health problems.

So, there’s a number of affinities and it is generally easier to like someone when you have some common ground.

I don’t share Hill’s faith but I do respect it as it is clearly something that’s very important to the way that he is in the world. I view his politics as absurd, so absurd in fact to be part of the man’s charm (if that’s the right noun).

I am of course envious of Hill’s skill as a poet but it’s what he chooses to do with that skill that makes him likeable to me. The re-reading just undertaken has been an interesting process, there’s more pomposity and, paradoxically, more self-laceration in the work if you try to look at the man through the poems rather than for meaning.

There’s a couple of lines from ‘The Triumph of Love’ that speak to me in a very personal way-

I know places where grief has stood mute-
howling for half a century, self
grafted to unself till it is something like
these now-familiar alien hatreds,

My family is one of those ‘places’ where grief has stood mute-howling since the Somme offensive and which was then intensified by deaths in the following generation during World War II. It takes a lot to express this stuff when it is very close to home. I appreciate that the rest of this particular part of the sequence is Hill at his little Englander worst but ‘mute-howling’ and ‘self grafted to unself’ are the mark of a compassionate man.

Prior to this re-reading, ‘Comus’ was my favourite because it seemed to contain a more personable poet and I always took great pleasure in reading it for the breadth of thought and the amount of self-deprecation. I also thought that ‘Without Title’ was the weakest collection because it struck me as self-indulgent- especially the ‘Pindarics’ and the very bad Hendrix poem.

Both of these views have now changed, ‘Comus’ has been replaced in my affections by ‘A Treatise of Civil Power’ and I’m now more tolerant of the ‘Pindarics’ (the Hendrix poem is still very bad). I’ve also noticed that some of the earlier poems aren’t very good, ‘A Short History of the British in India’ from ‘Tenebrae’ now seems ineffectual and naff.
‘Without Title’ contains three poems on Ipsley Church Lane which are brilliant. I’m not normally keen on nature poetry but these three poems manage to address something in me- I find them almost therapeutic and have often stood in this lane in my head as a way of keeping my particular demons at bay.

Speaking of demons, I think it’s important to recognise that it isn’t easy being Geoffrey Hill, there’s the struggle with faith, the struggle with verse and the struggle with chronic depression amid bouts of OCD. There’s also the fact that Hill doesn’t think like the rest of us which can also be quite isolating. What’s likeable is that these struggles are never rammed down our throats, the nearest we get is the acknowledgement that poetry is a “sad and angry consolation”.

The full text of the Paris Review interview with Hill has now emerged from beyond its pay wall and this gives me another couple of reasons for liking Hill. There’s: “There is a kind of poetry—I think that the seventeenth-century English metaphysicals are the greatest example of this, Donne, Herbert, Vaughan—in which the language seems able to hover above itself in a kind of brooding, contemplative, self-rectifying way. It’s probably true of the very greatest writers. I think it’s true of Dante and Milton, and I think it is true of Wordsworth. It’s a quality that these poets possess supremely. The rest of us, even the very best of us, possess it to a lesser and differing degree, but I cannot conceive poetry of any enduring significance being brought into being without some sense of this double quality that language has when it is taken into the sensuous intelligence, and brought into formal life”. Which I love because of the image of language hovering above itself- articulating what I feel about Milton and Celan and pointing to my own fumbling and inarticulate aspirations as a poet.

One of the things that has always interested me about Hill is his interest in martyrs and martyrdom. In the interview he says: ” My interest in the Elizabethan Jesuits, and in particular Robert Southwell and Edmund Campion, is that they seem to me to be transcendently fine human beings whom one would have loved to have known. The knowledge that they could so sublimate or transcend their ordinary mortal feelings as to willingly undertake the course they took, knowing what the almost inevitable end would be, moves me to reverence for them as human beings and to a kind of absolute astonishment”. What is striking is that he mentions likeability prior to suffering.

“In Memoriam: Gillian Rose” is a remarkably humane tribute to the life and work of a remarkable woman. It contains:

I did not blunder into your room with flowers.
Despite the correct moves, you would have wiped
in the championship finals of dislike.

He’s right but I can’t get the image of Hill as suitor (with flowers) out of my head- an image that manages to be both funny and touching.

The poem ends with:

I find love’s work a bleak ontology
to have to contemplate; it may be all we have.

‘Love’s Work’ is searing in its honesty and the way that it looks at the prospect of imminent death. Gillian Rose was one of this country’s leading intellects and was particularly effective in the demolition of cant. In writing this poem, Hill lets us see as much of himself as we’re ever likely to get.

So, is Hill likeable? I think that he probably is and I don’t think Day’s assertion that he wants us to like him in order to despise us for it holds water. The sea-change that occurred when Hill started to put more of himself into his work doesn’t mean that he’s still playing out the extent of his permanent damage. Does it?