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Who Was Paul Celan?

Updated on November 2, 2017

Deciphering ideas and delving into the mysterious; poetry is that. Put in a prosaic way, it represents a challenge for our language, grammar, and logic skills.

By researching the celebrated poets of the 20th century, I encountered Paul Celan. With the mentioned ideas in mind, I approached his poetry. Also, I chose him, not another, for the fact that his name had a Romanian sound. Yet I never heard it before, or I didn’t remember hearing it. A quick search offered the information that he had Romanian ties but wrote in German. However, I read his poetry in English.

"The monks with hairy fingers open the book: September."

This is the first verse in Tallow Lamp, the first poem I read. Here my simple reader deciphering process began. Registering the nostalgia, the drama, the esotericism, my mind envisioned scenes. Extracting the images from the hole, I defined them as beautiful. The monks with hairy fingers translated into fingers as thin as hair, a creature's of the forest fingers. When reading Your Hand Full Of Hours, I meditated on love. Feelings of beauty, sadness, coldness overwhelmed me.

From Your Hand Full Of Hours
From Your Hand Full Of Hours

How beautiful the apparition in Memory Of France:

"Monsieur Le Songe, a lean little man."

Mister Dream, Mister Illusion, wonderful creation, a play with words, yet no ludic atmosphere present.

From Memory Of France
From Memory Of France

Next came Aspen Tree. I was not ready for it, I faced my naïvety. Into what we approach, we read ourselves, that is true. In Paul Celan’s poetry, what one is reading, surpasses the habit or need of self identification. Aspen Tree was the moment when I figured that out.

No esotericism, I found the poem instantly comprehensible. A fountain of sadness and sorrow that uplifts yet emotionally destroys. This poem was, evidently, written for his late mother.

Also, it was obvious that, to understand this poem and his work, I needed to learn more about his life.

Paul Celan (1920-1970) was born Paul Antschel, or Ancel in the Romanian adaptation, in Cernauti (Czernowitz), Romania in a Jewish family. Why did he mention Ukraine in the poem? On the grounds that since 1944 Cernauti is a Ukrainian town. Still, it is further complicated.
Since 1775, Czernowitz was part of the Austro-Hungarian Hapsburg Empire. It was a region were the Empire colonized Germans and Hebrews. Paul Celan’s parents grew up in this thriving world. The Austro-German culture was something they took pride in. His mother insisted on a German education. In the 1920s, when the Empire disintegrated, the province became part of Romania. Furthermore, the Russians conquered it in 1940 and the Nazis invaded it in 1941. Fifty thousand Jews were deported. Ghetto life was an occasion for Paul Celan to write poetry and to translate Shakespeare’s sonnets. His parents did not survive the camps in Transnistria. He was imprisoned in a work-camp in Romania.

From Todesfuge (Death Fugue)
From Todesfuge (Death Fugue)

Between 1945-1947, Paul Celan lived in Bucharest, the Romanian capital. Not finding his place in the recently turned communist country, he went to Vienna, after that to Paris. A Jewish person with an almost Romanian name, living in France, multicultural, writing in German. The words that come to mind are detachment, remoteness. Nonetheless, in his poetry, the detachment is not emotional. Rather, it is the detachment of a painter that uses images or structures to express feelings, facts.
On the grounds that we share a mutual home, expecting a familiar encounter, I chose him. In reality, he lost his home, he found no home. Elemental images abound in his poetry. I would hope he found refuge in nature, yet their coldness conveys another impression. His poetry is tough as a diamond, perfect, and precious. There are no half measures in his work, reading it is a complete experience.
One of his best appreciated poems, Todesfuge - Fugue of death is as a powerful spell, close to a curse, cold as a curse, yet not poisoned. It is of course, about Judaism and war. It could be about the role tragedy forces on an individual’s destiny, the speck of dust role.

Read the poem here

The themes Celan takes on are not easy to read about. In the wake of the world war II, poetry asked much from him, yet no other choice was possible.

Another inclination of mine, along with the one of projecting, is demystifying, making sense of subjects. Poetry might or should resolve something or clarify something. With A Variable Key and Speak You Also, were the closest poems I found to fit this mind frame. I venture to define them as guides for himself and for others to finding meaning, balance, and value.
Flower is another favorite. It begins stony, not malleable, yet I found a glimmer of hope in it. However, I also found confusion, there are expressions that could have a positive and at the same time a negative meaning.

From Flower
From Flower

Except the few poems mentioned, I found that Paul Celan does not connect; he addresses, talks towards, but his poems are steel, diamond, cold. And in that way, violent. His heart must have been, also, full of lead. His poetry is a broken heart’s poetry. One might disengage in such a place. I feel he was lost in it. I feel I was superficial in my initial quest.
He blamed himself, life, God. He found no resolutions. I don’t know if there were any to find. If I would have read only his biography, I would have been impressed by the survival story, the creationist power. However, I read his poetry. Although I was indeed impressed by the creationist power, I also observed the darkness. And I understood how he could not escape it, my heart broke alongside his. He did not escape it. He committed suicide.
Poetry is apt to induce dream states. Paul Celan’s poetry is oneiric in an inescapable way. I felt caught in the most beautiful contraption, one that made breathing heavy. It must have been his slow poison.

Reference list:

Thinking the Poetic Measure of Justice: Hölderlin-Heidegger-Celan By Charles Bambach

From With A Variable Key
From With A Variable Key
From Zurich, At The Stork
From Zurich, At The Stork


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