Friday, July 30, 2010

Paul Celan

A poem should resist meaning. It should stand immutable and irreducible, impossible to decompose into a series of propositions and statements. Nobody writes poems that resist meaning more than the German Poet Paul Celan, and yet for all that, they convey depth and power that is unmatched by other poets.

For the last two or three years I have been studying the poetry of Celan, particularly his later poetry. Paul Celan was born to Jewish parents in Romaina. During World War Two he was detained in a Nazi labor camp. His parents died in another camp. After the war he found his way to Paris, where, though fluent in many languages, he continued to write poems in German--the language of his mother, but also the language of the Nazi's that killed her. His early poetry fit into the European surrealist movement. His most popular poem, "Todesfuge--Death Fugue" is in this vein. But in his later years, he started stripping away artifice. His poetry became more compressed and impenetrable, but still conveyed some essential emotion just beyond articulation. It is the later poetry that interests me most.

Here is a complete poem (my translation, though heavily dependent on various cribs):

in the rivers north of the future
I cast out that net, which you,
hesitantly, weight
with stone written shadows

Although it resists meaning, one could still write volumes on this. The poem conflates time and space. What is it that the I is fishing for? Who is the "I", and who is the you? What do the stone shadows write?

Here are a couple of more passages that stir me--not complete poems:

something rushes through us
the first
of the world's last wings


Island meadow
fogged in
with hope

Celan fought depression and paranoia most of his life. He committed suicide by drowning himself in Seine in 1970.

Note: the photo comes from Wikipedia

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