Translated from the German by Michael Hamburger and Christopher Middleton
This selection first published 1972
I discovered Paul Celan’s poetry from a list of Best of World Literature which featured 100 great works. It was a worthwhile discovery, for when I read Celan, I fell in love with his verse. He is nothing like anything I have read before in poetry in English, original or in translation. A fantastic artist.
Celan’s poems deploy a highly complex imagistic landscape which forces the reader to decipher the many layers of meaning like the opening of a box inside box inside box till you peel the last wrapper off to find the hidden gem. He was under the influence of Surrealism in the beginning, which shows in his early verse, but later his style metamorphosed into a totally original approach to verse-consruction, in particular his one-worders and highly unusual word choices which, besides challenging the reader’s interpretation, alters the meaning of the stanza and, in some cases, the mood of the poem.
Themes of loss and death are recurrent; he was from a Jewish family and both his parents perished in concentration camps. He survived and lived with an anguish which spills into his poems every now and then.
I came to like more poems in one book than I normally do. I’m very picky but with Celan, it’s hard to leave out and not like many if most of his poems included in this particular selection. Among others Fugue of Death, There was Earth, Psalm, Below, Language Mesh, Aspen Tree, In memoriam Paul Eluard, Speak, You Also, There Was Earth etc are some worth reading. Here is a meaning-changing stanza from Below:
Led home, syllable after syllable, shared
out among the dayblind dice, for which
the playing hand reaches out, large,
A few selected lines from Speak, You Also:
Speak, you also,
speak as the last,
have your say.
But keep yes and no unsplit
And give your say this meaning:
give it the shade.
And later, this:
look how it all leaps alive -
where death is! Alive!
He speaks truly who speaks the shade.
But now shrinks the place where you stand:
Where now, stripped by shade, will you go?
Upward. Grope your way up.
Thinner you grow, less knowable, finer.
And look at these spine-tingling lines, a little word-painting of a captive and a flash of thought that goes into his or her mind, look at this beauty: From Language Mesh
Eye’s roundness between the bars.
Vibratile monad eyelid
propels itself upward,
releases a glance.
Iris, swimmer, dreamless and dreary:
the sky, heart-grey, must be near.
Towards the end of the poem, he thinks of what lies outside the cell and at the same time transposes the mood of his condition on to the remembered thought of his beloved. Simply brilliant!
The flagstones. On them,
close to each other, the two
mouthsfull of silence
Five out of five for Paul Celan and a recommendation for anyone who likes good poetry.