Is poetry still possible? The question may strike us as impertinent: of course it is still written. But in some sense it remains a real question what poetry can do—and how it should be—at a time of suffering and hatred. The problem looms large in discussions of poetry written after World War II, and it hangs especially heavily over the legacy of Romanian-born, German-language poet Paul Celan, among the most innovative poets of European modernism.
After Friedrich Hölderlin and Rainer Maria Rilke, no one else in the tradition of German lyric poetry composed works of such evocative force, testing the limits of language and courageously opening a new path in aesthetic experience. It was Celan, most of all, who proved that to write poetry after Auschwitz is not only possible but necessary: that it must take on the accumulating weight of modern catastrophe and register something like shame for the fact of its existence. Like Celan himself, modern poetry is a survivor—wounded, traumatized, haunted. It can persist, but only if it turns against its own pretensions to transcendent meaning and breaks with inherited ideals of beauty. In Celan’s work this requirement yielded a new idiom, as enigmatic and rough-edged as the world itself. And yet Celan seemed to know that the burden of responsibility might prove too great, and that poetry might simply vanish. “The poem today,” he observed in 1960, “shows a strong tendency towards silence.”
Celan was born a century ago today into a German-speaking Jewish family in Romania, and he died in France fifty years later—a few months shy of his fiftieth birthday—when he threw himself into the Seine. Publishers have seized the occasion of the double significance of 2020—centennial of his birth and semicentennial of his death—to revisit Celan’s legacy and to produce new English translations. In 2014 Luxembourg-American translator Pierre Joris published Breathturn into Timestead, superb renderings in a bilingual edition of the five volumes of Celan’s poetry originally published after 1963. This year Joris completed his life-long encounter with the poet’s oeuvre by publishing a companion work, Memory Rose into Threshold Speech, which contains the four volumes of Celan’s earlier poetry. Joris has also translated a fascinating volume, Microliths They Are, Little Stones: Posthumous Prose, including the poet’s aphorisms and critical notes on literature. Beyond Celan’s work we also have a new English translation of the memoir Under the Dome: Walks with Paul Celan by Jean Daive, a French-language poet and close friend of Celan’s during his final years. The outpouring of new volumes demands our attention, but it also raises a question: Are we capable of reading his work?
Celan is too often categorized as a “Jewish” poet, an epithet suggesting merely parochial interest. His poetry certainly springs from the particular trauma of modern European Jewry, but it has inspired writers well beyond the usual circuits of modern Europe, reaching, for instance, the Martinican poet Monchoachi and the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish. There is no escaping the fact that European life at midcentury made Jewishness a matter of life or death, and nearly all of Celan’s work reverberates with the memory of a genocide that he typically left unnamed, preferring instead only an oblique reference to “what happened.” But his nine volumes of poetry are not transcripts of an identity or an event, nor can we confine them to a single literary tradition. Their lexicon comes freighted with a bottomless supply of references, from Martin Luther and Meister Eckhart to the Hebrew Bible and the Kabbalah. We say the poems are written in German, but no native reader can escape the sense that they are not of German. Even in the original Celan’s poems feel as if they were written in another language—a mark of his estrangement from the language of the Nazis, but also his inventiveness to go on writing poetry in the wake of disaster.