Paul Celan at 100


Waterhour, the rubble scow
ferries us into evening, we,
like it, are in no hurry, a dead
Why stands at the stern.
—Paul Celan, "Rubble Scow"
trans. Pierre Joris

One hundred years ago, Paul Celan was born; fifty years ago, he died. A variety of books have been released to honor this occasion, but the most significant, for English-language readers at least, is Memory Rose Into Threshold Speech: The Collected Earlier Poetry translated by Pierre Joris, who has made the translation of Celan a significant focus of his life's work.

Joris's translation of Celan's 1967 collection Atemwende appeared from Sun & Moon Press in 1995 as Breathturn. This was followed by Threadsuns in 2000, Lightduress and Paul Celan: Selections in 2005, The Meridian: Final Version-Drafts-Materials in 2013, and then in 2014, the companion volume to the new one: the magisterial Breathturn Into Timestead: The Collected Later Poetry, which collected Joris's previous translations alongside complete texts of Celan's last and posthumous books (plus detailed commentaries for every poem). With the new omnibus of Celan's first books, we now have his German-language poems complete in English for the first time. Additionally, Joris has published this year his translation of Microliths: Posthumous Prose (based on a German volume from 2005), which more than doubles the Celan prose available in English and provides valuable insight via notebook entries, letters, and interviews.

Joris's translations of Celan stand as an impressive oeuvre, one anybody interested in poetry ought to regard with gratitude and perhaps awe. Many of Joris's individual translations are impressive and inspired, and even the least successful of them are not bad, which may sound like faint praise, but it is not at all, because we must always remember that Joris set himself the fundamentally impossible task of translating not selections but entire books, many of which contain poems deemed by other translators to be basically untranslateable.

My knowledge of German is rudimentary, but reading Celan in the original and comparing translations has long been one of my fascinations with his work. Celan is a great writer in and of himself, but also a great spur to translators' creativity, because his poems require translators to make big choices, solve paradoxes, and try to compress into single lines (and even words) wide networks of meaning and implication. It is no surprise that Celan's work has, from the beginning, attracted translators who are themselves skilled poets.

Like many of Celan's other best translators, Joris is himself a poet of real accomplishment. His poetics and proclivities led him to focus for most of his life on Celan's later works, and it was a magnificent pairing of poetic inclinations. It is clear from these new translations of the earlier (often lusher, more lyrical) poetry that some of what the younger Celan was up to is less poetically interesting to Joris than Celan's later poetics. That's entirely understandable, as the younger Celan was still trying out forms and sounds in search of his own voice, and he still often relied heavily on older literary traditions (e.g. Surrealism). It's not that Joris's translations are bad — they are not! — but that there is a vigor, creativity, and sympathy discernible in translations of some of these poems by other people that is less apparent in Joris's translations, which occasionally feel dutiful. This is especially true for the few poems that are more traditionally formal. So, for instance, where Celan's poem "So bist du denn geworden" rhymes and has a strong rhythm, Joris abandons both and presents a fairly straightforward translation of the words' meaning rather than the poem's sound or shape. Where Joris does try to rhyme in English when Celan rhymes in German, the results are a bit clunky (especially so in "Ice, Eden" — compare it to David Young's impressive rendering in No One's Rose). For sound and shape in such poems, you have to go to John Felstiner, Michael Hamburger, Nikolai Popov & Heather McHugh, and David Young. 

But even if other translators have been more successful at rendering the formal or conventional poems, it is important to emphasize that such writing is atypical even for early Celan, and while they're interesting (even fun), they are not especially important texts. If you have limited time and are translating whole books of Celan's poems, as Joris has, these are not the poems to expend your creativity on. I admire David Young's translations a lot, but I looked at quite a few poems from his translation of Die Niemandsrose (No One's Rose), the book that preceded Atemwende, alongside Joris's translations, and often Joris seemed to capture both form and meaning more closely. I haven't spent as much time comparing the two earlier collections that Young translated with Joris's versions of the same poems, but in the few poems that I looked at across those books, it seemed more of a toss-up between them, and as much a matter of personal taste as anything else.

Joris is consistent in his approach, one he has never been coy about: He seeks to keep Celan's texts strange, even if this means making them stranger in English than, strictly speaking, they are in German. That commitment has come in for some criticism over the years, but I am grateful for Joris's approach, and I think Celan, who could be quite radical in his own translation work, would appreciate it. In the many decades since Celan began publishing, readers have grown accustomed to some of the moves that were innovative and estranging when the poems were first published, and Joris's translations keep us from seeing Celan's work as more familiar and conventional than it originally was. Less radical translators are good for an introduction to Celan, but for English-language readers who really want to feel how fundamentally rich and strange these poems are, Joris's translations are essential and rewarding.

For readers in the United States (and elsewhere) who have heard of Paul Celan, he is most often known as the writer of perhaps the most frequently reprinted "Holocaust poem", "Todesfuge" ("Deathfugue"), one of the earliest poems he ever published, and the first to bring him international notice. It is an undeniable masterpiece, one of the most important poems of the 20th century, and one that, for better and worse, has been a staple of classrooms in Germany and elsewhere for generations now. 

And yet it is a terrible injustice to Paul Celan to focus attention primarily on that poem, because soon after he published it, his poetics began to turn away from the style of imagery and euphony that made "Todesfuge" so powerful and so popular. While the ideas and experiences that inspired "Todesfuge" would remain largely consistent throughout Celan's career, the poem itself is really one of his least typical. By the mid-1960s, he had dropped it from readings even when audiences requested it, and he refused to let it be reprinted in more anthologies. It had become too familiar to do the estranging work it needed to do.

When I learned of Pierre Joris's new collection of Celan's early poetry, I was especially excited to see what he would do with "Todesfuge". In editing Paul Celan: Selections, Joris used Jerome Rothenberg's translation, not his own. Though among the first English translations, Rothenberg's remains strong, but Joris has spent so much time reading and thinking about Celan, and he has such a talent for keeping Celan fresh that I couldn't help but be disappointed not to know his take on a poem so central in Celan's oeuvre.

"Todesfuge" has been translated so many times that it's difficult to do anything new with it without wrenching it into something other than translation. (John Felstiner's self-deconstructing version verges on that.) Joris follows some of the best choices of previous translators while also subtly bringing in a bit of later Celan's arguments against euphony. Joris's is not the most mellifluous translation of "Todesfuge" (that might be Michael Hamburger's), but rather a translation that emphasizes small, sharp words whenever possible. Joris preserves some of the musicality of the poem but also renders some of the rhythms less jaunty. This is clear from the very first lines. Here's Celan:

Schwarze Milch der Frühe wir trinken sie abends
wir trinken sie mittags und morgens wir trinken sie nachts

Here's Jerome Rothenberg:

Black milk of morning we drink you at dusktime
we drink you at noontime and dawntime we drink you at night

Here's John Felstiner:

Black milk of daybreak we drink it at evening
we drink it at midday and morning we drink it at night

And here's Michael Hamburger:

Black milk of daybreak we drink it at sundown
we drink it at noon in the morning we drink it at night

Joris instead begins:

Black milk of morning we drink you evenings
we drink you at noon and mornings we drink you at night

As Rothenberg did, Joris makes the black milk you, whereas Hamburger and Felstiner make it it. But Joris sets a tripwire in that first line by excluding a preposition in front of evenings, and he avoids repetitions that every other translation I know of in some way or another creates, whether Hamburger with the repeated word at or Rothenberg with the words dusktime, noontime, dawntime. Where Celan repeats "wir trinken und trinken" three times as a line of its own and one final time at the end of a longer line, Joris first makes that "we drink and we drink" the first two times, then "we drink you and drink" the third time and "we drink and drink" the fourth time. Other translators are more consistent, and that consistency creates a certain rigidity within Celan's poem where Joris seems to want to allow the poem the freedom to shift a little bit more in the reader's mind (or mind's ear).

Most effectively, throughout the translation of "Todesfuge", Joris chooses short words and hard consonants. (For example, where Hamburger translates Eisen literally as iron, Joris chooses the plausible but less literal gun, which gives us the hard g. [Rothenberg goes with sword, Felstiner rod.]) Such choices, combined with Joris's sometimes anti-euphonic approach to rhythms, leads to a version that would, I think, please the older Celan, who so often seemed embarrassed by the musicality of the poem. There is still music here, but it is more jagged than in other translations. Joris's version breaks the poem in some small ways, but it doesn't betray it in the way that, for instance, I think Felstiner betrays it by creating a gimmicky deconstructive/detranslating effect in which he returns the poem to German by the end (an effect outside of Celan's text, outside his intentions, and thus an imposition of the translator's own whimsy onto what Celan wrote. Mine seems to be a minority opinion on this, since Felstiner's is a frequently-praised translation, but I hold to my objection nonetheless!)

Though I would not want it to be the only translation of the poem, I find Joris's approach to "Todesfuge" thrilling. Also thrilling is the opportunity to read Celan's first book, Mohn und Gedächtnis, complete in English for the first time. Now, finally, we can see "Todesfuge" in its full context, we can read the poems around it, we can get a sense of the book as a whole. This would be important with just about any poet, but it is especially so for Celan, as Joris realized early on, leading him to translate entire books. The approach is absolutely essential for Celan's later work, but from the beginning he organized all his books carefully. Now, we get to see that Mohn und Gedächtnis is arranged in sections, and we can pay attention to the book-sized structure and rhythm unavailable in selections of Celan's poetry.

"Gisèle tells me the horror. The fit of dementia. The neighbors' testimony. The police car. The police station. And Paul exhibited in an amphitheater to medical students who take notes." That is the one passage I have marked in the Under the Dome: Walks with Paul Celan by the French poet and translator Jean Daive, recently re-issued in Rosemarie Waldrop's translation by City Lights Books. It is an ethereal book, the sort of thing I (unjustly) think of as "very French", like a Claire Denis movie or a whiff of perfume. (I, being very not French, want more of the horror and dementia.) That passage gestures toward the nightmare of Celan's later life.

Pierre Joris writes in the introduction to Breathturn Into Timestead:

He had been in self-imposed psychiatric care sometime around May 1965, and was forcibly put in psychiatric confinement in November 1965 after a life-threatening knife attack on his wife. Further hospitalizations followed from December 1965 to early June 1966. The following year started ominously with the chance encounter on January 23 at a literary event at the Paris Goethe Institute with [Claire Goll, who had accused Celan, quite falsely, of plagiarizing the poems of her late husband, and had publicly harassed and tormented him for years], triggering deep psychic turmoil. Five days later, on January 30, Celan, after threatening the life of his wife [Gisèle], who then demanded a separation, tried to kill himself with a knife — or letter opener — that missed his heart by an inch. Saved by his wife in extremis, he was transported to the Hôpital Boucicaut and operated on immediately, as his left lung was gravely wounded. He was in and out of psychiatric institutions from February 1967 to October of that year, even though by the middle of May he had started teaching again at the Ècole Normal. These stays involved drug and shock therapy, and old friends who saw him during or after those days reported major changes in the man.

My imagination keeps returning to Daive's account: And Paul exhibited in an amphitheater to medical students who take notes.

In that amphitheater, Celan became like his poem "Todesfuge", a subject in textbooks, assigned to students, discussed in lecture halls, analyzed, anatomized — the horror, dementia, police, and testimony all in the past, while in the present there is only the evidence, the residue.

I first read Celan when I was in college, but not in a class (I don't remember his name being mentioned by any teacher until late in graduate school). It was summer or a holiday, because I remember the local bookstore where I saw the orange cover of Michael Hamburger's Poems of Paul Celan in its 1995 edition. I knew Celan's name from the small selection of his poems in Carolyn Forché's anthology Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness, poems which had intrigued me. I flipped through Hamburger's book. I remember standing in that bookstore, the quality of fluorescent light, the place on the shelf where I had pulled the book, when I read this three-line poem:

YOU WERE my death:
you I could hold
when all fell away from me.

Then and there I decided to buy this book. $15.95 was more than I was used to paying for a paperback (and I didn't buy hardcovers except when their prices were marked way down), but it didn't matter. Honestly, if I hadn't had the money, I probably would have tried to shoplift it (not that I would have known how) because I had never before felt such simple words enter my consciousness with such force. There was a weirdness (those all-caps first words) and a familiarity to it that affected me in a mysterious way few other lines of words ever have. I'm sure it was a convergence of my circumstances in that moment making me particularly susceptible to that poem, but it has happened repeatedly through the years as I've continued to read Celan. Now, those three lines don't hit me with a lot of force, but I can never forget how one time they did — just as, later, so many other Celan poems snaked into my mind and imagination.

Shortly after buying Hamburger's translations, I was back at school in New York and saw Joris's first Celan volume, Breathturn, at St. Mark's Books. (Again, I remember the store, the light, the exact shelf.) It had recently been released, and it captured me even more fully than Hamburger's selections. The layout of the book was particularly evocative: a small, square book, one poem per page. Again, it was one tiny poem that caught me:

(I KNOW YOU, you are the deeply bowed,
I, the transpierced, am subject to you.
Where flames a word, would testify for us both?
You — all, all real. I — all delusion.)

I stood in St. Marks Books and read that poem until I had memorized it. Then another:

IN THE RIVERS north of the future
I cast the net, which you
hesitantly weight
with shadows stones

Again, I had the sense that here was a perfect poem, a simple poem that would require a lifetime of meditation, and again I had to own the book — there was no choice, no option of leaving it and coming back some other day, because I truly felt that I could not live another hour without having that book as my own. I bought it, took it home, read and reread and reread it. Hamburger's Poems of Paul Celan and Joris's Breathturn may be the only poetry books that have been with me everywhere I have lived since then, never confined to a box in storage, no matter how little space I had in tiny apartments through the years. I've collected every other English translation of Celan's writings that I could find, but it is those two that I keep close at all times, because they were the ones that initiated me, and there is a nice balance between Hamburger's more lyrical translations and Joris's insistently gnarled ones — both writers create texts that are, in their own ways, interesting not only as translations but as, themselves, poems.

In anticipation of the centennial, I have been re-reading Celan's writings for a few months now, actively comparing translations line by line and word by word in a way I haven't bothered to before, and I have also been reading these poems alongside whatever else happens to have caught my attention. For most of this time, that's meant that I have been reading Celan alongside, among other things, works by and about James Baldwin. This serendipitous overlapping has led to some curious convergences.

Baldwin returned to the word "witness" throughout his life. David Leeming quotes Baldwin as saying, in the early 1970s, that with Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King all assassinated, "I'm the last witness ... that's my responsibility. I write it all down." In a 1984 interview for the New York Times Book Review, Julius Lester asked Baldwin about the word and what he called Baldwin's "confidence" in using it, "a confidence about the way the world is and the way it should be." Baldwin replied:

...I know what I've seen and what I've seen makes me know I have to say, I know. I won't say I believe, because I know that we can be better than we are. That's the sum total of my wisdom in all these years. We can also be infinitely worse, but I know that the world we live in now is not necessarily the best world we can make. I can't be entirely wrong. There're two things we have to do - love each other and raise our children. We have to do that! The alternative, for me, would be suicide.

Even a glance at the secondary literature about Baldwin's life and writings shows the word witness is all but foundational for any discussion. Meanwhile, Jacques Derrida wrote a provocative, influential essay about the concepts of witness and testimony in Celan's poetry. Joris, in the introduction to Selections, quotes Derrida and discusses his own struggle over how to translate these Celan lines from Breathturn:

zeugt für den

which he ultimately, in the new book, settled on rendering as:

No one
bears witness for the

In his interview with Baldwin, Julius Lester said that witness was not a word he would use for himself as a writer, nor a word he thought any black writer of his generation would or could use. He asked Baldwin, "What are you a witness to?" Baldwin replied: "Witness to whence I came, where I am. Witness to what I've seen and the possibilities I think I see."

Much can be (and has been) said about witnessing in Celan and Baldwin, but I mention them here not only because I happened to be reading the two writers simultaneously these last few months, but also because I see (or imagine) in these two writers' ideas of witnessing a similar plea or yearning, and it is heartwrenching.

Baldwin and Celan were both born into histories of oppression, and both men saw and survived some of the most momentous events of the 20th century. Paul Celan arrived in Paris about 6 months before James Baldwin did at the end of the 1940s; both were, in a general sense, exiles (but both rejected the label of exile as inadequate for themselves). The truths they had to tell were ones the world around them wanted to suppress or forget. For all the success both men experienced, a core of loneliness appears throughout their lives, a fierce desire for a kind of connection that seldom, if ever, came.

Derrida provides a valuable insight in distinguishing witnessing from knowledge or information:

What distinguishes an act of bearing witness from the simple transmission of knowledge, from simple information, from the simple statement or mere demonstration of a proven theoretical truth, is that in it someone engages himself with regard to someone else, by an oath that is at least implicit. The witness promises to say or to manifest something to another, his addressee: a truth, a sense that was or is in some way present to him as a unique and irreplaceable witness. This irreplaceable singularity links the question of bearing witness to that of the secret but also, indissociably, to that of a death that no one can anticipate or see coming, neither give nor receive in the place of the other. With this attestation, there is no other choice but to believe it or not believe it.

The witness reaches out and wants to connect, wants their witnessing to itself be witnessed, hopes and wants — expects — demands to be believed. And yet again and again in their lives, Celan and Baldwin went unheard, misunderstood (sometimes willfully), and doubted. Witnessing requires trust. Trust was what they sought and so often, for no fault of their own, did not receive.

And so to death they went. Both suffered terrible depression and suicidal episodes; Celan drowned himself some months short of his 50th birthday, Baldwin smoked and drank and despaired himself into an early grave. Can we blame them? I sure don't. I'm more amazed they lived as long as they did.

Given the fact that Paul Celan killed himself, that he spent time in psychiatric hospitals, that, in a psychotic moment, he tried to stab his wife and then did stab himself — a reader would not be surprised to discover a significant body of writing about Celan and mental illness, much as there are significant bodies of writing about mental illness and Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, Robert Lowell, etc. For a while, psychobiography was all the rage, and poets who had struggled with mental illness were particularly appealing, as it played into a romantic sense of the poet as a suffering visionary.

In fact, there is, at least among English-language writers on Celan, a marked avoidance of any such discussion, or a tendency to toss it away as the "spiritual malaise" of a Great Writer. (For criticism of this tendency see Paul Celan's Unfinished Poetics by Thomas C. Connolly, the only work I know of that spends more than a few paragraphs on Celan's psychological struggles and acts of aggression.) Celan lived through hell, his mind brought hell to him again and again, and sometimes he inflicted hell on other people.

I must say, though, that I am not clamoring for a psychobiography of Celan, not in the conventional sense, at least. (I do hope for a major biography in English. Felstiner's Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, and Jew is more a book about Felstiner's own translations than it is a biography.) Most studies of writers' psychologies seem to me self-indulgent, or seem to reduce the art and the artist in an attempt to render a suffering person into an object that evokes sentiment or pity. I am perhaps especially sensitive to this tendency because I've done scholarly work on Virginia Woolf, and one of the things that most deeply angers me in some approaches to Woolf's writing and life is a tendency to reduce her to her suffering, to make her brittle or batty, rather than to see her survival as an impressive accomplishment in and of itself. The remarkable thing about the end of Virginia Woolf's life is not that she killed herself, but that she survived as long as she did. The same is true of Celan.

The closest to psychobiography I want to get is to say that the energy, even ferocity, within Celan's short lines and enigmatic poems feels like a mirror of his fierce clinging to life. This is likely an imagining on my part, maybe a projection, I don't know, but it is the only way I have to account for the mystical power of these poems over me. Something is there within the words and between the lines. I knew nothing of Celan's life or poetics when I first started reading him and first found the poems bewitching. I had never — have never — encountered a writer who makes pronouns feel so weighty, which sounds minor, but is, in fact, a powerful effect. For instance, thoughout Celan's poetry, you is both someone specific (usually unknown to the reader) and an open question, an open vessel, a concept into which we, the readers, can place our own second person. But it is more than that, too. It is also God and the absence of God, it is the Nazis and their victims, it is his sanity and insanity, it is history and its perpetrators, it is a wide open ambiguity that cannot ever be filled ... and yet inevitably is filled by our knowledge and imagination. The antecedents are there and not there, known and unknown, simultaneously a solid ground and an abyss, with the poem itself standing in the third position, the vantage of (fleeting?) insight. 

I cast the net...

I have been trying to write this piece about Celan for two months now, maybe longer. I have cut out as much as I have left in, and still it feels like I can never end, that I must simply stop for the day and call it the end.

During the pandemic, locked down with new and old anxieties, the poetry I have been reading most frequently is not that of Paul Celan, but various Asian poetries, particularly ancient ones, particularly Chinese ones, particularly ones in translations by David Hinton

Inevitably, reading Celan alongside Chinese poetry, the brain seeks similarities, and they are there: the short lines and short poems, the mysteries and mysticism. More, though: the poems that I hold dearest are the poems that seek for us a reason to keep living, even as suffering is the foundation of the world.

Choosing now to end an unendable and unending exploration, I will let Hinton's Tu Fu sing us out:

In Buddha's White-Crane death-grove:
Steps wind into depths quiet in mystery

here, spring colors float beyond peaks,
Star River fills meditation-hall shadow.

Sun-bright Absence transmits the lamp;
yellow-gold Presence reveals the earth.

No more this song-wild old man, I turn
and gaze into mind that dwells nowhere.

—Tu Fu, "Gazing at Ox-Head Mountain Monastery"
trans. David Hinton

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