Prose from Poetry Magazine

Of Strangeness That Wakes Us

On mother tongues, fatherlands, and Paul Celan.

If there is a country named Celania — as Julia Kristeva once proposed — its traditions have at least one thing in common with Islam: the first word revealed to the prophet was Igra (Read!). Perhaps in Celania, as in the Ottoman Empire, calligraphers delight in creating mazes of embellishment in which meaning is secreted like a treasure. The deciphering of the text proves the worthiness of the reader.

Some of Celania’s poems are modern psalms; here is one:

Of  too much was our talk, of
too little. Of  the You
and You-Again, of
how clarity troubles, of
Jewishness, of
your God.

On the day of an ascension, the
Minister stood over there, it sent
some gold across the water.

Of  your God was our talk, I spoke
against him, I
let the heart that I had
his highest, death-rattled, his
quarreling word —

Your eye looked on, looked away,
your mouth
spoke its way to the eye, and I heard:
don’t know, you know,
don’t know, do we?,
Zurich, the Stork Inn, tr. by Michael Hamburger

“Extreme clarity is a mystery,” says Mahmoud Darwish. “Clarity troubles.” Celan, often considered a difficult poet, is in this poem at his clearest.

Is Celan’s work too obscure, as some claim? Is it too hermetic? Too difficult? Real poems, Celan wrote, are “making toward something   ...    perhaps toward an addressable Thou.” I would argue that, for any poet writing toward such a subject, regular words and syntax soon become inadequate (Hopkins, anyone?). Celan is an extreme case though, because he also had to contend with the inadequacy of the German language to express the experience of the Jewish poet, post-Holocaust. His is the lyricism of privacy (prayer is private, no matter with how many fellow congregants it is uttered or in how many prayer books it appears), not of hermeticism. In fact, Celan insisted to Michael Hamburger that he was “ganz und gar nicht hermetisch.” Absolutely not hermetic.

Celan’s mother’s language was German. This German-speaking mother, who makes fitful enigmatic appearances in his poems, was shot by Germans. Celan told himself, in German: “this word is your mother’s ward /    ...    / your mother’s ward stoops for the crumb of light.” Mother-tongue.

Elie Wiesel wrote in French, as a protest against the German language. Even Joseph Brodsky, who continued to write Russian poetry after his forced exile, began to write his prose about his parents in English, explaining:

I want English verbs of motion to describe their movements. This won’t resurrect them, but English grammar may at least prove to be a better escape route from the chimneys of the state crematorium than Russian. To write about them in Russian would be only to further their captivity, their reduction to
insignificance, resulting in mechanical annihilation.

Celan, however, chose to protest from inside German, in “death-rattling,” “quarreling” words. Though he spoke numerous other languages (Romanian, Russian, French), and though he had written previously in Romanian, he nevertheless decided to remain in German, which he broke and reclaimed. German, for Celan, was the language that had to “pass through its own answerlessness, pass through frightful muting, pass through the thousand darknesses of death-bringing speech.”

Why break a language? To wake it up. “We sleep in language,” writes Robert Kelly, “if language does not come to wake us with its strangeness.”

Celan called himself a man from a place that was “dropped from 
history.” The details of his life are well-known to most readers of 
twentieth-century poetry. Still, it may help to recite a few facts, as listed in John Felstiner’s Selected Poems and Prose of Paul Celan: Born in 1920 to German-speaking  Jewish parents in Czernowitz, Bukovina. Soviet troops occupy Czernowitz in 1940. Celan learns Russian. German troops enter Bukovina in 1941. In June 1942 his parents are 
arrested, his father dies from typhus, his mother is shot. Celan himself is arrested in July of the same year and spends two years in forced labor camps. After the war he flees to Vienna and then to Paris, where he settles down, marries, teaches, translates, commits suicide.

Theodor Adorno: “It is barbaric to write poetry after the Holocaust.”

Adorno, when confronted by others, repeated: “After Auschwitz to write poetry is barbaric, I would not want to downplay this remark.”

Adorno, after reading Paul Celan’s broken and reassembled German, reconsiders: “It may have been wrong to say that after Auschwitz you could no longer write poems.”

Why does Celan’s language appear so fresh when it is so wrecked? The best answer to this question was given by Zbigniew Herbert.

INTERVIEWER: “What is the purpose of poetry?”
HERBERT: “To wake up!”

But how does the wreckage of language wake us? Here is a word-by-word translation from Hebrew, which requires us to read from right to left:

בְּרֵאשִׁ֖ית בָּרָ֣א אֱלֹהִ֑ים אֵ֥ת הַשָּׁמַ֖יִם וְאֵ֥ת הָאָֽרֶץ׃
[and the earth] [the earth] [and] [the heavens] [God] [created] [in the beginning]

וְהָאָ֗רֶץ הָיְתָ֥ה תֹ֙הוּ֙ וָבֹ֔הוּ וְחֹ֖שֶׁךְ עַל־פְּנֵ֣י תְהֹ֑ום וְר֣וּחַ אֱלֹהִ֔ים מְרַחֶ֖פֶת עַל־פְּנֵ֥י הַמָּֽיִם׃
[God] [and the spirit of] [deep] [upon the face of] [and darkness] [and void] [waste] [was]

וַיֹּ֥אמֶר אֱלֹהִ֖ים יְהִ֣י אֹ֑ור וַֽיְהִי־אֹֽור׃
[and there was] [light] [let there be] [God] [and said] [the waters] [upon the face of] [moved]

וַיַּ֧רְא אֱלֹהִ֛ים אֶת־הָאֹ֖ור כִּי־טֹ֑וב וַיַּבְדֵּ֣ל אֱלֹהִ֔ים בֵּ֥ין הָאֹ֖ור וּבֵ֥ין הַחֹֽשֶׁךְ׃
[between] [God] [and divided] [that good] [the light] [God] [and saw light]

These opening verses of Genesis are well known. I suggest that we read them backwards. A strange lyricism awakes as these famous phrases are wrecked:

And the earth, the earth and the heavens God created in the beginning God and the spirit of deep upon the face of and darkness and void waste was And there was light let there be God and said waters.

The language acquires a strange agency, a weird reversed reality: “And there was light let there be God.” There is more poetry in reading 
the text we know by heart backwards. (We sleep in the language, if language does not come to wake us with its strangeness.)

Although Celan’s language may wake us with its strangeness, it is rarely strangeness for its own sake. The urgency is apparent, as Celan often makes of  his estrangement a psalm:

I rode through the snow, do you read me,
I rode God far — I rode God
near, he sang,
it was
our last ride over
the hurdled humans.
— From Summer Report, tr. by Heather McHugh and Nikolai Popov

His quarrel with his Lord, that “addressable Thou,” and his quarrel with his language often coincide.

The issue before me is really that of  the privacy of a lyric poet:

You are light: you will sleep through my Spring till it’s over.
I am lighter:
in front of strangers I sing.
— From Night Ray, tr. by Michael Hamburger

Writing to his wife from Germany, the poet himself commented: 
“I am not sure the German I write in is spoken here, or anywhere.”

Yes: Celan’s strangeness is rooted in his inward, almost cryptogrammic relationship with German. A stranger in his mother tongue, Celan, writes Anne Carson, was “a poet who uses language as if he were always translating.”

But how can anyone translate the language that is not spoken anywhere? How does one translate estrangement, this “otherness” of Celan, into English? Here is John Felstiner’s attempt at Celan’s most famous poem, “Deathfugue”:

Black milk of daybreak we drink it at evening
we drink it at midday and morning we drink it at night
we drink and we drink
we shovel a grave in the air where you won’t lie too cramped
A man lives in the house he plays with his vipers he writes
he writes when it grows dark to Deutschland your golden hair
he writes it and steps out of doors and the stars are all sparkling he
      whistles his hounds to stay close
he whistles his  Jews into rows has them shovel a grave in the ground
he commands us play up for the dance

Black milk of daybreak we drink you at night
we drink you at morning and midday we drink you at evening
we drink and we drink
A man lives in the house he plays with his vipers he writes
he writes when it grows dark to Deutschland your golden hair
Your ashen hair Shulamith we shovel a grave in the air

     where you won’t lie too cramped

He shouts dig this earth deeper you lot there you others sing up
     and play
he grabs for the rod in his belt he swings it his eyes are so blue
stick your spades deeper you lot there you others play on for the

Black milk of daybreak we drink you at night
we drink you at midday and morning we drink you at evening
we drink and we drink
a man lives in the house your goldenes Haar Margareta
your aschenes Haar Shulamith he plays with his vipers

• • •

He shouts play death more sweetly this Death is a master from
he shouts scrape your strings darker you’ll rise up as smoke to the sky
you’ll then have a grave then in the clouds where you won’t lie too

Black milk of daybreak we drink you at night
we drink you at midday Death is a master aus Deutschland
we drink you at evening and morning we drink and we drink
this Death is ein Meister aus Deutschland his eye it is blue
he shoots you with shot made of lead shoots you level and true
a man lives in the house your goldenes Haar Margarete
he looses his hounds on us grants us a grave in the air
he plays with his vipers and daydreams der Tod ist ein Meister aus

dein goldenes Haar Margarete
dein aschenes Haar Shulamith

In my private library, this is one of the great translations of the twentieth century. But the word “translation,” to my mind, is misleading. This translation (or any great translation, for that matter) is not a mirror. While one appreciates Felstiner’s haunting use of German words interspersed with English, this striking and powerful juxtaposition of  languages does not happen in Celan’s poem.

Translation, however faithful, is fiction. So why is Felstiner’s use of  German a good decision? Because Felstiner’s version is only made more striking as we wake to the actual tragic meaning of the strange foreign words — it gives English readers the experience of  being 
other, a voice alienated from language. To realize this is to see clearly that a successful translation, even a very “faithful” one, has no need to mimic the original. It is the poet’s process, writes Eavan Boland, that needs to be translated.

If Celan’s poems feel like strange translations, clearly the translation of Celan into English should give the feeling of foreignness to our own language.

I would argue that most piercing lyric poets don’t speak in the “proper” language of their time. Emily Dickinson didn’t write in proper English grammar but in slant music of fragmentary perception. Kit Smart’s endless lists and Whitman’s numbering of months in Leaves of Grass are hardly in the language their contemporaries knew. César Vallejo placed three dots in the middle of the line, as if language itself were not enough, as if the poet’s voice needed to leap from one image to another to make — to use Eliot’s phrase — a raid on the inarticulate.

Why such intensity? Is it too much?

There cannot be too much of the lyric, wrote Marina Tsvetaeva, because lyric itself  is too much.

What propels this strangeness, this “too-muchness” of a lyric voice? Why such urgency?

“Mad Ireland hurt [him] into poetry,” W.H. Auden famously wrote of W.B. Yeats, and Germany certainly did hurt Celan into writing his most powerful lyrics. “It is myself that I remake,” Yeats wrote, about the place of rewriting in his process. Like Yeats, it was only “himself” that Celan “remade” in his struggle of writing in the language of his parents’ killers. And in that remaking, the poetics of Celan’s language — the one we know as German — were changed. As Edmond Jabès suggests,

there is something paradoxical to stand suddenly alien to the world and to totally invest yourself in the language of a country that rejects you, to the point of claiming that language for yourself alone.

What we see in Felstiner’s version of “Deathfugue” is the treatment 
of language as a foreign object, strange and new again. We are awakened. A certain spell is cast. One notices this casting of an 
incantatory spell in many of Celan’s poems. Abstract, surreal, somewhat nonsensical, the incantatory quality gives voice to epochal events (“There was earth inside them, and / they dug”) as well as 
alchemic, inward ones (“I am lighter: /  in front of strangers I sing”). Consider this:

You teach
You teach your hands
You teach your hands you teach
You teach your hands
                                    to sleep.
— From Matière de Bretagne, tr. by Michael Hamburger

If by this point you are thinking about the witches from Macbeth or any of Shakespeare’s fools’ riddles, you aren’t alone. Here is Cid Corman (who was Celan’s first English translator) describing Celan: “poetry OF language — but of language AS livingdying    ...    a tale told by an idiot.” A tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing, as we all know, signifies a great deal and is at the heart of  Western literature. It is not something we should dismiss as obscurity or nonsense, though it may employ nonsense to reach its goal — which is, perhaps, to find “the addressable Thou.”

Incantation is just one such device. There are others. Many critics 
have commented, for instance, on how surreal Celan’s images are. He was influenced by his friendship with surrealists, but his art is much older than that particular movement. The first real surrealist was Ovid, not Breton. The first American surrealist was Emily Dickinson: “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain.”

One could call “Deathfugue” a ballad, secular Kaddish, fugue, but what then? It’s not the literary devices that matter but how a poet confronts them.

But how do English/American poets confront our own tradition? 
I began this piece by mentioning Hopkins. Yeats famously said that he only revised toward a more “passionate syntax.” John Berryman said: “nouns, verbs do not exist for what I feel.” I think of King Lear saying “Never, never, never, never, never,” or Whitman saying “Death, death, death, death, death,” when the words lose meaning and become just sounds of themselves, opening into a territory of  less guided, more given meaning. And don’t forget Stein, who was frustrated that one couldn’t “[put] two words together without sense.”

I suppose one could call this attitude — this wrecking — a treatment
of language as a “foreign object,” but even in German poetics this “foreignness” was not exactly a new thing under the sun (interested parties should consult literature on Hölderlin’s use of Greek). But the point here is not so much to find similarities or one author doing
something before another — it is literature, not a bar fight — but to consider what drove these poets to manifest their passion in syntax, to wreck the language, to wake it up.

To come back to the question of the privacy of a lyric poet and how this is manifested in the tensions of  his or her language: for Celan, it seems, this attitude toward German came from trauma. He had seen the Holocaust and its aftermath. “No one / witnesses for the / witness,” Celan said, and in his work “a tension is held in the fragmentation of  language, of  being and of extreme solitude” (Julia Kristeva).

Note the choice of word: solitude, not loneliness. In the end, it does not matter whether this “tension” in a poet’s speech comes from a place of trauma or from somewhere else (Catullus? Mayakovsky? Niedecker?). Whatever the source, the central fact remains — the privacy of a lyric poet:

You are light: you will sleep through my Spring till it’s over.
I am lighter:
in front of strangers I sing.
               — From Night Ray, tr. by Michael Hamburger

The lyric poet is a person who says, “I am not sure the language 
I write in is spoken here, or anywhere.” Alone with unintelligible language, he sings “in front of strangers.”

Edmund Jabès:

Silence, as all writers know, allows the word to be heard. At a given moment, the silence is so strong that the words express nothing but it alone.

Does this silence, capable of making language tilt over, possess its own language to which one can attribute neither origin nor name?

Inaudible language of the secret?

Those who have been reduced to silence, once, know it best, but know also that they can hear it.

In the solitary lines of Paul Celan, one hears this inaudible language.

A great poet is not someone who speaks in stadiums to thousands of  listeners. A great poet is a very private person. In his or her privacy this poet creates a language in which he or she is able to speak, privately, to many people at the same time.

Originally Published: January 2nd, 2013

Poet Ilya Kaminsky was born in the former Soviet Union city of Odessa. He lost most of his hearing at the age of four after a doctor misdiagnosed mumps as a cold, and his family was granted political asylum by the United States in 1993, settling in Rochester, New York....

Appeared in Poetry Magazine This Appears In
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  1. January 4, 2013
     Surazeus Simon Seamount

    Shocked awake by cold silence of blind words
    I stumble labyrinth of mutating dreams
    and paint windows in stone with thudding fist
    but fall backward through door of reason lost,
    so I map how I escape memory of fear.

  2. January 9, 2013
     Sherry Horowitz

    Ilya, it is true, wrecking language wakes us, but we cannot be satisfied
    with this as a means to an end. Poetry is nothing if not an act of
    meaning. Every poetic device, as John Berryman describes “Surface”
    form and “Deep” form, both ornamental and rhetorical, is an act of
    accounting toward order. The creative, inquisitive mind impulsively and
    instinctively delights in the establishment of pattern, in thought and
    sound, and the resulting meaningfulness is the essence, the root of our
    delight in our quest to encounter beauty.

    While it may be exotic to reverse the order of the words in Genesis, and
    it may delight us in a sensual sense with regard to language, it is
    perhaps akin to taking all of Shakespeare’s words in a jar and agitating
    them like some snow globe, the results of which I couldn’t possibly
    describe as beautiful in equal terms as the original and intentional text.
    The Torah’s beauty lies in its exquisite, purposeful placement of words
    and thought.

    Martin Earl in his essay “The Difference Between Poetry and Prose”
    describes the difference between the two as a question of morality:

    “Prose is about the accumulation (a morality of work), while poetry as it
    is practiced today is about the isolation of feelings (an aesthetic of
    omission). Among other things, prose is principally an ethical project,
    while poetry is amoral, a tampering with truths which the world of prose
    (and its naturalistic approach to mimesis) takes for granted. Poetry
    creates its own truth, which at times is the same truth as the world’s,
    and sometimes not. Whatever the case, its mimesis is always a
    rearrangement, at a molecular level, of that axis between the “seen” and
    the “felt” (that coal chute which connects the childish eye to the Socratic
    heart), which, were it not for poetry, with its misguided elenchus, would
    remain obscured.”

    While I am not sure I agree exactly with Earl in his parsing and assigning
    morality to prose and amorality to poetry, I do agree that the point of
    poetry’s "amoral" exercise is a means to an end and is one concerned
    with “rearrangement.” It is a means to establish order between the
    “seen” and “felt” or to put it differently, to establish a coherent sense of
    reality between what is often a war between the heart and mind.

    Too often we lose ourselves in the luxury of language, forgetting that
    poetry’s power lies in its meaningfulness. Too often we mistake
    “confusion” for “mystery.” “Wrecking” language was Celan’s privilege, a
    means to an end. For Celan, language was a way of re-connecting with
    post-holocaust reality, of delicately piecing a shattered world-view
    together to re-establish a morality that was brutalized by the holocaust.

  3. January 24, 2013
     Sleiman Azizi

    Interesting article.

    I would like to add one thing though and that is that translation of art requires that the translator go through the same or similar experience as the original writer.

    If this does not happen, then all you have is an example of skill with a language.

  4. July 31, 2013
     randall withell

    I have not read Celan for many years, which is a loss. But
    this essay speaks so strongly & clearly to what I intuited
    so strongly & so un-clearly when I first read Celan.

    Thank you for these words, your words in themselves; thank
    you, also, for your words in Celan which drive me back to