PAUL CELAN

paul celanIntroduction

Paul Celan (1920-70), the pseudonym of Paul Antschel, was born in Czernovitz, in Romania, of German-speaking Jewish parents, on November 23, 1920. He could speak Romanian, Russian and Yiddish, but studied medicine in Paris, intending to become a doctor. War intervened and Celan returned to Romania, where his parents died under the Nazi occupation, and Celan was interned for 18 months before escaping to the Red Army.

In 1945 he moved to Bucharest, working there as translator and reader in a publishing house, and meeting prominent writers. 1948 found Celan in Paris, where he took his Licence des Lettres in 1950, and married the graphic artist Gisele de Lestrange in 1952, with whom he had a son in 1955. His first collection of poems attracted little attention, but his second, Mohn und Gedaechtnis (Poppy and Memory), which dealt with the Holocaust, made his reputation. Celan became Reader in German Language and Literature at L'École Normal Superieure, a position he held until his death, by suicide, in 1970. Celan's later poems became briefer and more fragmentary, but also extremely well known. Equally famous were his translations from the French (Valéry, Char, Michaux), Russian (Mandelstam, Tsvetayeva) English (Dickinson, Frost, Shakespeare) and Portuguese (Pessoa).

Celan spoke for many after the Holocaust, for numbness, disbelief at events, for helplessness in the face of such horror. And he came to prominence when Existentialism was questioning the central strands of European thought. Man was now an absurd animal. War had shown both the Enlightenment's belief in progress, and Romanticism's trust in the human heart to be dangerous fictions. Heidegger took language apart to expose two millennia of evasion, finding anxiety and dread in place of the eternal verities. Celan's surrealistic/expressionist poetry was also fragmentary, repetitive and questioning, built of striking images that were eloquent and mystifying. Still emotionally evocative, they became more opaque in later poems, and Celan's readership dropped off. Celan's was a quiet personality, probably tortured by the past. His birthplace, Czernowitz, had come under Soviet rule, and the German spoken so confidently at home was the language of a people who had murdered his parents and millions like them. Celan still wrote in German, but it was now a reworked, enigmatic and self-questioning German, lapsing into silence or repeating itself like a psalm that will reveal its meaning only with harsh experience, in the eternity of God's time. The reworking of language, and what truth it may carry, are themes of much literary theory and postmodernist poetry.

After the defeat of Nazism, German poetry sought in three ways to reunite itself with mainstream European culture. First was through the nihilism common at the time: Gottfried Benn (1886-1956), the even more stripped down matter of factness of Günter Eich (1907-72) and the halting dialogue with history and the concentration camps of Celan himself. The second approach was via nature, through a landscape that was now banal, derelict and speaking of a degraded humanity: Karl Krolow (b. 1915), Peter Huchel (1917-65) and Johannes Bobrowski (1903-81). The third approach was more radical: the political expressionism of Bertold Brecht (1898-1956), which came to fruition after 1970, when the self-sufficient poem no longer seemed viable. Erich Fried (b. 1921) and Wolf Biermann (b.1936) are important names, to be followed by Walter Höllerer (b. 1922) and Peter Handke (b. 1942) who created unassuming and sometimes discursive poems that were open to experience: the new subjectivity.

Celan has been much translated, often very successfully: poem hunter, Schiller institute, kirjasto, norton poets, and in book form: Evidence of Fire (1989) I. Fairley's Fathomsuns and Benighted, Penguin Book of German Verse (1957), Modern German Poetry (1962), East German Poetry (1972) and German Poetry 1910-75 (1976). For literary criticism on Celan and post war German poetry see: M. Hamburger's After the Second Flood (1986) and J. Rolleston's Narratives of Ecstasy: Romantic Temporality in Modern German Poetry (1987), P.J. Thomson's An Introduction to Modern German Poetry (1975) and H. Bloom's Modern German Poetry (1989).

Suggestion: Poems of Paul Celan Translated by Michael Hamburger. Persea Books. 2002. $12.89

An old favourite of many Celan readers, now re-issued in a bilingual edition of 416 pages. The customer reviews provide an illustration of Hamburger's skills in conveying this gnomic and disturbing poetry.

Learning German

German can be learnt from books, tapes, courses and CDs, available at multilingual, worldlanguage, arthur lynn, rosetta stone, language quest, pimsleur and unforgettable languages.

Free lessons and material are at deutsch lernen, actilingua, about, and search language.

Other works, dictionaries, etc. can be ordered through grant and cutler, bestbookbuys, abebooks and alibris.

German-English-German online dictionaries are at multilingual books, dictionary.com, prompt online and lexilogos.

Machine translation can be helpful, though you will need some grammar to correct the rendering: omnilang, free translation, , google, babelfish, worldlingo, and reverso.

Some useful language exchanges: friends abroad, xlingo, mylanguage exchange, polyglot learn language, and lingozone.

German Poetry

Translations can be found at poetry-archive, kline, poem hunter, schiller institute and abelard . A good site for German poetry generally is german corner.

For modern German poetry see shearsman pinko about, Krolow, Huchel, Bertold Erich Fried, Walter Höllerer and Handke.

German poetry is well anthologised in O. Duranni's German Poetry of the Romantic Era (1986) and R. Browning's German Poetry 1750 to 1900 (1984), and discussed in A. Closs's The Genius of the German Lyric (1962).

Goethe

Even on the Internet, the majority of Goethe resources are in German, but English readers will find these sites useful: bartleby, theatre history, aspirennies, amazon, and moonstruck.

The Goethe Society of North America encourages research and the more popular works are translated in the Penguin Classics series.

Heine

Information on Heine can be found at >, hellenbroich, allrefer, gugiu, new advent, encyclopedia.com and wikipedia.

For books on German Romanticism see B. Peuker's Lyric Descent in German Romantic Tradition (1987), and H. Bloom's German Poetry through 1915 (1987). On Heine himself are S. Prawer's Heine the Tragic Satirist (1961), Laura Hofrichter's Heinrich Heine (1963).

Rilke

Information on and translations of Rilke can be found at kline, landman, and writers word.

Innumerable studies exist — H E Holthusen's R.M. Rilke: A Study of His Later Poetry (1952), H W Belmore's Rilke's Craftsmanship: An Analysis of this Poetic Style (1954) and R. Gass's Reading Gass Reading Rilke, to name but three. Well-regarded translations include: J B Leishman's Duino Elegies (1939), E Snow's The Book of Images (1991), S. Mitchell's Duino Elegies (1992) and Kinnell and Liebmann's The Essential Rilke (2000). Readings van be found at Cliff Crego. German readers will find these useful: rilke gesellschaft, gutenberg.

Celan

Information on Celan can be found at http://www.encyclopedia.com/html/C/Celan-P1a.asp, wikipedia, smith, language hat and holst-warhaft.

Celan has been much translated, often very successfully: poem hunter, schiller institute, and in book form: Evidence of Fire (1989) I. Fairley's Fathomsuns and Benighted, Penguin Book of German Verse (1957), Modern German Poetry (1962), East German Poetry (1972) and German Poetry 1910-75 (1976).

For literary criticism on Celan and post war German poetry see: M. Hamburger's After the Second Flood (1986) and J. Rolleston's Narratives of Ecstasy: Romantic Temporality in Modern German Poetry (1987), P.J. Thomson's An Introduction to Modern German Poetry (1975) and H. Bloom's Modern German Poetry (1989).

 

C. John Holcombe   |  About the Author    | ©     2007 2012 2013 2015.   Material can be freely used for non-commercial purposes if properly referenced.