Celan, Prynne, Derrida and what poetry does.

(This might get horribly complicated).

A couple of things have been lurking around the Bebrowed control panel for a while:

  • The possibility that J H Prynne might be right about the authenticity of ‘The Solitary Reaper’ and;
  • The likelihood that Jacques Derrida might be wrong about at least one aspect of Celan’s ‘Aschenglorie’.

Some time ago I wrote about ‘Field Notes’ which is Prynne’s lengthy commentary on ‘The Solitary Reaper’ and got more than a little indignant about the fact that Wordsworth wasn’t actually present when the Reaper’s song was heard. I was also critical of Prynne for appearing to skim over this (to me) problematic element.

Since reading Derrida’s essay on Celan’s ‘Aschenglorie’ I’ve been convinced that this sets the benchmark for writing usefully about the supremely gifted poet.

I think I now have reason to amend these views. As I’ve said before, I’m not at all bothered by this inconsistency in fact I think the occasional about-face is good for the soul, as did William Cobbett.

I’m now going to have a glib moment, bearing witness is one of the main things that poetry does. This aspect of poetic function comes in a variety of different flavours. One of these is the business of memorialisation which can also be tangled up with the Christian and Jewish practices relating to our relationship with God.

To move things along, here’s the poem and the paragraph from ‘Field Notes’, for ‘Aschenglorie’ I’m using the Pierre Joris translation because it’s the most successful English version and Joris writes intelligently about the poem.

Ashglory behind
you shaken-knotted
hands at the threeway.

Pontic erstwhile: here,
a drop,
the drowned rudder blade,
in the petrified oath,
it roars up.

(On the vertical
breathrope, in those days,
higher than above,
between two painknots, while
the glossy
Tatarmoon climbed up to us
I dig myself into you and into you).

glory behind
you threeway hands.

The cast-in-front-of-you, from
the East, terrible.

bears witness
for the witness.

This is from p. 39 of Field Notes. Prynne is discussing ‘O listen’ which occurs at the beginning of line 7, the definition of listen (OED 2a) is ” intr. To give attention with the ear to some sound or utterance; to make an effort to hear something; to ‘give ear’” whilst the second (OED 1a) is ” trans. To hear attentively; to give ear to; to pay attention to (a person speaking or what is said).”

And yet if listen is addressed to us (the readers), then indeed the poet-traveller must know full well that we cannot hear (listen sense 2a) even the slightest echo of this actual song: we know we can only quasi-‘hear’ the tacit melancholy strains of his own song-like poem, and even this lies silent upon the open page. And yet, if the traveller is imagined to hear her song by the projected imagination of the poet, then maybe the readers also can construct not the auditory actuality of this supposed song (based as it is on Wilkinson’s fieldnote report) but rather the inward response to a powerful idea (precisely, listen sense 1a) of what this song and this encounter may have meant and might still mean to a conjectured traveller acting as our deputy (our sound receiver) in this remembered but barely realised situation. But yet again we may notice that what we hear when we listen hard, strain to hear (listen, sense 2a) is neither her song nor even the intense silence which it acutely and transiently enhances: we hear instead the profound absence of her song (listen sense 1a again), even as we are told of the how and why (but not the what) she sings.

Reading this a week ago I realised that my previous concerns about ‘authenticity’ (the poem reports what Wilkinson, not the poet, actually heard) were really rather silly and that Prynne’s reading is quite important because it addresses the what and the how of poetry with remarkable clarity and insight. I want to pull out a couple of these:

Record and performance.

This event occurred, Wilkinson was walking through the Highlands and came across a “female who was reaping alone: she sung in Erse as she bended over her sickle; the sweetest human voice I ever heard: her strains were tenderly melancholy, and felt delicious long after they were heard no more.” It is this event that the poem records, memorialises and then proceeds to perform these accumulated absences- the poet wasn’t present, neither he nor Wilkinson could understand what was being sung and it is impossible to recreate on the page something that you haven’t actually heard.

Going along this route, I must confess that I begin to see the ‘point’ and worth of ‘The Solitary Reaper’ which hasn’t occurred before. One of the successful elements of the poem is that it manages convincingly to draw the reader into an experience that can’t actually be achieved in that it both records and performs the event.

Witness and encounter.

In dealing with ‘Aschenglorie’, Derrida spends a lot of time on the final cry of the poem and considers in enormous depth what sort of witness Celan might be referring to. When I first read the essay I was neck deep in thinking creatively about the various complexities of the witnessing and testifying conundrum and therefore lapped all this complexity up but I now think we might need to bear in mind the whole poem and what Celan says elsewhere about the poem as an encounter if we’re going to make productive sense of the plea.

To be fair to Derrida, he did say that he wasn’t going to offer a reading of the whole poem but he does then contradict himself by offering a precise reading of Tatarmoon and then corrects himself for (probably) over-reading. He also provides a brilliant reading of the poem’s first word.

“Pontic erstwhile” doesn’t sound at all promising unless it is referring to the slaughter of Pontian Greeks by the Turks in WW1 and the subsequent return to Greece as a result of the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923. When they returned they found that their Athenian hosts couldn’t understand their dialect. The Pontian Greeks had lived on the Southern shores of the Black Sea from when the Greek colony was first founded nearly three thousand years ago.

Derrida felt that the ‘key’ to Celan was the fact that his mother tongue was the tongue of those who had destroyed his people and that this displacement (together with living in France yet writing in German) was the essential feature of the work.

What poetry does.

This week’s personal revelation, kicked off by the above, is that perhaps/maybe we need to give more attention to function rather than meaning. I’m not suggesting that meaning isn’t important but it does seem to have been overly prioritised down the years. Celan is of the view that the doing of poetry creates the potential for an encounter and I would go further and suggest that performance (in all of its senses) is what this encounter is mostly about.

Applying this to these two poems is fruitful because it encourages me as a reader to become the member of an audience and this (I think) makes the encounter more urgent, insistent and alive so that I can respond more to what is being done and in this way get greater pleasure from the meeting.

I have quite recently written about Spenser’s exuberant use and manipulation of language which should be the focus of pour attention rather than the political context of colonial Ireland at the end of the 16th century, I think what I meant by that is that we should primarily consider the performative features of the Faerie Queen and the nature of the potential encounter that Spenser’s after.

The poems have a lot more in common than at first appears, both address things that have been destroyed or are dying and both encourage us (me) to think about the process of memorialisation and bearing witness as a performance rather than a statement. Both also do new things with language in order to make that performance and now I’m going away to think about poetic newness as a means of heightening the chances of encounter….

On a final note, Simon Jarvis’ ‘Dionysus Crucified’ probably needs to be considered performatively – Timothy Thornton’s account of the care Jarvis took with the initial reading suggests that this is at least one of the intentions.

2 responses to “Celan, Prynne, Derrida and what poetry does.

  1. Hey John,
    Thanks for your post. It’s not clear to me what you are saying about Derrida, or even which text of his you are thinking of (there are, as you’ll know, several on Celan). This one I assume: http://www.wehavephotoshop.com/PHILOSOPHY%20NOW/PHILOSOPHY/Derrida/UNINTERRUPTED%20DIALOGUE.pdf? Could you point to the moment, for example, where he ‘corrects himself for (probably) over-reading’? Interested . . .
    Jonty Tiplady

    • It’s from ‘Poetics and the Politics of Witnessing’ which is collected in ‘Sovereignties in Question’ which contains a number of essays and an interview re Celan.
      After speculating that ‘Tatarmoon’ and ‘breathrope’ may refer to the death of Martina Tsvetaeva in 1941, he goes on with “In the end, it is in all certainty impossible to put a stop to the meaning or the reference of this poem.”- which is a kind of self-correction, the speculation is hedged around with a lot of ‘perhaps’.

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