For those who don’t already know, the bebrowed view is that Paul Celan is the greatest poet of the twentieth century and his later work stands far above that of any other poet since 1900. I’m not going to expand or justify this point as I’ve already done this elsewhere. What I am going to do is hopefully illustrate this brilliance by attending to his abiding interest in language as shown in Timestead, his final collection which was published posthumously in 1976, six years after he took his own life.
Before we get on to the poems, a few points might be useful:
Before proceeding, it’s probably as well to throw into the mix some of what the Address and the notes for it have to say about language. I’m going to select a few that I find most helpful in my ongoing involvement with the work. So this is entirely subjective, my only defence is that I don’t have space to attend all of those that might be pertinent.
As with the poems, I’m using the English translations of Pierre Joris simply because I find his to be the most reliable. This is a key passage from the Address:
But language actualized, set free under the sign of a radical individuation, that at the same time, however, remains mindful of the language draws and of the possibilities that language opens up for it.
The always-still of the poem can indeed only be found in the work of the poet who does not forget that he speaks under the angle of inclination of his Being, the angle of inclination of his creatureliness.
The the poem is – even more clearly than previously – one person’s language-become-shape, and, according to its essence, presentness and presence.
These are from the Poem and Language section of the notes:
This pictorial is by no means something visible, it is, like everything else connected with language, a mental phenomenon. Language is not that an encounter with an invisible. It is, even in what is furthest from the voice a question of the accent; in the poem the perception of its sound pattern also belongs to the perceived image. By the breath-steads in which it stands. you recognize it by the crest-times. That is by no means the same as this or that cheap impressionistic tone painting, timbre etc. It is, here too, a manifestation of language, a speech-art that has to be hear in the written, i.e. the silent, ( the language-grille which is also the speechgrille, makes this visible.)
The poem is inscribed as the figure of the complete language but language remains invisible; that which actualizes itself – language – takes steps, as soon as that has happened, back into the realm of the possible. “Le Poeme”, writes Valery est du a l’état naissant; language in statu nascendi, thus language in the process of liberation.
As with any great work, Celan’s output has been the subject of fierce critical debate, most of which is sufficiently obfuscatory to deter even the most attentive of fans (me). So I’m going to leave these kerfuffles to one side and present my view of the deployment of language in one particular late poem that hopefully will demonstrate the sense of involvement and fascination that this stuff triggers in the soul.
The whisperhouse, open on leapday, handed on on jute, surface- deep, it naturalizes the fricatives, the lallation-stage is taken care of by the lip- pegs, ―does the other snap in, on time?― this, yes this glacierscreaming of your hands, the network of the dead helps to carry the firnice, the moon, poles reversed, rejects you, second earth, at the restheaven, deathproud, the starthrong takes the hurdle.
We’ll get the trickier words out of the way with the help of the OED-
Fricative= “Of a consonant-sound: Produced by the friction of the breath through a narrow opening between two of the mouth-organs”, English examples include ‘v’ and ‘f’
Lallation = ” An imperfect pronunciation of r, by which the sound of that letter is confused with that of l” or “childish utterance”.
The definition for firnice comes from Wikipedia- ” is partially compacted névé, a type of snow that has been left over from past seasons and has been recrystallized into a substance denser than névé. It is ice that is at an intermediate stage between snow and glacial ice. Firn has the appearance of wet sugar, but has a hardness that makes it extremely resistant to shovelling. Its density generally ranges from 550 kg/m3-830 kg/m3, and it can often be found underneath the snow that accumulates at the head of a glacier.”
The first line is close to my heart in that I’ve just incorporated the Loud Whisper into my own performance work. What I’ve found fascinating is this activity as halfway, or thereabouts, between speaking and breathing. Whispering loudly also involves a conscious effort to empty the voice of all its sonority which is really difficult to sustain over a long period.
Four occasions when we whisper come to mind:
- when we are in a religious building, as a mark of reverence;
- in libraries, museums and arts venues where we don’t want to disturb the concentration or enjoyment of others;
- when we want to keep something secret and we don’t want to be overheard;
- when we are in hiding and in danger of being discovered.
So, the ‘house’ suffix may be a place of worship, study, entertainment, display, secrecy or hiding or a mixture of any of these.
Whispers are also nouns, the sound we make when we whisper or a sound made by something else that sounds like a whisper. Bearing mind how the poem proceeds, the escape of gas can sound like a whisper which might have us leaping to the idea of the whisperhouse as a gas chamber, a place of industrialised slaughter. This may or may not be conjoined with any of the above, ambiguity being a recurring device in Celan’s work. Here I’m going to make use of J H Prynne on the poetically ambiguous:
In very summary form we may describe the effect like this. In strictly local context the surrounding sense may point strongly to one word-meaning rather than to another, different meaning of the same word. But in larger context within a poem a less “probable” meaning may also open a semantic possibility that can give the overall meaning a richer sense, even (or especially) by irony or contradiction, so that often a very wide range of different senses can be found to be active and having an effect, maybe on different levels or discoverable in different stages of the poem’s development.
Of course, outside the field of contemporary cultural endeavour, this quality is frowned upon precisely because it is inexact, imprecise and generally wooly in a world in which clear answers and meanings ‘matter’ more than anything else. The ambiguous, an expression that might point in two or three ways at once, is not tolerated even though the quantum world appears to be characterised by this kind of uncertainty.
It might be worthwhile to give some attention to the less likely meanings which in order to see whether any of them do provided these additional aspects. There are a few that spring to mind:
- a house is also, in English at least, a place of government (Houses of Parliament, House of Representatives etc.) and thus might point towards the way in which the political elite in Germany acquiesced in the political ascendancy of the Nazis, who made no secret of their virulent hatred of the Jews;
- a whisper, in this sense, could also signify the way the Holocaust was accepted but not discussed by the German people during the war, the extent of this knowledge is still an issue of quite fierce scholarly debate but I think Celan’s body of work shows that he felt that the German people were at the very least complicit in this calculated genocide;
- this whisper may also about the fact that the Nazi regime was intent on keeping the fact of mechanised slaughter a secret from the allies as a way of avoiding blame for their deeds;
- a whisperhouse may also be a house where Jews were hidden during the war and needed to remain quiet in order to evade discovery.
- the house may carry some of whatever it was that Heidegger may have meant in his Building, Dwelling, Thinking.
All of these might be completely wrong, they may well reflect what I want them to signify rather than Celan’s intentions. However I feel that the above possibilities demonstrate Prynne’s ‘richer sense’.
It appears to me that much firmer ground is reached when we get to the fricatives and the lallations. Fricatives involve the lips, lip pegs may suggest an impairment of the lips thus making speech very difficult indeed, perhaps reducing it to a ‘childish utterance’. The main stumbling block to this set of tentative assumptions is the gas chambers ‘naturalising’ the fricatives. In its wider sense, this verb relates to the turning of something or person foreign or alien into something native. In a secondary sense, the OED has ” To introduce or adopt (a word, phrase, etc.) into a language or into common use; also in extended use”.
Plants are one of the things that can be made native in a number of different senses.
This, as might be expected, sets your humble servant on a whole new round of re-ambiguation, starting with the fact that Celan was born in Romania but his mother tongue was German, he became a translator in Paris after the war, working across many different languages. One of the aspects noted by many critics is that he wrote his poems in German, the language of those responsible for the Holocaust and the death of his parents. I’m of the view that this facet is given too much prominence but I can’t deny that translation has something to do with putting things foreign into a more usable form. I also have to recognise that Celan was a keen amateur botanist.
These pegs may be used to hold the lips together thus denying/preventing speech except for humming. So, is this a confirmation of the then widely held view that the fact of the Holocaust renders all creative expression impossible? Todesfuge, an early and most famous poem was heralded as demonstrating how such expression is possible. His later work suggests that this process of bearing witness to the unspeakable proved exceptionally difficult and emotionally destructive as the years went by.
This noise made by the glacier is also a sound without meaning, a sound of fear and pain but one that doesn’t speak with words, in language. I would thus, provisionally and tentatively, that one of the ‘threads’ running through this brilliant poem relates to the destructive effect of the gas chambers on our ability to put anything into language.
In conclusion, I hope I’ve given at least some indication of the fruits that close attention to Celan can bring and that some readers may feel encouraged to have a look for themselves. Breathturn into Timestead is available from Amazon at fifteen and a half of your finest English pounds and for free from a number of those criminal free books sites. For new readers, the second option is probably preferable to the first.