Tag Archives: Osip Mandelstam

Paul Celan, Osip Mandelstam and fateful language

Plough match 2012 # 17 Julian Winslow

The last post on Celan’s term ‘the angle of inclination’ attracted some debate and a very helpful contribution from Pierre Joris (Celan’s best translator who also spent seven years of his life producing the English version of the notes for the Meridian), I thought that I’d return to this issue and add a few more elements into the ‘mix’.

For those unfamiliar with Celan’s work, it is probably sufficient to say that he was the greatest poet of the 20th century and that his later work embodies much of what poetry must be about. The notes made in preparation for the Meridian offer a crucial insight into Celan’s poetics- the Meridian address is the only time that he expressed his views on poetry in any depth. I’ve paid intermittent but close attention to the notes since last summer and have learned a number of things which appear to be reasonably central to Celan’s practice:

  • the poem comes from a primordial darkness and this blackness is “congenital” to the poem;
  • the poem carries the potential for an encounter and the encounter between reader and poem is both tactile and intimate;
  • the poem is described as being “under way” en route to some “other”.

I’m reasonably confident of the above but there are many other aspects that are resistant to ‘easy’ interpretation. One of these is the use of the ‘angle of inclination’ which I speculated about in the last post. To recap this is what Celan said in the address:

This always-still can only be a speaking. But not just language as such, nor, presumably, not verbal “analogy” either.

But language actualized, set free under the sign of a radical individuation that at the same time, however, remains mindful of the borders language draws and of the possibilities language opens up for it.

This 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.

Last time I speculated that this angle may refer to being leant forward so as to pay close or respectful attention to something. In response, Courtney Druz suggested that this might refer to a “bending under pressure” whilst Tom D’Evelyn made this observation- ““Inclination” may point to the intersubjective understanding of otherness. The I is opened to the other by transcending itself, the self that is “intended” in time towards an object, and this transformation of the self creates a space where Being may show its “otherness” as inclination: a point of entry into this space. The pressure Courtney mentions is a “pull” that co-operates with the opening self to open the space.” Pierre Joris put forward a Deleuzian perspective- “I’ll confess to problems with the translation of Celan’s term “Neigungswinkel” — which I eventually returned to its most literal translation as “angle of inclination”. For many years —the whole book took 7 years (meager? fat?) to translate — I used the term “clinamen” which in its Deleuzian inclination had seemed useful & accurate to me & my own thinking about PC. Vagaries & vanities of translation.”

In responding to these I came across a more detailed paragraph which I should have included in the initial post:

The poem that I have in mind is not surface-like: nor is this changed by the fact that even recently, with Apollinaire or with Chr. Morgenstern, one had the shape poem, rather, the poem has the (complex a double spatial depth of the soul of the) spaciality of the who demands it of the soul and indeed a complex one: the spaciality and tectonics of the one who demands it of himself and the spaciality of the of his own language ie (language which) not simply of language as such but of the language which configures and actulizes itself under the special angle of inclination of the one who speaks and thus the poem is fateful language.

(The words in brackets are the ones that Celan crossed out in his notes.)

The next paragraph expands on ‘fateful’:

“Fateful”: a highly contestable word, I know; but let it function at least as an auxiliary word; as auxiliary word for ex., for the description of an experience: that one has to emulate one’s poem, if it is to remain true; that concerning this or that poem one has to ask oneself if it hadn’t been better to have left it unwritten; that (one) even (the) most (pronounced, most articulated) literal irreality form speaks the language of the imperative: “You must pass through here, life!”

(The words in brackets are again the ones that Celan crossed out in his notes.)

So, there are now some additional words and phrases that we need to think about. I’m taking ‘the one who speaks’ to be the poet or the maker of the poem and that the poem actualizes itself because it is made by the poet who has this ‘special’ angle of inclination. It is because of this process that the poem is said to be ‘fateful’ language.

Let’s give some consideration to this ‘highly contestable word’, fateful has five definitions in the OED:

  • Of a voice or utterance: Revealing the decrees of fate; prophetic of destiny;
  • Fraught with destiny, bearing with it or involving momentous consequences; decisive, important. Chiefly of a period of time;
  • Marked by the influence of fate; controlled as if by irresistible destiny;
  • Bringing fate or death; deadly;
  • Having a remarkable fate; of eventful history.

Given what we know about Celan, it is likely that this contestable word is being used as a combination of both the first and second definitions although the fourth definition may also be intended, the notes have “Death as the principle creating unity and limits, this its omnipresence in the poem.” but we do have to tease out whether this is Celan the follower of Heidegger or Celan the depressive…..

With regard to “You must pass…”, the notes contain “poems are narrows: you have to go through here with you life – ” with an additional comment that was put in later- “…..not all the poems one writes: no one is a poet through and through…”. So poems carry or are laden with fate/destiny and also carry death and that the poet has a kind of duty to ’emulate’ the poem- in another version of the ‘fateful’ paragraph this is “one has to live according to one’s poems”.

The Notes also contain Celan’s radio-essay on “The poetry of Osip Mandelstam” which contains this: “These poems are the poems of someone who is perceptive and attentive, someone turned toward what becomes visible, someone addressing and questioning: these poems are a conversation.

Celan was a fervent admirer of Mandelstam’s work and had translated it from the Russian, here I think the idea of turning towards something that becomes visible may also provide context for ‘inclination’.

I think Courtney is right that the leaning forward is also experienced as a burden, as a responsibility to bear witness for the other- which requires an openness and careful attention. The imperative to bear witness to the fate of the Jewish people is a recurring theme in Celan’s work which is made more difficult and complex by the fact that his mother tongue was German. “Tenebrae” has ‘we’ going to look at the bodies in mass graves but it is also set out as a prayer that addresses God directly.

So, inclination may combine- attention, reverence, the burden of responsibility toward the other or otherness and may also be concerned with all of the above working to expose an aspect of truth or reality.

As always with Celan all of this has to be provisional and I haven’t begun yet to address Pierre’s ‘clinamen’ and the Deleuzian Celan but I do find it very useful to try and think these things through.

The Meridian

I’m not entirely sure whether the recently published translation of the drafts and notes that Celan made for his Meridian speech is a volume for Celan devotees or whether it demands wider attention. Either way, Pierre Joris has done a magnificent job translating this material into English for the first time.
I’ve said before that Celan is the most important 20th century poet. To me this seems so self-evident that it doesn’t need any further qualification- the work continues to speak for itself and to demand our attention. ‘The Meridian’ is the name given to Celan’s acceptance speech when he was presented with the Buchner Prize at Darmstadt in October 1960 and has been argued about ever since as it contains the most detailed description of Celan’s poetics. The notes are a revelation and demonstrate the care that Celan took to arrive at the speech as it was delivered.
Before I get into the material itself, I’d like to make a couple of observations. The index of proper names shows that there are more references to Mandelstam than anyone else and that there are far more references to Buber than there are to Heidegger. This may only be significant to me but it may take us some way from the Heidegger / Holderlin obsession that seems to infect most Celan critics.
Before we go any further, I recognise that I have in the past been more than a little critical of the J K Lyons tome which is a close reading of the notes made in the Heidegger books in Celan’s possession. I’ like to argue that the Meridian material is different in that there is less room for speculation / guesswork in that the notes were made with a specific aim and can ( to some extent) be followed through- this is not the case with the Heidegger marginalia.
I haven’t yet fully got to grips with the editorial cross referencing but the final speech appears first followed by drafts and revisions which are in turn followed by sections headed ‘Darkness’, ‘The poem’, ‘Breath’, ‘Breathturn’, ‘Encounter’, ‘Hostility to art’ and ‘Time critique’.
‘Darkness’ is the one that (so far) I have paid most attention to. Celan always vigorously denied that he was an obscure or hermetic poet, expressing the view that his poems were like messages in a bottle that could be understood by those that they reached. The speech (in response to the charge of obscurity) has: “This is, I believe, if not the congenital darkness, then however the darkness attributed to poetry for the sake of an encounter from a – perhaps self-created – distance or strangeness.” Now we have:

In other words, the poem is born dark, it comes as the result of a radical individuation, into the world of language, thus, i.e. as far as language manages to be world, laden with world.

So, it would appear that Celan does actually see this darkness as congenital, one of the sub-sections of the notes is heade “The congenital darkness of the poem”. A first reading might lead us into the specific experiences of Celan as a holocaust survivor and manic depressive, we may postulate that anyone who sees his role as one of witness to Nazi atrocities may be inclined to see these events as clouding or occluding poetry in an absence of light. Things may however be a bit more complex. I’m taking ‘congenital’ in its fullest sense of something present since the beginning, something that is resistant to attempts at alteration and that has a degree of implacable inevitability.
The notes also contain two quotes from the Psalms, the first (in Latin in the original) is:

Night is my illumination.

The second is in Hebrew and is translated by the editors as:

…and night shines like the day, darkness is like the light.

I think this demonstrates that Celan was thinking of poetry as a whole and that this kind of ‘illuminating’ darkness is inherent to every poem regardless of its time or subject matter. It also indicates the strength of Jewish belief and mysticism that goes to the root of his poetics.
It’s important to stress that I am not in any way advocating that we should abandon or ignore the clear influence of Husserl and Heidegger but rather suggesting that critical attention needs to be a bit more balanced. End of shortish rant.
Of course, none of this would be useful if we weren’t able to relate it to the poems. Thus far I’ve added a number of additional dimensions to ‘Erblind’ and ‘Aschenglorie’ in that the ash and the blindness both now have more of a paradoxical quality that I’ve missed for the last forty years.
Every time I read and think about Celan I realise again just how fundamentally good his stuff is. For anyone who shares this view ‘The Meridian’ is absolutely essential. I haven’t begun to scratch the surface and know that it will keep me busy for many, many months- I haven’t yet allowed myself to look at the ‘Breathturn’ Section…..

Prynne, Hill, Celan and the influence problem

I’ve been giving some thought to the poets that I most admire and the importance or otherwise of thinking about the poets that they most admire or can be said to have been influenced by. I’ve come to the conclusion that we can divide ‘influence’ into two distinct categories. The first of these relates to ‘voice’ by which I mean the way that a poem is phrased and the way in which the poet is heard. The second relates to ‘theme’ by which I mean the subjects that the poet chooses to write about.
Influence works in many ways, we admire the work of another and deliberately emulate some aspects of their work. This does not need to be a conscious process- I’ve been a lifelong fan of the work of R S Thomas but it is only very recently that I’ve realised that most of my stuff has been written in his voice. I wasn’t at all aware of this until I decided that I was beginning to get bored with what I was writing and looked again at thirty years’ output. Ridding myself of that influence has proven to be difficult, the temptation to reach for a hunk of Thomas syntax and/or rhetoric still persists.
On the other hand I have made a conscious effort on occasion to emulate Celan’s later work. So I’ve got notebooks full of allusive three line poems packed with as much ambiguity as I could manage. Needless to say, none of this stuff is any good but I don’t mind the many years spent proving to myself that I couldn’t get anywhere near the strength of voice that Celan possessed.
Then we come to the Eliot problem, I’m not one of those that thinks that Eliot is a universally bad thing. A good deal of my late teens were spent poring over The Wasteland and the Four Quartets and I can still see that the first of these is an important piece of work but I do despair at the influence that Eliot has had on subsequent generations without really moving anything forward. I thinks that Eliot’s influence falls almost completely into the ‘voice’ category although his muddle-headed judgements as a critic have certainly distorted our view of what poetry can and should do for far too long.
This brings me by way of contrast to other modernist strands. Discussion of Paul Celan too often revolves around his reading of and relationship with Martin Heidegger which is interesting but I’m not convinced that Heidegger had as big an influence on the work as Osip Mandelstam who Celan translated and admired. It is eminently possible to hear Mandelstam’s ‘voice’ in Celan’s work after 1965 and both poets are concerned with the same subjects- the first stanza of ‘The night is irredeemable’, written in 1916, could very well have been written by Celan 50 years later. In terms of how this ‘influence’ worked I’m guessing that Celan recognised what Mandelstam was trying to achieve, decided (correctly) that this was important and proceeded to take it further. This kind of influence is very different from imitation/emulation.

We now come to the Prynne problem. It is clear from my recent reading that Prynne is a fully paid-up and possibly founding member of the William Wordsworth fan club. It is also clear that he was one of Charles Olson’s keenest followers. As with all things Prynne, identifying any trace of other works is difficult and when these are found it’s often hard to decide whether or not their use is altogether straight faced.
The ‘Mental Ears’ lecture makes an oblique connection between Wordsworth’s notion of the sublime and Prynne’s occasional use of the word ‘lintel’ but it isn’t immediately apparent that this counts as influence per se. There is also Prynne’s use of ‘O’ which appears to signify the same ardency that it denotes when used by Wordsworth.
Thinking about Olson, I’ve come to realise that Olson’s interest in perception and perspective is one that is shared by Prynne but Olson’s ‘voice’ does not occur in Prynne- except for his first collection which he has since ‘repudiated’. I understand from Keston Sutherland’s Glossator essay on Brass that Prynne and Olson had a falling out just before Olson’s death but I don’t think there’s any doubt that Prynne still holds the work in great esteem- somewhere on the net there’s a pdf file of significant Olson criticism with Prynne’s name at the bottom- this is dated 2007. The other significant influences which aren’t often noted are Samuel Beckett and Paul Celan, both of whom have a strong interest in the language/discourse problem. This may be wishful thinking on my part but ‘Word Order’ contains imagery ‘lifted’ straight from Celan whilst the later work contains echoes of Beckett’s residua. None of this detracts from Prynne’s originality but does demonstrate that his work is part of a distinct poetic lineage.
We then come to Geoffrey Hill who is a keen advocate for the work of Hopkins and other, less well known, poets (Gurney, Rosenberg, Herbert etc). Then there is the Ezra Pound problem- the only discernible voice that I can hear faintly resonating around Hill’s finest work. Like Prynne and Celan, Hill is a political poet. He also has strong religious beliefs which he isn’t shy about sharing with the rest of us and his notion of poetry is (to say the least) idiosyncratic. That isn’t to say that Hill is immune to influence but I would suggest that it is more occluded than Prynne and Celan.
Then there’s the ‘horses for courses’ argument- I’m currently trying to write something based on witness statements presented to the Phillips and Saville inquiries and I like what Olson did with the archival records of Gloucester for ‘Maximus’. Am I being influenced if I follow his example and lift straight from the record? Or should I be more allusive? Another strong influence for me is the example set by Emile de Antonio’s documentary films of the sixties and I guess that we all have non-poetic figures standing over us as we write.