Tag Archives: self harm

Paul Celan’s poetic voice.

I start this with some trepidation, I enjoyed making the previous piece on Jones and Hill because it clarified a few things for me that had been lurking at the back of my head. Applying a similar filter to Celan seems fraught with a higher level of difficulty because of his subject matters and the sparse ways in which these are addressed.

In his comment on the Hill and Jones meandering, Confiteor observes;

It would seem likely that Celan’s extreme paranoia made empathy and compassion for others difficult for him. If it is present in the work, it goes without saying that it’s not ‘clearly and unambiguously expressed’. How then do we assess voice — raw, human, and personal — in Celan?

It apears to me that there are elements of this humanness in some of the work and I’ll try and attend to some of the ambiguities in these below. As ever, these observations are both tenuous and provisional.

The poems that immediately spring to mind are those addressed to Gisele, his estranged wife, and those that are to do with the victims of the Holocaust.

This, Joris’ notes tell me, was written a week after seeing Gisele for the first time in a year;

I can, look, sink myself into you, glacierlike,
you yourself slay your brothers:
earlier than they
I was with you, Snowed One.

Throw your tropes in with the rest:
Someone wants to know,
why with God I
was no different than with you,

wants to drown in that,
two books instead of lungs,

someone who stabbed himself into
you, bebreathes the cut,

someone, he was the one closest to you,
gets lost to himself,

someone adorns your sex
with your and his betrayal,

I was both

The notes also tell me that Celan had made an attempt on his life by stabbing himself in his chest but had only succeeded in injuring his lung.

As someone who has spent more time than most planning to do away with myself, the above makes me feel a bit queasy. I’m of the view that suicide is such an intensely raw and personal thing that it should be dealt with creatively with extreme care and discretion.

I experience this as very raw indeed because of how it intertwines these mental agonies with lust and mutual transgression. For late Celan, it’s also quite direct.

In terms of ‘voice’ I think the repetition of ‘someone/einer’ contrasted with the ‘I’ at the beginning and end of the poem gives it quite an angrily sarcastic effect which feels more than a little self-indulgent. It may also be the trope that Celan refers to as belonging to Gisele.

It’s important not to ignore the adornment and betrayal couplet which hints at mutual infidelities yet this ‘adorning’ is set in the present tense, The poem was written in response the couple’s first meeting in a year. The notes helpfully point out that ‘sex’ here can mean both the sexual organ and progeny/family/lineage.

I’m not denying the essential honesty of what’s been expressed, it’s just that I detect some cruelty that isn’t particularly pleasant.

Turning to something much more public, this demonstrates a heartfelt concern for the victims of the Holocaust;

mineral resources, homey,

the heated syncope,

The not-to-be deciphered

The completely glassed-in
spider-altars in the all-
overtowering low-building,

the intermediate sounds
(even yet?),
the shadowpalavers,

the anxieties, icetrue,

the baroquely cloaked,
language-swallowing showerroom
semantically floodlit,

the uninscribed wall
of a standing-cell;


live yourself
straightthrough, without clock.

Here we appear to have have another unusually clear and direct poem, on this occasion addressing the Holocaust and the Nazi death camps. The notes tell me that Celan had retained a newspaper clipping that stated “In the standing-cells of Bloc 11 at Auschwitz, many detainees starved to death”.

I’m not going to do a line by line reading, instead I want to concentrate on the poem’s underlying humanity in its understanding of and compassion for millions of victims of Nazi savagery. The last three lines would seem to indicate that, in the present/now of 1967, it is still possible to live a life provided that it is removed from time. By ‘straightthrough’ I’m taking it that Celan intends something like directly and without encumbrance. This is reinforced by the fact that we are still, as in ‘even yet?’ held in by these ‘shadowpalavers’ which might relate to the kind of post- war special pleading done by ‘ordinary’ Germans regarding their culpability for the Holocaust.

As with much of Celan, the phrasing is both startling and accurate. The fact of the industrialised gassing of 6 million people does obliterate and trivialise language, does call into question all the achievements of Western culture and may still be fatal to all kinds of artistic expression within that tradition.

The instruction to ‘live yourself’ is telling, especially as it comes from a man who was making attempts to do away with himself and who succeeded three and a half years later. The compassion here, I think is about Celan’s ongoing sense of involvement with the dead and with his absolute need to do something positive in response to their destruction. This might not be the kind of humanness that many of my generation can readily relate to but we need to recognise it as one of the nobler/honourable kinds of response.

Of course, I don’t have any direct experience of genocide, nor of occupation by a foreign power so I don’t know how these things might feel with any kind of accuracy. What I can say is that, throughout my adult life, I have relied on the work of Celan to provide a framework for knowing how to feel about this especially terrible event and thinking about what it signify for living humans in the present.