Tag Archives: the meridian

Paul Celan’s Encounter with Poetry

These are a few thoughts on the ‘Encounter’ section of the Notes to the Meridian, they follow on from the pieces on ‘Breathturn’ , ‘The Poem‘ and ‘Darkness‘ although what follows should be able to be followed without reference to the other three.

I was going to start this with an extended discussion of the use of ‘encounter’ in the finished speech but I now realise the this is probably the most ambiguous term that Celan uses and gives the opportunity for a wide range of definitions and emphases. Briefly,  it seems to be referred to as the meeting between the poem and the other, on whose behalf it speaks. Celan also describes the poem as being ‘under way’ and encountering many things and individuals along its journey. Finally, there is the encounter with the reader which seems here to be quite different from the ‘message in a bottle’ analogy used in the earlier Bremen speech.

The notes are divided into three sections: ‘Encounter with the Poem’; ‘the dialogical poem’ and ‘The conversation with things’, I only want to deal with the first one here because ther’s a lot in it.. I’d like to make it clear that the selection below is entirely subjective, I am quoting the bits that are important/relevant to me and and the views expressed are not intended to be definitive.

Encounter with the Poem.

This section alternates between the reasonably clear and the very dense. I’ll start with some of the clearer ones-

“The attentiveness of the reader, a turning-toward the poem”

and then-

“aisthesis is not enough; the….., noesis is not enough…..; what is needed is personal presence, what is needed is conversation; conversation(s) and entertainment are two different things; conversations are demanding, strenuous.”

This sounds a bit like Keston Sutherland’s point about the need to pay attention to ‘serious’ poetry but Celan seems to be going further with this, the notions of ‘personal presence’ and conversation between the poem (poet) and the reader suggest an intimate and quite physical relationship, a theme which is developed further on in this section.

Incidentally, ‘aisthesis’ is glossed in the notes as ‘sense perception’ but it’s a bit more complicated than that (as you’d expect with Celan). ‘noesis’ is not glossed probably because the editors didn’t want to enter into speculation about the difference between the two terms. It’s also important to recognise that intellect and perception are not dismissed as being unnecessary but they are insufficient and need the ‘personal presence’ if the encounter is to be successful although it is acknowledged that this conversation/reading not be easy.

In my initial piece on the notes, I expressed surprise at the centrality of darkness to Celan’s thinking about poetry and I still find it difficult to square with the Celan that has been in my head for the last forty years. It is true that this darkness is referred to in the Meridian but the notes demonstrate Celan’s insistence that primordial darkness is at the very centre of poetry and that this darkness is ‘congenital’ to the poem.

This insistence is at it’s clearest in this long note-

Even for the one, -and before all for the one, for whom the encounter with the poem belongs to the quotidian and self-evident, the encounter has to begin with the darkness – of the self-evident, what makes every encounter with a stranger strange.: “Camarado, who this is no book, who touches this, touches a human”

Only by this touch – that is not a “making contact”- comes the way to intimacy. Aisthesis is not enough here, man is more than his sensorium; it is a question of conversation, as it is a question of language: (noesis does not suffice; it is a question of the angle of inclination in which one came together; it is a question of fate, as is the case with every real encounter, of the here and Now, the place and the hour.

The quote is from Whitman and the editors point out that this particular poem expresses Whitman’s essential qualities. Evrything after ‘suffice’ was added later.

This section is important to me on several levels, it first of all pulls together and adds emphasis to the connection between the darkness, the poem and the encounter with the reader and the way that this encounter is both intimate and a “conversation”. The bit about making every encounter with a stranger strange probably needs to be tied in with what Celan says about the relationship between art and poetry but also with the other as the subject of poetry.

The other intriguing remark is about the ‘angle of inclination’ which here refers to both poem and reader. In the speech we have this:

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.

I’m using the Joris translation of the speech but I do seem to recall that the Felstiner version is more ambiguous about what this inclination refers to, whether it is the act of reading or the creation of the poem.

As well as being a wonderfully evocative and (to my mind) accurate image of the doing poetry business, I also need to point out that it may have been picked up by both Hill and Prynne.

W B Yeats is an abiding spirit withing the ‘Clavics’ sequence and I do need to give this more thought but in Poem 14 we have:

Guide, pray, the the mentally disadvantaged
Safe to Urbino; Yeats and you author
Photomontaged,
Graciously inclined each to the other.

Which would seem to encpsulate the role/actions of Hill as a reader of Yeats in the sense that Celan was pointing to.

A different take is presented by Prynne in the sixth poem in the ‘To Pollen’ sequence:

on brand simulation perfect pitch. Or does that tell
you enough, resilient brotherhood is this the one
inclined. Could one refused to the preset match hurt

I’ve written about both these inclinations in the past but I’d only seen Hill comparing himself to Yeats rather than as Yeats’ reader- which does make much more sense now that I’m more familiar with Clavics. As for Prynne, this is one of the very few coherentish remarks in ‘To Pollen’ and it focuses exclusively on his role as the maker of the poem. It also carries more than a degree of arrogance, referring to himself as ‘the’ one inclined as if there can be no other. Reading this again has reminded me that I do need to write something in the very near future about the way Prynne and Hill think about their readership…

As both Hill and Prynne are fluent in German and admirers of Celan, I’m making the not unreasonable assumption that they both read these notes when they were published in Germany in 1999. It does seem that Hill has made more use of the reciprocal nature of the poet/reader business than Prynne. This is odd because Prynne seems to be making a similar point about readerly activity in his commentary on ‘The Solitary Reaper’.

I don’t know very much about Whitman aoart from his role at the ‘Brooklyn Eagle’ but I am surprised that Celan should quote from him here as Whitman’s energy and exuberance does seem more than alittle at odds with the austere and terse Celan that I have in my head.

The last extract that I want to use is lengthy but it does (I think) indicate how readerly attention should proceed:

The poem as poem is dark, it is dark because it is the poem. Under this congenital darkness I do not mean those Lichtenbergian clashes of books and readers’ heads, where the hollow sound does not always come from the book; to the contrary, the poem wants to be understood, it is exactly because it is dark that it wants to be understood as poem, as ‘poem’s dark. Each poem thus demands understanding, will to understand, learning to understand that is, (but let this secondary phenomenon be mentioned here for the last time, a true understanding and in no way some “To enter into the co- or re- production, as fastidiously suggested these days on the federal and other levels. The poem, as I said, wants to be understood, it offers itself up to an interlinear version, even demands it; not that the poem is written in view of this or that interlinear version; rather the poem carries, as poem, the possibility of the interlinear version, both real and virtual; in other words: the poem is in its own way occupiable. I want to insist on the fact that here I am using the term interlinear version as an auxiliary verb; more specifically; I do not mean the empty lines between verse and verse, I beg you to imagine these empty spaces as spatial, as spatial and – temporal. Thus spatial and temporal, and, for this too I beg you, always in relation to the poem.

There exists, I return to this here already, because nothing can be lost sight of, no co-, no re- production; the poem is, because it is the poem, unique, unrepeatable, (unique too for the one who writes it and from you and I who are reading it, may not expect anything other than just this unique shared knowledge.) Unique, unrepeatable, irreversible on the other or on this side of any esotericism, hermeticism, etc.

There’s enough here to keep the academic Celan industry busy for decades but to me (as an amateur reader) the important points are the presence of the congenitally dark, the notion of poem as poem per se (which neatly expresses some of my more awkward thoughts) together with this personification of the poem as someone who wants to be understood and is on his or her way. There’s also this very strong and repeated rejection of the notion of the reading or the poem as being integral to its production and (instead) an incredibly firm (“I beg you”) strong emphasis on the poems relationship to time and space.

As a further thought, and this doesn’t please me, there is a discernibly Heideggerian flavour to the encounter section which is altogether of its time and place (Paris in the late fifties) but seems to get in the way of, rather than inform my understanding of the work. I realise that this position verges on the heretical for most other devotees.

For any Celan devotee, this is essential stuff and reveals, at least to this reader, a range of different themes and emphases that are only hinted at in The Meridian. I’m now going to have to spend some time with the poems (as poems) and ponder why ‘occupiable’ is underlined….

Maurice Blanchot is a poet

What follows is based only on the occasional reading of ‘The Writing of the Disaster’. I’m going to try and show how some of Blanchot’s prose ‘fragments’ in this particular book can/must be considered as poems. I do not intend to give a full description of what this exceptional book has to say because I’m not sure that I’m able to but I do want to draw it closer within the scope of poetry.

I’m not going to provide my own definition of poetry but propose to rely on Celan and Prynne because they are by far the most accomplished exponents of late modernism and may therefore know more than me. I perhaps need to admit that these two are also chosen because aspects of their definitions enable me to make a coherent case for Blanchot.

I’ve been reading ‘The Disaster’ since the beginning of the year and have tried to read it in isolation from the rest of his work, I’ve also tried to ignore what others have said about him with the exception of an interview given by Emmanuel Levinas after his death. This is all by way of saying that I am not by any means a Blanchot expert, indeed I find that this book is best approached in a quite chlid-like way.

Prynne on self-removal

“If then the poet in this kind is under pressure of conscience to be fully active within the disputed territory of poetic thought, at maximum energy and indeed vigilance, riding through the supple evasions and sudden blockages of language just prior to its emergent formation, how can the result be other than some testimonial to the power of the creating poet, an inscribed scriptural witness?9 I believe the answer to be that strong poetic thought does indeed demand the unreserved commitment of the poet, deep-down within the choices and judgements of dialectical composition;
but before the work is completed, the poet must self-remove from this location, sever the links not by a ruse but in order to test finally the integrity of the result. Indeed, until this removal is effected, the work cannot be truly complete, so that the new-discovered and extended limits of poetic thought form the language-boundaries of the new work.”

This is from ‘Poetic Thought’ and I want to look at the centrality of ‘self-removal’ to the process of composition in order to verify the ‘integrity’ (or validity) of the work. I’d like to start by asking if this is actually possible, if any of us are able to detach ourselves completely from the creative process. I think I’m in agreement with the sentiment, if poetry is to show ‘how things are’ then the diminution of what Foucault refers to as the ‘fascist within’ must be a step in the right direction. It is important to recognise that Prynne sees this as an essential step and not a some optional extra just as it is to view his alter output from this perspective. What isn’t mentioned here is the fact that this kind of denial of self does not create a vacuum but a space than can be occupied by the other.

Paul Celan and the totally other.

This is from the Meridian address made in Darmstadt in 1960

“But I do think – and this thought can hardly surprise you by now – I think that it had always been part of the poem’s hopes to speak on behalf of exactly this strange – no, I cannot use this word this way – exactly on another’s behalf – who knows, perhaps on behalf of a totally other.“.

(Emphasis as in the original).

When Celan refers to the poem he is referring to poetry as a whole and here he allows himself to talk about the purpose of poetry, indicating that it should focus on speaking on behalf of others rather than expressing the emotions and thoughts of the poet. I hope that the similarities with the Prynne statement are reasonably obvious, both seem to be saying that denial of the self is crucial and Celan goes further by indicating that speaking on behalf of a ‘totally other’ is essential in poetic composition.

Prior to my recent encounter with Blanchot, I’ve always been suspicious of references to ‘the other’ because it seemed to reflect some distinctly continental notion of the world that I felt was unduly hollow and pretentious. I had tried to apply notions of this otherness to my own position as a mad person and how insanity might constitute an exemplary form of otherness but this wasn’t helpful. I;ve long since recognised that we all have some responsibility for the bad things that occur in the world and that a politically quietist position is justifiable in these terms but I hadn’t given any credence to the demands that Celan’s other might make.

Blanchot the poet.

Maurice Blanchot was concerned with many things but one of the central ‘planks’ of “Writing the Disaster” is the nature of our relationship to the other. This is not presented in a moralising way, in fact Blanchot spends a lot of time complaining about the insistent nature of these demands and the fact that the needs of the other can never be truly met / addressed. The book is composed of prose ‘fragments’ some of which contain only one sentence whilst other can run to a couple of pages.

In order to make my case it isn’t sufficient for me to show that Blanchot has the same objectives as Prynne and Celan, I also need to show that the language that he uses is in some way ‘heightened’. There are many possibilities but this seems to make my point=

“From the moment when the imminent silence of the immemorial disaster caused him, anonymous and bereft of self, to become lost in the other night where, precisely, oppressive night (the empty, the ever dispersed and fragmented, the foreign night) separated him and separated him so that the relation with the other night besieged him with its absence, its infinitive distantness – from that moment on, the passion of patience, the passivity of a time without present (absent time, time’s absence) had to be his sole identity, circumscribed by a temporary singularity.”

I think there’s enough poetic language use going on here to make the case but what is remarkable is the way in which passages like this stay in my brain, the way that poems do. I haven’t got my brain around what exactly might be meant by the disaster but this is a distinctly poetic work that I’m happy to live with.

Paul Celan and Breathturn (Atemwende)

I was going to plunge straight into another enthusiastic and starry-eyed account of the Meridian notes and then cleverly attempt to tie this into what Prynne says about startling verse and end by having another look at the various solutions to the above problem by Geoffrey Hill. This seemed to be fairly well thought through until I realised that there may be some readers who have never read any of Celan and another group who do not share my enthusiasm.

I’m therefore going to begin this by providing some background and som e indication of why I think the work is vitally important. Celan was born a German speaking Jew in Romania in 1920, his parents died during the holocaust, Celan was in a labour camp but survived and after 1945 made his way to Vienna and then to Paris where he worked as a translator. Celan s probably still best known for ‘Death Fugue’ a poem that many saw as a fitting riposte to Adorno’s quip about any form of poetry being impossible after Auschwitz. The poem received universal acclaim and was taught throughout Germany. Although Celan lived and worked in Paris, his poetry was written in German.

All of Celan’s output can be seen as a response to the Holocaust but it increasingly becomes a challenge to the poetic and to language. This became increasingly radical and the work after 1960 became increasingly austere, focusing almost exclusively on ‘fundamental’ issues. This later work was rejected by many of Celan’s earlier admirers although a few did see it as the emergence of a crucially important voice in European literature. Celan experienced severe bouts of depression during most of his adult life and killed himself by throwing himself into the Seine in 1970 at the age of 50.

Celan is a poet of extremes, the later work confronts poetic form and convention and tackles issues that most of us would rather not think about. Celan’s admiration of the works of Martin Heidegger have led a swathe of critics to write about Celan purely in terms of German existentialism which conveniently overlooks his enthusiasm for Martin Buber and ongoing interest in Jewish mysticism.

I think I need at this stage to try and give some illustration of the development of Celan’s work. This is from ‘Death Fugue’ which was published in 1952 but was probably written towards the end of the Second World War:

He calls out more sweetly death death is a master from Germany
he calls out more darkly now stroke your strings then as smoke you will rise into air
there a grave you will have in the clouds the one lies unconfined

(This is the Michael Hamburger translation)

And this is the entire text of ‘Eroded’ which was published in ‘Atemwende’ in 1967. This is the Pierre Joris translation:

ERODED by
the beamwind of your speech
the gaudy chatter of the pseudo-
experienced-my hundred-
tongued perjury-
poem, the noem

Hollow-
whirled.
free the path through the men-
shaped snow,
the penitent's snow, to
the hospitable
glacier-parlours and -tables

Deep
in the timecrevasse,
in the
honeycomb-ice
waits a breathcrystal,
your unalterable
testimony.

This, it has to be said, is one of the more ‘accessible’ poems in ‘Atemwend’ but I’ve used it to denote the change in ‘register’ and because it has the breath word, the importance of which will become apparent.

One of the things that JH Prynne and Geoffrey Hill have in common is that they have both written overtly Celan-related poetry. Prynne’s ground-breaking ‘Brass’ collection contains ‘Es Leber der Konig’ which is subtitled ‘For Paul Celan 1920-1970’. This is how the poem ends:

                                     Only
the alder thrown over the cranial push, the
waged in completeness, comes with the animals
and their watchful calm. The long-tailed bird
is total awareness, a forced lust, it is that
absolutely. Give us this love of murder and
sacred boredom, you walk in the shade of
the technical house. Take it away and set up
the table ready for white honey, choking the
white cloth spread openly for the most worthless
accident. The whiteness is a patchwork of
revenge too, open the window and white fleecy
clouds sail over the azure;

it is true. over and
over it is so, calm or vehement. You know
the plum is a nick of pain, is so and is also
certainly loved. Forbearance comes into the
stormy sky and the water is not quiet.

Hill’s ‘Tenebrae’ collection contains ‘Two Chorale-Preludes on Melodies by Paul Celan’ This is the second poem (entitled Te Lucis Ante Terminum’ and subtitled ‘Wir gehen dir, Heimat, ins Garn…..) in its entirey:

Centaury with your staunch bloom
you there alder beech you fern,
midsummer closeness my far home,
fresh traces of lost origin.

Silvery the black cherries hang,
the plum-tree oozes through each cleft
and horse-flies syphon the green dung,
glued to the sweetness of their graft:

immortal transience, a 'kind
of otherness', self-understood,
BE FAITHFUL grows upon the mind
as lichen glimmers on the wood.

I’m going to resist the temptation to do a ‘compare and contrast exercise’ because that would be yet further digression. I’ve included the above simply to demonstrate that both of our finest poets have paid close and respectful attention to Celan. In his essay ‘Tacit Pledges’, Hill makes this observation:

Take as our correlative an entry in Wittgenstein’s ‘Notebooks 1914-1916’ which became formulation 5.64 of ‘Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus’ of 1922, the year in which Housman brought out ‘Last Poems’ and Eliot published ‘The Waste Land:

“Here we see that solipsism strictly carried out coincides with pure realism.”

“The I in solipsism shrinks to an extensionless point and there remains the reality co-ordinated with it.”

The grammar of modernism in its closest matching of Wittgenstein’s statement appears as the semantic and syntactical catalepsis of the last poems of Paul Celan and the final plays of Samuel Beckett.

Now we can move on to the aforementioned ‘breathturn’- in 1960 Celan was awarded the Georg Buchner Prize for literature and the Meridian is his acceptance speech. It is the most detailed description of Celan’s poetics and has been discussed and argued over ever since.One of the more crucial paragraphs is this-

Poetry: that can mean an Atamwende, a breathturn. Who knows, perhaps poetry travels this route – also the route of art – for the sake of such a breathturn? Perhaps it will succeed, as the strange. I mean the abyss and the Medusa’s head, the abyss and the automatons, seem to lie in one direction- perhaps it is exactly here that the Medusa’s head shrinks, perhaps it is exactly here that the autonomous break down – for this single short moment? Perhaps here, with the I – with the estranged I set free here and in this manner – perhaps a further other is set free?

So it would appear that this breathturn is linked with the process of making poetry and poetry itself. It will also be noted that the reference is sufficiently ambiguous to put a whole range of explanations on it.

The recently published notes that were made in preparation for the speech however cast a surprisingly different light on the issue. There is a section entitled ‘breathturn’ which is divided into four subsections (‘breathturn’, involution’, ‘leap’ and ‘reversal – the foreign as the most own – Jewishness’), the first of which contains this:

I had survived some things – but survival \Uberstehn\ hopefully isn’t “everything” -, I had a bad conscience: I was searching for – maybe I can call it that? – a my breathtuurn …

This may introduce a more specifically biographical dimension nto things. It is thought that Celan felt guilty that (on the night that they were rounded up) he had been unable to persuade his parents to go into hiding. Given the reference to his own survival, his ‘bad conscience’ may well refer to this event.

Hill also addresses the breathturn problem with several different attempts at interpretation during ‘The Orchards of Syon’ together with an odd address to the dead Ingeborg Bachman, Celan’s lover when he was living in Vienna, speculating on Celan’s taste in women.

So, for those of us convinced of Celan’s centrality to modernist verse, ‘breathturn’ is a keyword and this latest revelation should cause most of us to go back to the drawing board. I think it’s fair to say that most readers have centred on the poem as a result of something called a turn of breath. In my head, I’ve combined this with the ‘breathcrystal’ to arrive with a definition that’s about the transformational aspect of doing poetry.

Waiting for a breathturn as a means of resolving or dealing with or coming to terms with a bad conscience moves us into much more personal territory. If ‘Eroded’ is in part about how Celan felt about the success and reputation of ‘Death Fugue’ then ‘breathcrystal’ can be seen as the product of bearing witness to the Holocaust. I’m not sure how far this gets me but there are two further references to ‘breathturn’ in this sub-section of the notes.

I’m now stumbling reluctantly into the ‘voyeur’ problem which in this instance combines with the reliability problem. I’ve decided that I don’t have a problem reading stuff that wasn’t intended for publication and any queasiness I might have had was swept away by the publication of some of Elizabeth Bishop’s drafts in that the only reason these hadn’t been published was the fact that she set herself such stupidly high standards. Celan’s notes are a little different, what we know of him leads me to believe that he wouldn’t have been comfortable with this level of exposure and he made a deliberate choice to litter the speech with ambiguities and loaded terms that he was probably happy to let stand. On the other hand, he did keep the notes and he kept them in a way that could be followed- there are dates and there are headings so it can be argued that he is putting his thought processes on display for the benefit of some future reader(s).

On balance I’m reasonably okay with paying some attention to the notes which contrasts with the extreme queasiness I feel when trying to read the Lyons book which is based on Celan’s marginalia in the Heidegger books that he possessed. I’ve written about this before, suffice it to say here that I don’t think that this is an appropriate or helpful exercise. So, having drawn my personal line in the sand (drafts and notes good, marginalia unutterably bad) I can now address the reliability problem. The next section in the notes also contains the ‘b’ word but three quarters of the section has been crossed out (this includes the ‘b’ word). Given that these notes shed additional and very helpful light on our quest for a definition, this does throw up some interesting questions:
1. What it mean to draw a single diagonal line over two lines of text?
2. How much weight can we give to anything in these two lines when compared with text that hasn’t been crossed out?
3. Wouldn’t it be easier to ignore everything that’s been crossed out?
4. Didn’t Derrida once say something quite deep about this crossing out business?

You will be delighted to know that I don’t intend to dwell at all on the last of these. Sorting out the first three will be best achieved by looking at the notes in question.

The first two lines are underlined and set out like this-

there too it still gives you a chance
to it faces you with silence

The next two lines are struck through with a single line going from bottom left to top right:

maybe we can remember the the medusa-likeness of poetry remember it faces you 
with silence it takes your breath away: you have come to a breathturn

So, given that we can’t ever know why this was crossed out, we have some further context to work with. The ‘b’ word is also a manifestation (effect) of our encounter (another key word) with poetry (the poem). These four definitions- poem, catharsis, doing poetry, effect of poetry aren’t easy to reconcile but I’m happy to have more definitions/ambiguities to think about than a single ‘clean’ resolution. Life and poetry don’t work like that.

Paul Celan and the Poem

The last time I wrote about Celan’s notes for The Meridian speech I focused on the ‘Darkness’ section since then I’ve been paying some attention to the section entitled ‘The Poem’.
Before we go any further I want to give some thought to the wisdom or otherwise of reaading and writing about extracta from someone else’s notes. There are a number of obvious dangers. The first of these is to seize upon an isolated note and extrapolate a whole series of conclusions. For example in ‘The Poem’ section there is a note that says simply ‘Plotinus’ in splendid isolation. Keen as I am to find neo-Platonism in everything I could use this to demonstrate that Celan’s well-established interest in Jewish mysticism had led him (via Scholem) to the founder of neo-Platonic thought and his influence on Jewish texts. There is not one bit of solid information in the rest of these notes to substantiate this but some might consider it to be worth a shot. Something similar can be said about the single reference to Maurice Blanchot although the editors do point out what this actually refers to. The second danger is what might be described as one of authenticity. In the previous piece on this I quoted from the notes to show that Celan was indeed thinking about ‘congenital’ darkness as the primary component of the poem. My only evidence for this is that the point is made with great clarity and examples in those notes. I then have to face the uncomfortable fact that this was watered down to “This is, I believe, if not the congenital darkness then however the darkness attributed to poetry…..” We also need to recognise that the Meridian is the only detailed statement that Celan made about his poetics and the notes and drafts ahow that he took immense care over what was said. So, this dilution is deliberate even though the emphasis throughout the ‘Darkness’ section is on this quality being the essential and inherent component. The question then should be more about the dilution than reading the notes as being the authentic version.

‘The Poem’ notes are divided into three sections, the first of these is ‘The opacity of the poem’ which is a kind of logical continuation from the preceding notes on ‘Darkness’. With the above reservations in mind, this section is striking (I’ve left out the incomplete words):

The already tight/compact: it fills itself compacts itself around the Dark, -with the sense of that which stands against it; an erratic language-block, come from your own, a for you too available depth and height and distance, faces you with silence even there it still gives you a chance.

I’m ready to concede that for those who don’t rate Celan, the above will be just further proof that he wasn’t a ‘proper’ poet but one who chose to wrap himself up in increasing degrees of obscurity. For the rest of us, this should be fascinating. For a start, I think I detect a menacing component to the poem that isn’t in the speech but is reasonably clear, being faced with silence but still being given a chance especially if we read this as the language block giving the chance rather than the silence. Given the earlier references to the dark as originary, it is probably important to recognise that the process starts with the already ‘compact’. From 1960 onwards Celan’s poems became increasingly sparse and terse, does the compact refer to poems were the language has already been pared down before it is compacted around (and not inside) the Dark? And why is ‘dark’ capitalised? Why should the language-block be described as erratic, is this to distinguish it from the poem? Another note says simply “the sole hope: that the poem be there, once more, erratic-“, I’m not going to extrapolate anything from this other than to observe that here it is the poem that is described as erratic.
Then there’s the ‘you’ problem. Celan’s poetry makes frequent reference to ‘you’ without making clear who this ‘you’ is. It can refer to the reader, a lover, the poet himself or to God. Here, given the context, it probably stands for either the poet or the reader of the poem. Is the reference to ‘too available’ a response to those who would accuse Celan of hermeticism and obscurity? Is he saying that the process of making a poem (doing poetry) consists of this clash between the tight (compact) and the language block?
Needless to say, I could go on with this kind of speculation for a very long time but it does give a further dimension to my reading of the work and this is a very good thing in deed.
Now we come to what surprised me most about this section- it is littered with references to geology in general and the ‘lapidary’ in particular-

The stone is older than we are, it stands in another time: in the together conversation with it the one facing us with silence, we set ourselves in relation to the space from which it stands towards us: from this direction, the direction of our speaking, our words are given their share of colour and reach (magnitude).

The stone, as the other, the inorganic will more than that which in us is not plant- and animal-like: it becomes the spiritual principle: it reaches down into the depths, it rises up.

(‘resemble’ is underlined in the original. I’ve also omitted “we undertake the attempt” which follows “conversation with it” and is crossed out in the original.)

So, it is our relationship with this stone (which is very very old) that gives us the foundation (pun intended) of the poem. The stone is also to be thought of as ‘the’ (as opposed to ‘a’) spiritual principle which reaches down and rises up at the same time. I’m taking we to be the makers of poetry rather than humanity in general and I’m also assuming that this refers specifically to the making of the poem/poetry rather than any other more general activity. This geological aspect is new to me in terms of Celan’s poetics but it is remarkable how the rises/reaches contradiction features in his later work.
I feel the need to say again that Paul Celan is the most important 20th century poet and this book is essential reading for all those who recognise this fact.

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…..