Tag Archives: the meridian

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…..