[This page by Annja Neumann]
Paul Celan (1920-1970)
Paul Celan is one of the most eminent poets of the 20th century. He is generally known as the most significant German-speaking poet after 1945. His work reflects and questions the relationship of poetry and history, in particular with regard to the Shoah and the persecution of minorities, marginalised groups and individuals more generally.
In 1920, Paul Celan was born as Paul Antschel into a German-speaking Jewish family in Romania. His birthplace, a city in the Northern Bukovina, which was known in German as Czernowitz, exposed him to an exceedingly diverse cultural context ranging from Zionism, Yiddish, Jewish and German literature and folklore, Romanian and Russian language and culture to Stalinism and Soviet Communism. After finishing his Abitur in 1938, Celan went to France to study medicine but returned to Romania before the outbreak of World War Two. Celan experienced Stalinism and the force of the National Socialists in Germany during the Soviet occupation of Czernowitz, where he studied Romance philology and from where he was deported to a labour camp in Romania, in June 1940. Celan survived two years of forced labour, from 1942-1944. His parents, who were deported to a labour camp in Ukraine in 1940, were brutally murdered. This devastated Celan profoundly and remained a date significant for his entire life. It also contributed to his decision to leave the USSR. Only recently has research on Celan started to take into account those major influences on Celan’s poetry that emerged in Celan’s early years in Czernowitz and Bucharest.
From 1944 onwards, Celan stayed in Bucharest, Vienna and Paris. In Vienna, Celan met Ingeborg Bachmann with whom he maintained a lifelong friendship and love affair. He moved to Paris in 1948 where he made his living as a poet, translator and lecturer in German at the École Normale Supérieure and where he met the graphic artist and his future wife Gisèle de Lestrange. In the light of the scandal which became known as the ‘Goll Affair’ Celan’s sense of persecution increased on good grounds. Claire Goll, the widow of the German-French poet Yvan Goll, accused Celan of plagiarism. Besides Ingeborg Bachmann, Nelly Sachs was one of the few friends who supported Celan in his efforts against defamation and accusations by Claire Goll and the press. Celan exchanged many letters with Sachs, whose poetry and prose inspired Celan. However, their friendship included harsh criticism. For Celan accused Sachs of complying with the so-called compensation politics and the German cultural politics of reconciliation during the 1950s and 1960s by accepting several German literary prizes. Celan himself was awarded the German Literature Prize of the confederation of the German Industry in 1956, the Bremen Literature Prize in 1958 and the Georg Büchner Prize in 1960.
In June 1970, Celan committed suicide by drowning in the Seine, in Paris.
Celan’s first volume of poems Sand aus den Urnen; Sand from the Urns was published in Vienna by A. Sexl in 1948 and contains his controversial poem ‘Todesfuge’; ‘Death Fugue’. His most famous literary work include the cycles of poems Sprachgitter; Speech Grille, published in 1959, Die Niemandsrose; The No-One’s-Rose (1963) and Atemwende; Breathturn (1967), a volume of poems that continues Celan’s dialogue with Georg Büchner about poetry and poetics which he first voiced in public in his Büchner Prize Address.
There is arguably no other topic that shapes and runs through Celan’s entire work so prominently as time and temporality. Temporal relations and processes are already brought into presence in Celan’s very first poems and are still exceedingly productive in his posthumously published poetry collections Schneepart; Snow Part (1971) and Zeitgehöft; Timestead (1976). This is closely connected to Celan’s poetic practice of using technical terms and principles from geology and other disciplines like geography, chemistry and astronomy. In his poems, Celan, for example, uses geological processes like tectonic destruction and erosion in order to communicate the poem’s immanent temporality and the poetic process of the text. The most prominent term which Celan transformed for his poetics is a terminus from astronomy: the meridian. In Celan’s poetics this connecting line refers to the possibility of bringing together what is usually divided by time in the textual landscape of the poem.
Over the course of his life Celan was perpetually accused for writing hermetic poems lacking any relation to reality. It is in this context that Celan puts emphasis on the very precise meaning of his poetic texts. His poems use and rely on the language which ‘went through’ all the darkness and cruelties committed by the National Socialists. It is with every word and every line break of Celan’s poems that language and its potential to express something individual and meaningful is called into question and is at the risk of falling silent. The condensed and fractured shape of Celan’s poems can be connected with an ontology of line breaks.
Celan’s most famous poem ‘Todesfuge’; ‘Death Fugue’ was time and time again accused for aestheticizing the Shoah. It shows that the public and scholarly reception of Celan’s poetry was often closely entangled in a history of misconceptions and misreadings. This led to a radicalization of Celan’s poetics. For his subsequent work, Celan repeatedly pointed out that his poems could not be reduced to references to the persecution of the Jews, nor did his poems directly represent the suffering of the Jews. His poetry goes well beyond the problematic relationship between his own place in history and ‘what happened’ during National Socialism in Germany and Europe. Not only does his poetry call into question notions of history and commemorate those murdered by the National Socialist regime, it also critically reflects on conditions of existence, expanding from language and literature to the philosophy of the 20th century.
However, Celan was not only a writer of poetry but considered his work as a translator equally important. He translated poets such as Shakespeare, Emily Dickinson, Osip Mandelstam, David Rokeah and many modern French authors like Charles Baudelaire and Paul Valéry. Celan was a tantalizing polyglot translating poems and essays from English, French, Hebrew, Italian, Portuguese, Romanian, Russian and Spanish into German. He also wrote texts in prose, such as ‘Gespräch im Gebirg’; ‘Conversation in the Mountains’. His most significant poetological text is his Büchner prize address ‘Der Meridian’; ‘The Meridian’ which creates an intense conversation with Georg Büchner’s work and poetics and verges on poetry.
Celan’s poems have been widely translated into many languages. His best known translators into English are Michael Hamburger, Pierre Joris and John Felstiner.
Collections and Cycles of Poems include:
Der Sand aus den Urnen (1948); The Sand from the Urns
Mohn und Gedächtnis (1952); Poppy and Memory
Von Schwelle zu Schwelle (1955); From Threshold to Threshold
Sprachgitter (1959): Speech Grille
Die Niemandsrose (1963); The No-One’s-Rose
Atemwende (1967); Breathturn
Fadensonnen (1968); Threadsuns
Lichtzwang (1970); Lightduress
Schneepart (1971); Snow Part [published posthumously]
Zeitgehöft (1976); Timestead [published posthumously]
Prose works include:
Mikrolithen sinds, Steinchen. Die Prosa aus dem Nachlass, ed. and annotated by Betrand Badiou and Barbara Wiedemann (2005)
Der Meridian: Endfassung - Entwürfe - Materialien, Tübinger Ausgabe, ed. by Bernhard Böschenstein and Heino Schmull (1999)
“Ansprache anlässlich der Entgegennahme des Literaturpreises der freien Hansestadt Bremen”, Gesammelte Werke in fünf Bänden, ed. by Beda Allemann, Stefan Reichert and Rolf Bücher, Bd. 3, Prosa, Reden (1983), pp. 185-186
German historical-critical editions:
Paul Celan, Werke. Historisch-kritische Ausgabe, besorgt von der Bonner Arbeitsstelle für die Celan-Ausgabe, ed. by Beda Allemann, Rolf Bücher und Axel Gellhaus, 14 vols. (Frankfurt/M: Suhrkamp, 1990-2008)
Paul Celan, Werke. Tübinger Ausgabe, ed. by Jürgen Wertheimer and Heino Schmull, 9 vols. (Frankfurt/M: Suhrkamp, 1996-2004)
Paul Celan and Ingeborg Bachmann, Herzzeit – Ingeborg Bachmann – Paul Celan. Der Briefwechsel. Mit den Briefwechseln von Paul Celan und Max Frisch sowie zwischen Ingeborg Bachmann und Gisèle Celan-Lestrange, ed. and annotated by Betrand Badiou, Hans Höller, Andrea Stoll and Barbara Wiedemann (Berlin: Suhrkamp, 2009)
Paul Celan, Klaus und Nani Demus. Briefwechsel. Mit einer Auswahl aus dem Briefwechsel zwischen Gisèle Celan-Lestrange und Klaus und Nani Demus (Frankfurt/M: Suhrkamp, 2009)
Paul Celan and Rudolf Hirsch, Briefwechsel, ed. by Joachim Seng (Frankfurt/M: Suhrkamp 2004)
Paul Celan / Nelly Sachs. Briefwechsel, ed. by Barbara Wiedemann (Frankfurt/M: Suhrkamp, 1993)
English Translations include:
Poems of Paul Celan, trans. by Michael Hamburger, 3rd edn. (London: Anvil, 2007)
Glottal Stop. 101 Poems by Paul Celan, trans. by Nicolai Popov and Heather McHugh (Indianapolis: Wesleyan, 2004)
Paul Celan, Threadsuns, trans. by Pierre Joris (Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press, 2000)
Paul Celan, Lightduress, trans. by Pierre Joris (Copenhagen and Los Angeles: Green Integer, 2005)
Paul Celan, Breathturn, trans. by Pierre Joris (Copenhagen and Los Angeles: Green Integer, 2006)
Nineteen Poems by Paul Celan, trans. by Michael Hamburger (1972)
Paul Celan, Romanian Poems, trans. from the Romanian and intro. by Julian Semilian and Sanda Agalidi (Copenhagen and Los Angeles: Green Integer, 2003)
The Meridian: Final Version – Drafts – Materials, ed. by Bernhard Böschenstein and Heino Schmull, trans. by Pierre Joris (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2011)
Paul Celan, Collected Prose, trans. by Rosemarie Waldrop (New York: Routledge, 2003)
The Correspondence of Paul Celan and Ilana Shmueli, trans. by Susan H. Gillespie with a preface by John Felstiner (Rhinebeck, NY: Sheep Meadow Press, 2011)
Paul Celan, Ingeborg Bachmann: Correspondence, trans. by Wieland Hoban (London: Seagull Books, 2010)
Paul Celan and Nelly Sachs, Correspondence, ed. by Barbara Wiedemann, trans. by Christopher Clark (Manchester: Carcanet, 2011)
Further Reading in English
Thomas C. Connolly, Paul Celan’s Unfinished Poetics: Readings in the Sous-Oeuvre (Cambridge: Legenda, 2018)
Axel Englund, Still Songs: Music In and Around the Poetry of Paul Celan (Farnham: Ashgate, 2012)
Michael Eskin, Poetic Affairs: Celan, Grünbein, Brodsky (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2008)
John Felstiner, Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1995)
Aris Fioretos (ed.), Word Traces. Readings of Paul Celan (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1994)
Michael Hamburger, ‘Introduction’, Poems of Paul Celan, trans. by Michael Hamburger, 3rd edn. (London: Anvil Press Poetry, 2007), pp. 23-40
Peter Hutchinson, ‘Paul Celan, “Todesfuge”’, in Landmarks in German Poetry, ed. by Peter Hutchinson (Bern: Peter Lang, 2000), pp. 201-15
James K. Lyon, ‘Paul Celan’s Language of Stone: The Geology of the Poetic Landscape’, Colloquia Germanica 8:3/4 (1974), 298-317
James K. Lyon, ‘Paul Celan and Martin Buber: Poetry as Dialogue’, PMLA 86 (1971), 110-20
James K. Lyon, Paul Celan & Martin Heidegger: An Unresolved Conversation, 1951-1970 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006)
Cindy Mackey, Dichter der Bezogenheit: A Study of Paul Celan’s Poetry with Special Reference to ‘Die Niemandsrose’ (Stuttgart: Heinz, 1997)
Marjorie Perloff, Edge of Irony: Modernism in the Shadow of the Habsburg Empire (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016), Chapter 5 on Paul Celan
Charlotte Ryland, Paul Celan’s Encounters with Surrealism: Trauma, Translation and Shared Poetic Space (London: Legenda, 2010)
Further Reading in German
Paul Celan, Die Gedichte. Kommentierte Gesamtausgabe in einem Band, ed. and annotated by Barbara Wiedemann (Frankfurt/M: Suhrkamp, 2003)
Wolfgang Emmerich, Nahe Fremde. Paul Celan und die Deutschen (Göttingen: Wallstein, 2020)
Rüdiger Görner und Leonard Olschner, „Poetik nach Celan. Zur Einführung“, Jahrbuch für Internationale Germanistik XLIII, Heft 1 (Bern u.a.: Lang, 2011), pp. 4-14
Markus May, Peter Goßens und Jürgen Lehmann (eds.), Celan-Handbuch: Leben - Werk - Wirkung (Stuttgart: Metzler, 2007)
Annja Neumann, Durchkreuzte Zeit: Zur ästhetischen Temporalität der späten Gedichte von Nelly Sachs und Paul Celan (Heidelberg: Winter, 2013)
Leonard Olschner, Paul Celan, Suhrkamp BasisBiographien, forthcoming in 2014
Web Links in German
Helmut Böttiger, Helmut, “Die Hand voller Stunden, so kamst du zu mir”: Eine lange Nacht über Paul Celan.
Part of the manuscript of the radio feature played on 23.11.2013 in Deutschlandfunk including recordings of Celan reading his own poems
Paul Celan reads his poems on http://www.lyrikline.org/
Website of Celan’s German publisher. Gives an overview of existing editions of Celan’s works and introduces the most recent publications on Celan’s works