Above right: Paul Celan, passport photo
Breathturn into Timestead:
The Collected Later Poetry of Paul Celan

A Bilingual Edition Translated and with Commentary by Pierre Joris
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 736 pages,ISBN-10: 0374125988

Doug Valentine with Pierre Joris

Paul Celan and the Meaning of Language
An Interview with Pierre Joris

There is great pleasure to be found in Paul Celan’s poetry. His dazzling neologisms (“wordwall”, “smokethin”, “icethorn”) and surreal imagery are testaments to how powerful, beautiful and intriguing imagination can be. But his poetry is difficult to understand, its emotional content buried, it seems, beneath the unspeakable horrors of the Holocaust.

Born Paul Antschel in Romania in 1920, the poet was deeply depressed throughout his adult life. One particular event haunted him. On a Saturday night in June 1942, his mother and father chose to remain at home, knowing there was a chance they would be arrested by the Nazis. Paul chose to go into hiding. He saved himself, yes, but his parents were arrested that night, deported, and later executed.

Paul spent the next two years in forced labor camps and emerged in 1944 with survivor’s guilt, a psychological condition shared by people who have experienced prolonged exposure to violent death. When bombs are falling, it is natural to wish they fall elsewhere, on others. That wish – conjured in moments of super-consciousness, when events are indelibly seared into memory – is connected with the magical ability to control fate. When wishes come true, it is easy to believe one has directed fate; hence the feeling that one is responsible for the deaths of those “others.” People with survivor’s guilt are haunted in waking visions, hallucinations and recurring nightmares by the woeful faces and accusing stares of “the others” who died so they could live.

People learn psychological survival skills in death camps and on battle fields; how to compartment one’s feelings, to place empathy and sympathy on the shelf so as not to break down; to ignore unbearable sights, smells and sounds through disassociation, a trance like state beyond consciousness.

This complex state of mind is an ancient source of inspiration, ancestor worship/reverence, and even redemption. Grappling with its inherent contradictions and absurdity has always been the poet’s job. Deep down, this sacred sorrow informs all great poetry from “The Iliad” through “Beowulf” to “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” and Paul Celan’s debut poem, "Todesfuge" ("Death-fugue", May 1947), in which he depicts a sadistic Nazi overlord forcing Jews to dig their graves and play a soulful tune before their execution.

“(T)his Death is ein Meister aus Deutschland his eye it is blue,” says Celan, clearly and forthrightly. But each of the poem’s four stanzas begins with the obscure refrain: “Black milk of daybreak we drink it at evening/ we drink it at midday and morning we drink it at night/ we drink and we drink”.

What is this black milk, if not that inescapable state of the mind imposed by the gods?

Further traumas awaited Celan – a false accusation of plagiarism, the death of a son – until the accumulated weight of chronic depression turned to paranoia, and his work became increasingly difficult to navigate.

Fully appreciating his poetry is made harder by the fact that Celan was multi-lingual and while searching for the right word, drew upon his fluency in many languages. Written in his mother-tongue German (itself a source of personal tension), his poems include Romanian, Hebrew, French, Italian, Latin and Ancient Greek references and words with elusive, conjectural meanings.

Like many before me, I wonder if Celan is a mad genius, a martyr magician casting spells with words, numbers, and signs. Are his puns and allusions secret passwords the reader must pronounce correctly, in order to enter his realm? Must one believe in Celan to understand him?

Or is he simply, as Mark A. Anderson said, “A German-speaking Romanian Jew” who needed “new and different poetic strategies” to express what he had lost and hoped to create anew? 

Poet, essayist, and translator Pierre Joris answers these questions in his new book, Breathturn into Timestead: The Collected Later Poetry (Farrar Straus & Giroux). This illuminating, bilingual edition of Celan’s five final volumes (Breathturn, Threadsuns, Lightduress, Snowpart, Timestaed) is graced with a lengthy Commentary, full of insights, and an Introduction that does more than put Celan’s life and poetry in perspective; it is a primer on the fine art of translating poetry.

Despite Frost’s admonition that “Poetry is what is lost in translation,” translators play the indispensable role in bringing knowledge of foreign language poets to those of us relegated to English. And when it comes to translating Celan, no one is better qualified than Joris.

Born in 1946 in Strasbourg, Joris got hooked on Celan at the age 15 when he first heard the poet read aloud. Joris’s first translation of Breathturn was done between 1967 and 1969 while at Bard College and since then, he has spent much of his adult life involved with Celan’s poetry. Joris met and became friends with Celan’s widow in the 1980s, and is now very friendly with his son Eric, who is the literary executor of Celan’s estate.

I recently had the honor of asking Pierre a few questions about Breathturn into Timestead, which focuses on Celan’s work after 1962, when, Joris writes, “as a mature writer at the height of his talents,” Celan makes a breath “turn” (die “Wende”) “away from the lush surreal metaphors of his earlier verse” to language that is “more sober, more factual . . . ‘grayer.’”


Doug – Before we get to Breathturn, would you please tell me what you think are the core conceptual and emotional components of Celan’s poetry? You’ve spoken of his relationship with the German language; the loss of his mother; his biting sarcasm; and his “optimistic anarcho-socialist strain.”

Pierre – There can be little doubt that the core emotional experience for Celan was the loss of his parents, and especially the mother, in forced labor camps. Or, in a wider sense, he was shaped by those historical events that defined the generation(s) of Jewish (and non-Jewish) people who lived through the Nazi period. But it is important to note a very major difference between him and many, if not most, other survivors who were or became writers. As I wrote elsewhere, “despite the presence throughout the work (or better maybe below the work) of the events of the Nazi years, especially the murder of his mother, there is a strong refusal in Celan to let his writing become simply a repository for a narrative of the Shoah, in a profound contrast to most Holocaust writers, a major part of whose endeavor has been to dwell again and again on the past in order to chronicle with as much accuracy as it they could muster the events of their lives during those fateful years (Elie Wiesel and Primo Levi come to mind but also poets like Abba Kovener or Abraham Sutzkever). Not only did Celan not write such an autobiographical prosopopoeia, but  he refused steadfastly to speak in public or private about the events connected with the Shoah. Symptomatic for this reticence is the following biographical comment from 1949: “With the exception of a one year stay in France, I, for all practical purposes, never left my native city prior to 1941. I don't need to relate what the life of a Jew was like during the war years.” This decision not to dwell on those years and the horrors they gave birth to —  no matter the shadow they throw on the rest of his life — informs the stance of his writing for the next quarter-century. One way to see you this is to examine the rewriting of the poem “Deathfuge” in the poem “Stretto” — which I did in some detail in the introduction to my 2005 book Paul Celan: Selections (University of California Press).

                Which doesn’t mean that Celan was not — to use Hölderlin’s term — eingedenk, i.e. mindful, conscious of the events of Khurbn. He was, and his reflections on “bearing witness” (as he puts it in one poem) do in fact bear witness to this. But beyond witnessing for the past Celan is throughout his career actively involved in trying to create a more livable world, a world that is more just, more peaceful.  Early on, right after his bar Mitzvah he had turned away from his father’s zionist leanings, had dropped his Jewish religious connections (his family on both sides came from orthodox and on one side, hassidic backgrounds) — even if in the fifties & early sixties he would re-explore Judaism & especially the mystical / cabalistic aspects of that culture. As a young man in the late 1930s he began to take part in meetings of communist youth groups, got involved in anti-fascist activities and read intensely in the classics of socialist literature. This involvement with left politics staid with him all his life. There is a marvelous letter to his wife from 1965 in which he writes after returning from seeing Eisenstein’s October: “So, all alone, I saw Petersburg, the workers, the sailors of the Aurora. It was very moving, at times reminding one of the ‘Potemkin’, bringing to mind the thoughts and dreams of my childhood, my thoughts of today and of always, poetry-always-true-always-faithful, I saw my placards, many of them, those that, not very long ago I evoked in the poem I sent you — ‘Vaporband-, banderole-uprising,’ I saw the October Revolution, its men, its flags, I saw hope always en route, the brother of poetry…” and he closes the letter with these lines: “Long live the sailors of Kronstadt! Long live the Revolution! Long live Love! Long live poetry!” He had by that time also taken up contact again with his childhood friend Erich Einhorn, who had chosen to leave with the Russian troops in 1941 and lived in The Soviet Union as a translator from then on. As his daughter Marina Nmitrieva-Einhorn reports: "the same left-leaning intellectual mindset linked the two friends — though Celan’s had a much clearer Communist accident. They followed the rebellion of the Viennese needs workers in February 1934 and to Civil War in Spain with great interest. Memory of which remained very lively for Celan even after the friends had lost sight of each other for many years.” As we know from a number of Celan’s poems, one of them quoting the Spanish revolutionary devise: “No pasarán.”If the “Todesfuge” of 1944 is the great poem of witnessing of the events of Khurbn, the rewriting a decade later of that poem as “Stretto,” allows him to widen the witnessing of the chamber of horrors to include Hiroshima & Nagasaki.

                For me, his work is that of both a witness and visionary, keeping the horrors of the past in mind while trying to construct a better future, by working on making language responsible, i.e. able to respond to the challenges the post-war presented — especially to his mangled mameloshen, German. The sarcasm comes in with the realization that  the totalitarian world the defeat of the Third Reich should have brought to an end, was being kept alive — & not only in Germany, beneath a veneer of democracy. The later years’s psychic troubles, the confinement in psychiatric hospitals, the pharmacological straight-jackets he was forced into, etc. would only increase the sarcasm — though I don’t feel that he ever lost track of the 2 directives of witnessing & visionary exploring.

Doug Likewise, before Breathturn, let’s address the role of translation in understanding Celan. People translate Celan in profoundly different ways. Translation, in this sense, is transformation. How do you, Pierre Joris, transform Celan through your translations, and why do you choose to do so in as particular manner?

Pierre – I do not choose a particular manner in which to transform Celan. If I have one specific rule mind it is to stay as close as possible to the original, to remain as literal as possible in my translations of Paul Celan. So-called “free translation” or adaptation or “imitations” have most often felt like rip off to me. I.e. misusing, abusing the great dead poet to further the translating poet’s own agenda. Getting a free ride on the shoulders of a giant, so to say. Take for example Robert Lowell's “imitations:” they turn the visionary elements of a Rimbaud poem into a vehicle for Lowell’s minor neuroses. A case of inverse alchemy: gold into lead. There is no free translation just as there is no free verse. As a translator you are responsible for another poet’s work –and that's serious business.

                I started translating Celan in 1968 and have kept doing so ever since. At some level it has been apprentice work: as a young poet I made the decision to apprentice myself to the man I consider the greatest European poet of the second part of the 20 century. Having shortly before that date decided to become a poet writing in English, or rather American, this work was both a way of discovering how very complex poetry works and of learning how English works at a range of prosodic levels. It also taught me something about the limits of English (or of any language). In that sense Hölderlin’s ideas on translation became important in that I felt that to carry Celan over into English I often had to do violence to English i.e. to write German in English, just as Hölderlin had written “Greek in German.” This is one of the most important aspects of translation: it has to expand, to widen the possibilities of the target language; it is not meant to simply squeeze what is squeezable from the original language into the canonical forms of that language. I hate nothing more than that supposedly laudatory phrase you usually see in a New York Times type book review, usually dismissing translation with the to me lethal compliment according to which “this book reads as if it had been written in English”.

Such translation that makes the original language disappear is an act of what I want to call an underhanded substitution, or, more theoretically, a near-Hegelian Aufhebung or sublation of the original, and corresponds to an act of colonization of the original language/culture — you could even describe it as a kidnapping,  or an act of voluntary, conscious or unconscious, destruction. This we need to think about when translating into American English at this imperialist historical moment when the US is trying hegemonically to impose its political, economic & thus cultural values on a major part of the world.  Ammiel Alcalay & I have been thinking for awhile now about this — wondering if translating the so-called great works or masterpieces of a foreign culture into English doesn’t simply rob them of their own cultural context… but that’s another discussion.

                I’m getting away from your question… my way of translating Celan is my way (as the song says…) which does not exclude that there may be and are any number of other valid possibilities. The only thing I was for a long time worried about was the fact that Celan translations were blocked by the publisher & the estate. As Paul Celan had approved Michael Hamburger’s versions during his life-time, his widow, in an understandable desire to follow her husband’s wishes,  decided to let Hamburger be the prime and near-exclusive English language translator. And of course the English publisher, Carcanet, loved this as it thus had a de facto monopoly on Celan for the English-speaking world. After I got to know Gisèle Celan-Lestrange in the early 80s, I suggested to her that it was essential that “1000 translations bloom” around his work — given is immense importance and difficulty. She began to understand the importance of multiple translations, and after her death, her son Eric and Bertrand Badiou started to implement this strategy, which is bearing fruit now.
Multiple translations are not only synchronically important, but also historically: every generation has to re-translate the major poets from the past it needs to advance its own poetics.  Interesting for example to compare Ezra Pound's early 20th Century troubadour translations with those of Paul Blackburn from the late 50s and 60s. They are both interesting, innovative translations that bring poems nearly 1000-year-old into both a contemporary language and poetics —and yet they are radically different from each other. Or look at Homer’s Odyssey: the half dozen translations available today span some three centuries–and all the sound more alike than different in terms of their imitative poetics. It was really high time for someone to undertake a translation that makes use of a way more contemporary sense of poetics; happily Chuck Stein has done just that and has meanwhile also finished the Iliad.

In fact, let me suggest a way of thinking about poetry and translation that does not set, in the sense of congeal, these two in a fixed hierarchy based on notions of "Original" and "Imitation". I have been trying to think of the poem as a dynamic complex that integrates and modulates a wide range of occurrences ranging from first scribbles in a notebook to first typescript with corrections to first appearance of the “poem” in a magazine and on to the poem in a book, then a Selected and finally a Collected Poems. That “poem” it's not really the same every time it appears: the context in which it finds itself would change it even if only ever so slightly. Also part of that “poem” are the various occasions on which it is a publicly performed or set to music or translated into different languages. Such a definition of the “poem” shows that foreign language translation is an integral part of its existence, of what a poem is, is a joyful extension and renewing of itself — and not some nasty event the poem is forced to submit to the way Victorian women were supposed to submit to sex.

DougWhat is the special difficulty of translating Celan, the special reward?  Some say Celan is untranslatable “given the actual and unarguable linguistic and hermeneutic difficulties it presents.”

Pierre – The special difficulties have to do with Celan’s use of German: he creates a German language that is very distant from any spoken language. Nor is it the classical German literary language. Now, for contemporary American poetics the language of poetry as close as possible to the spoken, colloquial language of today – this is true at least since William Carlos Williams’ work of the 1920s onward. Celan likes to create his own vocabulary, something done easily in German where you can construct new words from existing words or parts of words and come up with very new composites using for example prefixes or postfixes that normally wouldn't be found with the words in question. Also, German technical and scientific terms are composite forms of common German words — in English these words are often based on Greek roots; in Celan’s — often combinatorial — use of such terms those common word-roots shine through and create multiple levels of meaning that tend to disappear in English; for example in formations like “rauchdünn” (smoke-thin) one hears the common expression “hauchdünn” (paper-thin; literally, breath-thin). Celan’s abundant use of specialized vocabularies and their interweaving with frequent neologisms poses problems even for the native reader — and a fortiori for the English language reader. His love of polysemy can lead to loss in the translation: thus the English verb “to line” in the poem “Wordcaves” translates the German “auskleiden,” which means indeed to line, to drape, to dress but also, ant is the English word cannot got across “to undress.”  German further allows for the creation of large composite words, such as “Rundgräberschatten,” literally “roundgraveshadows” or “Knochenstabritzung” literally “bonerodscratch” which tend to be unwieldy and inelegant in English and often demand to be broken up. Etc…

DougNow to Breathturn. By 1962 Celan wants to do something useful. Why is he moving away from German lyricism? (I believe he said, “horror can’t be musical.”) What is meant by the phrase “north of the future” and the word “beamwind?”  What is their significance?


the beamwind of your speech

the gaudy chatter of the pseudo-

experienced — the hundred-

tongued perjury-

poem, the noem.

Pierre – I don’t know if it is “something useful” he wants to do, or he wouldn’t have phrased it that way, but yes, he moves away from the lyrical in poetry because he sees how the lyrical can 1) be misused and 2) is not up to the job of creating a poetry accurate to our “extreme contemporaneity” to use Michel Deguy’s phrase. Celan had witnessed how his most famous poem “Deathfugue” was open to misuse as its lushly lyrical musicality made it an very pretty and easily hummable tune while its rich verbal metaphoricity allowed some badly intentioned critics to deny it's obvious link to the historical horrors of the Holocaust by claiming these images to be just surreal productions of the poet’s mind. Celan realized that he needed a new language, one in which, as he put it, metaphors, images, tropes can be lead ad absurdum, while the language gets greyer, more object-related, or is he wrote poetry’s language now needs to be “more sober, more factual. It distrusts beauty. It tries to be truthful…. The language wants to relocate even its musicality is such your way that it has nothing in common with the ‘euphony’ which more or less blithely continued to sound alongside the greatest horrors.” While such a language will of course still have (and actually accent) its “inalienable complexity of expression,” it insists on precision (as against the ‘flou artistique,’ the vague soft-focus effect of so much lyrical poetry). Celan again: “it does not transfigure or render poetical; it names, it posits, it tries to measure the area of the given and the possible.” Because, as he further suggests: “Reality is not simply there, it must be searched for and won.”

                Concerning the word “beamwind” you asked about, it here means the powerful cleansing language of the poet that erodes the false talk of fake experience which only gives what Celan calls the “noem” i.e. the non- or not-poem. The German has an untranslatable pun: “Meingedicht” where the particle “mein” as a separate word would mean “my” (thus “mypoem”) is a created word, a neologism based analogically on the German word “Meineid,” a false oath, perjury, while of course the other meanings of “mein” vibrate along: “mine” & “gemein,” common in both senses as communal and cheap, maybe even as “Meinung,” both meaning and opinion. The poem goes on with this beamwind having now “evorsioned” (a geological term referring to the formation of niches or potholes by erosion due to vortices of water — here wind) the path through the “penitents’ snow” to arrive at “the hospitable glacier-parlors and -tables” and finally to find a breathcrystal, / your unalterable / testimony” — i.e. a truth marker. A very Celanian post-apocalyptic / post-Holocaust / but yet or simultaneously very present landscape. Which lies, to answer your other query “north of the future,” and is thus a realm linked both to the unavoidable past deaths (north links to cold & winter— in Celan always a death landscape such as the winter scape in which his mother was shot) but that also includes the truth and crystalline accuracy of it’s alive and present incarnation, the “breathcrystal.” The complete line is “In the rivers north of the future” and that line opens another poem which is also— while stark in its “north”-ern image of death — hopeful in that the “I” casts out a fishing net which the “you” weighs hesitatingly with “shadows stones wrote” i.e. with images from the past. So there is hope for a time to come in which an action such as fishing will be undertaken even if the shadows of the past can never — should never? — be done away with. The memory of the past is necessary to catch something valuable in the future, i.e. the lessons of history (the witnessing — remember the “unalterable / testimony” of the previous poem) must not be forgotten as we create a future.

DougYou say that Celan was dissatisfied with traditional and modernist poetics, that his “Widerrufe,” were attempts at retracting, countermanding, disavowing previous poetics — those of other poets, but also his own earlier stance as well. Is there a way to categorize him?  Is he a “language” poet, concerned with how language shapes thoughts and thoughts shape the world? A surrealist?  How does Wordcaves tell us how he wants to be read, and defined?

with panther skins,

widen them, pelt-to and pelt-fro,
sense-hither and sense-thither,

give them courtyards, chambers, drop doors
and wildnesses, parietal,

and listen for their second
and each time second and second

Pierre – I deal with Celan’s move away from early “surrealist” tendencies above. “Language” — yes, language becomes core to his work as I also showed above, because as he wrote: “Only one thing remained reachable, close and secure amid all losses: language.” And used it to “chart my reality.” Now, the new, post-lyrical poetry he is creating is a very complex matter, difficult to say the least, though not “hermetic” as some critics have argued. What Celan — as, in fact many other contemporary poets — will do to help the reader now that each poem, or the poems of a given sequence or book are sui generis, i.e. no longer conform to traditional, recognizable “modes,” where aspects such as rhyme, prosody, symbolism and such will give the reader familiar with those well-taught poetic markers easy access to the poems’ “meaning,” is to inscribe the poetics — and thus proposals, explanations, clues as how to read the poems — into the poem itself. Given that the poems are not obeying a generally pre-available procedure, but evolve their formal aspects in the process of being composed, i.e. they are processual (rather than procedural) and need in order to be user-friendly this kind of processual handle. The poem you quote above is an excellent example of Celan showing his reader how his poems are made — & thus what to look for when reading them. In fact the poet inscribed an essay on poetics, a pragmatic statement, one could even call it a manifesto, into this small poem.

                Line the word-caves: Celan’s suggestion is that the work of poetry has to be done / shown on & in the word itself, the word that is presented here as hollow, as a cave — an image that suggests immediately a range of connections with similar topoi throughout his oeuvre, from prehistoric caves to etruscan tombs. The word is nothing solid, diorite or opaque, but a formation with its own internal complexities and crevasses — closer to a geode, to extend the petrological imagery so predominant in the work from Breathturn on. In the context of this first stanza, however, the “panther skins” seem to point more towards the image of a prehistoric cave, at least temporarily, for the later stanzas retroactively change this reading, giving it the multi-perspectivity so pervasive to the late work. 

                These words need to be worked, transformed, enriched, in order to become meaningful. In this case the poem commands the poet to “line” the wordcaves with animal skins, suggesting that something usually considered as an external covering is brought inside and turned inside-out. The geometry of this inversion makes for an ambiguous space, like that of a Klein bottle where inside and outside become indeterminable or interchangeable. These skins, pelts or furs also seem to be situated between something, to constitute a border of some sort, for the next stanza asks for the caves to be enlarged in at least two, if not four directions, i.e. “pelt-to and pelt-fro, / sense-hither and sense-thither.” This condition of being between is indeed inscribed in the animal chosen by Celan, via a multilingual pun (though he wrote in German, Celan lived in a French-speaking environment while translating from half a dozen languages he mastered perfectly): “between” is “entre” in French, while the homophonic rhyme-word “antre” refers to a cave; this “antre” or cave is paragrammatically inscribed and can be heard in the animal name “Panther.” (One could of course pursue the panther-image in other directions, for example into Rilke’s poem.) Unhappily the English verb “lined” is not able to render the further play on words rooted in the ambiguity of the German “auskleiden,” which means both to line, to drape, to dress with, and to undress.  

                These “Worthöhlen,” in a further echo of inversion, give to hear the expression “hohle Worte” — empty words. Words, and language as such, have been debased, emptied of meaning and in order to be made useful again the poet has to transform and rebuild them, creating in the process those multiperspectival layers that constitute the gradual, hesitating yet unrelenting mapping of Celan’s universe. The third stanza thus adds a further strata to the concept of “Worthöhlen” by introducing physiological terminology, linking the word-caves to the hollow organ that is the heart: you can see the heart’s atria become the poem’s courtyards, the ventricles, chambers and the valves, drop doors. The poem’s “you,” as behoves a programmatic text, is the poet exhorting himself (though of course that does not exclude the shifter- or shiftier-nature of the “you” to also call upon, admonish the reader, any reader of the poem) to widen the possibilities of writing by adding attributes, by enriching the original word-caves. The poem’s command now widens the field by including a further space, namely “wildnesses,” a term that recalls and links back up with the wild animal skins of the first stanza. Celan does not want a linear transformation of the word from one singular meaning to the next, but the constant presence of multiple layers of meaning accreting in the process of the poem’s composition. The appearance in the third stanza of these wildnesses also helps to keep alive the tension between a known, ordered, constructed world and the unknown and unexplored, which is indeed the Celanian “Grenzgelände,” that marginal borderland into which, through which and from which language has to move for the poem to occur. 

                But it is not just a question of simply adding and enlarging, of a mere constructivist activism: the poet (and the you that is in the place of the reader) also has to listen. The last stanza gives this command, specifying that it is the second tone that he will hear that is important. The poem itself foregrounds this: “tone” is the last word of the poem, constituting a whole line by itself while simultaneously breaking the formal symmetry of the text which had so far been built up on stanzas of two lines each. Given the earlier heart-imagery, this listening to a double tone immediately evokes the systole/diastole movement. The systole corresponds to the contraction of the heart muscle when the blood is pumped through the heart and into the arteries, while the diastole represents the period between two contractions of the heart when the chambers widen and fill with blood. The triple repetition on the need to listen to the second tone thus insists that the sound produced by the diastole is what is of interest to the poet.
DougYou find Threadsuns to be prophetic, a narrow gate through which we pass into a clear understanding of or our complex modern era, in which, as Yeats also predicted, “the center cannot hold.” Why is it important to Americans to wander around Celan’s landscape “even if we are often unwilling to acknowledge the starkness and the darkness of the place we live in?”

above the grayblack wastes.
A tree-
high thought
grasps the light-tone: there are
still songs to sing beyond

Pierre – I have also written in much detail about this poem & refer the reader of our interview to the introduction to the new book & to older essays of mine on Celan. You ask “why is it important to wander around Celan’s landscape” — well, exactly because “we are often unwilling to acknowledge the starkness and the darkness of the place we live in!” Celan’s is not a universe (one sun, one center that — as Yeats indeed knows “cannot hold” & as Pound also acknowledged late) but a multiverse (see also the great American poet Robert Duncan on this term) that contains not one sun but many — & that is worrisome for most people who want just one sun, one explanation, one godhead, whether religious or ideological, a single truth. Such a universe would be reassuring because one can then easily make oneself believe that one does “know” what it all means & that one is in the right. That single point of origin or explanation is the root of all evil:  just look at the havoc it creates in our world be it here with the evangelical right wing bible-thumpers (1 book that knows it all) & their quasi-fascist policies & their denial of obvious scientific facts such as evolution or global warming, or elsewhere with the Islamo-fascist Koran-thumpers (1 book that knows it all) of Isis & the death & destruction they are sowing. “Boko Haram” literally mean books (and by extension education) are forbidden— because there is only one needed. It is very worrisome, even crazy-making for many people to be told that there isn’t one truth, but many truths and that we have to learn how to stay in uncertainty (which, as we know, is a principle & law of our physical universe) without, as Keats put it in his definition of “negative capability,” “any irritable reaching after fact & reason.” 

                Truly innovative poetry, such as Celan’s, can show us how to proceed, can teach us something about these complexities while also reassuring us that there “still are songs to sing beyond mankind.” “Jenseits der Menschen” he writes in German — where “Menschen” can be seen as either “humans,” us as individual men & women, or more generically as the species of us, “mankind.” You could thus read the line as suggesting that song is possible even after the disappearance of the species homo sapiens (a likely scenario given what we have been doing to our earth in this anthropocene). Or, a bit more optimistically, that beyond a traditional humanistic view of humankind (which puts rational humans and their supposedly rational endeavors at the top & center of the universe) another world can be imagined with other terms of possibly nonhierarchical organization where men and women would fit differently into a non-anthropocentric world. 

DougCelan addresses religious subjects like hope for salvation, while also inverting and negating the (Judaic) hopes regarding the Hebrew god’s promises as expressed in Psalm 34. Is Celan anti-religious?

Pierre – A complex question. For someone who lived through what happened to the Jewish people in WWII & lost his mother and father to the Nazis, the question of God’s existence or non-existence must have come up. But his work doesn’t give a direct answer to it nor is there anywhere an indication that he was a practicing Jew. I’ve already mentioned that after his Bar Mitzvah he turned away from religion and joined communist youth movements while later showing interest in Jewish mysticism and Kaballah. But let me paraphrase my take on this via what I wrote in the introduction to the book we are discussing: On his 45th birthday (23 November 1965) Celan wrote a poem called “All your seals broken over? Never.” On the manuscript he added the following motto, taken from Psalm 45 in the Buber-Rosenzweig translation of the Bible: “Reite für die Treue.” Although the King James version gives this as “ride prosperously because of truth,” in this context it would be better to translate the motto as “ride for the Truth” or“for the Faith.” John Felstiner comments: “ThePsalmist, having said ‘My tongue is the pen of a ready writer,’ was urging his king to ride forth righteously. The poet, for whom certain dates and dates as such held more than natural significance, was marking his birthday with an ancient motto that renewed his task.” For Celan, this truth or faith he was willing to ride for should however not be seen as theologically based. In 1960 he had told Nelly Sachs, after she had indicated that she was a believer, that he “hoped to be able to blaspheme until the end”— a stance that shows through in many of the poems of the late work which show (while hiding, in a very Celanian fashion) a biting sarcasm often overlooked by critics who tend to approach the work all too piously. 

DougAt the end of his life, as he deteriorated, Celan spoke of “the bitter well of his heart.” He also said, “At bottom my word formations are not inventions. They belong to the very oldest layers of language.” Given this absorption in sadness, how would you sum up Celan’s relationship with language?

Pierre – The psychic “deterioration” in the last years of his life is a difficult topic.  What you call “sadness” is more like despair over the world actually changing, even after witnessing the horrors of the Shoah, Hiroshima, etc.  The psychic problems survivors have to deal with are well-known & documented. In his case, the famous Goll-affair unhappily functioned disastrously by tipping the balance of his already precarious mental health and precipitating the various break-downs, including attacks on his wife and on himself, that led to a series of hospitalizations. Now, his often publicized fear of, and profound mistrust in, Germany, even  after the defeat of the Third Reich, has often been read (and all too easily dismissed) as misplaced and ungrounded, and thus as nothing more than paranoia and as a symptom of his psychic disorders. Indeed, Celan was extremely sensitive to even the slightest whiff of anti-Semitism — which should be seen as an accurate assessment of the situation rather than dismissed as paranoia, i.e. delusion. In his case, I would submit, William Burroughs’ dictum that “a paranoid is a man who knows the facts” holds true. Celan knew whereof he was speaking when he called the new Germany an “Angstlandschaft,” a landscape of fear. Wolfgang Emmerich, who has written a useful introduction to Celan’s life and work picks up on this when he describes the situation in Germany during those years, a description that leaves no doubt that Celan’s perceptions were not unfounded: “Right after the foundation [of the new German state] in 1949 a law exempting Nazi criminals from punishment was enacted, and in 1950 the denazification program set up by the allied forces was terminated. In 1951 thousands of ‘state workers’ — judges, public prosecutors, policemen, army officers, teachers, professors — were allowed by law to reintegrate public service.  Consequently the legal system, the administration and education were tilted for another two decades towards assuaging and repressing the Nazi past. … Worse happened: the reemergence and rise of the NS-elites who had taken part in the preparation of mass crimes… hundreds of men who had for example been Gestapo heads and commando leaders. To begin with they joined together socially, in the main undisturbed by the justice system, as “circles,” “regulars” or “clubs,” until many of them managed to regain posts of responsibility in the economy and the legal system. Besides this opportunism, there came provocation: In 1960 already the police recorded over 600 cases of swastika and slogan graffiti, mainly on synagogues.” 

                Celan had indeed actual, factual reason to be worried. That the new Germany had not shed some of the old blindness he also knew from personal experience. His first reading trip to Germany in 1952 had been under the aegis of the Gruppe 47, a group of young German writers, who had invited him upon recommendation from his friends Milo Dor and Ingeborg Bachman to their reunion in Niendorf. Although none of the group were old Nazis, most of them had spent some years of their youth as German soldiers, and their easy-going fraternity-like camaraderie,  based on shared  war time memories and experiences,  must have felt very alien to the young Jew from the Bukovina. Celan, in the quiet and meditative manner that would be the hallmark of all his readings, read the “Death Fugue” — to very mixed reactions. Someone even said to him: “The poems you read  struck me as quite unpleasant. On top of it, you read them with the voice of Goebbels.” The absolute if unconscious insult of that femark must have hit Celan hard. And indeed he never went back to the meetings of Gruppe 47. However, Celan very courageously kept returning to Germany to give poetry readings until the end, despite what it must have cost him in psychic energy and anguish. In Paris he read the German newspapers every day — & not only to check what was being said about him, as some have sillily claimed — but to follow the social and political developments in that country. These readings, by the way, are quite visible in the late poems. 

                So I would suggest that Celan was a very accurate observer of the world around him. If he were here today, he would tell those surprised by the rise of current anti-semitisms — directed at both semitic groups, the Jews and the Arabs — in France and Germany and beyond (vide current events):  “I told you so!” Celan isn’t here anymore, however, but we do have his poetry, the reality he made. I’ve written elsewhere, “Reality for Celan, maybe more so than for any other poet this century, came to its deepest richness in the word, in language. While, to deturn Marx’s line that ‘all that is solid melts into air’ (including the bodies of the Jews gone up in smoke in the extermination camps), only what is caught in, (re)created by, a purified, re-constructed language becomes real and is simultaneously able to retain its relationship to the actual world. Radically dispossessed of any other reality Celan had to set out to create his own language — a language as absolutely exiled as he himself.” But this reality isn’t a pleasant, cuddly, aesthetically comforting and reassuring place. Let me use an image from Celan’s famous “Todtnauberg” poem which chronicles his visit to Heidegger’s “Hütte.” The place of the poem is no longer the classical meadow or clearing the dark forest of the world where shepherds, shepherdesses & cute lambies could cavil at heart’s delight. The romantic and reassuring bucolic “Waldwiese” (meadow in the woods) has become a “Waldwase” (imperfectly translated as “forestsward”) where the “Wase” is not a pleasant meadow but a word loaded with a polysemy of meanings including that of “turf” (i.e. the roots and undergrowth of the growth, what lies beneath in the earth), of “Wasenmeister” the master of the place (“Wasen”) again where dead animals were buried, and of another “Wasen” which refers to a “bundle of twigs and branches gathered in the forest” and which etymologically leads to the French word “fasceau” which in turn comes from Latin “fascis,” the bundle of rods with an axe protruding of the Roman military that became the standard image for fascism.  Working at this quasi-geological density and multiplicity of layers of the word, of language, it is only natural that Celan claimed  a necessary opacity for poetry today, first of all because the poem is “dunkel” (dark, obscure) due to its thingness, its phenomenality. And further because, as he put it in a note toward his essay “The Meridian:” “Regarding the darkness of the poem today, imagination and experience, experience and imagination let me think of a darkness of the poem qua poem, of a constitutive, even congenital darkness. In other words: the poem is born dark; the result of a radical individuation, it is born as a piece of language, as far as language manages to be world, is loaded with world.”
                This does not make for easy reading — because his poetry, like the world, is not an easy, simple, transparent place. But it makes for terrifyingly exciting and ultimately profoundly illuminating & rewarding reading experience.

Doug Thank you, Pierre


About Douglas Valentine:

Douglas Valentine is editor of the poetry anthology With Our Eyes Wide Open: Poems of the New American Century and the author of a book of poems A Crow's Dream.  He is also widely known for his non-fiction titles, The Phoenix Program, The Strength of the Pack: The Personalities, Politics and Espionage Intrigues that Shaped the DEA, and The Strength of the Wolf: The Secret History of America's War on Drugs. You can read a FlashPøint review of the latter here.


About Pierre Joris:

There are several YouTube videos featuring Pierre Joris discussing Celan and his own work. The most recent at this time is:
Deutsches Haus presents Paul Celan's "Breathturn into Timestead": An Evening with Pierre Joris and Paul Auster

As one of the foremost translators of into both French and English, Pierre Joris frequently explores the lesser-known works of both major and obscure experimental poets. His translations include Exile is My Trade: A Habib Tengour Reader (Black Widow Press, 2012); Paul Celan: Selections (University of California Press, 2005); 4X1: Works by Tristan Tzara, Rainer Maria Rilke, Jean-Pierre Duprey, and Habib Tengour (Inconundrum Press, 2003); and Pppppp: Kurt Schwitters Poems, Performance, Pieces, Proses, Plays, Poetics (Temple University Press, 1994). Of his translations of Paul Celan, poet Michael Palmer said: “Joris has dwelled during the better part of his life in Celan’s words and silences…he has journeyed through the work’s intricacies like very few others.”

Joris’s own poetry, published extensively in chapbooks abroad and in this country, has been collected in three volumes,  Barzakh — Poems 2000-2012 (Black Widow Press 2014); Poasis: Selected Poems 1986-1999 (Wesleyan University Press, 2001), and Breccia: Selected Poems 1972-1986 (Station Hill PR, 1987; reprinted by Skylight Press in 2014). In 2013 Chax Press published his book-length poem-sequence Meditations on the Stations of Mansur al-Hallaj. He is also a celebrated essayist and editor. In the essay collection A Nomad Poetics (Wesleyan, 2003), he explores the successes and failings of the avant-garde movement, a subject he surveyed in a two-volume anthology of 20th century avant-garde writings, Poems for the Millennium (University of California Press, 1998), co-edited with Jerome Rothenberg. In 2012 he added another volume The University of California Book of North African Literature, coedited with Habib Tengour to this series.

He collaborates frequently through multimedia and music with his wife, the performance artist Nicole Peyrafitte. Twice the recipient of PEN Awards for Translation, he was also the 2003 Berlin Prize fellow at the American Academy in Berlin.