Categories are useful for critics, largely because locating a subject seems to provide a kind of order from which relationships can be developed. And they’re at least as useful for editors, because space is limited, readers are a multifarious bunch, and a tag comes in handy for ID’ing the potentially unfamiliar. So the world comes down to file-folder tabs meant to represent multifarious, complex things: post-feminist, say, or garage rock, or B-list Modernist.
It’s the nature of the business. But the more inventive and unfamiliar the thing in question, the more harm in such handling. A definition of poetry might start with its irreducibility—and how, at its best, it refuses to represent things incompletely, to break people and feelings and ideas into misleading particles. And so one arrives at a pretty useful defense of difficulty: Poetry is resistant and challenging not because poets delight in hermetic obscurity, but because they mean not to give in to the violence of representation.
This issue, at once rather abstract and turning on every turn of phrase, is one of the two violences with which the work of the great post-war poet Paul Celan is intimately concerted. The other is the Holocaust. Celan, born Paul Antschel in Romania, survived the forced-labor camps of the Nazis; his parents did not. His most famous poem, “Death Fugue,” mixes grim surrealism with grimmer declaration: “Black milk of daybreak we drink it at sundown/we drink it at noon in the morning we drink it at night/we drink and we drink it”, it begins; by the end, the incantatory horror spins around the four-times-spoken phrase “death is a master from Germany.”
Or at least it does in the Michael Hamburger-translated collection, just now reissued in a “Revised and Expanded” format. The revision and expansion are slight, occasioned not so much by a need for renovation as a recent crest in Celaniana. In the last few years, a handful of compelling new translations have appeared, each meaningfully different—as well as a traveling staged reading of Celan’s work and the landmark biography by John Felstiner, Poet, Survivor, Jew.
That trio of tags, carefully ordered, reveals the terms of Celan’s renown. It’s hard to say whether most readers come to Celan primarily for his metaphysically difficult poetics, or as a powerful figure of tragic European Jewry (the bridging term “Survivor” must be taken with ironic salt; Celan eventually leapt from the Pont Mirabeau to his death). Such divisions are crude—the problem of categories again—and of course no aspect can be separated out. But the angle of approach has great impact on translators’ choices. Hamburger’s manner is fairly neutral, even flat, particularly compared to the little-r romanticism of Felstiner and the virtuosic gaming of the recent McHugh and Popov translations.
It may well be that Hamburger’s mode best serves the poet founded on bedrock facticity; ever mindful of where representation fails, Celan referred to the Holocaust simply as “That which happened.” History cannot be summarized in speech, but neither can words be abandoned, and these two facts form the crucible in which Celan’s poetic style emerges. In implicit rebuke to the famed suggestion that poetry ought to be inconceivable after Auschwitz, Celan described himself as one who “goes toward language with his very being.”
It’s a telling phrase. He did not go toward the war, toward his dead parents or the Shoah—they kept him company wherever he went. And those who go toward his work for its topicality are often confounded by his later poems, elusive and unresolved, songs of loss at least half-ready to lose themselves. Speckled with terse linguistic inventions, these are his most difficult, and perhaps his most pure. Hamburger, indeed, chooses not to include poems written before Celan’s first book, such as the relatively open poem for his mother called “Black Flakes.” In return, he fits in more work from the ’60s, each one a dark symbolist dream with any explanatory blah-blah etched away. They are cold and distant like a star is cold and distant; often untitled and a spare 20 or 30 words, their compression is paralleled by no one this side of Emily Dickinson. Uncoincidentally, both were endlessly compelled by Scripture. But Celan is less revelations, more parables—sans Christian righteousness. “Attentiveness,” went one of his favorite quotes, “is the natural prayer of the soul.”
But attentive to what? The romantic answer would be “everything,” but nothing is closer to the truth. For Celan, removal is the great action we must attend, like it or not—a universal motion toward some terrible zero. It’s an ambivalent motion; just as one must remove illusions and shackles, one is shriven of hope and human communion. “NO MORE SAND ART,” begins a latter poem,
. . . no sand book, no masters.
Your question—your answer.
Your song, what does it know?
It’s a poem in which everything is lost, in which the characters are removed one by one; in this it resembles “Death Fugue.” It knows nothing is gained by the fitting phrase, the category, the definition. Nothing gained in Einstein’s famous formula about God and dice, nor Mallarmé’s about dice and chance. It knows that despair is hopelessness in flight toward silence, and that there is nothing to be gained in language. But there is much to be lost.