[C]alligraphers delight in creating mazes of embellishment in which meaning is secreted like a treasure. The deciphering of the text proves the worthiness of the reader.
Is Celan’s work too obscure, as some claim? Is it too hermetic? Too difficult? Real poems, Celan wrote, are “making toward something … perhaps toward an addressable Thou.” I would argue that, for any poet writing toward such a subject, regular words and syntax soon become inadequate. Celan is an extreme case though, because he also had to contend with the inadequacy of the German language to express the experience of the Jewish poet, post-Holocaust. His is the lyricism of privacy (prayer is private, no matter with how many fellow congregants it is uttered or in how many prayer books it appears), not of hermeticism. In fact, Celan insisted to Michael Hamburger that he was ‘ganz und gar nicht hermetisch.’ Absolutely not hermetic.
Celan chose to protest from inside German, in “death-rattling,” “quarreling” words. Though he spoke numerous other languages (Romanian, Russian, French) and though he had written previously in Romanian, he nevertheless decided to remain in German, which he broke and reclaimed. German, for Celan, was the language that had to “pass through its own answerlessness, pass through frightful muting, pass through the thousand darknesses of death-bringing speech.”
Why break a language? To wake it up. “We sleep in language,” writes Robert Kelly, if “language does not come to wake us with its strangeness.”
Theodor Adorno: “It is barbaric to write poetry after the Holocaust.”
Adorno, when confronted by others, repeated: “After Auschwitz to write poetry is barbaric, I would not want to downplay this remark.”
Adorno, after reading Paul Celan’s broken and reassembled German, reconsiders: “It may have been wrong to say that after Auschwitz you could no longer write poems.”
And there was light let there be God and said waters. The language acquires a strange agency, a weird reversed reality: “And there was light let there God.” There is more poetry in reading the text we know by heart backwards. (We sleep in the language, if language does not come to wake us with its strangeness.“
Celan, writes Anne Carson, was "a poet who uses language as if he were always translating.”
If Celan’s poems feel like strange translations, clearly the translation of Celan into English should give the feeling of foreignness to our own language.
I would argue that most piercing lyric poets don’t speak in the “proper” language of their time. Emily Dickinson didn’t write in proper English but in slant music of fragmentary perception. Kit Smart’s endless lists and Whitman’s numbering of months in Leaves of Grass are hardly in the language their contemporaries knew. Cesar Vallejo placed three dots in the middle of the line, as if language itself were not enough, as if the poet’s voice needed to leap from one image to another to make – to use Eliot’s phrase – a raid on the inarticulate.
If by this point you are thinking about the witches from Macbeth or any of Shakespeare’s fools’ riddles, you aren’t alone. Here is Cid Corman (who was Celan’s first English translator) describing Celan: “poetry OF language – but of language AS livingdying … a tale told by an idiot.” A tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing, as we all know, signifies a great deal and is at the heart of Western literature. It is not something we should dismiss as obscurity or nonsense, though it may employ nonsense to reach its goal – which is, perhaps, to find “the addressable Thou."
Incantation is just one such device. There are others. Many critics have commented, for instance, on how surreal Celan’s images are. He was influenced by his friendship with surrealists, but his art is much older than that particular movement. The first real surrealist was Ovid, not Breton. The first American surrealist was Emily Dickinson: "I felt a Funeral, in my Brain.”
One could call “Deathfugue” a ballad, a secular Kaddish, fugue, but what then? It’s not the literary devices that matter but how a poet confronts them.
But how do English/ American poets confront our own tradition? Yeats famously said that he only revised toward a more “passionate syntax.” John Berryman said “nouns, verbs do not exist for what I feel.” I think of King Lear saying “Never, never, never, never, never,” or Whitman saying “Death, death, death, death, death,” when the words lose meaning and become just sounds of themselves, opening into a territory of less guided, more given meaning.
To come back to the question of the privacy of a lyric poet and how this is manifested in the tensions of his or her language: for Celan, it seems, this attitude toward German came from trauma. He had seen the Holocaust and its aftermath. “No one / witnesses for the / witness,” Celan said, and in his work “a tension is held in the fragmentation of language, of being and of extreme solitude” (Julia Kristeva).
Note the choice of word: solitude, not loneliness. In the end, it does not matter whether this “tension” in a poet’s speech comes from a place of trauma or from somewhere else (Catullus? Mayakovsky? Niedecker?). Whatever the source, the central fact remains — the privacy of a lyric poet. The lyric poet is a person who says, “I am not sure the language I write in is spoken here, or anywhere.” Alone with unintelligible language, he sings “in front of strangers.”
In the solitary lines of Paul Celan, one hears this inaudible language.
A great poet is not someone who speaks in stadiums to thousands of listeners. A great poet is a very private person. In his or her privacy this poet creates a language in which he or she is able to speak, privately, to many people at the same time.
— Ilya Kaminsky, excerpts from “On the Strangeness that Wakes Us: On mother tongues, fatherlands, and Paul Celan”