Poet of Holy Dread

Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew

by John Felstiner
Yale University Press, 344 pp., $30.00

It makes little sense to ask who is the finest poet of the postwar era—Lowell, Berryman, Bishop, Larkin might all seem to qualify if we are considering Anglo-Americans—but there seems little doubt who has the strongest claims to being unique. Paul Celan’s subject was something about which no true poetry came from any other poet—the Holocaust. Many poems have been written that speak about it, in the appropriate style of emotion, but they do not become it: they cannot realize it in the unique voice of poetry. Celan alone made its world his own, as a poet.

The German-Jewish philosopher Theodor Adorno, with whose writings Celan was familiar, suggested after the war not only that it couldn’t be done but that it shouldn’t be done. To compose lyric poetry after the world experience of Auschwitz could only be, he felt, a “barbaric” act. Something impossibly insensitive and philistine, a stupidity or unawareness from which a real poet could only withdraw; be present in absence; be silent. Celan showed Adorno that he was wrong. He was, perhaps, the only poet who could have done so.

He was born Paul Antschel, sometimes written Ancel, in a Jewish community settled in Bukovina in northern Romania. Celan was an anagram which he used as a poet from 1947, and which became in effect his real name. That in itself is typical of a poet who called one of his collections Die NiemandsroseThe No One’s Rose—a beautiful untranslatable German word which holds a haunting image of a poet who gives the impression of knowing that he has no existence, except in the words he creates. His father was a builder, a keen Zionist, with whom his talented son (one remembers Kafka) was never much in sympathy. His mother he loved deeply; and it was she who used to read with him the German classics and poetry. One of his most moving couplets makes on this a lilting comment that is itself no comment.

Und duldest du, Mutter, wie einst, ach, daheim,
den leisen, den deutschen, den schmerzlichen Reim.

(And do you suffer, mother, as you did, ah, once at home,
The gentle, the German, the painbringing rhyme.)

Celan never got over his mother’s death. In 1942, a year after the German invasion, his parents were sent to a concentration camp in the Ukraine, where his father died of typhus and his mother was killed, probably shot in the back of the neck by the Germans after she fell ill and was unable to work. In a different work camp back in Romania their son survived, managing to emigrate to Vienna from Bucharest two years after the end of the war and, later, to Paris in 1948; but in a sense he had left himself behind, in the Ukraine, where his mother had vanished. He recorded her death in the unbearably simple words of another early poem, “Espenbaum,” (“The Aspen Tree”).

Aspen tree, your leaves glance …

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