Poet of the Great Massacre

Poems of Paul Celan

translated and with an introduction by Michael Hamburger
Persea Books, 350 pp., $24.95

Paul Celan
Paul Celan; drawing by David Levine

The character of Paul Celan’s work raises the question how far poetry can be—is—a central human activity in our time. Even when Milton played with the thought of writing a poem “doctrinal to a nation,” at first having in mind an Arthuriad, such a project, in a lively form, was scarcely possible. Milton had in mind Homer and Virgil. Homer was certainly doctrinal to a nation, a principal source of moral and theological ideas current in Hellenic culture, and this was the ground for Plato’s attack upon his poems—they taught false doctrines and offered bad examples. Virgil was not the shaper of a culture but rather the celebrant of a certain moment in the history of the Roman republic. His real triumph was in the Middle Ages, when he is taken to be a prophet, or a magician, and in the early modern period:

his single words and phrases, his pathetic half-lines, giving utterance, as the voice of Nature herself, to that pain and weariness, yet hope of better things, which is the experience of her children in every time.1

What the poet’s role may now be is obscure. With the rise of industrial society and the drying up of oral culture we are overcome with doubts over the significance of poetry. We hesitate to make big statements, even though we may be confident that poetry in its manifold shapes is still an important part of our culture, that within the great secular shifts in the outlook on the world the poets are still nibbling at their pens and bringing themselves to write. But we cannot now think of the poets as their publics thought of Byron and Wordsworth. The direct relation Byron and Wordsworth had to their own time seems no longer possible today. Everything that comes within the Modernist movement employs modes of discourse and sequences of images that are oblique; such poetry is on the whole inaccessible to many readers and perhaps to all readers unprovided with some kind of commentary.

This transformation of poetry is linked with stylistic changes in other arts as well. In successive periods poets have felt unable to write “in the old way,” just as other artists could no longer paint or compose in the old way, and have cast about for new styles, new voices. The old styles and voices persist, sometimes without great change, as in Philip Larkin’s work, more often as elements in a new way of speaking. Milton and Pope are thus present in Wordsworth’s The Prelude. Sometimes the old voices are used for particular purposes, as when in Don Juan Byron uses the voices of Dryden and Pope in a satirical, mocking way. Sometimes, the use of the old is startling. It startles me to find Skelton’s voice in Yeats; and this goes with the use of quotation, as in The Waste Land and the…

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