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 white into the dark.
My mother’s hair never turned white….

Round star, you coil the golden loop.
My mother’s heart was cut with lead.

Oaken door, who forced you from the hinges?
My gentle mother cannot come.

For Celan the only language in which such a loss could truly be expressed was the German language, the language spoken by the people who had brought it about. Although she of course also spoke Romanian and Yiddish, Celan’s mother clearly felt that German was her native tongue; and as her son was to say, “Only in the mother tongue can one speak one’s own truth. In a foreign tongue the poet lies.”

His mother, who, as he once wryly remarked, sometimes had her doubts about him and his future, however close their early relation had been, never saw his German verses. The convoy with which his parents voluntarily decided to leave started from Czernowitz on a day when Celan himself seems to have been accidentally absent. But something far deeper than survivor’s guilt made it impossible ever after for him to “pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow.” Shakespeare’s words in Macbeth express a common phenomenon, and one all too terribly common at the time; but Celan spoke its own truth for himself in the tongue both of his mother and of her German executioners.

In fact, as John Felstiner shows in his admirably detailed and understanding study, Celan had very little idea at the end of the war whether he could be a poet at all, and if so in what language he could write. He was at home in Romanian and attracted to its own special qualities, suited to the surrealist verse which many Romanian poets of the time were writing. He was almost equally at home in French and Russian—he had visited Paris before the war with plans to become a medical student—and even during the war he was translating his favorite Russian poets like Esenin and Mandelstam. All his life he made translations from every sort of poet—Marvell, Housman, and Emily Dickinson among many others—but his own truth could only be uttered in what had been literally his mother’s tongue.


There have been innumerable studies in many languages of Celan, many of them elaborately theoretical and recondite to the verge of portentousness. For another unspoken irony is that the extraordinary simplicity and directness of what he writes has sent commentators scurrying about in search of every kind of hidden meaning and allusion. Celan himself always vehemently rejected this sort of approach, protesting that his poetry was “absolutely not and in no way ‘hermetic.”‘ And it is the great merit of Felstiner’s study not only to put Celan’s life and achievement in a detailed but homely perspective which should help to make them much better known among English speakers, but to have presented the poetry in a sensible and straightforward way, with an unpretentious comparative commentary. Celan, even in English, is not difficult to understand and to be deeply moved by, as is shown by the two examples I have already quoted; but the weighty tradition of Germanic exegesis has fastened itself upon him with what one might naturally suppose to be almost guilty obsession. Felstiner’s book helps in the best possible way to dispel all this.

Like his adored Mandelstam, for whom poetry was simply “world culture,” Celan gives the impression of taking in everything in poetry that Europe and America can offer, while remaining at the same time wholly and often agonizingly his own self, inside his own predicament. The paradox is equally evident in Kafka, some of whose stories he translated into Romanian toward the end of the war. As Kafka startles many of his foreign devotees by turning out to have been a strong and patriotic believer in the old Hapsburg Empire, so Celan regarded Vienna, one of the most anti-Semitic cities in Europe, as the natural mecca of any cultured Central European. As Felstiner says, “people living in those outposts of the Austro-Hungarian Empire saw Vienna as their spiritual home.”

Celan made his way there with great hardship and difficulty in 1947, and presented himself and his poems at the offices of a magazine. A Viennese acquaintance wrote later that he came literally out of nowhere, a condescending view which upset Celan’s compatriots back in Bucharest, and which was echoed by a Swiss editor who published some of his poems in 1948. (“The Aspen Tree” was published three times that year.) The Swiss naively praised Celan for the difficult feat of mastering the German language to the point of being able to write verses in it. How could a young Romanian Jew from some rural backwater have done it? And this was being written of a poet who had read Goethe and Schiller with his mother as a young boy and lived in his teens in the poetic world of Hölderlin and Rilke! No wonder Celan signed himself in a letter to a Bucharest friend “sad poet of the Teutonic tongue.” And yet he was immensely gratified by the praise his poems received in Vienna—“God knows I was happy when they told me I was the greatest poet in Austria, and—so far as they know—in Germany as well.”

The main reason for instant fame, and one which Celan came afterward bitterly to regret and even to dissociate himself from, was the quickly spreading notoriety of the amazing poem he had written soon after the war—“Todesfuge” (“Deathfugue”), about which Felstiner has a chapter titled “A Fugue after Auschwitz (1944-1945).” In fact it first appeared in a Romanian magazine and in a Romanian version translated by a friend of Celan’s, who could himself have written the poem in the same language, of course, but did not. The translation is called “Tangoul Mortå?ii” (“Death Tango”), and it seems at first suitable that the Latin civilization which produced the tango should mordantly contrast with the German musical culture from which came the fugue. In fact, however, not only did Celan himself first call the poem “Todestango,” but that name was actually dreamed up by an SS lieutenant who ordered a Jewish orchestra in one of the camps to improvise one and to play it. A recording of their composition exists; it is based on the Argentine Eduardo Bianco’s pre-war hit. This same tango was being played in Paris when Celan was there early in 1939, and the same band from Paris later entertained Hitler and Goebbels, who greatly preferred the tango to what they considered the decadence of New York jazz.


Whether tango or fugue, Celan’s extraordinary poem is wholly unlike anything else, even—as must be the case with a genuine work of art—quite unlike the awful things which it describes, and which generated it. It is not that the poem transcends in any sense those terrible happenings, but that it creates its own absolute vision of them, as Grünewald created his dead Christ, or Titian his sublime late painting of the hideous flaying of Marsyas by Apollo. The greatest poetry inevitably brings to birth a world of its own. We are right to be suspicious of the paradox; and there is something decidedly suspicious about the immense popularity of “Todesfuge” in Germany after the war, particularly with the young, among whom it became a cult. As Auden said, “No poet can prevent his poetry being used as magic.” “Todesfuge” gave the Germans a kind of enormous and magical relief, the equivalent in great art of the black joke current at the time: “The Germans will never be able to forgive the Jews for Auschwitz.” But the poem itself—though not its author—is sublimely indifferent to all these crooked reactions and responses of the human heart.

Celan was acutely aware of German reactions. In his later talks about his poetry in Germany he combined civilities with a sharp reminder that the “euphony” of traditional German poetry had during the war years been able “more or less untroubled to trip tunefully alongside the most frightful things.” The “euphony” of his own poem was not like that. It was trouble; and yet by a supreme irony it could also lay trouble to rest in the hearts and minds of many Germans, who could feel their guilt wonderfully, and painlessly, through its medium. No wonder Celan later refused permission for it to be used in readings or reprinted in popular anthologies; and no wonder that he himself came to feel increasingly miserable and uneasy when he visited Germany, where he was fêted and received praise and rewards. He felt himself to be a tame Jew, whose famous poem made Germans feel better: worse, that his poem was being debased into a kind of pop music by whose means the younger generation could bait and glibly condemn their elders.

None of this affects the potency and the hypnotic, inscrutable force of “Todesfuge.” Felstiner translates it brilliantly, and comments on it in telling detail, from its celebrated opening section—

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
we shovel a grave in the air there you won’t lie too cramped
A man lives in the house he plays with his vipers he writes
he writes when it grows dark to Deutschland your golden hair
Margaretahe writes it and steps out of doors and the stars are all sparkling
he whistles his hounds to come closehe whistles his Jews into rows has them shovel a grave in the ground
he commands us play up for the dance

Black milk of daybreak we drink you at night
we drink you at morning and midday we drink you at evening
we drink and we drink
A man lives in the house he plays with his vipers he writes
he writes when it grows dark to Deutschland your golden hair
MargaretaYour ashen hair Shulamith we shovel a grave in the air there you
won’t lie too cramped….

—to the electrifying close, which has already appeared in the poem in different keys of the fugal repetition. For this Felstiner supplies no translation and none is needed. He has already given a gloss of the words—“Death is a Master from Germany / Your golden hair Margareta / Your ashen hair Shulamith”—so that, as they recur, the lines gradually take on the cadenced beat of the original, and, at the end, the German words appear like returning ghosts in Felstiner’s translation, now as terrifyingly comprehensible to the foreign reader as they are in the true language of the poem.

…der Tod ist ein Meister aus Deutschland
dein goldenes Haar Margarete
dein aschenes Haar Sulamith.

Celan’s poetry is never “meaningful,” in the sense in which a conductor gives a meaningful glance or gesture to his orchestra or to some part of it. (“A Celan poem is wholly without intention,” wrote one reviewer, with unconscious irony.) There is no underlined contrast between the Faustian Margareta’s golden hair and the ashen hair of Jewish Shulamith. The words do nothing but realize themselves totally within the holy dread of the poem. Bach wrote The Art of the Fugue, and is, as Felstiner says, “our paragon Meister aus Deutschland,” but Bach is not mocked by the words. In the “Todesfuge” German art is met in a new and terrible celebration and recognition of a new voice, one that inherits all of that art’s powers.

A dozen or so years after “Todesfuge” Celan wrote a poem on the same theme, “Engführung,” the term for a form of counterpoint in a fugue. Eng—narrow or cramped—is again a key word, but in this deathly quiet, almost breathless poem, words compress themselves, as if into a tunnel in which there can be no turning back, and in which they have breath only to whisper. Introducing “Engführung,” Felstiner writes,

In everyday idiom, a whole population and anyone entering this poem is “Taken off to the/terrain/with the unerring track” to find

Grass, written asunder. The stones, white,
with shadows of the blades.

Had Celan written no more than these two marvelous poems he would be one of the greatest poets of the century. He wrote of course much more, always making his poetry, as he put it, “expose” rather than “impose” itself. With Celan’s poems an elaborate commentary seems out of place, but John Felstiner’s observations, and his excellent rendering of the verse into an at least related kind of English, are of immense help to the reader who is trying to get to know the poet. (This is also true of Michael Hamburger’s bilingual selection, published in 1988 by Persea Books.)

Some of Celan’s poems have a reputation for extreme difficulty, but they and their language always have the same heroically absolute quality of being themselves, and not another thing. For this reason it is for the reader not so much a question of “understanding” them as of perceiving, in the fullest sense, their mode of existence. In the matter of language Celan was greatly interested in Heidegger, philosopher of existence as the poetic, the “secret king of thought,” as Hannah Arendt called him. A strange and moving poem of Celan has the title “Todtnauberg,” the name of Heidegger’s mountain retreat; and the poet encountered there the philosopher who had remained always as silent about the fate of the Jews as about his own political past. It has been said that Heidegger made himself absent, or never received Celan, but in fact there is a good deal of evidence that their relations, whether by letter or meeting, were in fact both cordial and helpful to the poet.

Let us hope so; for the loneliness and depression of Celan’s late years were in fact considerable, and crushing. When awarded the Bremen Prize for his poetry in 1958 he was genuinely and humbly grateful, but his speech of thanks let his listeners know that Denken and Danken—to think and to thank, which are “from one and the same source”—remind us of “others” who also spoke “our language”—unsere Sprache—a finely courteous shaft of sarcasm from a Jew in postwar Germany. Despite his many friends, loneliness must also have extended into every corner of his own postwar life as a “no one’s person.” Living in Paris he worked and translated at the Sorbonne, and married in 1952 Gisèle de Lestrange, a young graphic artist whose parents came from a noble French family. (Another strange transformation for the dispossessed stranger from Central Europe.) Although they lost their first child soon after birth, the marriage seems to have been a happy one, given the touchingly odd position of the poet, outside all nationality and yet inside all language, and his increasingly despondent feelings about Europe, the Jewish question, and his own poetry.

He was hounded, too, by accusations of plagiarism, rumors—certainly baseless except for the coincidences arising from the friendship of two poets—which were set off by the vindictive wife of his old friend, the Franco-German poet Yvan Goll. Part of the misunderstanding may have arisen from Celan’s own multifarious translations, the genius—akin to that which wrote his own poetry—for understanding the unique nature of another poet in his own words; he seems to have offered in friendship to translate some of Goll’s French songs into German. The stigma of malicious gossip among his own circle of poets hurt him deeply, no less deeply than the signs of latent or reviving anti-Semitism, and the resentment of a Jewish writer who wrote in German, which he thought he detected on his visits to the Federal Republic, however much it might officially honor him.

Paradox, often tragic paradox, continued to haunt his sense of language. A poet who could only be himself, and “speak his own truth,” in the language of his people’s oppressors, could also travel from tongue to tongue as if with fire at Pentecost. But not as a poet; for that the German tongue was his sole being. All real poets know the truth of T.S. Eliot’s comment that “the bad poet imitates, the good poet steals.” Even the wonderful word Niemandsrose is in a sense not wholly Celan’s—why should such a word belong to any one poet?—since one of Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus, a series much loved by Celan, speaks of “Rose, oh pure contradiction, desire / To be no one’s sleep under so many / Lids.” There is also a marvelously touching side to Celan’s devouring fascination with the “poetryness” of all other poetry. It led to his making versions of Shakespeare’s sonnets, of Rupert Brooke, of Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky,” and even, as Felstiner tells us, a perfectly singable version of Yeats’s “Down by the Salley Gardens.” (But how very different is “Todesfuge” from Yeats’s beautiful but somehow bogus and merely poetic refrain “A terrible beauty is born,” although Celan’s poem—all his poems—could make the same claim in their own very different way.) Incidentally, the thirteen-year-old who wrote to his aunt “Speake-you English?” later wrote, when visiting a friend in London, a little poem called “Mapesbury Road,” which could almost be a distillation of the poetic spirit of Betjeman, and of the North London school of painters.

But Celan’s last years were sad, and, above all, lonely. Remaining married, he craved solitude nonetheless and went to live by himself in a small flat on the Left Bank in Paris, in a quarter in which he knew every house where a writer or artist had once lived. But he had always suffered from what the Jewish writer Emmanuel Levinas once called “insomnia in the bed of being.” One dark night in 1970 he went down to a bridge over the Seine. No one saw him go into the water. He and his wife and child used to have their holidays on the Breton coast, and he was a strong swimmer. But he let himself drown, and his body was not discovered for some time, far down the river. On his desk back at his flat was a biography of Hölderlin, in which Celan had underlined a sentence by the poet Clemens Brentano: “Sometimes this genius goes dark and sinks down into the bitter well of his heart.”

Paul Celan est mort” said the front-page headline of a leading Paris literary weekly, but the story added that in France he was unknown. A final paradox, spelled out in the country where he had chosen to live; for although he had often been invited to emigrate to Israel, which he had visited, he could never bring himself to do so. But his last poem, written shortly before his death, was called “To the Sabbath.”

This Issue

November 14, 1996