Paul Celan, 1967

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Paul Celan, 1967

On July 25, 1967, postwar Germany’s greatest poet paid a call on its greatest philosopher. Such a meeting would be historically significant no matter what else was at stake; but the encounter of Paul Celan and Martin Heidegger was also haunted by the ghosts of Germany’s terrible recent history. Heidegger was a well-known early supporter of Nazism, who as rector of Freiburg University eagerly sought to align the academy with the new values of Hitlerism. Though he later retreated from this public position, he never came out with the open apology and explanation for his actions that many of his admirers sought. To this day, the entanglement of Heidegger’s thought with fascism and anti-Semitism is a major topic of philosophical debate and research.

Celan, on the other hand, was one of the millions of Jewish victims of fascism. He was born Paul Antschel in 1920 in Czernowitz, in the Bukovina, a formerly Habsburg region that after World War I became part of eastern Romania. (Since World War II it has been divided between Romania and Ukraine.) Like many Jewish families in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Antschels prided themselves on speaking good German. It was Paul’s mother tongue, even while he learned Romanian at school, as well as picking up some Yiddish and Hebrew.

From the beginning, then, language was for Celan the means of expressing political and national anxieties, in which his own position as a German-speaking Jewish Romanian was triply complicated. He had a natural sense of affinity with Franz Kafka, who was similarly situated, and who remarked on the “three impossibilities…: the impossibility of not writing, the impossibility of writing in German, and the impossibility of writing differently. And we could add a fourth impossibility: the impossibility of writing at all.” Celan was to work those impossibilities into the very texture of his language, in a way that makes him one of the most enigmatic writers of the last century.

Celan, a generation younger than Kafka, lived to experience the cataclysm that the older writer was spared. In 1940, following the Nazi–Soviet pact, the USSR annexed the northern part of the province of Bukovina from Romania. When Hitler broke that pact and invaded Russia a year later, the Romanian army, now allied with Germany, came storming back into Czernowitz bent on revenge, especially against Jews. With German tutelage of the Romanian forces, and with the support of a German Einsatzgruppe, the Romanians massacred the Jews of Bukovina, ghettoizing them and deporting them to work camps. One morning in June 1942, Celan returned home after a night away to find his parents missing. They had been arrested and sent to forced labor, where both would be killed—his father by typhus and his mother by shooting. Celan himself survived two years in a labor camp, returning to Czernowitz in 1944, following the Soviet reconquest. It was then that Paul Antschel reversed the syllables of his last name to became Paul Celan—a new name for a poet alone in the world.

By the time Celan met Heidegger, twenty-three years later, he had managed to establish himself as a major German poet without ever living in Germany. Indeed, in his entire postwar life, he spent less than a year in a German-speaking environment—Vienna, where he lived in 1948 after fleeing Communist Romania. Thereafter he made his home in Paris, where he married a Frenchwoman and earned a living teaching German at the École Normale Supérieure. Like Heine a century earlier, Celan was a Jew writing great German verse in exile in Paris. This too made him the opposite of Heidegger, who famously drew inspiration for his thinking from the primevally German landscape of the Black Forest, where he had a cabin in the village of Todtnauberg.

It was under the title “Todtnauberg” that Celan memorialized his meeting with Heidegger, in a poem written a week later. Here is how it begins in the translation by Pierre Joris, in his extensive new collection of Celan’s late work, Breathturn into Timestead:

Arnica, eyebright, the
draft from the well with the
star-die on top,

in the

written in the book
—whose name did it record
before mine?—,
in this book
the line about
a hope, today,
for a thinker’s
to come,
in the heart….

Without the title, this would be a hard poem to parse, though it would still be far more lucid than the average late Celan work. Once we recognize the Heideggerian reference in “Todtnauberg,” everything falls into place. The well with the star-emblem was a famous feature of Heidegger’s hut or Hütte, which itself is famous enough that Joris leaves the word untranslated. The book in which the poet’s name is written is Heidegger’s guestbook, and the message he wrote there—asking for “a thinker’s/word/to come,/in the heart”—reads as a plea for both philosophical guidance and political expiation.


But “Todtnauberg” does not say that such a hopeful, healing word was forthcoming. The dialogue of poet and thinker trails off, rather, into further telegraphic notation of landscape:

the half-
trod log-
trails on the highmoor,


The final images combine a sense of oppression—the air heavy with all that cannot be said—and a sense of possibility. Indeed, however disappointing his meeting with Heidegger in person, there is no doubt that Celan found important inspiration in Heidegger’s thinking about language and poetry. This is clear from one of his rare formal discourses on poetry, the speech Celan delivered in 1960 when he received the Georg Büchner Prize. The speech, titled “The Meridian,” is shot through with Heideggerian terminology, as when Celan writes that “the poem…ceaselessly calls and hauls itself from its Now-no-more back into its Ever-yet.” (The essay can be found in John Felstiner’s edition of Celan’s Selected Poems and Prose.) So is an earlier speech, delivered in 1958 at another prize ceremony in Bremen, in which Celan follows Heidegger in calling attention to the etymological relationship between the words Denken and Danken, “thinking” and “thanking.”

These brief and enigmatic texts have been much studied by critics, since they are invaluable guides to the way that Celan’s understanding of poetry was evolving. In his 1958 speech, he begins by describing his native country, with severely ironic understatement, as “a region in which human beings and books used to live.” This is almost an accusation of his audience; but rather than dwell on the culpability of Germans, Celan turns immediately to the consequences of the Holocaust for the German language itself:

It, the language, remained, not lost, yes in spite of everything. It had to pass through its own answerlessness, pass through frightful muting, pass through the thousand darknesses of deathbringing speech. It passed through and gave back no words for what happened; yet it passed through this happening.

What happens when a language “passes through” such guilt and horror, Celan says in the Meridian speech, is “a calling-into-question that all poetry today must come back to, if it wants to go on questioning.” The result of such self-interrogation is that poetry becomes what Celan enigmatically calls “a breathturn,” using a German neologism, Atemwende. A breathturn seems to be a kind of productive silence, a loss of rhetorical momentum, a swerving away from accustomed paths. Less articulate than speech, but necessary if speech is to take place, the breathturn is the privation, the abjection, language must undergo if it is to be trusted to speak once again. “Perhaps from here on the poem…in this art-less, art-free way can now follow its other paths, including the paths of art,” Celan writes.

This chastening of the German language was to take place, above all, in Celan’s own work. If there is one poem of Celan’s that most readers have heard of, it is “Todesfuge,” or “Death Fugue,” written in 1944 or 1945, when the poet was not yet twenty-five years old. It is, with Czesław Miłosz’s “Campo dei Fiori,” one of the first great poems about the Holocaust. Interestingly, its first publication came in Romanian translation, under the title “Death Tango”; and to hear its strong beat as that of a passionate tango rather than a calculating fugue only heightens its hectic force:

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….

A man lives in the house he plays with the serpents he writes
he writes when dusk falls to Germany your golden hair Margarete
your ashen hair Shulamith we dig a grave in the breezes there one lies unconfined

He calls our jab deeper into the earth you lot you others sing now and play
he grabs at the iron in his belt he waves it his eyes are blue
jab deeper you lot with your spades you others play on for the dance….

(translation by Michael Hamburger)

With its brutally surreal images—such as the “black milk” that opens the poem—and its madly insistent dactylic rhythm, “Todesfuge” is a masterpiece of irony directed against the great traditions of German music and poetry. How else could these traditions be approached, when they had been so easily commandeered by SS men like the “master from Germany” who enjoys music and waxes lyrical in letters home, even while ordering Jews to dig their own graves? Yet Celan’s irony in “Death Fugue” is so effective, so legible, as to make the poem itself a pleasure to read. And this juxtaposition of poetic pleasure with human obscenity raises the very danger Theodor Adorno warned about, when he said it was barbaric to write poetry after Auschwitz. In his study Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew, John Felstiner notes an article by a German teacher from 1957, in which she gives an account of teaching “Death Fugue” to high school students: their complacent impression of Celan’s work was of pain “raised to the higher level of art, and thus purified, shaped, objectified.”


It was this sort of shaping and purification that Adorno warned against, and that Celan forswore in his late work—the challenging and mysterious poems that Pierre Joris, the Strasbourg-born and internationally well-known poet, translator, and editor, has translated in Breathturn into Timestead. This volume translates the entirety of Celan’s last five collections, which were written between 1963 and 1970, the year he committed suicide by drowning in the Seine. This completeness is crucial, for these late books were composed as cycles of short poems, mostly without titles. To pluck out individual lyrics from their sequence, as most translators do, is to give a very different impression of the experience of reading Celan. The first of these late books, published in 1967, was titled with the word Celan had invented in his “Meridian” speech, Atemwende or “breathturn.” Each of the following collections—the last three of which appeared posthumously—followed the same pattern of using a compound neologism as a title: Fadensonnen (Threadsuns), Lichtzwang (Lightduress), Schneepart (Snowpart) and Zeitgehöft (Timestead). Joris has also included a separate sequence written during this period but excluded by Celan from book publication, Eingedunkelt (Tenebrae’d).

It is a measure of these poems’ difficulty that, Joris writes in his introduction, he has spent almost fifty years translating verse that it took Celan seven years to write. Joris first began translating Atemwende when he was an undergraduate, in the late 1960s. He continued and expanded his Celan project over the following decades, publishing several individual volumes in translation. For this culminating publication, he has revised all his translations and added almost two hundred pages of notes and commentary. With all this labor, however, Joris insists that he has not attempted to offer a definitive Celan in English. Rather, Joris asks us to read his translations as “versions, momentary stopping points, and configurations in an unending process of transmutation.”

The untranslatability of Celan’s late poetry is a truism in critical discussion. Indeed, Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, in his essay “Two Poems by Paul Celan,” goes further still:

I believe these poems to be completely untranslatable, including within their own language, and indeed, for this reason, invulnerable to commentary. They necessarily escape interpretation; they forbid it. One could even say they are written to forbid it.

For a poem to be untranslatable even within its own language means that it is unparaphrasable, which is almost the same thing as saying that it is unreadable. Consider this short poem—untitled, like most of these late works—from Lightduress:

Delusionstalker eyes: in you
end up the rest of the gazes.

A single
swills up.

Soon you brighten
the rock to death, on which they
bet, against

Joris’s commentary offers no information about this poem except the date and place of its composition—Paris, November 14, 1967. The reader is left to his own devices to solve what seem like riddles. What are “delusionstalker eyes” (Wahngänger-Augen)? Who are the “they” who have “bet, against-themselves”? How can the stark single images—eyes, flood, rock—be brought together in a single mental narrative?

To read late Celan is not to gain the answer to such questions, but to learn how to stop asking them. Take the matter of pronouns, which are so central to these poems’ mystery. Few poets have ever addressed themselves to a second person as insistently as Celan: the word “you” must be one of the most common in his work. Indeed, he declared in his Bremen Prize speech that poetry is always “making toward something”: “Toward what? Toward something standing open, occupiable, perhaps toward an addressable Thou, toward an addressable reality.” Sometimes in Celan’s work this Du is the reader; sometimes it seems to be a beloved person, a mother or wife; often it is something like God. But who is the “you” in a poem like this one, written in 1967, from which Celan took the title Lichtzwang (Lightduress)?

We already lay
deep in the underbrush, when you
finally crept along.
But we could not
darken over toward you:
there reigned

Every moment of this brief poem is open to multiple understandings. When “we” lay in the underbrush, were we hiding from danger—like Jews concealing themselves from a round-up—or were we ourselves lying in wait, about to spring an ambush, like partisans spying an approaching soldier? (Joris notes that the word he translates as “underbrush” is Macchia, an Italian word that is etymologically related to the French maquis, which gave its name to the fighters in the French resistance, the maquisards.) When “you/finally crept along,” were we anxiously waiting for you, hoping you would move faster, or dreading your arrival? What does it mean to “darken over toward” someone, and would such a contact be healing or harmful? “Lightduress” in this context reads like a negative thing, forcing “us” to remain in hiding; yet we ordinarily think of light as the element of exposure and freedom. Or perhaps “you” yourself are the bearer of a light—maybe a divine light—that prevents direct vision?

Reading Celan, clearly, is not a passive process but an active one. We ourselves must co-construct, out of the poem’s fragments and hints, some message or meaning. This is one reason why Celan is a favorite subject for critics, especially philosophers. (As Joris says in his introduction, the list of philosophers who have written about Celan includes Derrida, Blanchot, and Gadamer.) It is also why this untranslatable poetry turns out to be an irresistible target for translators: Joris’s Celan joins, in English, the versions of Hamburger, Felstiner, Heather McHugh, Susan Gillespie, and others. Celan’s obscurity turns readers into writers, while offering no guarantee that the meaning we construct will be the “right” one.

In fact, the further one reads in late Celan, the more likely it seems that it is precisely this confusion, this groping for orientation, that is the meaning of the poem. This is what happens when poetry, in Celan’s words, passes through its own answerlessness: it stops answering the questions we ordinarily bring to it, and demands that we listen in a different, more tentative way. (Here, again, Celan converges with Heidegger, who understood thinking as listening to Being.) For this reason, it is often possible to read Celan’s poems as being about poetry itself, as a particular mode of language and communication:

A roar: it is
truth itself
stepped among
right into the

This poem from Breathturn seems to take us to the origin of language itself. When truth steps among mankind, the result is not lucid speech, as we might desire or as a more confident era might have believed. It is, rather, a primal “roar,” which communicates power without articulation. Metaphor, the images and likenesses of poetry, do not capture truth the way a portraitist captures a sitter; rather, we simply pelt truth with metaphors and hope something sticks, like a snowflake in a flurry. If so, then perhaps the best way to read the cycles of late Celan is at a brisk pace, not trying to unlock each lyric’s secrets but stepping out into the continuing storm of the poet’s images.

Anselm Kiefer: Your Golden Hair, Margarethe, 1981; from his series of paintings based on Paul Celan’s poem ‘Todesfuge’
Anselm Kiefer: Your Golden Hair, Margarethe, 1981; from his series of paintings based on Paul Celan’s poem ‘Todesfuge’

Those images embrace a very wide range of reference and vocabulary, which is another source of difficulty—and opportunity—for the translator. Joris observes that Celan borrows technical terms from many disciplines, including “geology, mineralogy, geography, chemistry,…nuclear physics,…hunting, anatomy, physiology, and medicine.” In addition, he is a great coiner of new compounds out of individual words, something that German does with particular ease. Joris usually attempts to preserve these compounds, sometimes with the help of hyphens; thus we encounter words like “salt-water-clammy,” “many-thousand-years-old,” “heavensbeetles,” and hundreds more. Terms that other translators might expand into phrases are here compressed into adjectives, with strange consequences for word order:

Great, glowing vault
with the
outward- and away-
burrowing black-constellation swarm….

Compare Joris’s impacted version with the more grammatically comfortable translation of Michael Hamburger:

Vast, glowing vault
with the swarm of
black stars pushing them-
selves out and away…

For Hamburger, the stars are “pushing themselves,” a verb; for Joris, the stars are “outward- and away-burrowing,” an adjectival phrase. Joris’s grammar and word order are closer to Celan’s, but it is an open question whether this kind of fidelity is actually more faithful to the experience the German reader has with the original poem.

Celan’s freedom with language can be understood, like the poems themselves, in very different ways. Are his neologisms a sign of creative originality, as if language itself was in a primal, molten state, not yet bound by the rules of grammar? Or is this the scavenging of a postapocalyptic writer, trying to find usable parts in the wreckage of a language? The stakes could not be higher, since the universe itself, for Celan, often seems like something made of words:

The written hollows itself, the
spoken, seagreen,
burns in the bays,

in the
liquified names
the dolphins dart….

The element of language-mysticism in Celan brings him close to Jewish tradition; and it is striking that when concrete historical or cultural allusions occur in this poetry, they are very often to Jewish texts. Felstiner is the commentator who has insisted most cogently on this dimension of Celan’s work, citing a letter the poet wrote in 1948: “Perhaps I am one of the last who must live out to the end the destiny of the Jewish spirit in Europe.” And maybe only a Jewish writer could have called the German language to account in the terms Celan did.

The poet was not learned in Jewish matters, but between his youthful Hebrew school training and his adult reading of writers like Gershom Scholem, he found his way to images from Jewish tradition that he could make resonate in his verse. One of his most often translated late poems, from Threadsuns (1968), actually uses a Hebrew word:

Near, in the aortic arch,
in the light-blood:
the light-word.

Mother Rachel
weeps no more.
Carried over:
all the weepings.

Quiet, in the coronary arteries,
Ziv, that light.

Ziv is the kabbalistic term for the radiance of the divine presence. By locating this light deep within the human body, Celan gives a dramatic image of the interpenetration of human and divine. Yet it is not wrong to hear something discomfiting in this imagery of aortas and arteries—those vulnerable and secret places of the human anatomy, where foreign bodies do not belong except as potentially lethal obstructions.

The middle stanza alludes to Rachel, the biblical matriarch, who according to the prophet Jeremiah wept for the exile of the Jews to Babylon. Her weeping, Celan says, has never ended, merely been “carried over” for her descendants. Thus whatever consolation may be offered by the image of divine light is shadowed and put into question by the image of these perpetual tears. This is the kind of ambiguity that Celan allowed into every aspect of his work, from the most cosmic speculations to the smallest detail of word choice. Half a century after his death, his poetry is more familiar than ever, yet in Joris’s hands it remains just as powerfully alien as Celan meant it to be:

A tree-
high thought
grasps the light-tone: there are
still songs to sing beyond