So then! On Wednesday next week, Sidekick team up with the Stockholm Review of Literature for the above event, Alkemi, which centers around European poetry read in its original form alongside English translations. In the last few days before the event, I’m going to do a very short series of posts about key European poets of My Bookshelf, from the perspective of a reader with very little aptitude (despite ongoing attempts to rectify this) for foreign languages.
To start with, Paul Celan, born Paul Antschel, 1920 – 1970, a Romanian-born poet who wrote in German, forging progressively sparser, sharper, harder sliver-shards of poetry throughout his career.
My first encounter with Celan was in the third year of my undergraduate degree at UEA. I apologise for the mundanity of this. He appeared on a course of major German poets, alongside Rilke and Hölderlin, and I wrote a coursework essay on him, which I am sure I could no longer stand by, arguing that he was writing toward the ‘end of language’. The marks I received suggested I was on the right track, but that has very little to do with why I keep returning to this poet.
The bluffer’s guide to poetry will tell you that if someone brings up Celan, you bring up his suicide and the Holocaust. Both of Celan’s parents died in labour camps, and he himself spent time in one before being liberated by the Russian advance. It’s widely accepted that his poetry addresses and struggles with that experience, and his most famous poem, ‘Todesfuge’ (Death Fugue), is entirely unambiguous in taking on that subject matter. The bluffer’s guide might suggest that you quote “through the thousand darknesses of murderous speech”, Celan’s assessment of how language itself (in particular, German) was brutalised by the Nazi regime. Beyond that, you may well be advised to say nothing at all – Celan is difficult, and more importantly, criticism of Celan is difficult. What I’ve read of it is deep-reaching, meticulous, hard to follow and impossible for me to summarise. It makes the poet himself seem dark, despondent and, er, difficult.
But still, none of this is why I keep coming back to him. This may seem intellectually irresponsible, even culturally insensitive, but I’m not that interested in engaging with the Holocaust, or with the Jewish experience, through Celan’s writing. To the extent that particular poems can be traced back to distinct episodes in his life, this is a little more arresting, but I am generally not a fan of parsing the poem as biographical insight. For me, he is much more intriguing as a poet of jagged, crystal strangeness, particularly towards the end of his career, when he made heavy use of neologisms and portmanteau, shunting words together to gesture at new and frightening concepts. An important part of the effect comes from the hard edges (as I perceive it) of the German language, and it’s always worth reading several translations of Celan to see the extent to which different translators have tried echo the sound of the original poem.
My favourite translations, by the way, are those by Ian Fairley, who has produced two books of Celan translations for Carcanet – Snowpart and Fathomsuns and Benighted. He keeps a lot of the portmanteau words. They’re like little birds made of sawblades. The poems are often extremely short – seemingly easily to swallow, yet liable to get caught in the throat. Check out this little number from Snowpart:
ZUR NACHTORDNUNG Über-
die Irrenzelte gepflanzter
TO THE ORDER OF NIGHT Over-
planted ahead the bedlam tents,
I could probably go into a thorough comparison of different translations at this point, but I’m not sure I’m up to the task right now, and this is meant to be a very short article. So I’ll end here by saying that the German sound is so integral to the feel of Celan’s poems that when I attempted my own versions, I went so far as to ignore the literal sense entirely and produce a homophonic translation, a form of poem decried by Don Paterson as avant-garde whimsy. The result frustrated a reviewer of my own book, though it’s hard to imagine he would have found much more sense in a literal translation. Below is the original German, followed by Ian Fairley’s translation, then Michael Hamburger’s, and finally my homophonic version from School of Forgery.