George Hunka on Celan

New books: Paul Celan

Paul Celan.

Paul Celan remains one of the most significant poets of the twentieth century. The two great poems of his early career, “Death Fugue” (circa 1945) and “Stretto” (1958), were respectively informed, if not inspired, by the Holocaust and the detonation of the atomic bomb. His body of work was a response, if not a riposte, to Adorno’s speculation that poetry was impossible in the wake of Auschwitz and Hiroshima; as Peter Szondi put it, “After Auschwitz no poem is any longer possible except on the basis of Auschwitz” — which is only to say that the only valid poetic imagination was that which was irrevocably cognizant that Auschwitz and Hiroshima were verifiable, inescapable facts of human behavior and linguistic history.

Both poems have generated a great deal of secondary literature, but Celan went even further with the poems in the second half of his career, which like Beckett’s late plays became increasingly difficult but hauntingly lucid nonetheless, radically concentrated — not least because any criticism explicating these plays and poems could never match the intensity of these plays and poems themselves as they attempt to reclaim the German language (and, perhaps by extension, human language itself) as a vehicle for the expression of love. So it is with great pleasure that I read of the publication this month of Breathturn into Timestead: The Collected Later Poetry — A Bilingual Edition from Farrar Straus and Giroux, translated by Pierre Joris. Joris has gathered six of Celan’s late books (three of which were published posthumously) in this 736-page collection, which also includes an introduction by Joris and extensive notes. Published on December 4, so far its release has been greeted with silence.

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