Paul Celan and the Meaning of Language — An Interview with Pierre Joris

Above right: Paul Celan, passport photo
Breathturn into Timestead:
The Collected Later Poetry of Paul Celan

A Bilingual Edition Translated and with Commentary by Pierre Joris
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 736 pages,ISBN-10: 0374125988


Doug Valentine with Pierre Joris

Paul Celan and the Meaning of Language
An Interview with Pierre Joris


There is great pleasure to be found in Paul Celan’s poetry. His dazzling neologisms (“wordwall”, “smokethin”, “icethorn”) and surreal imagery are testaments to how powerful, beautiful and intriguing imagination can be. But his poetry is difficult to understand, its emotional content buried, it seems, beneath the unspeakable horrors of the Holocaust…..


Doug – Before we get to Breathturn, would you please tell me what you think are the core conceptual and emotional components of Celan’s poetry? You’ve spoken of his relationship with the German language; the loss of his mother; his biting sarcasm; and his “optimistic anarcho-socialist strain.”

Pierre – There can be little doubt that the core emotional experience for Celan was the loss of his parents, and especially the mother, in forced labor camps. Or, in a wider sense, he was shaped by those historical events that defined the generation(s) of Jewish (and non-Jewish) people who lived through the Nazi period. But it is important to note a very major difference between him and many, if not most, other survivors who were or became writers. 

As I wrote elsewhere, “despite the presence throughout the work (or better maybe below the work) of the events of the Nazi years, especially the murder of his mother, there is a strong refusal in Celan to let his writing become simply a repository for a narrative of the Shoah, in a profound contrast to most Holocaust writers, a major part of whose endeavor has been to dwell again and again on the past in order to chronicle with as much accuracy as it they could muster the events of their lives during those fateful years (Elie Wiesel and Primo Levi come to mind but also poets like Abba Kovener or Abraham Sutzkever). Not only did Celan not write such an autobiographical prosopopoeia, but  he refused steadfastly to speak in public or private about the events connected with the Shoah. Symptomatic for this reticence is the following biographical comment from 1949: “With the exception of a one year stay in France, I, for all practical purposes, never left my native city prior to 1941. I don’t need to relate what the life of a Jew was like during the war years.” This decision not to dwell on those years and the horrors they gave birth to —  no matter the shadow they throw on the rest of his life — informs the stance of his writing for the next quarter-century. One way to see you this is to examine the rewriting of the poem “Deathfuge” in the poem “Stretto” — which I did in some detail in the introduction to my 2005 bookPaul Celan: Selections (University of California Press).

continued here.

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