Paul Celan, Poet and Translator

I’ve been listening to a lot more podcasts lately. Recently Biella Coleman sent me to Radio National’s 360 Documentaries for one about internet activists Anonymous that I really enjoyed. I ended up keeping my subscription to their feed.

The title of the most recent edition is A message in a bottle: encounters with Paul Celan and Martin Heidegger – as per my usual method, I just dived without even looking at the title, but soon I was hooked:

Paul Celan is regarded by many critics as one of the greatest European poets of the 20th century, as important in the pantheon of German language poets as Goethe and Holderlin.

But the surprise, the discovery, was reading the poetry of Paul Celan. It was a shattering experience, its impact upon me difficult to encompass in a bland sentence or two. Celan’s vision is at once one of immense grief – the grief of exile, of bearing witness to the Holocaust, of facing history and personal loss in the one moment – and also a vision of what can only be called ‘a terrible beauty’. Reading his work I found myself frequently breathless, at other times in tears, or astounded by the beauty he conveyed in startling images, suffused through with arcane and complex allusions.

Beyond giving an account of Celan, and of his encounter with Heidegger, the radio feature picks up on and explores the primary theme identified by Felstiner – that of our being ‘at home’ only in language. It is an idea echoed and developed along different lines by Heidegger – that we can only fully exist in langauge – that in effect ‘being’ is language.

These are complex ideas, but the lives through which these ideas are explored here are rich and the events engaging. And discovering, by chance, this ‘messages in a bottle’ has been one of the most exciting discoveries of my life.

Paul Celan‘s take on language after Auschwitz is fascinating:

“Only one thing remained reachable, close and secure amid all losses: language. Yes, language. In spite of everything, it remained secure against loss. But it had to go through its own lack of answers, through terrifying silence, through the thousand darknesses of murderous speech. It went through. It gave me no words for what was happening, but went through it. Went through and could resurface, ‘enriched’ by it all.”

Elsewhere he notes:

There is nothing in the world for which a poet will give up writing, not even when he is a Jew and the language of his poems is German.

He also worked as a translator (from what I can gather, of Russian Literature into Romanian, and later, English into German) included Shakespeare, Breton, Artaud, Kafka, Rimbaud, Picasso, Dickinson and Frost amongst many others.

It is a fascinating production – highly recommend.