On December 3, 2013, Pierre Joris discussed Paul Celan’s poetry, with special focus on his response to the genocide of Europe’s Jews and others during World War II. The session, which I moderated, featured close readings of passages of “Death Fugue” and “Stretto.” Joris played an audio recording of Celan reading the first section of “Death Fugue,” and a newly discovered video recording made from Celan’s appearance on German television.
When not long ago Pierre Joris joined host Leonard Schwartz for an episode of Cross Cultural Poetics (episode #253, entitled “Celan/Bronk”), I was all ears. Much of the discussion was about “The Meridian,” which is, for me, a crucial text. The audio recording of the program, which is aired live on a radio station in the state of Washington, has been brought over to PennSound. Now, as of today, it has been segmented (by Anna Zalokostas).
The conversation began with Joris’s account of the special difficulty of translating Celan’s famous speech (10:26): MP3. Then Joris described the sense of discovery and encounter in Celan’s work — and the “enlightening” experience of translating and making The Meridian: Final Version-Drafts-Materials (5:49): MP3. Joris also discussed “tremors and hints” of the compositional process, the transparency of Celan’s writing practice, and his aphoristic tendencies (4:53): MP3.
Joris has a striking way of describing Celan as a concentration camp survivor and his vexed and, one might say, traumatic relationship to the German language, and thus how careful he was when he wrote his response to having received the Buchner prize (5:05): MP3. Then, to my delight, Joris read some new translations of Celan’s aphorisms (0:46): MP3; and reminded us again of the richness of phrasing in The Meridian and concluded with a note on the daily work of poetry (2:14): MP3.
The Meridian speech is one of Paul Celan's key works. This meticulous, fascinating, and, finally, compelling edition begins by unlocking what seems to be the work's multifoliate nature. Ultimately, though, and with the help of Pierre Joris's eloquent translation, we discover that that under the many surfaces of this magisterial essay is an abyss of poetic thinking struggling to emerge into the light of our encounter.
I've prepared a document that might nicely serve as a primer to Paul Celan's wartime experience and early poems. It includes a page-long summary of his life c. 1941-45 and then five pages from Pierre Joris' excellent introductory profile to his Paul Celan: Selections, followed by the texts of just two early poems. Here is that document (PDF).