Jerome Rothenberg

'Reading Celan' (1959, 1995, 2020) for the hundredth anniversary of Paul Celan's birth

First read at International Paul Celan Symposium, Maison des Ecrivains,

Paris, 1995

Reposted & rededicated to Pierre Joris, il miglior traduttore, 2020


Paul Celan was for me & others the great poet of what we later came to call the Holocaust. I was (I think) the first to translate him into English (or to translate him publicly), & I was fortunate enough to meet & talk with him in Paris three years before his death. When I was assembling A Big Jewish Book in the late 1970s (later called Exiled in the Word, from Edmond Jabès’s phrase), I used a poem of Celans as that gatherings concluding work; & I would like to start with it now, as a way to come into speaking about what I want to say about him today & in the reading I will do later in these sessions. He has been present for me since I first heard about him & long before I came myself to a kind of writing that I had put off for many years, although what propelled it had also propelled my life as a poet from the very beginning. I would like to suggest in doing this that Paul Celan was, for myself & many others, the exemplary poet in pointing to the possibility that such a poetry could still be written — & that it could, in any instance, be written as if written for the first time.


Celan’s poem is called Zürich, zum Storchen. It is dedicated to Nelly Sachs & translated, as I have it now in 2020, by Pierre Joris:


[Reads the poem beginning “Our talk turned on the Too Much, on the / Too Little. On you / on and-yet-you, on / blurring through brightness, on / Jewishness, on / your God. // On / that.” And ending: “We / just don’t know, you know, / we just don’t know / what / counts.”]


With Celan, who was a poet of the human — not only Jewish — disaster of the Second World War, I would like to address a theme or presence to which until several years ago my own work only barely alluded, but which has been an ongoing subtext in most of my poetry & in that of much of my generation. In a period of barely half a dozen years (from 1939 to 1945), there were over forty million state-directed murders of human beings & at least that many sufferings, maimings, & tortures: a disaster so large as to be almost incomprehensible & itself only a part of the disasters & conflagrations of the century & millennium from which were now emerging. Auschwitz & Hiroshima came to be the two events by which we spoke of it — signs of an enormity that turned myth into history, metaphor into fact. The horror of those events encompassed hundreds & thousands of like disasters, joined (as we began to realize) to other, not unrelated violence against the environment/the earth & the other-than-human world. By the mid-twentieth century, in Charles Olsons words, man had been reduced to so much fat for soap, superphosphate for soil, fillings & shoes for sale, an enormity that had robbed language (one of our proudest acts he said) of the power to respond meaningfully, had thus created a crisis of expression (no, of meaning, of reality), for which a poetics must be devised if we were to rise, again, beyond the level of a scream or of a silence more terrible than any scream.


The ground against which Olson, writing in the late 1940s, set his own poetry of resistance was the too familiar ground of Auschwitz — in his most specific reference: Buchenwald — & the death camps of World War II. Even now, when that ground has been sanitized & turned into a museum (a museum more than a shrine), the presence as exhibits of hair, shoes, fillings, glasses, prayer shawls, and toys can still bring an immediate, uncontrollable sense of the reduction, the degradation that the modern world allows. When I first came to Paul Celans poetry — in 1957 or 1958 — the war and the Holocaust (though I still didnt call it that) seemed very close to hand. I cannot remember how central that was to my reading of Celan then, although Death Fugue (Todesfuge) — his most overt poem about the death camps — was one of the poems that I translated. But I want to be quite clear about that opening attraction to Celan, for what allured me those thirty-seven years ago was not simply his relation to the Holocaust as subject, but that I felt a renewal in his work of energies & gestures that the war — if anything — seemed to have set aside, called into question. A renewal & the beginnings — there & elsewhere — of a new twist on those older moves & stances (Surrealist and Dada) in which the war, the Holocaust, could also find a voice.

Since that was 1959, the bulk of the poems I translated (as part of a small anthology of mine called New Young German Poets) were from Mohn und Gedächtnis and Von Schwelle zu Schwelle, in which the fear or terror, rarely overt in its references (Death Fugue is in that sense an exception), was carried forward by a music of (almost) songlike rhythms & (not only in Death Fugue but throughout) quasi-formal repetitions. But it was only with the last poem I translated — Schneebett (Snowbed) from his (then) new book Sprachgitter — that the language began to show that convulsiveness — that disassembling & reassembling of language — that would later be the hallmark of his work. Looking back at New Young German Poets, I see the page with “Snowbed” sitting next to a page with Helmut Heissenbüttel’s “Combination II,” and I note (as it struck me then too) that both (I stress both) have the marks of a consciously experimental deconstruction of ordinary verse & language. (I use the word “deconstruction” advisedly.) The first numbered section of Heissenbüttel’s poem consists of the single word “blackness” hyphenated & broken into two lines, & the first line of his second section (written entirely as capital letters) reads as a single linked word AFTERNOONSSLEEPREMINISCENCE … both of these being gestures described far too quickly as “uniquely” Celan’s. And yet already at that time, while I spoke of Heissenbüttel in my introduction as “the most consistent verse experimenter” of the poets presented, I said of Celan (in a very brief contributor’s note): “Paul Celan (b. 1920, Czernowitz/Bukowina, Rumania, now living in Paris) is regarded by many as the greatest of the post-war poets in Germany, perhaps in Europe. Because of his Jewish background, he grew up apart from the German world whose language he shared. Surviving, he has transformed that language into a unique personal instrument for assaulting a reality that has wounded him but that he still desires to address as ‘Thou.’”


Looking back at it in that context, I am curious as to what I meant by Celan’s “uniqueness.” It is as if there were already an inkling of the extremity of the later work, the shape it would take (in extremis) as he moved it further through his life & toward his death. For it suddenly occurs to me that to speak of Celan’s 1959 work as unique — sitting as it does here next to Heissenbüttel’s, with whom it shares certain (less-than-unique) characteristics — is already to assume, as I did, something personal (particular to him) — the use of language (a specific language) as “a personally unique instrument” (meaning a tool, or possibly a weapon): the voice in German of a Jew who had survived the German-led Holocaust & was about to become the greatest poet of the German language after Rilke, say, or after Hölderlin, or what? His was, then, an act of subversion & defiance, clear enough even at that early point, although I had no way of knowing how deep, how, specifically, deep into language, that defiance, that mastery on every level of the German tongue, would go.


By the time I met Celan — in 1967 — his reputation had certainly begun to grow, and his work had touched the extremes of a post-Holocaust poetics. (It was still, however, four years before a first volume of his poems would appear in English.)  By then his own work had developed through the 1963 publication of Die Niemandsrose (The Nomansrose) and the publication — just that year (1967) — of an even greater breakthrough volume, Atemwende (Breathturn). My own work then was heavily involved with experimental processes — of sound, of image, of metaphor, of visual presentation, of heightened oral performance, of ethnopoetic delvings into a multiplicity of human pasts. I was also acutely aware of my own contemporaries in English, to a lesser degree of his in German; & it seemed to me, among other things, that Celan’s most recent verse (as in the poem I read at opening & in works with titles such as Breathturn and Breathcrystal) was as close as that of any European writer to the desired poetics of the breath (& body) that was forming the basis of what was then the most germinal side of the new American poetics. In Celan’s words, which were so pregnant for us then & will be repeated often, I believe, in the sessions here: “Poetry is perhaps this: an Atemwende, a turning of our breath … [&] it is perhaps this turn, this Atemwende, which can sort out the strange from the strange.” And still further, as the call for a new poetics to meet a new reality, or to mine into our deepest layers (of history, of thought), he showed in his work the model for a poetry stripped down, compressed, exploring unavoidable “difficulties of vocabulary, [a] faster flow of syntax, [&] a more awakened sense of ellipsis” that connect (however “indirectly,” he tells us) to “[the poem’s] strong tendency toward silence.”


He is, in this sense, one of those in the postmodern (postholocaust) period who came to realize & extend the innovations of the modern — not as a matter, simply, of his formal practice, but of that practice turned into a process of salvation/salvaging driven by the poet/seeker’s desperation. We all have that to some degree, but there are certain poets — like Celan, Artaud, Vallejo, Hölderlin — whose lives (whose sufferings perhaps) invade the work & thereby dramatize the human fate the form addresses. In Celan’s case — not uniquely perhaps but astonishingly — the suffering seems so closely tied to “Holocaust,” to that ultimate disaster of a people & a culture (that ultimate reduction of the human that brought about Olson’s cry for a resistance through the breath, the body of both man & poem) — the suffering seems so closely tied to “Holocaust” that the central issue of his work (the pursuit of a “reality [that] is not simply there [but] must be sought for and won”) becomes alive for him & us: the dramatic example of what the revolution of language / revolution of the word might mean in our time. If something like this is inherent in the work of many, in his poetry & life it was brought to an unavoidable realization; for what sets him apart even here is that the language itself seems shaken to its foundations — disassembled & reassembled in such a way that the act of language becomes (for the moment) a believable act of redemption. It is reminiscent in that sense of William Blake’s prophecy from nearly two hundred years ago:


                             Obey thou the Words of the Inspired Man

                        All that can be annihilated must be annihilated

                        That the Children of Jerusalem may be saved from slavery


and again:


… Till Generation is swallowed up in Regeneration.


This has been noted often enough as it appears in Celan: a work of redemption carried on as a struggle against the horrors inherent in everyday language & act — more specifically the ways in which the dominant language (German in his case) is shaped & distorted by those whom the Dada poet Richard Huelsenbeck had called “the advocates of power” & had contrasted to the “creative forces” that it was Dada’s goal to free. In that light, I would say, Celan’s struggle with language — like ours — should not be viewed as his malaise so much as a sane, totally sane effort to get rid of what still another Dada poet, Hugo Ball, in midst of World War I, had called “the filth that clings to language,” & by that very act of poetry — again I’m quoting Ball — “to get rid of language itself.” Of the realization in Celan’s work & life of that most profound & moving of avant-garde incitements (& of its relation to a specific language, German), our American colleague Jed Rasula has written: “Very few writers have so openly allowed the language of their poems to be helpless, to be written from a condition of abrupt syntactic disintegration consciously attended to. The great difficulty — and thus his greatest example for later poets — is in practicing a craft on material that disappears in proportion to the success of the poet. … With Celan, the German language itself becomes the means of its own disembodiment. In his hands, more and more of the language simply goes up in smoke.  There is nothing like it in any other language that I know of.”


A language that goes up in smoke is symptomatically, inherently, a language “after Auschwitz” — after the death camps & crematoria & deaths by fire of World War II. As poetry — as an assertion that such an act of language is only possible as poetry — it is a rejection or a radical & ironic reinterpretation of Adorno’s pronouncement about the barbarity or immorality of writing lyrik after Auschwitz. By his work & by his life, then, Celan stands as a beacon for all of us who came to poetry as a means of resistance — a necessary counter-language to the other languages — the languages of power. I would therefore want to end this praise of Celan with a poem of my own wherein I address the question of poetry after Auschwitz. In 1970 I dedicated to him the first installment of a series of poems called Poland/1931, in which I invoked an imagined ancestral Poland as the place from which my Jewish parents had come & where their parents and parents’ parents had lived before them — as far back as we can remember. Nearly twenty years later I went to Poland for the first time & found myself haunted by the ghosts of that place & driven toward a poetry that spoke — in my own words — of what we in my family had called, not “Holocaust” but (using a familiar Hebrew-Yiddish word) khurbn. In the poem that I’ll read I address the spirits of the dead as dibbikim / dibbiks: those numbering in the tens of millions who had died before their time. And in the same breath I invoke Adorno’s familiar words about Auschwitz.


[reads Dibbikim]


spirits of the dead    lights

flickering (he said) their ruakh

will never leave the earth

instead they crowd the forests the fields

around the privies the hapless spirits

wait millions of souls

turned into ghosts at once

the air is full of them

they are standing each one beside a tree

under its shadows or the moon’s

but they cast no shadows of their own

this moment & the next they are pretending

to be rocks     but who is fooled

who is fooled here    by the dead    the jews

the gypsies     the leadeyed polish patriot

living beings reduced to symbols

of what it had been to be alive

“o do not touch them” the mother cries

fitful, as almost in a dream

she draws the child’s hand to her heart

in terror    but the innocent dead

grow furious they break down doors

drop slime onto your tables

they tear their tongues out by the roots

& smear your lamps your children's lips

with blood a hole drilled in the wall

will not deter them

from stolen homes stone architectures

they hate they are the convoys of the dead

the ghostly drivers still searching

the roads to malkin     ghost carts overturned

ghost autos in blue ditches

if only our eyes were wild enough

to see them our hearts to know their terror

the terror of the man who walks alone

their victim whose house whose skin

they crawl in     incubus & succubus

a dibbik leaping from a cow to lodge inside

his throat    clusters of jews

who swarm here mothers without hair

blackbearded fathers

they lap up fire     water     slime

entangle the hairs of brides

or mourn their clothing hovering

over a field of rags     half-rotted shoes

& tablecloths     old thermos bottles    rings

lost tribes in empty synagogues

at night their voices

carrying across the fields

to rot your kasha your barley

stricken beneath their acid rains

no holocaust because no sacrifice

no sacrifice to give the lie

of meaning     & no meaning     after auschwitz

there is only poetry   no hope

no other language left to heal

no language     & no faces

because no faces left     no names

no sudden recognitions on the street

only the dead still swarming     only khurbn

a dead man in a rabbi’s clothes

who squats     outside the mortuary house

who guards their privies who is called

master of shit     an old alarm clock

hung around his neck     who holds

a wreathe of leaves under his nose

from eden     “to drive out

the stinking odor of this world”


From Jerome Rothenberg, Poetics & Polemics 1980–2005, University of Alabama Press, Modern & Contemporary Poetics Series, 2008.