Paul Celan: Words from the Snow

July 3, 2008 at 5:30 am (Dominic Alapat, Essay)


What words would do justice to Paul Celan’s poetry?


From the first time I read him nearly 10 years ago, Celan’s voice has remained in my mind like great rags of sound fluttering in the breeze of 20th century poetry. 


Celan was born in 1920 in a German-speaking Jewish family in the Eastern European city of Czernowitc, a part of the Austrian empire. His personal life, which was entwined around one of most catastrophic events of the century, the Holocaust, produced poems that to many are unmatched in their power, moral and poetic, in descriptions of a world that had gone and killed itself. Sample these lines from ‘Deathfugue’:


Black milk of daybreak we drink it at evening

we drink it at midday and morning we drink it at night

we drink and drink

we shovel a grave in the air where you won’t lie too cramped

A man lives in the house he plays with his vipers he writes

he writes when it grows dark to Deutschland your golden hair


he writes it and steps out of doors and the stars are all sparkling he

     whistles his hounds to stay close

he whistles his Jews into rows has them shovel a grave in the ground

he commands us play up for the dance   


Celan (born Paul Antschel), like many other German-speaking Jews of his time, grew up on the classics of Goethe and Schiller, and Hebrew texts. Having a deep love for poetry, he read Dante, Shakespeare, Dickinson and the French Symbolists. From his teenage years onwards, he translated poetry from English, Romanian and French into German.

One day in 1942, during the course of World War II, his parents were picked up in a raid by the occupying German forces and sent to Ukraine to a concentration camp. Celan returned home that night to find his parents gone. Soon after, he himself was sent to forced labour where he learnt that his parents had died; his father of typhus, his mother shot dead. These events changed the course of his life and resulted in a poetry that moves like no other with its pain and its sense of horror and loss at the world. His poetry is an attempt to find reality in a radically altered world. In this changed world, he wondered what role the German language would have to play. In ‘Nearness of Graves’ he asks:


And can you bear, Mother, as once on a time,

the gentle, the German, the pain-laden rhyme?         


Celan returned home after two years in labour camp and eventually found his way to Paris where he lived till 1970, when he took his own life at the age of 49. His poetry got him the top literary prizes in Germany after the war. With Nelly Sachs and Peter Huchel, Celan defined German poetry of the postwar era. He married the French graphic artist Gisèle Lestrange, had a son, and earned a living as teacher, translator and poet. Writers like Gunter Grass and Primo Levi and philosophers like Martin Heidegger and Theodor Adorno came to acknowledge his writing. Yet, in spite of all the accolades and acclaim, Celan was a poet in pursuit of what would make sense for him in his poetry and in his world, with a heart that had gone past bewilderment. He suffered from bouts of depression and always the snow of the Ukraine where his mother perished returned to him:


Aspen tree, your leaves glance white into the dark.

My mother’s hair never turned white.


Dandelion, so green is the Ukraine.

My fair-haired mother did not come home.


Rain cloud, do you linger at the well?

My soft-voiced mother weeps for all.


Rounded star, you coil the golden loop.

My mother’s heart was hurt by lead.


Oaken door, who hove you off your hinge?

My gentle mother cannot return.    


Celan was against philosophising about his poetry. He never chose to elaborate on his poems in his interviews and said that meaning rests in the poems alone. Writing poetry for Celan was “an attempt to gain direction”. A poem for him “can be a message in a bottle, sent out in the—not always greatly hopeful—belief that somewhere and sometime it could wash up on land, on heartland perhaps.”


Celan’s was a hunt for a language threaded bare. His words go off in the mind with a freshness and power that seem to knock down the boundaries of reality, yet is a part of it and also constantly searching for it.


Many of his later poems, works from the mid to late-sixties, are short poems, almost like haiku. Here, the words are pared down to a minimum. The poems stand like torn flags in the wind, with a plain speaking transcendental power. In ‘Once’, a poem seemingly to be meditating on God, he says:



I heard him,

he was washing the world,

unseen, nightlong,



One and infinite,


they I’ed.


Light was. Salvation.


Celan’s bouts of depression increased during the late 60’s and he committed suicide by drowning himself in the Seine River in 1970. Since then, his poems have been translated into many languages and have come to be recognised by poets, critics and readers as an outstanding human testament to a terrible time. Translators like Michael Hamburger and John Felstiner, from whom I have quoted, have rendered a great service to Celan’s English language readers with their insight and scholarship in his works. Celan’s influences can be seen today in the poetry of vastly different cultures and languages. The American critic Helen Vendler calls him “the greatest poet since Yeats.”


Many living under brutal and oppressive power structures find a world of their own in Celan’s poems. Like all great poetry, his works transcend their time; they have a lot to tell us in their universality about art and the human condition. Yet, Celan on the occasion of receiving The Literature Prize from the city of Bremen, said, “A poem is not timeless. Certainly it lays claim to infinity, it seeks to reach through time—through it, not above and beyond it.”


For me, this is one of the wisest comments on poetry I have read. Poetry is after all the engagement of the poet with his or her reality. It is this test the poet’s work has to engage with. Language and environment, what each does to the other. What art will result out of this marriage. Like with all great literature, each reading of Celan will encounter deeper feeling and nuance as though found for the first time. Like incantations of a kind, his poetry is like the smoke rising to the sky from the death-chambers of the Nazi camps. 



– Dominic Alapat.


 [Lines quoted are from Selected Poems and Prose of Paul Celan translated by John Felstiner, Norton books.]



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