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Paul Celan
Between Two Tongues

Paul Celan
Language is a human act, and poetry proves this. There are few more difficult and equally rewarding poets than Paul Celan. Celan's dense and rhythmic poetry requires multiple readings from multiple angles—the more readers knows about his life, the more access they'll have to what the poem speaks to.

Paul Celan was a German-speaking Jew born in Romania, a region previously a part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Celan's mother instilled in him a love of literature with her own passion for German literature and insisted that their family only speak German.

In 1938, Celan traveled briefly to study medicine in France, but returned to his hometown to study literature and romance languages. Nazi Germany arrived by 1941. By the end of that year, Celan and his family were forced into labor camps. There his parents met their demise, while Celan escaped by 1944, scarred by the inhumane horrors and survivor's guilt.

The Holocaust remained a theme throughout his years of writing, though he rarely spoke of the events outright. Celan preferred an oblique approach, a confrontation of language through his past. In an introduction to Last Poems (1986), translator Katherine Washburn noted: 

The title of this book [Poppy and Memory] pointed with a fine vividness to the central predicament of Celan’s poetry—the unstable and dangerous union between Paul Celan, caught early in that sensual music of the Surrealists, pure poet of the intoxicating line, and Paul Ancel, heir and hostage to the most lacerating of human memories. (Introduction p. X)

Floating between these identities, he found words like glyphs etched into stone walls, hard symbols which would not condescend to the reader by offering helping hands. In Microliths, something of an Ars Poetica, he seems to lay out poetry's necessity for obscurity:

Poetry: Incursions of language into the daily.
              In our polychrome, not color-happy dailiness,
              the language of the poem, if it wants to remain the language of
              the p., will by necessity be gray.
Celan opened language in a way no one had before him. A rift formed within his own tongue, knowing that he spoke and wrote in German, the language that murdered his parents and his people. Shoshana Olidort wrote in a Chicago Tribune review "Breathturn into Timestead: Collected Later Poetry of Paul Celan" that Celan felt extreme estrangement from his language, and thus intentionally set about ‘dismantling and rewelding’ German language. It's full of paradoxes, double meanings, chasms, and neologisms like ‘wordcaves,’ ‘smokethin,’ ‘icethorn’ and ‘languagetime.’" Difficult and dark as his work may be, there is primal beauty in the ways he pits otherwise basic words against each other. In "Line the Wordcaves," he seems to point to the forever and simultaneous potentials of words, of poems, of ideas, and of human expression itself. It reads:

Line the wordcaves
with panther skins,

widen them, hide-to and hide-fro,
sense-hither and sense-thither,

give them courtyards, chambers, drop doors
and wildnesses, parietal,

and listen for their second
and each time second and second
tone.

Each line reads as a command, that we might give pause to the power within our seemingly most basic facility of communication.

For more of his poetry, including his most famous poem “Death Fugue” (p.11), read Twenty-Five Poems of Paul Celan.



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