Anatomy of a Sentence: Paul Celan

By Daniel Stephensen


I treasure the humility of Paul Celan’s guidance. Born in 1920 into a Romanian Jewish family (he formed “Celan” from the syllables of his family name “Antschel”) in Bukovina, Kingdom of Romania, now part of Ukraine, Celan remains one of the twentieth century’s most highly regarded poets, a true master of the German language. On the insistence of his mother, German became the language of the family home, and so Celan learned the language of her murderers: Forcibly deported by the Nazi-sympathizing government, his parents were killed in labor camps; Celan later survived one.

Setting himself the enormous task of recovering the German language for poetry after the Shoah, Celan created a Celanian language within German. In his poems he composed himself in reality, and he sent the poems out in search of those who come to poetry to encounter the stammerings of human hearts.

Perhaps poetry best can hold fearsome torment and speak it in a way that increases our capacity to persevere in our lives.

“A poem, being an instance of language, hence essentially dialogue, may be a letter in a bottle thrown out to sea with the—surely not always strong—hope that it may somehow wash up somewhere, perhaps on a shoreline of the heart.”

—Paul Celan, from “Speech on the Occasion of Receiving the Literature Prize of the Free Hanseatic City of Bremen” (1958), translated by poet Rosmarie Waldrop

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This sentence is a mighty and humble articulation of the purpose of poetry. If a poem is whatever the poem is, there remains also its purpose as a coordinator of human encounters. A poet first encounters a poem as a living thing made not of language but of sensations. The poet coordinates its encounter with language, making a poem. When the poet releases the poem into the world, when it is bottled and “thrown out to sea,” the poem, this persevering, living thing, seeks encounters of its own—a reader, an audience at a bar, a lover who reads it to her beloved. In these encounters, one by one, stammering hearts are added to the poem, and the poem to these hearts.

I like reading poets’ translations of poets. Often I find something fascinating and very beautiful moving between their two consciousnesses. The British poet Michael Hamburger translated this untitled late Celan poem:

The trumpet part
deep in the glowing
at lamp height
in the time hole:

listen your way in
with your mouth.

Here is the poem reaching to me, giving me its attention. I feel it at my heart. It shows me to it. As I read, the poem and I are added to each other, and we share the voice of our encounter; I speak the poem—we bespeak each other: A human encounter, this humble need in which we persevere.




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