Interpreting Paul Celan (2012)

Bronwyn Lloyd, ed.: brief 46 – The Survival Issue (November 2012)

Interpreting Paul Celan

[Paul Celan & Gisèle Celan-Lestrange:
Correspondance, vol. I (2001)]

[Paris, 10. 1. 1968]

Chère Gisèle,

je viens d' écrire un poème fait de mots assez simples – je te l'envoie. J'espère beaucoup qu'il te parlera.
Je pense à toi
(Badiou, I : 608)

[Dear Gisèle,
I’ve just written a poem made up of quite simple words – I’m sending it to you. I very much hope it will speak to you.
thinking of you
Paul ] [1]

This is letter no. 597 in the 2001 French edition of the collected correspondence of German poet Paul Celan and his wife, artist and engraver Gisèle Celan-Lestrange. Gisèle’s German was poor, so the two always wrote to each other in French: her native tongue, his language of predilection. The poems he attached to his letter were, however, always in German: hence the reference above to this particular example being “made up of quite simple words.”
[Paris,] 14 janvier 1968

Cher Paul,
Je te remercie pour le très beau poème "Was näht?". Je crois que je peux le suivre un peu. Il me semble plein d'espoir et aussi continuer le premier poème de «Atemwende» – je l'aime beaucoup
. (Badiou, I : 611)

[Dear Paul,
Thank you for the very beautiful poem “Was Näht?” [What’s Stitched?]. I think that I can follow it a bit. It seems to me full of hope, and also to carry on from the first poem of Atemwende [Breathturn] – I like it very much.]

This is the opening of letter 598, Gisèle’s reply. Clearly she hadn’t found the words quite as “simple” as Paul had hoped. “I think that I can follow it a bit” is as far as she will go in that respect. She does, however, venture some theories on just why he might have felt moved to send it to her.

The two were estranged at the time. In fact, they had been living separately ever since Paul had made a violent assault on his wife, leading to yet another incarceration in the mental hospital at Sainte-Geneviève-des-Bois. They still shared a son, though: Eric, who would eventually act as the co-editor of his parent’s letters (as well as those addressed to him as a child by his father).

The poem “made up of quite simple words,” and dated, with characteristic precision, «10 janvier 68, huit heutes du soir» [January 10th, 1968 : 8 pm] does indeed begin simply enough:
an dieser Stimme? Woran
näht diese
diesseits, jenseits?
(Weidemann, 317)

But what does it mean? On the comparatively infrequent occasions that Celan neglects to include vocabulary notes (often even accompanied by a literal French version of his own poem), the co-editor of the Celan-Lestrange letters, Bertrand Badiou, has supplied his own translation. In this case his version reads as follows:
dans cette voix? Que
coud cette
de ce côté-ci, de l'autre côté?
(I : 610)

This I would translate as:
What is stitched in that voice? What is that voice sewing on this side, on that?

It isn’t included in any of the various recensions of Michael Hamburger’s Selected Poems of Paul Celan, nor in either John Felstiner’s biography or his translation of the poet’s Selected Poems and Prose, so there’s no guidance to be expected from either of these two standard sources.

Pierre Joris, the third in the triumvirate of major translators of Celan into English, in his 2005 Selections, renders it as follows:
at this voice? What
does this
hither, beyond? (Joris, ii, 132)

Ian Fairley, in his complete 2007 translation of Celan’s posthumous book of poems Schneepart [Snow Part] (1971), gives it as:
at this voice? At what
does this voice
on this side and on that? (18)

My own version of the poem differs (slightly) from both. It reads:
What’s stitched

into that voice?
What’s it
this way
that way?

The precipice swears
by white alone
vomits up
the snow-needle

swallow it

you order the world
that counts as much
as reciting nine names
on your knees

Tumuli Tumuli
heap those mounds up
come alive
in a kiss

in the distance
a fin
lights up the bay
cast anchor
your shadow’s
lost in the undergrowth


a beetle spots you
you face
each other
cocoon you

the great
will let you pass

a leaf transfuses you
piped through
before you choke

you have the right to one tree
to one day
it notes down your number

a word with all its green
burrows in to plant itself

follow it

As you can see, there’s quite a lot to be said about the various choices I’ve made in rendering the poem. For the moment, though, I’d like to backtrack a little: seven years or so, in fact, to 1960.

Early in 1960, Paul Celan was told that he’d been selected to receive that year’s Georg Büchner prize. It’s hard to convey to non-German-speaking readers just how big a deal this is: at least as important as the Booker Prize, possibly on a level with the Pulitzer. Given the hard times he’d been going through, the lack of any obvious recognition for his work, news of this prize reached Celan like manna from heaven.

Of course he promptly began to doubt his worthiness to receive it. After that had subsided a bit, he began to agonise over the speech the winner traditionally delivers on receipt of the award. It seemed a golden opportunity to sum up his aesthetics once and for all – but how to couch it? in what terms? How to get his message across to a nation he felt so ambivalent about, so alienated from? How, in short, to give a speech that would reject the false impression so many had taken from “Todesfuge” [Death-fugue], his most famous poem, that some kind of reconciliation was in fact possible between the heirs of the Nazi régime and their surviving victims?

The result was “The Meridian.” Much quoted, much discussed – little understood. Not so much because Celan’s ideas on art are particularly esoteric or difficult to understand, but because – in deference to his hosts – he couched them almost entirely in the form of references to the works of Georg Büchner, the writer and dramatist in whose name the prize continues to be awarded.

There was nothing perverse or wilful about this to Celan – it made perfect sense to him and others, especially when one considers the sheer heft of Büchner’s ferocious, radical genius, his unique place in German culture. It does rather have the effect, though (for most English-speaking readers), of explaining one’s ideas in Shakespearean terms to an audience that’s never seen or studied one of his plays.

The “Meridian” speech is included in Rosmarie Waldrop’s very useful edition of Celan’s Collected Prose. There’s also a translation of it in Pierre Joris’s Celan: Selections, and another in John Felstiner’s Selected Poems and Prose. Until last year, though, with the appearance of Joris’s book-length English translation of the 1999 German edition of the complete drafts and materials for the speech, there was no way of knowing just how much energy and time he’d put into preparing this text, how much it apparently mattered to him.

There’s a crucial moment early in the speech, where he’s trying to define just what he means by this “meridian” that guides his sense of art, of poetry. A meridian, I’d remind you, is a line of longitude: either an imaginary circle running through both poles of the earth, or else one inscribed on the celestial sphere from the perspective of an individual observer. It’s by analogy with the latter meaning, I suppose, that “meridian” can be extended to mean “the highest point or state of consciousness and enlightenment achievable by a human” (

Celan gives his own explanation in Büchnerian terms, by citing a particular moment in the play Dantons Tod [Danton’s Death] (1835), about the French revolution:
And here [on the scaffold], where it all comes to an end, in the long moments when Camille [Desmoulins] … dies a theatrical – one is nearly tempted to say: a iambic – death … when all around Camille pathos and sententiousness confirm the triumph of “puppet” and “string,” then Lucile, one who is blind to art, the same Lucile for whom language is something person-like and tangible, is there, once again, with her sudden “Long live the king!” (Joris iii, 3)

It is, I suppose, a moment of intense courage: a courage so strong as to seem almost perverse. It comes out of nowhere in the scene, true – and yet refocuses the whole course of it: suddenly all the rest of that windy “pathos and sententiousness” is shown up for what it is: “iambic.”
After all the words spoken on the rostrum (the scaffold, that is) – what a word!
It is the counterword, it is the word that cuts the “string,” the word that no longer bows down before “the bystanders and old war-horses of history.” It is an act of freedom. It is a step. (Joris iii, 3)

Celan is quick to point out that the effect of Lucile’s statement has nothing to do with politics as such, with her (hitherto unmentioned) loyalty to the old régime.
here – permit me, someone who grew up the with the writings of Peter Kropotkin and Gustav Landauer, to emphasize this – here no monarchy and no to be conserved yesterdays are being paid homage to.
Homage is being paid to the majesty of the absurd as witness for the presence of the human. (Joris iii, 3)

This “word that cuts the ‘string”” of the puppet-show, that witnesses the “presence of the human” stands, I feel sure, for quite a bit more than what Tolkien, in his classic essay “On Fairy Stories,” calls eucatastrophe, that moment of supreme beauty when the tables are turned for the good in a fairy tale or a fantasy. It is, however, unmistakably of that kind. The word, for Celan, somehow embodies a tragic element within “the majesty of the absurd.”

And it’s that element of absurdity, of the life-sized (the “person-like and tangible”), which prevents it from being one of those world-shaking moments of Hegelian change which upset an entire order of being and historical order. That kind of string-pulling, manipulative rhetoric is left, here, to Camille Desmoulins and his adversaries the Jacobins, to Kropotkin and his Communo-anarchists.

At that moment, in that company, Lucile’s word is the meridian: the assertion that there is something that outweighs mere power and expediency: that a seemingly pointless gesture of affirmation can have the moral force of a physical blow, invoke an ethical dimension impervious to time.

Returning to the poem “Was näht,” I think the first thing to note about it is its lack of the element Celan, above, calls “iambic” – that sense of the excessive pomp and dignity of art. The imagery here is more small-scale: even, at times, verging on the absurd.

The sound of a voice (like Lucile’s when she says “God save the King”?) is compared by Celan to a piece of handcraft, of embroidery. (Ian Fairley calls it “knitting,” but the image here does seem rather to be one of sewing, as Pierre Joris makes clear in his own translation). In any case, the whiteness of the cloth being stitched seems to evoke in the poet the “Schneenadel” [snow-needle] of the mountains, rising similarly from their own “Abgründe” [abysses].

Then the poet tells us:
schluck sie [swallow it]

Swallow what? The snow-needle? That would seem the most likely grammatical antecedent. It can’t be the “white,” the “abysses.” It could, however, be that “Stimme” [voice].

In any case, whatever we’re being commanded to swallow, needle or voice (perhaps they come down to much the same thing), the action they’re performing – that sewing, that speaking that’s somehow like sewing – serves to order the world. It’s worth at least as much:
... wie neun Namen,
auf Knien genannt

[... as nine names
recited on your knees]

And now the imagery really goes wild. Where do those “tumuli” [grave-mounds?] come from? The weight of a living tradition (“nine names”) constraining the “Kuß” [kiss]?

All of this can still be read as evocative of a needle rising and falling among the mounds of white embroidery cloth, but given that that was, in its turn, simply a metaphor for the movement of a voice, it’s clear that we’re being drawn very far from the narrowly representational.

The poem now casts anchor in some kind of New World of natural forests and bays, goes ashore to sample the flora and fauna, particularly a “Käfer” [beetle], who
... erkennt dich,
ihr steht euch
spinnen euch ein

[… recognises you,
you stand off
against each other,
spin their silk around you]

Käfer does mean beetle, but it sounds quite a bit like Kaffir [native], as well. It’s also slang for a young girl – a nice “piece of stuff.” I think that we’re now beginning to see the significance of those earlier words: “Ankunft, / Abkunft,” [arrival / origin] and their relation to the “Tumuli, Tumuli” of stanza 5. Arrival in what the closing passage of Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby famously calls “a fresh, green breast of the new world” (268) cannot absolve us of our past, those “Raupen” [caterpillars] spinning their silk around us.
die Große
gewährt euch den Durchzug

[the Great
accords you passage]

That’s all very well, you can be granted safe conduct to anywhere, but no matter how far you go, you’ll still find yourself linked somehow to the means of life, the green veins that enable you to survive, to breathe:
es steht dir ein Baum zu, ein Tag,
er entziffert die Zahl,

ein Wort, mit all seinem Grün.
geht in sich, verpflanzt sich.

folg ihm

[you have the right to one tree, to one day,
it deciphers your number,

a word, with all its green.
goes back on itself, plants itself.

follow it]

Celan’s train of thought now tracks back to the voice, the word, that began it all, having moved through its imagery of embroidery, white cloths, white peaks, green bays, caterpillar silk, cocoons, leaves, and trees. “Folg ihm” [follow it], he concludes. But follow what? There’s something a little ominous in that idea of having the right to only one tree, one day, registered to your number, like a concentration-camp scar.

Which brings us again to the word, that miraculous word “mit all seinem Grün” [with all its green]: “God save the king!”, it might be – was, for innocent young Lucile on the scaffold. But what is your word, the word you were born to speak? Your “word that cuts the ‘string’ … that no longer bows down”?
It is an act of freedom. It is a step.

Celan’s poem, then, like the “Meridian” speech, is an enactment of his ideas of existential transcendence. There’s a longing for freedom from the “tumuli” of the ancestors within it, however “living” he acknowledges them still to be.

He wants to escape, sees the impossibility of escape, recoils on his starting-place – is saved (perhaps) in the end, by the “person-like and tangible,” that beautiful, disconcertingly tactile image of a leaf “tying its veins” to yours:
müssen hindurch,
eine Atemnot lang

must cross through it,
the time of suffocation]

Gisèle, then, was no doubt right to relate the poem to those at the beginning of Atemwende [Breathturn]. Only suffocation can await those for whom there’s even a momentary suspension of contact with the world around us: its white, its green, its intricacy and sheer size.

There’s another element to the poem she’s perhaps not quite so alert to, though – maybe the reason Paul sent it to her in the first place. The emphasis throughout on stitching, sewing, might be seen as an allusion to the precision of her own engraver’s art. But what is being embroidered on this particular tapestry loom? Could it be (one hesitates to say it) some kind of shroud? (“Tumuli, tumuli”).

The two had collaborated often on sets of images to match his words. Even towards the end (as the letters, with their long lists of attachments, indicate), this was the lifeline he was reluctant to lose.

Did he see Gisèle’s role, then, as a little like Odysseus’ faithful wife Penelope’s? Despite unpicking her work night after night, restarting it each morning, there was, finally, no way of preventing it from taking form in the end: the full-stop to his story, laid out in advance.


1. Unless otherwise specified, all translations are by the author.

Works cited:
  • Badiou, Bertrand, & Eric Celan, ed. Paul Celan & Gisèle Celan-Lestrange: Correspondance (1951-1970), avec un choix de letters de Paul Celan à son fils Eric. I – Lettres. La Librairie du XXIe siècle. Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 2001.
  • Badiou, Bertrand, & Eric Celan, ed. Paul Celan & Gisèle Celan-Lestrange: Correspondance (1951-1970), avec un choix de letters de Paul Celan à son fils Eric. II – Commentaires et Illustrations. La Librairie du XXIe siècle. Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 2001.
  • Büchner, Georg. Sämtliche Werke und Briefe: Dramen / Prosa / Briefe / Dokumente. Ed. Fritz Bergemann. 1965. München: Deutscher Tachenbuch Verlag, 1967.
  • Büchner, Georg. The Complete Plays: Danton’s Death; Leonce and Lena; Woyzeck; The Hessian Courier, Lenz; On Cranial Nerves, Selected Letters. Ed. Michael Patterson. A Methuen Paperback. London: Methuen, 1987.
  • Fairley, Ian, trans. Paul Celan: Snow Part. [‘Schneepart’, 1971]. Riverdale-on-Hudson, New York: The Sheep Meadow Press, 2007.
  • Felstiner, John (i). Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995.
  • Felstiner, John, trans (ii). Paul Celan: Selected Poems and Prose. New York & London: W. W. Norton, 2001.
  • Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. In The Bodley Head Scott Fitzgerald. Vol. I: The Great Gatsby; The Last Tycoon and Some Shorter Pieces. Introduction by J. B. Priestley. London: The Bodley Head, 1958. 123-269.
  • Hamburger, Michael, trans. Paul Celan: Selected Poems. 1988. Penguin International Poets. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1990.
  • Joris, Pierre, trans (i). Paul Celan: Breathturn. ['Atemwende', 1967]. Sun & Moon Classics, 74. Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press, 1995.
  • Joris, Pierre, ed (ii). Paul Celan: Selections. Trans. Pierre Joris & Jerome Rothenberg. Poets for the Millennium, 3. Berkeley & Los Angeles: University of California Press / London: University of California Press, Ltd., 2005.
  • Joris, Pierre, trans (iii). Paul Celan: The Meridian: Final Version - Drafts - Materials. Ed. Bernhard Böschenstein & Heino Schmull, with Michael Schwarzkopf & Christiane Wittkop. 1999. Meridian: Crossing Aesthetics. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2011.
  • Paolucci, Anne & Henry, ed. Hegel on Tragedy. Anchor Books. New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1962.
  • Tolkien, J. R. R. On Fairy-Stories: Expanded Edition, with Commentary and Notes. 1947 & 1964. Ed. Verlyn Flieger & Douglas A. Anderson. London: HarperCollins Publishers, 2008.
  • Waldrop, Rosmarie, trans. Paul Celan: Collected Prose. 1986. Fyfield Books. Manchester: Carcanet Press Limited, 2003.
  • Weidemann, Barbara, ed. Paul Celan: Die Gedichte. Kommentierte Gesamtausgabe in einem Band. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 2003.

[Paul Celan & Gisèle Celan-Lestrange:
Correspondance, vol. II (2001)]


brief 46 – The Survival Issue (2012): 85-101.

[3149 wds]

brief 46 (2012)

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