The possibilities of language
"For Celan, language was a project to be wrestled with."
I have been thinking a lot about Paul Celan recently. He was born in 1920, in a German-speaking Jewish family in Bukovina. Then, the region was in Romania; now it is divided between Romania and Ukraine. He lived most of his adulthood in Paris, and he wrote his poetry in German.
I find much of Celan’s poetry both compelling and confusing. It’s like stepping inside a dream that language would have: images follow images; wordplays; references that confuse me. I have to remind myself not to stumble over what I call my ignorance, and instead allow the poems to do the work of feeling in me. I attend to the experience of the poem as I read it, rather than only my comprehension.
Celan, whose parents were murdered at a camp in the Transnistria Governorate, translated Shakespeare while interned in a ghetto. For him, language was a project to be wrestled with. He believed it was possible for language to make something happen; and even if it didn’t make something happen, then at least it was worthwhile trying. He held people to account for loose language (his short correspondence with Heidegger, that phenomenologist, are extraordinary in their critique), and demanded that attention be paid to the impact that words can have in public.
I keep coming back to a speech he gave on the occasion of being awarded the Literature Prize of the Free Hanseatic City of Bremen. It’s worthwhile quoting plenty of it because it’s so important:
“Only one thing remained reachable, close and secure amid all losses: language. Yes, language. In spite of everything, it remained secure against loss. But it had to go through its own lack of answers, through terrifying silence, through the thousand darknesses of murderous speech. It went through. It gave me no words for what was happening, but went through it.”
“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. In this way, too, poems are en route; they are headed toward.
Toward what? Toward something open, inhabitable, an approachable you, perhaps, an approachable reality.”
Collected Prose, Celan. Trans. Waldrop. Carcanet, 2003.
There are so many reasons to counter the possibility of language’s riches with evidence of language’s decimation: lies in public; deception from people in places of power; my own crooked heart.
And alongside that, I return to Celan’s words: he who had borne in his family and story the unbearable, who struggled with the weight of that weight, but who insisted, as with the assertion above, that it was worthwhile trying to make speech and language acts in public. He holds out the possibility that language, like a message in a bottle, might reach that “approachable you.” This moves me; breaks, ummakes, and makes me; and motivates me to keep trying to find language that can work.
I recognise the tendency to seek instances where others have changed because language reached them. But today I’m curious about how you have changed during a time when language reached you. So that’s this week’s question:
When did someone’s words reach you and change you?
Friends, I’ll look forward to reading the comments, and meeting you there.
There are many places to read translations of Celan’s works. The Poetry Foundation have a bio and selection, and there’s a handsome Selected Poetry and Prose published by Norton. The great poet and translator Rosmarie Waldrop has translated a very fine Collected Prose from which the quote above comes.
Poetry in the World
Seattle Arts & Lectures Series | Seattle, WA
On Monday, April 3, I’ll be talking with Chris Abani, the magnificent novelist, poet, essayist, screenwriter, and playwright, as part of the Seattle Arts & Lectures series. If you’re in the Seattle area, I’d love to see you at the Rainier Arts Center. It’s also available to view live online. Tickets for whichever option is best for you can be found here. Whether in person or through the web, join us at 7:30pm PT.
National Poetry Month Reading Series at Eckerd College | St. Petersburg, FL
On the evening of April 6, at 7pm ET, I’ll be giving a reading on the James Center Patio at Eckerd College in Florida, followed by a Q&A and a signing of Poetry Unbound: 50 Poems to Open Your World. Would love to see you if you’re in the area. No registration required, with plenty of room.
Returning and Becoming Conference at Kanuga | Asheville, NC
I’ll be sharing poetry and thoughts at a retreat at Kanuga (near Asheville, NC) on June 13 (morning and evening) and June 14 (morning). Hosted at an Episcopal Retreat Centre, this conference is open to all. My sessions will examine poetry, language, challenge, and change. Details and registration here.