I heard him,
he was washing the world,
One and infinite,
Light was. Salvation.
da hörte ich ihn,
da wusch er die Welt,
Eins und Unendlich,
Licht war. Rettung.
Paul Celan was the son of Jewish parents. Born in Czernowitz,
Bukovina (then Romania, now the Ukraine), he wrote in German.
When Hitler and the Nazis moved eastward, his parents were
imprisoned in a forced labor camp. His father died in the camp,
likely of typhoid fever. His mother, exhausted by hard labor,
was shot and killed. Celan, away when his parents were deported,
was himself sent to a labor camp, where he learned the fate of
his parents. Unlike most of his Jewish compatriots, Celan
survived the war and the Nazi regime and moved to Bucharest,
then Vienna, then Paris.
So Celan was a survivor of the Holocaust, or as it is called in
Hebrew, the Shoah. That experience, including both the loss of
his parents and, as my former colleague Raul Hilberg termed it,
“the destruction of the European Jews,” was the defining point
of his life and the focus, in my view, of his poetry.
He was a very great poet. He began by writing a poem known
widely – for most people, it is the only Celan poem they know –
called “Death Fugue,” which as is title implies is a ‘musical’
verbal interweaving of images of the destruction wrought in the
Most poets write about love, or death, or a feeling for nature,
or family. Celan has as his ‘subject’ the Shoah, which itself is
beyond words. (I think in some fashion death and love and
feeling are also ‘beyond words,’ just not as obviously and
problematically so.) How does one write about the destruction of
an entire people? How does one address ‘God’ when He would
appear to have totally abandoned His ‘chosen people’ to
Celan’s decision was to radically – literally ‘from the root’ –
unmoor language from its seeming normality, so that it could
address that which is way beyond normal, so that it could begin
to address the unsayable. In a line I love, the philosopher
Ludwig Wittgenstein concluded his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus,
“Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muss man schweigen.”
“Whereof man cannot speak, thereof man must be silent.”
Wittgenstein retreated into philosophic silence for three
But Celan could not retreat into silence. His parents were dead,
his community destroyed. He himself had survived when millions
did not. Besieged by survivors’ guilt, hammered by grief,
tortured by the question of how to keep going, he had only
It's easy to invent a Life —
God does it — every Day —
Creation — but the Gambol
Of His Authority —
It's easy to efface it —
The thrifty Deity
Could scarce afford Eternity
To Spontaneity —
The Perished Patterns murmur —
But His Perturbless Plan
Proceed — inserting Here — a Sun —
There — leaving out a Man —
What Celan is emphasizing, this poet who writes on the very
border of unintelligibility, is that poems use words – poor,
pitiful words – to go toward something (en route). Poems are
attempts to send a message – that letter in a bottle – which can
somehow, some day, some way be read by someone else. With those
difficult words, maybe we too can find a way to live in the word
Celan later gave another speech when he accepted the Georg
Buchner Prize. He published the speech, on which he worked at
great length, as an essay called “The Meridian.”
The essay is dense, sometimes even approaching his poems for
density and a striving for things that are beyond the reach of
But I think – and this will hardly surprise you – that the poem
has always hoped, for this very reason, to speak also on behalf
of the strange – no, I can no longer use this word here – on
behalf of the other, who knows, perhaps, of an altogether other.
We already knew this from the Bremen speech. Poetry is not a
narcissistic enterprise. It speaks to other people. The inner
need to comprehend extends outward to other people, through the
words of the poem. He continues, emphasizing how much silence
hangs over and about the poem, even as it is apparently en route
to a reader:
It is true, the poem, the poem today, shows – and this has only
indirectly to do with the difficulties of vocabulary, the faster
flow of syntax or a more awkward sense of ellipsis, none of
which we should underrate – the poem clearly shows a strong
tendency towards silence.
Yet what immediately follows shows us the poem insisting on
being itself, a note in a bottle if you will. It will
communicate to readers something about the reality they inhabit
in the actual moment of reading it.
For the poem holds its ground, if you will permit me yet another
extreme formulation, the poem holds its ground on its own
margin. In order to endure, it constantly calls and pulls itself
back from an ‘already-no-more’ into a ‘still-here.’
This ‘still-here’ can only mean speaking….Language actualized,
set free under the sign of a radical individuation which,
however, remains as aware of the limit drawn by language as of
the possibilities it opens…..
The poem is lonely. It is lonely and en route. Its author stays
And now it comes, the word I used earlier, a word that I
recognized as being very much a word from Celan’s own view of
what poems are: an ‘encounter’. It was as if, in discussing
Celan, echoes of his prose sounded faintly in my head.
Does this very fact not place the poem already here, at its
inception, in the encounter, in the mystery of encounter?
The poem intends another, needs this other, needs an opposite,
it goes toward it, bespeaks it.
The language is tough, kind of mystical/philosophical. But what
Celan is striving to say is not so hard, even though doing what
he counsels is very hard. Celan says that poems speak to us
needful things, things we have to hear if we are to survive,
even if the writer of poems is often lonely, often burdened by
the insufficiency of words to say what must be said. No matter
how hermetic [like a hermit, off by itself, isolated from all
else] a poem may be, it is still a note in a bottle sent out to
a reader who, listening, strives to hear what it has to say.
For the poem, every thing and everybody is a figure of this
other toward which it is heading…..
The poem becomes – under what conditions – the poem of a person
who still perceives, still turns towards phenomena, addressing
and questioning them. The poem becomes conversation – often
We must remember this when we return to Celan’s poem, “Once.”
However much it may hover on the edge of the indecipherable, it
is an attempt to engage in dialogue with us, it is part of a
conversation, however desperate that conversation may be.
Is it on such paths that poems take us when we think of them?
And are these paths only detours, detours from you to you? But
they are, among many others, the paths on which language becomes
voice. They are encounters, paths from a voice to a listening.
You, natural paths, outlines for existence perhaps, for
projecting ourselves into the search for ourselves. . . a kind
Again, the poem is an ‘encounter’. It involves language being
spoken and by a human being, as language becomes voice. And the
self which utters the poem speaks not only to the ‘you’ which is
others, but to the ‘self’ which exists apart from the speaker
and is in much need of being in dialogue with another as the
reader. The poem I some way speaks back to the one who makes it:
the message in the bottle is read not only by the reader, but by
the poet himself.
This is a lot to take in once more. The poet offers – to
himself, as well as to others – ‘outlines of existence.’ No
wonder poems are in some important sense ‘a kind of homecoming.’
At this point, let me cite another very short poem by Celan.
deep in the glowing
in the Time-Hole
listen in with
This is also a tough poem, however short. We recognize that this
is a strange place, wholly dislocated from the everyday, for
there is no language (“Text -Void”). I have no idea what
“Torch-Height” is or refers to. “Time-Hole?” Where time comes
from, in the stream of time, before time existed? Who knows?
But the last two lines seem to me very clear. We listen by
speaking. We know what to make of things by uttering words. In
poetry we find ourselves.
Let us at last return For a final time to the poem “Once.” God
has washed the world. He destroyed human beings, and maybe He
destroyed any possibility of our belief in His justice. Maybe
all we have left is ourselves, and for each of us: our self.
Maybe this is the light we live in ‘after Auschwitz.’ Maybe this
is our ambiguous salvation.
Maybe. What we get with Celan is a profound meditation on what
it means to live in a world which exists after the horrors of
the Shoah, a world which is impossible to live in and in which
we nonetheless have to live. A world in which we have, as a
major though flawed resource, language.
He has initiated a dialogue with us, and with himself. That the
dialogue is murky and without clear boundaries is part of what
burdens us in post-modernity. It is a needful dialogue,
nevertheless, and no one, no one, embarks upon it as tenaciously
as Paul Celan.
Professor of English Emeritus
@The University of Vermont
34 Harrington Terrace
Burlington, VT 05401