To date, the secondary literature on Paul Celan has had little to say about his early poetry since most of it did not become readily available until the publication of the Wiedemann edition in 1989. This volume brings the texts of 167 German poems that are arranged in the Czernowitz, Bucharest, and Vienna periods in the ratio 135, 25, seven. Respectively 18, 24, and six of these comprise Celan's first published collection—Der Sand aus den Urnen (1948). These numbers explain why by 1989 no more than 26 Czernowitz pieces, 19 Bucharest poems, and five Vienna compositions received any critical attention, and why 33 of these 50 were discussed only once, often very briefly at that. (See Bohrer 323-4081 and Glenn 1989: 318-30.) The above data also show why before 1989 the critics scrutinizing poems in Der Sand aus den Urnen speak of them as early. This designation is somewhat misleading when products of Celan's poetic beginnings are to be dealt with.
The intent to focus on poems of Celan's early years may on occasion entail the need to keep high expectations regarding their poetic quality in rein. The purpose of the studies ahead is simply to discuss representative poems in some detail, without prejudice of any kind, and to draw from them whatever implications we may encounter. We therefore shall endeavor not to allow impressions gained from the poems of Celan's maturity or from the secondary materials pertaining to them to intrude upon our readings. Only when connections between early and later writings seem to be clearly evident shall we draw attention to such links, whatever their nature might be—the recurrent use of a particular motif, a similarity in
1 Throughout this volume page number(s) will be given after the author's name or after a quotation or reference. If the bibliography gives more than one entry under that name, also the pertinent study's year of publication will be shown, e.g., 1900: 100. If an edition of collected works is involved, the volume in question will be mentioned, e.g., III 100. The number after a poem's title or beginning phrase (always presented in bold face) indicates its place in the collection edited by Wiedemann. The location of Celan's post-Vienna poems in the collected works will be shown by volume and page, e.g., II 100.
overall poetic stance, or whatever it is that sparks attention. Little forays of this sort may help to highlight continuance or may serve to indicate development.
Writing on the American scene about Celan's early poetry comes in this case with a rueful lack of intimate knowledge regarding literary traditions and cultural climates prevailing in Czernowitz and Bucharest of the 1930s and 1940s. We therefore shall have nothing to add in this regard to the information brought by Chalfen and the equally valuable cultural data provided in the books of Wiedemann-Wolf (1985), Colin (1991), Felstiner (1995), and in a number of shorter studies. Hence, in terms of influences other than those flowing from Antiquity and the Bible, our readings will primarily endeavor to be sensitive to the German literary elements deemed to be discernible in the early work.
By definition, remarks about literary influences can never be exhaustive even if we knew which books Celan possessed or borrowed. Such observations are therefore fated to seem haphazard, even if each and every suggestion to be made were to incur favorable reception. As a result, statements about influences on and connections between Celan's poems can at best make for a mosaic. Even so, their cumulative effect may bring dividends and serve to show at least in part from where the poet comes and in which direction his way with words is leading him.
If we can promise that Celan's early poetry is firmly rooted in the past, we do not mean to deny that the poet soon learned to go his own way. For instance, whereas the old-vintage awareness of Rilke's influence is evident in the employ of enjambments, in contrast to "[den] über alles geliebten Meister" (Chalfen 65) Celan rarely cultivates the sonnet form, and he rarely uses similes. Perhaps similes to him insinuate a mistrust of words that should be autonomous. Perhaps the poet suspects that similes all too often serve purposes of embellishment. His refraining from such adornments makes for a more sober language than Rilke ever saw fit to make his own.
Since Wiedemann-Wolf has richly dealt with the poetic forms the young poet practiced, we propose to concentrate on the contents of his poems, while following within each study as closely as possible the chronological order in which they were written.
Even though each of the coming studies can be read as standing by itself, the cross-references between them, together with the motifs and parallels to which we expect to draw attention, will make for a self-referential and self-revealing network that should facilitate staying abreast of the implications flowing from the argument of a given moment. That network is destined to become a dense one.
The attempt to rely on close readings in a body of poetry importantly marked by ambiguities and obscurities is not novel. Jackson (1977: 82), for one, is persuaded that it is important to scrutinize poems in their entirety, and to let the voice of the text itself speak. At the hand of key terms and key phrases Pöggeler (1986: 77) speaks in a similar vein. A considerable number of equally recent critics could be cited here. Gellhaus (1993), for instance, has shown how to reap rich harvests from detailed scrutinies. Inherent in these studies is the assumption that their findings can only be refuted via equally close dealings with the primary materials.
The array of readers who have spoken of Celan as an autobiographical poet is rather impressive. Lyon (1964: 55), Vietta (1970: 91-92), Schlesak (1978: 80), Bogumil (1982: 82-83) are but some of them. Janz with her particular perspective at stake— Engagement; "die Erfahrung des Faschismus" (1984: 21)—should also be mentioned. Felstiner's book of 1995 fits here as well. Buck (1977: 1) is the one who puts it tersely: "Für nur wenige Autoren fallen Leben und Dichtung so unmittelbar zusammen wie für Celan". To be sure, when speaking of autobiography, each of these critics adapts the term to his or her specific way of understanding and interpreting, and therefore applies modifications. We propose to do the same. For instance, whereas the poems involving the mother figure can without ado be called autobiographical, the early so-called love poems call for special consideration in order to qualify. Imbued with the ubiquitous themes of melancholy and death, they seem to have a literary quality in that such love seems to have been read about. If, in addition to referring to the literary climate in which Celan writes (see Wiedemann-Wolf 61 ff.), we were to ponder whether the autobiographical cachet in these poems stems from the morbidity pervading them, we would have to follow a line of inquiry that leads into the realm of psychology. Or, to put this differently, what comes to us in these writings is the vocalizing of perceived reality, reality of the mind therefore.
Broadening our perspective of autobiography by capping under it Celan's reading experiences and the way he transmutes them seems to make sense. An example of such reading and adapting pertains to the closing paragraphs of the Meridian speech (III 86) in which Celan develops the Flaschenpost image borrowed from Mandelstam (G. Neumann 213, note 102; Parry 65-66; Olschner 234-35). Though it does not serve the purpose of the moment to subject Celan's paragraphs to yet another discussion, we adjust them to our own purpose by means of a perspective not touched upon by the poet himself:
If, as Celan suggests, a poem addresses a 'You' who receives a bottled message at some unspecified time and place, it follows (the not quite identical functions of Mandelstam's and Celan's bottles providing ample proof) that the poet himself often found a bottle drifting over the sea of history with its literary and cultural phenomena. Thus, before Celan can send out his own floating container referring to, say, Vienna and Estremadura (Schibboleth—I 131), he himself found such a bottle telling of figures, places, or events. When then his bottle drifts into someone else's view, the finder, eager to comprehend its message to the fullest, wants to know which details in it stem from the sender's own perceptions and associations of thought. Though the dangers involved in these endeavors may be legion, they seem to be preferable to the freewheeling stance adopted by Holthusen (156), who states,
Indem der Autor eine absolute Freiheit des Phantasierens für sich in Anspruch nimmt, räumt er dem Leser eine nicht weniger absolute Freiheit des Verstehens ein.
Autobiography entails the importance of chronology. Due to the paucity of dates and the ways in which the critics made use of the few available to them, the matter of chronology is vexing. Says Wiedemann 235, "Von den zahlreichen Varianten, die von den einzelnen Texten überliefert sind, wurde der erkennbar letzten in jedem Fall der Vorzug gegeben". There is at least one instance, however, in which the latest variant cannot possibly have been the one the poet himself would have chosen as the definitive one (see p. 115). Furthermore, even though on occasion the differences between the variants of a poem are intriguing (see, e.g., p. 178), in the vast majority of cases they are so minor as to make no difference whatsoever. Our own dating system will therefore go by the moment when a given poem received its essential form and content. The dates to be suggested not only entail 'new' time slots for Celan's poetic development, but also may affect the understanding of poetic details. (See, e.g., Gemurmel der Toten [54—p. 102.]). The concern with chronology also has a bearing on the possibility of gaining insights by reading poems that in some way are interrelated in serial fashion.
Needless to say, the discussions to come will not be equally fruitful or persuasive. This lack of homogeneity will no doubt be due to the comparative lack of verve with which a given discussion is developed, to the speculative nature of reading a poetic detail, or to a suspected lapse in Celan's poetic inspiration. Besides, the approach used here will yield more 'value' with one lyric than another. Taken together, however, the discussions to come may shed some light on Celan's early work, particularly on poems that to date have not received any critical attention.
Was this article helpful?