Monday, May 03, 2010

Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew

I re-read this long, intense study of an important German-Jewish poet over the last two to three weeks in honor of the professor who wrote it (John Felstiner), who is retiring this month from teaching at Stanford.  This professor was the closest thing I had to a mentor at Stanford, but I really only knew him from taking two classes that he taught.  He taught on poetry in a way that invited students to read poems closely, and his poetry selections were interesting and varied.  He also taught a course entitled "Imagining the Holocaust" that attempted to put the Holocaust in context with the works of survivors as the centerpiece.  That is where I first was introduced to Paul Celan's poetry, specifically "Todesfuge," or "Death-Fugue," which imagines the Holocaust very specifically in a German poem.  The professor played a recording of the poem, which he reads closely in the book, and I remember being impacted by the reading.  The poet was not very loud or overly dramatic, but the poem itself has a definite rhythm that adds an emotional charge.  The book re-creates that charge, interestingly, by translating the poem into English, but working the original German words back into the poem -- the repetition of words in the poem allows this, and the "regression" so to speak back into German identifies the specific nature of the poem.  The poem is about the death caused by Germans, so it is fitting that it should end with German language, even in translation.  This kind of innovative yet true translation is at the heart of this book, which tackles Celan's life through his poetry.  The book makes the poems come to life for those of us who don't know as much German as we would need to translate Celan's poetry.  Celan's poetry is difficult because it is quite often very spare -- it uses so few words as to be mystifying.  Yet still, the poetry speaks to the condition of the German language after the Holocaust, and attempts to bring the truth of the man-made disaster into the language without diluting its horror or softening its impact.  The poet spoke in one of his speeches of the difficulty of writing poetry in German after "the thousand darknesses of death-bringing speech."  This book clearly examines Celan's poetry to illuminate the process the poet went through in trying to accomplish this project.
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