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This article is taken from PN Review 62, Volume 14 Number 6, July - August 1988.

The Poetry of Paul Celan Lesley Chamberlain

Celan's poetry presents difficulties for the English reader at once linguistic, cultural and spiritual. He was marked ineradicably by the deaths of his parents in a Nazi extermination camp and his senses seem to work fitfully in the scores of poems written in tribute. They suddenly fasten on an object, spurt into life, exaggerate its proportions, only to name the place of that object in a world beyond healing. His language throws out words in unpredictable rhythms, becomes obsessed with certain sounds and colours, then denies them. The lyrical heart broken, the troubled senses try by perceiving patterns and analogies to build beyond it. Celan's experience of the wasteland is more personal and more self-destructive than Eliot's, not so much a doubting of culture but a declaration of a seismic fault in the possibility of living.

Celan writes out of a loss of faith in death. To describe what it is to dwell in the human space without this prospect of grace and ultimate companionship is his bleakest vision. Men exist virtually beyond solace, when nothing is loved or hated or possessed in memory which is not devastated into random fragments.

Extreme negativity produces in Celan an hallucinatory after-hope, resembling Sartrean nausea, of a return to nature. Viewing dehumanization as a change of substance, he plays with endless metamorphoses, creating a new mythology out of unnatural death. Shocked feeling becomes aqueous matter and the heart and the head become stones. 'Dark eye in September' for ...


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