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This article is taken from PN Review 23, Volume 8 Number 3, January - February 1982.

Paul Celan: Between Silences Clive Wilmer

The poetry of Paul Celan, according to George Steiner (PNR 19), is 'necessarily "untranslatable" '. Steiner's objections are cogent enough, yet once again, for the third time in ten years, Michael Hamburger appears to have ignored them. His new and enlarged selection of Celan in translation meets such objections halfway with what should always have seemed indispensable, a parallel text. The book contains 120 poems, twice as many as the 1972 Penguin, including a few from the last of Celan's three posthumous collections, Zeitgehöft (1976). At last the reader with little or no German can glimpse the full curve of his development; and necessary it is to do so, for the oeuvre is strikingly homogenous and much of Celan's meaning is likely to be elicited with the help of cross-reference. The later poems in particular are dauntingly obscure, and the English reader who has some knowledge of German poetry in translation will find the going smoother if he approaches them by way of the early work. The first collection, Mohn und Gedächtnis (1952), is much the most accessible of Celan's books, if only because the route is signposted by his more evident models and influences. Rimbaud and Eluard provide a key to the use of imagery. But the rhythms and the density of feeling are inalienably German, with roots in Hölderlin, the later Rilke and, above all, Trakl. A reader's guide to Celan would also make mention of Heidegger (particularly in his insistent etymologising), medieval mysticism (both Jewish and ...


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