On Reading: A Mountain to Climb? An Expedition into the Poetry of Paul Celan

By and large, it’s an effort to read poetry. The amount of mental exertion you need to use varies a lot, of course. Some poems are a stroll in the park, some a five-mile jog, some a stiff rock-climb. As all poets and poetry readers know, it’s down to the curious ways in which poets choose and deploy words, their odd styles of punctuation or non-punctuation, and above all their frustrating habit of not spelling everything out for us but leaving us to ‘complete’ the meaning of the poem for ourselves.

Paul Celan
Paul Celan in his apartment on rue de Longchamp, in Paris, in 1958

But what if a poem is so difficult that most readers can’t get into it at all without having to read a lot of other stuff as well—notes and commentary and a glossary of obscure words and references? T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, for example, with its bits of Sanskrit, quotes from Dante and references to The Golden Bough. Or Blake’s personal mythology, with its many strange protagonists: Enitharmon, Urthona, Urizen et al. No one can read Blake’s prophecies without repeatedly looking up S. Foster Damon’s A Blake Dictionary. Doesn’t that just take the pleasure out of it?

It depends. Poetry that’s difficult in that way loses immediacy. Most readers’ responses to it have to be derived, at least in part, second hand from academic specialists. But what it depends on largely is the view from the summit—how rewarding the poem proves to be after all our efforts. I’ve no doubt that Blake’s Jerusalem is worth it; so too is The Waste Land in its rather forbidding way. Some difficult poetry transcends its difficulty.

With that preamble I’d like you to join me in a spot of rock climbing with one of the best poets of the twentieth century, Paul Celan (1920-70).

Celan can be very daunting to read. Lines, images and often single words hold associations which are not spelt out and which just can’t be fully understood unless we read a commentary as well, one that has a good deal of scholarly research behind it. Some of the associations are brought forward from earlier poems of his own, and carried forward into subsequent ones; others refer to background knowledge that most readers couldn’t be expected to have. Apart from these hidden connotations, the thoughts Celan is trying to articulate are sometimes nearly inexpressible. Even so, let’s begin the climb.

Celan was a German-speaking Jew, a Holocaust survivor. He was born Paul Antschel, into one of the most far-flung German communities in Eastern Europe, the city of Czernowitz in the Bukovina, a region on the border of Romania and Ukraine. His parents spoke German, not Romanian or Yiddish, and so his native language was the very one that was to become the language of the oppressors: the mother tongue and the language of murderers, Mutter– und Mördersprache—his own phrase, more telling in the German. So he is a writer struggling not only to articulate the experience of a holocaust survivor, but struggling at the same time with the very language that was his medium. After the Nazis, simple words in German were left encrusted with corrupt meaning: people (Volk), or ‘blood and soil’ for example—or even apparently innocuous, neutral words such as ‘count,’ as we shall see when we look at “Count the Almonds.”

It could almost be said of Celan’s Holocaust experience that he was one of the ‘lucky’ ones. Though his parents were rounded up with many others, on the night of 27th June 1942, he himself was staying overnight with a friend. He may have tried unsuccessfully to persuade his parents to go into hiding, and may even have had angry words with them about it. Most likely he had reluctantly agreed to go to his non-Jewish friend’s house to put their minds at rest that he would be safe. When he returned home next day, he found the house boarded up and his parents gone. They were not taken to a death camp but to hard labour in Eastern Ukraine, where they both died. For the rest of his life he never overcame the feeling that he had not done all that he could to save them. He himself was soon afterwards put to hard labour in Rumania, but he was never in Auschwitz or any other death camp.

After the war he lived briefly in Bucharest and Vienna, before settling in France in 1948. In 1952 he married Gisèle Lestrange, and they had two children; their firstborn, François, died in infancy. Celan was a very personable and sociable man, who made many friends, but like that other great Holocaust survivor, Primo Levi, his life was always troubled—not least by Holocaust denial and resurgences of anti-Semitism. He was treated at various times, especially towards the end of his life, for depression—including electric shock treatment. Finally, after his separation from his wife Gisele, and through fear of further illness and other, deeper, causes we can begin to guess at, he drowned himself in the Seine in April 1970. He was 49. On his desk he had left a copy of the poems of Hölderlin, open at an underlined passage: ‘Sometimes this genius goes dark and sinks down into the bitter well of his heart.’

Count the Almonds

Count the almonds,
count what was bitter and kept you awake,
count me in:

I looked for your eye when you opened it, no one was looking at you,
I spun that secret thread
on which the dew you were thinking
slid down to the jugs
guarded by words that to no one’s heart found their way.

Only there did you wholly enter the name that is yours,
sure-footed stepped into yourself,
freely the hammers swung in the bell-frame of your silence,
the listened-for reached you,
what is dead put its arm round you also
and the three of you walked through the evening.

Make me bitter.
Count me among the almonds.

(trans. Michael Hamburger)

To get the most even out of Celan’s first line you need to know the associations that almonds had for him. The most personal first—he remembered his mother baking bread and cakes; she was fond of almonds and often used them. This is just the kind of ordinary, particular memory that can be so painful for all of us. Then remember Celan knew Hebrew (as well as several European languages), and therefore knew that the Hebrew word for almond is very like the word for a watch or a vigil: thus the second line contains a hidden pun which works only in Hebrew but not in Celan’s German, or in English. The same pun is made by Jehovah himself—with somewhat uncharacteristic wit—in the Book of Jeremiah (I:11-12). The Lord asks Jeremiah what he sees, and he replies, ‘A shoot of an almond tree (shaked).’ God tells him: ‘You have seen well, for I will keep watch (shoked) over my word to perform it.’ So almonds are a metaphor for eyes, keeping watch, being awake, being alive; and not just a metaphor invented by Celan, but one that resonates in Jewish history and poetry. Almond blossom decorates the menorah of the Israelites in the wilderness. The almond symbol is an emblem and reassurance of Jewish identity.

Then we can explore the meaning of ‘Count,’ if we associate it (as Celan certainly did) with the Nazi years. In the Third Reich people counted interminably. Victims of the T4 euthanasia programme, for example, were statistically counted; the 10,000th was cremated with flowers and draped with a Nazi flag. In the plethora of concentration camps and prisoner-of-war camps, there was the ritual of the Zahlappel, the head count, repeated ad nauseam. If we are aware of this underlying meaning we see a bitter irony in the opening lines. There is a painful reality here for a poet who has survived the Holocaust and who speaks and writes German. Words carry so much weight, so much baggage, that the use of a simple word can be problematic. It can’t be freed of its connotations. So Celan confronts these connotations and at the same time reminds us of the human content that the word has not lost. Like the Auschwitz guards, he too is counting the dead, but in order to fix them in the world’s memory. At the same time he is counting the survivors. He is also using ‘count’ in the sense of recognising the importance of someone or something who really ‘counts.’ He asks that he himself should be ‘counted in’ to all this. As a survivor, who suffered from the ‘guilt of the survivor,’ especially after the circumstances of his parents’ deportation, he feels he must earn the right to be counted in.

All that in one short line of three words! But there’s much more to discover in the poem: for example, the urgent need for contact and relationship, contained in the insistence of ‘Count…count…count’ (as if to say, ‘Please count, you must do it’) and the address to ‘you,’ not only in the opening lines but throughout the poem. Who is being addressed? Celan’s mother—the memory of his mother—perhaps most importantly. The ‘you’ might also be someone like himself, a holocaust survivor. It might even be himself. It’s not truly ‘the reader,’ any and all readers. Those of us who have not shared the Jewish experience are present, and welcome to ‘overhear,’ but we are not being addressed directly. I don’t think in the context of the Holocaust that’s too hard to accept.

Anxious to make contact, the poet catches the eye (the almond eye) of the other, who has just awakened. Having made this eye contact, he devises a curious image for the interaction that takes place. He says he spun a thread (like a spider thread) so that the other person’s (or his dead mother’s) thoughts, thoughts that couldn’t otherwise be known to anyone, could run down like dew, or tears, into jugs. Notice he uses the past tense: he has spun the thread already, but it must be done again and again. The jug is one of Celan’s recurring images of containers: jugs, glasses, urns. They fill with water, dew, sand: fluid stuffs that if they were not contained might run, or be blown, anywhere, representing the Jews of the diaspora, and especially those millions who died in Europe, many of whose lives dispersed as smoke from the crematoria chimneys. Smoke images too pervade Celan’s work. Spinning a thread is also creating art, in this case making a poem; and the poem too is a container, holding together experience and recollection that might otherwise seep away into the earth or drift formlessly like blown sand or smoke.

And then the jug becomes a bell. It’s still a kind of container, but what it contains now is a tongue that rings out, or sings out, a message that has real joy in it, in the magnificent line:

freely the hammers swung in the bell-frame of your silence

Through poetry, through the effort to articulate this impossible grief and terrible memory, and to contain it in the ‘vessel’ of a poem, Celan’s mother and all others like her, both victims and survivors, are given voice. Not only that, they begin to recover their identity, ‘enter the name’ that truly belongs to them. Their isolation is broken: the ‘listened-for,’ the word of solace or solidarity from another person, gets through; and ‘what is dead put its arm round you,’ meaning the dead offer comfort and an assurance that will help to assuage survivor’s guilt.

Now let’s look at a poem from near the end of Celan’s life. I’ve chosen one in which the almond motif is taken up again, years later. This is how Celan’s poetry works: he uses certain symbolic images again and again, giving them new contexts and associations every time they’re used, so that they grow and become almost so rich in meaning it’s hard to encompass the whole of it. His urns and jugs, sand and snow, wells and springs, roses and almonds all have careers in his poetry. In the early poems they’re young and relatively innocent; in the later ones they are mature and worldly.

‘Almonding one…’

Almonding one, you half-spoke only,
though all trembled from the core,
I let wait,

And was
not yet
not yet enthorned in the realm
of the song that begins:

(trans. John Felstiner)

Again this poem addresses someone. This time the ‘you’ is much more straightforward, in that it’s one actual person. Still, however, we need notes to know who it is. The poem is addressed to Ilana Shmueli, who had been a friend of Paul’s in his teenage years in Czernowitz, and whom he met again while on a visit to Israel. He calls her ‘Almonding one’ because she reminds him of his mother—in appearance maybe, but more likely because Ilana had been in his life while his mother was still alive. Celan coins a new word in German, Mandelnde, ‘almonding woman,’ a word that contains the spirit of his long-dead mother and the living person of Ilana, whose eyes are still open and who represents survival and hope. He only half knew, then, what she could mean to him, and now he reflects on the gap of years until they met again—years in which he recalled her perhaps only now and then.

Then he tells her that until he met her again he was not yet blind. This seems a strange paradox, until we remember, for example, Gloucester’s blindness in King Lear, or Milton’s blindness: the quite common idea that blindness brings inner vision. These bits of background knowledge might be enough for us to understand what Celan is saying; but to get his full meaning we have to adventure a little more, into the Jewish subtext. There is a mythic figure in Jewish tradition, the Shechinah, who is the female presence of God, and who is represented in exile weeping out her eyes. Celan would have known the Shakespeare, perhaps not Milton; but the Shechinah would have been uppermost in his mind. All these ideas about eyes, seeing and blindness surround the almond image, which already has its baggage of personal and religious meanings from earlier poems.

The last line is a classic example of Celan’s ‘difficulty.’ Except for readers who know Hebrew, it is incomprehensible. So we have to use the notes. There we learn that it’s the first word of a popular song written in 1905 by Chaim Nachman Bialik. In English, the first few lines are:

Bring me in under your wing,
and be mother and sister to me,
and let your breast shelter my head…

Hachnissini means ‘bring me in,’ ‘embrace me,’ ‘include me’; or in terms of the earlier poem, ‘Count me in.’ The ending of the verb in Hebrew is feminine, so this form can only be used in addressing a woman. As for the song, just as he was not yet blind before the meeting with Ilana, so he was ‘not yet enthorned,’ not yet tangled in the thorns of this song. A sentimental song composed before the twentieth century catastrophe no longer evokes simple emotions as it was intended to, but has acquired a painful irony.

It’s asking a lot, to have us work so hard to understand a body of poetry. You have to follow the images in their careers through the poems. You have to read at least one literary biography to understand the references. We can’t just read Celan; we have to do a course of study. Is it worth it?

Well, that’s up to the reader. Some of Celan’s poems—a very few pieces—remain difficult even with the benefit of commentary—’at the edge of meaning,’ as he himself recognised. But he is a poet writing from the eye of the storm. Born with a poetic talent equal to any, he can’t write in any traditional way; instead he must wrestle with the terrible history he has lived through. His world has been corrupted and damaged. Perhaps worst of all for him as a poet, his native language has been debased and made obscene by that gang of fanatical, malevolent criminals who briefly held so much power in Germany, and spilled so much blood.

He’s not the only ‘difficult’ poet of the twentieth century, not the only one who leaves us depending on scholarly research and commentary. And of course his voice isn’t the only representative voice of the century. But I think in a sense he has a unique claim, a right to ask us to work hard at his poetry. One of the most frequently recurring words in Celan is ‘you.’ As we’ve seen in “Count the Almonds,” even ‘you’ has its ambiguities. But it can never be anything other than a reaching out, an invitation or even a demand that we should approach this work that life and history has wrung out of him, and engage with it. ‘Trink/aus meinem Mund,’ he says. ‘Drink from my mouth.’ And ‘Vertag dich nicht, du.’ ‘You! don’t adjourn yourself.’


by James Graham


James Graham.jpgJames Graham was born in 1939 in Ayrshire, Scotland, in a rural cottage lit by oil lamps and surrounded with meadows and woodland. He was a teacher for thirty years, but would rather have been a celebrated journalist and best-selling author. Most of his published work has been poetry, which has appeared in various print and online magazines. His published prose includes essays on William Blake and on the Scottish poet Edwin Morgan. His third poetry collection, Becoming a Tree, published by Troubador Press, is currently available.


Selected Poems by Paul Celan, trans. by Michael Hamburger, is published by Penguin.

Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew by John Felstiner (Yale University Press) is very readable and full of insights into the poet’s life as well as his work.

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