On this day in 1920 Paul Celan was born, one of the greatest poets of the twentieth century. To read Celan is to understand what poetry can do. To borrow a phrase from Antonin Artaud, no poet has more successfully dug through “the shit of being and its language” . . .
“There are very few English poets who seem to have any sense of history as something happening in me and you and all around us all the time,” Christopher Middleton once objected. “They’ve steered off into a parochial corner of the universe and have lost their historical sense.”
The reasons for this might be geographical and historical, but also the influence of the dreaded Philip Larkin (“Foreign poetry! No!” Larkin once told the London Magazine).
But Celan had this historical sense and he admired it in others, notably Osip Mandelstam, with whom he felt an uncanny affinity, although they never met.
“I know scarcely any other Russian poet of his generation who was in time like him,” Celan said of Mandelstam, “thought with and out of this time, thought it through to its end, in each of its moments, in its issues and happenings, in the words that faced issues and happenings and were to stand for them, at once open and hermetic.”
This is, of course, a perfect description of Celan’s ambitions too.
“For a poem is not timeless,” he said in 1958. “Certainly, it lays claim to infinity, it seeks to reach through time – through it, not above and beyond it.”
Buy Paul Celan’s poetry in English translation here and here and this biography is essential...
You can also hear Celan reading his poems here.