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Power of Silence

November 6, 2008 By:
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Poet Paul Celan

The universe of Paul Celan, one of the central poets of the 20th century, continues to expand for English-speaking readers, thanks to certain enterprising translators. This year saw the publication by Sheep Meadow Press of the demanding Snow Part, rendered by Ian Fairley.

Now the intrepid American Poetry Review, based here in Philadelphia and considered by many to be the premier poetry journal in America, has published a set of Celan poems in renderings by Jack Hirschman.

Some biography is needed to understand the place Celan holds in literature. Born in 1920 in Czernowitz, Bukovina, on the eastern edge of the old Austro-Hungarian empire (by then it was part of Romania), he was the only child of German-speaking parents who exposed him from childhood to German culture.

World War II, in the form of a Nazi presence, did not reach Czernowitz till July 1941, but then the horror became fairly constant. According to Celan's biographer, John Felstiner, in late 1942, Celan's parents "were picked up in an overnight raid ... . Celan, away for the night, came home to find the door sealed ... . He never recovered from that abrupt loss, however much his words, his voice, might probe."

For two years, the would-be poet was imprisoned in several brutal labor camps. His parents, he later learned, had been murdered.

After liberation, he made his way -- via Bucharest and Vienna -- where he lived and worked for the rest of his life. He composed only in German, and his mental state was always fragile. He suffered from repeated depressions and hospitalizations till he took his own life in April 1970.

Hirschman stated in his introduction to his 17 translations that "Any discovery of the poetry of Paul Celan is an important event. The passion of his poetry, which developed in time into a passion for an interiority driven by the demand to confront the unspoken and unspeakable dimension of post-holocaustic [sic] silence and the tension between Being and Nothingness, has made him one of the more important poets of the past two generations."

According to the translator, Celan left more than 300 unpublished poems behind, many of them in worksheet copies. Some of these were published in 1997 in an edition by Suhrkamp Verlag of Frankfurt under the title Poems From the Estate, a volume that was then translated into Italian and issued by Einaudi under the title Silence Attained.

Noted Hirschman, "One can speculate as to why Celan did not publish these works in his lifetime. Certainly, one such as Celan, a poet who worked with silences as perhaps no other in the period after World War II, and who sought more than most to shape works whose meanings were evoked by a stress between inner and outer reality, could easily feel that he was simply not yet satisfied with what he had composed."

That these new translations found a home in APR is an occasion of note.


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