Paul Celan And The Future of the Poem

On November 24, 2013 by admin


Manash Bhattacharjee


The name “Paul Celan” in the title refers to not only Paul Celan the poet but also Paul Celan who talks about poetry. Celan is in dialogue with his craft; with others in his craft, as well as in dialogue with those he feels illuminate the possibilities and problems of his craft, that is, poetry. So, Paul Celan in the title is a poet who asks questions about poetry, including the fundamental question: What is poetry? The word “future” does not mean an unspecified, free idea of a future out there, future as such, but a specific moment or moments in future time that have a correspondence with the past, the future of a past, a past’s future, that creates a new reference point across time. But because this future is the future of the “poem”, a solitary product of time, the idea of the future here is not to be imagined in collective terms. Nor is this future a private one, because a poem is always intended for a reader. A poem, strictly belonging to neither the individual nor the collective, is always in relation with the world. That relation is of course political and tends towards the ethical. The conjunction “and” in the title means the future of the poem is not reducible to the name Paul Celan but is seen in conjunction with the poet’s idea of the poem’s future.

I will probe into Celan’s reflections on poetry by looking at his famous speech on 22 October, 1960, The Meridian, which he delivered on the occasion of receiving the Georg Büchner Prize. His Rumanian birth – marking him a foreigner – his narrowly escaping a Nazi labour camp sixteen years before the announcement of this prize, and his imbuing his German mother tongue with Hebrew and Yiddish influences that didn’t endear him to the German literary establishment, created, according to Ger Killeen, “an air of improbability” around Celan being awarded the prize. Despite being aware of these incongruities, Celan decided to brave what he revealed to a friend as “a dark summer.”

In his acceptance speech, Celan delved into German dramatist Büchner’s works to chart out his views on art and poetry. He picked up certain key moments from the plays Danton’s Death (1835), Leonce and Lena (1836) and the incomplete Woyzeck (1837) as well as Büchner’s only short story, Lenz (1835). Büchner is the only name explicitly present in Celan’s speech. Büchner plays the role of an equator, the central figure, as Celan’s charts out the imaginary meridian of poetry. But there are others, more implicitly present, in the speech, including Martin Heidegger, Martin Buber and Osip Mandelstam. Amongst them, Celan’s engagement with Heidegger is the oldest, dating back to 1952, when he started reading Being and Time. I shall first trace Celan’s reading of Heidegger in relation to what matters in The Meridian speech.


Towards and Not Towards Heidegger


James K. Lyon, who has written in detail about the Heidegger–Celan affair (and whose research I will exclusively read from in this section), tells us Celan was an unspecialized novice in philosophy when he started reading Being and Time. Ignoring the question of Being in the text, Celan focused instead on the concepts, the vocabulary and what he marked as Heidegger’s “phenomenological investigation.”

In terms of vocabulary, Celan picked up Heidegger’s style of using compound words like “being-no-longer-in-the-world” and “this-not-yet” as poetic moves which turned literal language figurative. This exercise also helped Celan gain command over the German language. In terms of concepts, Celan picked up quite a few of them. From Being and Time, the idea of truth as “unconcealedness” appealed to Celan, and he took note of the corresponding idea of “Being-in-untruth” as an essential characteristic of “Being-in-the-world.” The idea of truth was serious for Celan, but, unlike for Heidegger, it did not mean any abstract principle for him but a real characteristic showing itself through openness, candour, sincerity and, in negative terms, the opposite of deceitfulness, falsehood, shallowness. Celan found post-war Germany mired in untruth. As Lyon clarifies, the truth Celan passionately sought in his poems was not metaphysical but something specific, to be established temporally through time, event and person. While reading Being and Time, Celan also made two notations: one, the question of how poetry’s permanence is related to time, and, two, that poetry stands more in relation to world-time than time. Taking the notion of truth and time together, Celan made a twist of something he read in The Question of Being, where the philosopher had written how through forgetfulness a “past entity” concealed or lost from memory could be brought into unconcealedness or unconcealment by “thoughtful remembrance.” Celan translated “past entity” into “what was in the past” or “that which happened”, thus fixing the concept to a specific historical event of post–World War II Germany where there was rampant forgetfulness around him working overtime to obliterate the memories of the Holocaust. For Celan, truth as well as time were tied to the notion of memory and forgetting, centered on specific events in historical time, and he read Heidegger’s concepts through that lens of understanding. It marked a decisive shift in The Meridian speech.

The other crucial aspect regarding Celan’s reading of Heidegger are the concepts surrounding language. Celan noted in his intense reading in 1953 of Heidegger’s Wrong Path, of the essay ‘What are poets for?’, where Heidegger calls language the house of Being. In the fall of the same year, Celan writes a poem, ‘With a Changing Key’, using the same metaphor:


With a changing key 

You unlock the house where 

The snow of what’s silenced is driven. 


Once again we find, Celan taking up a Heideggerian concept to make a crucial alteration: If language is the house of Being, that house no longer offers an image of calm and security because inside it lies a frozen silence that is bound to confront the poet even when he tries to enter the house with a changed key.

While reading Being and Time earlier, Celan had approvingly noted Heidegger’s thought of “keeping silent” (Schweign) being a fundamental aspect of poetic discourse. But it appears to me, by the time Celan wrote ‘With a Changing Key’, he was aware of the silenced within the silence of poetic discourse. That silenced silence, Celan must have felt, needed to be uncovered for the sake of truthfulness. Heidegger’s truth is Celan’s truthfulness.

The other thing about language Celan picked up from Heidegger is the “speaking-to-us” of language. This speaking-to-us of language is coterminous with the speaking-to-us of Being. Celan added to it his idea of “conversation” that takes full shape in The Meridian speech. He formulated a dialogic discourse where the poet is not merely listening to Being but is in conversation with Being. Going further, Celan makes a more radical move upon the Heideggerian contention that language speaks to us through the poet, by asserting that through language, the poet also speaks. This granting of the poet his own voice takes the idea of the poem away from Heidegger’s notion of the poem’s timeless condition. Celan situates the poem back into time, as the poet alone has, Celan says, “a sense of the clock’s hands”. The poem, to Celan, is always bound to “that which happened”. Celan’s interest in dates and time are specific marks on the poem where both calendar and clock come to converge into a moment of creation that allows for the poet to emerge out of the sea of language and announce his presence.

It appears Celan picked up all the concepts around Being but avoided getting deeply into the question of Being itself. In other words, Celan did not seem to be interested in the speculative questions of Being per se, of Being as such, but got interested in the concepts in relation to Being – viz. truth, language, past and present. Everything that Celan learns from Heidegger connected to Being he finally uses it to formulate an otherwise than Being.

The discourse of Being wasn’t allowing him to find itself. A poetic “finding” Celan was later to discover through Buber and Mandelstam. Reading Heidegger, Celan seemed more interested in the question of Being-in-the-world and did not seem to consider it with the same suspicion of in-authenticity as Heidegger did. In the same vein, Celan perhaps did not find pure authenticity in the house of solitude where Being dwelt poetically. Truthfulness and uncoveredness were, for Celan, the tests of Being and it was only possible through Being-in-the-world. Celan was looking for Being to break its silence about Being’s complicity with the dark, unmentionable dates of history. That was the only sign of Being’s redemption for Celan. For Celan, as Lyon pointed out, the “immediate” meaning of Being’s located-ness and essence was most important. Perhaps, and it is in keeping with his many perhapses in The Meridian, Celan stayed away from acknowledging Being because he would finally challenge it with the notion – going beyond Heidegger – of the “wholly other.” The Meridian is now banging on the door and I shall open the door and usher it in.


Towards the Un/In-human: 


Celan begins The Meridian speech by pulling out instances from Büchner’s works to highlight a special characteristic in the form of a radical representation of art. To begin with, there are three instances where Celan identifies three figures of art: a puppet, who is a subject of conversation in Danton’s Death, a monkey wearing coat and trousers in Woyzeck, and an automaton in Leonce and Lena. All three figures, strange creatures, act as technical snags in a human story. These figures introduce the “uncanny side” of art, where art goes, in Celan’s words, “beyond what is human, stepping into a realm that is turned toward the human, but uncanny”.

Derrida finds what Celan says as the uncanny in the human stepping out of the human in human art, uncannily resonating what Heidegger wrote in the Introduction to Metaphysics. With regard to the question, “What is man?” Heidegger says the answer that man is a rational animal is a “zoological” answer, and thus questionable, until an ontological answer is found, by interrogating the essence of Being. For Heidegger, the answer to this question, “What is man?” cannot be an answer but rather a question, where “man determines himself in interrogating himself about himself”. Looking for the origins of Being before the Aristotelian city-states (and finding Aristotle’s definition of man as a “political animal” problematic for the same reason as the definition of man being a “rational animal”), and looking for a poetic retrieval of the originary sense of history, Heidegger reads Sophocles’ Antigone in his move to reach the place, the polis, where the there-ness of Being (the Da of Dasien) exists. This is also the place where the sovereigns, “the men who hold power, the army, the navy, the council of elders, the assembly of the people” rule, but also “the gods, the priests, the poets, the thinkers”. It appears like a state of shared rule, where the sovereigns rule alongside the others.

Derrida then shifts his focus to how Heidegger translates Antigone’s use of man as “violent” or “terrible” as “uncanny”. To Heidegger, as Derrida points out, man is uncanny because “he departs from the familiar, from the customary limits (Grenze) of habitude”. Derrida also brings in Freud’s essay ‘The Uncanny’ in this regard, to conclude that it is from his uncanny relationship with the familiar that man gains – soverignly and superlatively – his sovereignty. This uncanny-ness, Derrida points out, is also equated with strangeness by Heidegger in his text on Georg Trackl.

For introducing the uncanny figures into his plays, Celan calls Büchner “the poet of the creature” who calls “art into question” by taking a radical direction. Celan finds Büchner’s moves unsettling for the taken-for-granted notions of art. In the same vein, Celan interprets how in Danton’s Death, the un-artful Lucile’s cry “Long live the king!” hurled in the direction of a patrol entering the Place de la Revolution, is a “word against the grain”, “a counterword”, “an act of freedom, a step”. To Celan, this exclamation by Lucile was not “homage to any monarchy, to any yesterday worth preserving” but to “the majesty of the absurd”. To Derrida, Celan wants to detach this counterword from its “political code” and “counter-revolutionary meaning”. Instead of seeing the cry as a pronouncement “in favour of the monarchy, thus of his Majesty King Louis XVI”, Celan, places it in favour of the “majesty of the present, of the Gegenwart”. This majesty is also of poetry, of the poetic act embedded in Lucile’s cry, a discordant note in the political moment. In contrast to the other revolutionaries, “Danton, Camille, and the rest” queued up to be killed, who did not “lack words, even here”. The march towards death in their case was merely theatrical and puppet-like.

Celan, like Büchner, was on the side of the revolutionaries, but, like Büchner, Celan was aware and critical of the suicidal violence by Robespierre. Once revolutionary violence attains power, the ethical and moral compass undergoes a shift, and the revolutionary has to answer for his deeds. Killing Danton for his further refusal to take part in shadowy killings of people who were suspected by the revolutionary apparatus was not what Büchner and Celan endorsed. Even then, the “artful” words of Danton and others on their way to the guillotine were within the larger revolutionary theatre of the political moment. Lucile’s cry alone pierced that moment with an uncanny reverberation. It was also a reminder of the originally French cry “The king is dead, long live the king!” first declared upon the accession to the French throne of Charles VII, perhaps repeated here in part by Lucile as a satire upon the revolutionary regime, reminding them of the history they were out to abolish, perhaps not by a superior logic or ethics of the spirit. Celan was also aware of what the Russian revolution did to its poets. His radio play on the poetry of Mandelstam begins with the speaker saying how Mandelstam welcomed, just like other Russian poets, the revolution. For Mandelstam, says the speaker, “revolution is the dawn of the other, the uprising of those below, the exaltation of the creature — an upheaval of downright cosmic proportions. It unhinges the world.” It sheds an oblique light on Celan’s preoccupations in The Meridian. Like Büchner, Mandelstam too pays attention to the “creature”, the one forcibly put on the stage of history, art and poetry, stifled to perform a rehearsed script, but either by sheer presence or by utterance, creates an uncanny moment. Lucile’s cry broke open not only her own silence, but the silence of those other mute, muted, uncanny creatures on stage who were not allowed a word. Lucile carried forward the absurdity of their presence and their silence. Celan knew, more than anyone else, the importance of the uncovering of a strange silence, falling like a sharp spear of truth into the dark heart of time. It is by performing such a feat that art, true art, resembles poetry.  


Towards the Wholly Other:  


In his 1958 Bremen speech, Celan mentioned Martin Buber by name. A year later, in January 1959, the Bavarian Academy of Fine Arts and the Academy of Arts in Berlin sponsored a lecture series on language, where against Heidegger’s lecture on the monologic nature of language, Buber offered his dialogic view of language. Celan learnt of this debate from newspapers and friends.  

In the late 1950s, Celan also bought a copy of Mandelstam’s collected poems. In 1958 Celan declared Mandelstam as “the metaphysician”. After all, Mandelstam had studied philosophy in Heidelberg, a fact Celan knew. Around the same time Celan came across Mandelstam’s 1913 essay, ‘On the Interlocutor’, where Mandelstam writes:

“I find [the bottle] in the sand, read the letter, learn about the date of the event [my emphasis] and the last will of the one who perished . . . The letter sealed in the bottle is addressed to the one who finds it. I found it. Therefore I am the secret addressee.”

And in his 1958 Bremen speech, Celan has this to say:

“A poem, as a manifestation of language and thus essentially dialogue, can be a message in a bottle, sent out in the—not always greatly hopeful—belief that somewhere and sometime it could wash up on land, on heartland perhaps. Poems in this sense, too, are under way [my emphasis]: they are making toward something.”

Way back in 1953, Celan had read the term “being underway” in Heidegger’s Wrong Paths, where, with regard to Rilke’s poetry, Heidegger asks, “toward what is his song underway”. Celan also knew of Heidegger’s persistent use of the term “being underway” in The Principle of Reason. In The Meridian speech, Celan takes the direction of thought further and alters the pessimism and hopelessness of Heidegger’s “being underway”. He acknowledges, to begin with: “The poem is lonely. It is lonely and en route. Its author stays with it.” Both, the poem and the poet are underway and both are lonely. Celan next raises a question: “Does this very fact not place the poem already here, at its inception, in the encounter, in the mystery of the encounter?” So, already, at the moment of inception, the poem lacks something – not Being – but an other. Celan unravels the desperation: “The poem intends another, needs this other, needs an opposite. It goes toward it, bespeaks it. For the poem, everything and everybody is a figure of this other toward which it is heading.”

So the poem, like a message in the bottle, is always underway to meet the other and put an end to its inception-al loneliness as well as the loneliness of its journey. For the poem, says Celan, everybody is the other. But the other is also the strange, the estranged, the uncanny and the “wholly other” – be it the puppet, the monkey, Lucile, Lenz, or the other on the other side, the mysterious other, the reader, who will recognise and give meaning to the message in the bottle. This other is wholly different from that other “everybody” of Heidegger, in Being and Time, where “(e)veryone is the other, and no one himself . . . the nobody to whom every Dasien has already surrendered in Being-among-one-another”. In Heidegger the other, the nobody, lacks authenticity. In Celan, what lacks authenticity is the unresponsive silence and dwelling of Being.

Celan’s view of poetry as a form of searching for oneself in “the sphere of the other” is, as Amir Eshel quotes, “a turning back”, which, Eshel says, is a “turning away from the centricity of the self, from care (Sorge), which is restricted to Dasein’s well-being”. Celan’s turning back (Umkher), Eshel points out, is different from Heidegger’s Kehre, which is “a path always leading back to one’s own language, to the solitude and supremacy of the self”. Celan found incredible for someone like Heidegger to conceive such a realm of comfort despite having witnessed two world wars. This turning back in Celan appears in The Meridian speech when he quotes Malebranche (from Walter Benjamin’s essay on Kafka), about “attentiveness” being the “natural piousness of the soul”. Eshel explains how Celan, “in the process of reflecting on turning back, situates ‘the Jewish’ in opposition to both the Christian messianic tradition and to Heidegger’s fixation on Being-toward-death as Dasein’s authentic mode of Being-in-the-world”.

At this point, a little mention of Emmanuel Levinas would be illuminating. Levinas, a Jewish ethical thinker, raises the question (and concern) for the other. Levinas’ other is not merely a speculative category (like Heidegger’s Being), but also a sensuous and affective category (of experience) which Levinas places in the presence of the face, and in the face-to-face encounter. Celan’s desire to move away from the question of Being to the question of the other and the otherwise than being, echoes Levinas’ language. In his essay on Celan, Levinas acknowledges this affinity between his thinking and Celan’s idea of poetry. Levinas calls Celan’s text (The Meridian) an “elliptic, allusive text, constantly interrupting itself in order to let through, in the interruptions, his other voice.” He draws attention to the paradox of Celan’s “entirely other” as someone who is also “very close”. Celan’s other, much like Levinas’ conception, is therefore a figure of proximity, who, as Celan says, is “conceivable, perhaps, again and again.”

Here one must add a crucial distinction that Celan seems to be making between his notion of the other and the other Levinas. The Levinasian encounter is the encounter of the face-to-face, whereas Celan’s idea of encountering the other across the meridian of time and history is first of all not a face-to-face encounter. This is a radical moving away from the ethical in Levinas, from what at first glance might appear to be Celan’s very Levinasian notion via Buber. The message in the bottle thrown to sea is a rushing towards an encounter beyond the realm of familiarity. Celan’s other resides beyond the familiar and always without a face – yet. The promise of this rushing towards the other beyond the horizon of the (invisible) face gets its solace from Celan’s idea of the meridian, which intercepts the journey of language with its touch of a curve.


Towards the Future


The future of the poem in Celan is its setting itself free. But language can set itself free only when, according to Celan, it is actualised. To Celan, it is “language actualised”, that is, “set free under the sign of a radical individuation, which, however, remains as aware of the limits drawn by language as of the possibilities it opens”. This is once again a response, a negation of Heidegger for whom language is always and only speculative. For Celan, however, every poem is actualised language that is always remindful of its specific coordinates the first coordinate being the day of the poem, its “20th of January”. “Every poem”, Celan writes, “has its ‘20th of January’ inscribed.” This is the day when Lenz journeyed through the mountains and lost his mind. It is also the same day in 1942 when the Wannsee Conference took place where the Final Solution to the Jewish question was made whereby most of the Jews of German-occupied Europe were to be deported to Poland and exterminated, Celan’s parents being among them. This 20th of January is specific both to the poem as well as the poet. For Celan, the mystery of the poem is impossible to unravel without the mystery of the poet because it is the poet who adds the story of his location and of the date to the poem. As Derrida says, “A date is mad, that is the truth. / And we are mad for dates.” Celan’s madness for the madness of the date is a double madness – that of the poem and that of the poet.

That leads us to the question of Celan’s rejection of Stéphane Mallarmé idea of the ‘absolute poem’. Says Celan: “I am talking about a poem which does not exist! The absolute poem – no, it certainly does not, cannot exist.” At one stroke, Celan tries to break away from the Heideggerian notion that in a poem only language speaks and the post-structuralist thesis (Roland Barthes, et al), that the author is a subject of writing and not a person. Celan says in The Meridian, that writing is born of a conversation between an “I” and a “you”, between one who has a name, the one who speaks and the other who is named and addressed in the poem that “brings its otherness into the poem.” Since for Celan not only the poem but also the poet speaks, the poet is not considered without identity swimming in the sea of language. The poet is, however, not identified by Celan in the sphere of intentionality either. The poet is simply two things: a date and a location.

The poem for Celan is a movement, a movement across time and its uncertainties towards that mysterious encounter with the mysterious, wholly other, whose face is not visible yet. In this turning back of the poem towards the other lies what Celan identifies as poetry’s destiny, which, he adds, with a “perhaps”, is, “an Atenwende, a turning of our breath”. This turning of our breath for Celan is that moment of missing our breath as the reader where Lucile cries “Long live the king!” This turn of breath is a re-turn to history; without such a turn there is no re-turn; there is this necessary turning away from Heidegger and Being, to be able to re-turn to history that acknowledges and desires the other waiting for the message in the bottle.

It is necessary for Celan’s idea of the future, of poetry’s future, of the future of the poem, to be more specific, to have four characteristics. One, despite being inclined to the revolutionary principle, Celan’s idea of the future of the poem is not invested within any idea of collective solidarity. The reader is always and only in relation to the revolutionary principle, but is always capable of that critical moment of dissent which produces the perfectly absurd moment of poetry. Two, the future of the poem also lies in the future of remembering, where remembering happens across the specific coordinates of time and location. Three, the future of the poem also lies in its lonely but passionate desire to escape the condition of Being and its timeless, secure comforts. Four, the future of the poem is turned towards an other, without the familiar promise of the face, but, rather, a movement across the meridian towards the sea where a truthful hand, as truthful as a truthful poem, might pick it up.

The reader is the future of the poem. She is the light against the dark loneliness of the poem. She brings the poem to light. But the future of the poem also waits in its past. Perhaps not of all poems, but those written under the shadowy dates of persecution and madness, dates that suffocate the poem and the poet who turns against his breath, leaving behind another date for the reader to ponder on: 20th April, 1970.



1. Paul Celan, “The Meridian”, in Collected Prose, translated with an introduction by Rosmarie Waldrop (New York: Routledge, 2003).

2. Paul Celan, “Speech on the Occasion of Receiving the Literature Prize of the Free Hanseatic City of Bremen”, in Selected Poems and Prose of Paul Celan, translated by John Felstiner (New York: W.W. Norton, 2001).

3. Paul Celan, “The Meridian”, in Selected Poems and Prose of Paul Celan, translated by John Felstiner (New York: W.W. Norton, 2001).

4. Osip Mandelstam: On the Interlocutor, translated by Philip Nikolayev, available online at

5. James K. Lyon, Paul Celan and Martin Heidegger: An Unresolved Conversation, 1951–1970 (Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 2006).

6. Jacques Derrida, Sovereignties in Question: The Poetics of Paul Celan, edited by Thomas Dutoit and Outi Pasanen (New York: Fourdham University Press, 2005).

7. Emmanuel Levinas, “From Being to the Other”, Proper Names, translated by Michael B. Smith, Stanford University Press, California, 1996.

8. Amir Eshel, “Paul Celan’s Other: History, Poetics and Ethics”, New German Critique, No. 91, Winter 2004, pp. 57–77.

9. Ger Killeen, “The Monkey, the Automaton, the Medusa’s Head: Home Thoughts From the Uncanny”, Elohi Gadugi Journal, Summer 2013, available online at

10. “The Poetry of Osip Mandelstam: A Radio Play by Paul Celan (Part Two)”, translated by Pierre Joris, Poems and Poetics, available online at


[This paper was presented School of Culture and Creative Expressions. Ambedkar University, on 19 September, 2014.]





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