Attentiveness - Natural Prayer of the Soul:
     Interview with John Felstiner

Q: Celan, who was truly a European poet, can also be viewed as the first truly global poet to emerge after 1945 -- his spirituality, his homelessness take on almost global parameters. His "Jewish" identity, meanwhile, embraces a "human" archetype. That thing, the voice of the "human," guided his spirituality also. He addressed God as "O one, o none, o no one, o you" and wrote "Pray Lord, we are near." But who is his Lord in these lines, and who are "we"?

A: Franz Kafka thought of writing as a form of prayer, and I believe that held for Celan also. He had that peculiarly Judaic strength and weakness that is embodied for me by the image of Jacob wrestling with the angel. It was perhaps an even more important Biblical image for him than the sacrifice or binding of Isaac, although that symbolizes the Holocaust better than Jacob wrestling with the angel. For Celan, the image of wrestling with language mattered vitally, wrestling with darkness, wrestling with inarticulateness, and ultimately, wrestling with God, or at least the idea of some divine authority and perfection. Wrestling so much so that in the poem "Psalm" he calls God No One. That ultimate wrestling defines Celan as a Jew, or as a religious person. In "Psalm" it may seem a negative turn for him to coin a new name for God, namely "Niemand," No One, but at the same time it's a positive act. Why? Because you are naming God, granting God presence, no matter that it's negative; and secondly, you are bringing yourself into dialogue with God. To curse God, as Job does, is better than apathy, and that was the kind of Jew Celan was.

If you were to ask "Did he believe in God" that would be too simple a question, but he certainly did believe in presence, some kind of yearning, drawing, a presence in life that was more than human. That's probably as much as he would have said. He picked up the strength of the German 'thou' from Martin Buber, whose book I and Thou and whose other writings influenced him a great deal. So if Buber believes that we give our interlocutor, the person we're speaking to or writing for, the credit of being in the same spiritual sphere as ourselves, by calling that person 'thou,' then that says a lot about Celan's whole record as poet.

I'm aware that for some people and in some senses my book is "too Jewish," if there is such a thing. I saw that so many other expositions of Celan were not recognizing his Jewishness enough, and perhaps I was driven by my own needs to a certain extent. One of the things that showed me I was not wrong occurred back in 1984, when I was allowed by his wife to spend a lot of time in Celan's libraries, one in Paris and one in Normandy. In his bedroom, where the most important books were kept, I found a big black volume with very thin pages that we call "Bible leaf," tissue-like pages, and the whole book was in Hebrew. I knew immediately what it was: the Hebrew Bible. But I found a little note slipped in that someone from a German research team had recently left, which had on it the German word "Important?" In other words, they guessed that the book was important, but since it was in Hebrew they didn't know what it was. So if this is characteristic of a certain stage in German Celan criticism, then something else needed to be done. One of the excitements of writing my book was finding out how pervaded Celan's poetry is by Biblical overtones or allusions. The Bible pervades his writing from start to finish, sometimes very quiet and distant, but it's there. However consciously, it's there, by virtue of the nature of language and history.

A: What led you to edit Celan's poetry and prose after you finished your book "Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew"? From where did the idea of placing Celan's voice on the Internet come?

Q: When I finished the literary biography and even while I was writing it, I was aware that I would have to do something further down the line. I had generated so many translations, parts of poems that I wanted to revisit later on. I decided to start pulling those poems out of the biography and bringing other poems and prose into the circle, finishing up things I hadn't fully translated, and revising all of them, to create a Selected Poems and Prose. I wanted it to be chronological and bilingual, and more extensive, so I had 162 poems, but mainly I added the prose, which hadn't been brought together with the poems before, and I also included some very early poems, and some posthumously published poems, as well as a long new introduction and some visual material. I wanted to do that honor to Celan, to get his voice out there yet again for people. I wanted very much to get Celan's voice into my book, so for a whole year I implored Norton, my publisher, to put a CD in the back of the book, with his voice, which was available in German. Finally they refused, they said no. Marketing and production and cost were too big a problem. Then I realized that Norton, a huge international publisher, had a website, and I got permission from Germany to put 12 key poems of Celan onto this website at Norton. So much better than a CD because it's free to everybody, we have his voice speaking "Deathfugue" and other poems alongside translations across the screen. I feel glad about that. In fact I feel that's as much an accomplishment as the anthology itself. When people listen to that poem, which it was so important for me to catch the rhythm and intensity of, it doesn't matter whether they know German or not, they are drawn into it, they can hear how drastic, and how dramatic and intense, Celan's engagement with memory has become.

Q: Speak a bit more about the process of translation, particularly about your work on translating Celan's "Deathfugue".

A: I strive for rhythm beneath and beyond everything else, though of course idiom, diction, overtones and so on are important. But if the rhythm's not there, especially with Celan and this one poem , then nothing is there. Why rhythm? Because after all, he did have music in mind, possibly a fugue, possibly a tango. He had in mind the fact that Nazis forced Jews in ghettos and in camps to form orchestras and play marches, Bach and other classical music to please the Nazis. Or just to step up the pace of work, and to make the prisoners think that a part of human life as they knew it was still available to them, even though it wasn't. The rhythm of the poem (speaking German) "Black milk of daybreak, we drink at night," became so important to me that as in a few other poems I even tried to mimic the rhythm itself, syllable for syllable, stress for stress, as a kind of homage to Celan. Then one day it occurred to me that because the poem is like a fugue it is very repetitive, certain phrases repeat four times over in the course of the poem. I thought, why don't I translate them the first time around, and then the second time start to bring back the German, and then the third time around a little more, and then the last time the phrase occurs in this poem, let it be wholly in German. This struck with the force of revelation, even though it's a bit immodest to say this, it struck me I'd received a revelation about translation. Why? Because with only this one poem, so repetitive, I was able to enact the kind of meridian that concerned Celan himself -- starting with German, going into exile, the alienation of English, but then coming back into German. This brought about two things at once: giving the reader a sense of the original, which is what translation ought to do anyway, and bringing back Celan's mother tongue, which had virtually and actually been barbarously robbed from him by Nazideutsch. Here at least, one could do that. And 99% of the people who've commented have thought it a good idea. Some have thought, Oh, he seems to have forgotten to translate the poem -- but nothing could be further from the truth.

I never fully understand a poem until I translate it. What I learned in working on Neruda was that the act of translation is tantamount to the act of full interpretation and absorption. For me, translating Celan was really the core, the central way I could come at him. This doesn't mean I didn't research dozens of other aspects of his life and work--biographical, historical, religious and so on. But ultimately, it was finding and giving a voice to him that counted most.

Q: Could you say a few words about Celan's own translations? In your book you particularly investigated Celan's deep relationship to his translations of Osip Mandelshtam. What do you think drew Celan to this Russian poet?

A: I did try to get at what drew Celan to Mandelshtam: not just that Mandelshtam was Jewish, or a kind of disaffected Jew, though that was part of it, but also that he was persecuted, that he was charged with plagiarism, and underneath it all, that he set absolute store by the act of writing poems. This was the be-all and end-all of existence for Mandelshtam, and Celan recognized that, and it's what drew him to Mandelshtam. Of course, it was also that Mandelshtam was an East-European poet, and Celan thought of himself as East-European. His bond with Mandelshtam was over-determined, as Celan also learned Russian under very difficult circumstances during the first occupation in 1940 after the Hitler-Stalin pact, and then the second occupation in 1944. He valued extremely his knowledge of Russian, which was more deeply and quickly acquired than by any of his friends in those years of Soviet occupation. He even said, "I consider translating Mandelshtam to be as important a task as my own verses." Now there are lots of poets in America today as well as around the world who translate as well as write, but few if of them would say that. There is what I would call a blood brotherhood, in which you cut your skin and your comrade's skin and share blood. I think sometimes of that image as the one that describes the relationship between Mandelshtam and Celan, or you could talk about Mandelshtam in a way as a kind of alter-ego, another part of himself.

What Paul Celan said about poetry itself often had to do with speaking, reaching out toward another, the message in a bottle (which is an image he drew from Mandelshtam). I've begun to feel over the years that what Celan said about poetry and his audience also hold for a poet and a translator. That is, where Celan sees no essential difference between a poet and a handshake, that holds for the relationship between the poet and his translator, too. It's like a handshake, a reaching across space and time. When he says, the poem reaches toward another, over-against, an addressable Thou, you can also hear him saying this about a poet reaching out to the translator, Mandelshtam to Celan. Ultimately, at its finest, Celan saw something redemptive about the act of translation.

Q: Paul Celan, of course, was first of all a great Jewish poet. But it seems to me that there is something else in his work that strives to rise above any divisions between religions -- his spirituality seems to be driven by something else as well, something that is not within the parameters of any given religion. His struggles with his God and with German (a language in which he wrote but which was the speech of his mother's murderers) sets him apart from other great post-war European poets such as Herbert or Montale or Milosz. How do you see these struggles?

A: Well that's a fascinating question. You say that Celan was certainly a Jewish poet, but there was something else driving him, which made him more than that. I'm not sure I would agree with the quantification of what you say. More? Less? Who knows? I do think, and this may be a failing or a strength in my book, or a little of each, but I do think that his Jewishness was essential and central to his poetry. That's why I don't speak in terms of something more than that. Perhaps his Jewishness drove him to be a more-than-parochial Jewish poet. It's almost the case that the Holocaust drove him or hurt him into poetry. You were quoting Aden on Yeats: "mad Ireland hurt him into poetry," but in both cases, Yeats was a poet before mad Ireland drove him and Celan was a poet before Europe went mad. The germ was there, but who knows what kind of poet he would have become. Probably not so great a poet, because as he says his poems had to pass through history, not above and beyond it. It's the history driving his poetry that makes him the poet he is, along with his verbal genius. You're right about Herbert and the other poets you mention, but I think Celan, as you say, is special. He was in a sense an internal exile within the German language. Like Kafka and Rilke he spoke German in a basically non-German-speaking land, but unlike him, they didn't have the second world war and Nazideutsch to deal with. Celan is exiled from his own country, but stays within his mother tongue. I guess that's true about Herbert, Milosz, Zagajewski and others who continued to write in their own language. Finally I think of Celan as the exemplary post-war poet, because he was Jewish and yet his language was German.

In thinking whether Celan has a distinctive place, I'd first ask the question of whether human utterance in the form of poetry has any claim to truth at all. That's basic for poets, right? Let's hope it does, but poets are always struggling with that question, like Jacob with the angel. Because Celan wrote in German, that question takes at least one more turn of the screw, one more degree of difficulty. When Eliot says that every poem is a raid on the inarticulate, a struggle to express the truth in poetic language, he's saying that about anyone's language. If the language is German, in which Celan's mother and many millions of others were murdered, then the possibility of truth-telling becomes more precarious. Likewise for Dan Pagis, who moved from German to Hebrew, the literary, human, and spiritual stakes are much higher. You speak of being human and there's no question that Celan would resonate to what you say. In his sense of himself as Jew, the Jew is just a human being--a bit more vulnerable, a bit more mortal, but basically human. That sounds a little arrogant, but since you're arrogating agony to yourself, not rapture, it's perhaps not that arrogant. You know, I have to keep asking what the word "human" means, because it meant everything for Celan. If there's one word more resonant in his vocabulary than Juif or Jude or Jew, it's Mensch, human being, no question about it. In his letters, in his poetry, in his speeches, that word is a shining coin, it's a test for him, of whether he wants anything to do with someone. Is this person a mensch? He used it in the German sense, meaning a human being, but also in a Yiddish sense, meaning a worthy human being. Ultimately, he equated the true poet with a mensch.

Q: Many see Celan as a dark poet of the Holocaust, but he also was a supreme ironic poet also. Can you speak on this a bit?

A: I agree with what you say about irony, and I would add that he was a comic, playful poet. His poetry is riddled with wordplay. Irony in particular, raised to the highest point, would mean the existence of two truths, two facts, which nullify each other but still co-exist. Maybe that's a sublime form of irony, and it was the only way Celan could express the truth. "Don't split off No from Yes," he says, "Give your say this meaning too: / Speaks true who speaks shadow." That's also a form of irony.

Q: "A poem is not timeless," wrote Celan, "certainly it lays claim to infinity, it seeks to reach through time -- through it, not above and beyond it." Can you speak a bit about Celan's own relationship with an idea of time?

A: You ask about time, and immediately another thought of Mandelshtam comes to mind. In the preface Celan wrote for his translations of Mandelshtam, he cites a remark by Jakobson, that Russia had wasted a generation of her poets. Mandelshtam was one of those. Wasted, also in the sense of destroyed. Celan felt an affinity to that, he was sharing that sense of being threatened by his own time. The three phases of time were always in his mind: past, future, present. That sounds obvious, but in fact each of those phases in the continuum of time mattered differently to him. The past because of his childhood, totally lost, as well as deeper recesses of the past that he could hark back to, whether Biblical or historical or cultural. To be able to move back in the past was terribly important to him, as it was for T.S. Eliot and Yeats, the great modernist poets. To have the mythic reach was essential to them, and Celan needed that too.

Towards the future he had a kind of utopian or messianic impulse. Of course it was deeply undermined by history and events, but still he had this impulse. Often it took the form of reaching forward in time, toward light, like the light shining from under the door of the Law in Kafka's parable, which Celan translated into Romanian. Light was salvation, in a poem of Celan's.

As for the present moment, in almost a Zen-like way he used the term "Zeit" which is German for time, and combined it with other words, trying to find the moment in time where meaning would cohere, where spirit and body would somehow for the moment be one. Finally I would add one more image to his sense of time-- that is, the meridian. You know "The Meridian," his major speech. I think Celan thought in terms of circular time, of moving through a meridian that would take him through the furthest pole of alienation but ultimately back to some source, whether it's a sacred source, as for Eliot and Frost, or a personal source--his mother, his mother tongue--or a geographical source, Czernowitz, Eastern Europe, or a linguistic source, as in the poem "Du sei wie du," where he goes back to the kumi ori, the "Rise, Shine" from Isaiah, or a source in other poets. Always the meridian remained a vital image to him.

Q: What was your own first encounter with Celan's work?

A: You ask how my encounter with Celan and finally the work I've done emerged. One thing I don't talk about in the book, because it would have been too personal, is that my father's first language was German. When I went to Germany in July 1961 to begin learning some German, I was conscious of tapping back into my father's native tongue. He came from the Austrian Empire. So that made my access to Celan different, more personal, than to Neruda or Rilke or Valery, other poets I've translated. Then another stage in my own progress was going to Prague in 1972 and discovering the lost Jewish community there. But just as important was teaching in Israel for a year. There I began to get a sense of what Israel stood for, and also to meet many poets, some of them from Europe like Celan; namely, Yehuda Amichai, Dan Pagis, both of whom were originally German-speaking. Meeting these poets also alerted me to the rupture in human time that the Holocaust and World War II had precipitated. When I got back from Israel in 1975, I encountered Celan for the first time, though he had died five years before. I was deeply primed to respond to him as a translator too. Teaching a course on literature of the Holocaust in 77-78, now called "Imagining the Holocaust," I realized that Celan would take a central position in that course. I started translating him then, and one thing led to another, until I became addicted. I've since found so many people around the world who are addicted to Celan in the same way; he's utterly compelling, I'd never met anything like that before, and I don't think there's any other poet like Celan. Since I'm a writer, critic, and translator, the only outcome was a book. This took seventeen years to write. If I'd known at the beginning, what an undertaking it was going to be... I hope I still would have undertaken it.

Q: But why did you decide to write a biography of Celan? Or, to rephrase this question, how did this book take form -- it, after all, is not strictly a biography but a wonderful combination of criticism, "life studies" and literary translation -- how did you construct the book?

A: Let me respond to this probing, fascinating, and vexing question of biography. I'll start with the most sensitive point. When the German edition of my book came out, they called it "Paul Celan: A Biography." I said no, this is not right, it's both more and less than a biography, but it's not strictly a biography. The publisher, C.H. Beck, in Munich, decided to go ahead with it, because that's the format the German audience is used to. I had to capitulate there, but I wasn't happy. It's more than a biography because it's highly interpretive: it's literary criticism and interpretation, plus translations, as well as being biographical. But it's less than a biography, because there are many things I don't go into, deliberately: Celan's marital relationship, his mental illness. What were his love life and his illness like? Well, I didn't really know, and I only wanted to say things that conduced to an understanding of his poetry. Also, I was doing a lot of research and a certain amount of writing while Gisele Celan was alive, and I felt I couldn't dishonor her trust in me by inquiring into things she didn't think were germane to the poetry.

Now I like to call the book a literary biography, a biography of his poetry. I wanted to get at the life of his work and the work of his life. Ultimately the job was to weave these things together, and I think that's what makes the book experimental. I'm not an experienced biographer, but I am a good literary critic and a good translator. I had to learn how to weave the timeline of his life into the story of his work.

Incidentally, it was a great relief to me when I made the inevitable decision to make my story chronological. This doesn't come out in the book, but I'll mention it because it actually responds to your question. I decided to have three sections in this book, corresponding to three words I selected from one of his sayings: Stricken, Seeking, Reality, from the Bremen speech. Celan said he was a poet "stricken by and seeking reality." So I picked those three words as mottoes for each of the sections of the book. Stricken, for the early part of his life; Seeking, the middle part; and Reality, the last part. Along the way I decided to make 18 chapters in the book. Why? The number 18 in Hebrew is "Chai," and that's the word for life. So 18 is the most sacred number in Hebrew liturgy, and in Judaism. It was just a tacit joke to have 18 chapters in the book. Celan plays on the word "eighteen" in one of his poems, so I know he was aware of that.

Q: In the end of the book you offer the readers a wonderful, inventive litany -- fragments of Celan's own lines placed together in a chronological order to compose a kind of a new, wild version of the book itself. How did that come into being?

A: I like your word "litany" for the last part of the book where I quote chronologically from several dozen poems. In musical terms it could also be called a coda, that is a tail that catches up everything that's happened. That was a rash decision, and I'm not entirely happy with it. Even the format of it was difficult to arrange, but I wanted to end with Celan's voice, not my voice. The point was to rehearse, to bring back his life purely, by his words. I picked the poems that meant a lot to me and to the telling of his story, and tried to highlight each one of them, year by year. This gesture was inevitable for me, and it tallies with another that no one has noticed in all the reviews the book has had; namely, every one of the 18 chapters begins with Celan's voice, not with mine.

Q: Let's then end this conversation with your own interpretation of Celan's own words. Celan said: "Attentiveness is the natural prayer of the soul." Do these words hold true for you as well?

A: Yes, Celan said: "Attentiveness is the natural prayer of the soul." I learned about this from reading Kafka too. For a writer of a certain religion, not totally orthodox or devout, such as Kafka and Celan in the case of Judaism, it It may well be that writing becomes a kind of surrogate or substitute-- but that's too weak a word; becomes an alternative version of the religious or spiritual quest. I'm sure that's true, and it's even true for me as a translator. For me the utterly attentive act of translating is like an act of prayer.

Interviewed by Ilya Kaminsky



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