Poetry, Prayer, and Memory (5)

This is the fifth of a series of posts. 

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What else could possibly answer to the Holocaust, and the silence of all who were murdered in it? What else, besides silence itself?

What else could be the Holocaust’s genuine memorial, what else truly preserve its memory?

Celan, I think, knew that. I think he knew it as well as anyone could ever know it. And I think he said so—said so, in fact, far more than once.

It seems to me he says it already in “The Meridian,” the speech he gave in 1960 in accepting that year's Georg Büchner Prize for Literature, seven years before his visit to Martin Heidegger's ski-hut in Todtnauberg. That speech is one place, I think, where Celan says that he had just such knowledge, and tries to communicate that knowledge, to share it with his audience, the audience for his poetry.

In “The Meridian,” shortly after making the remarks I quoted quite a bit earlier in this series, remarks about how the poem lavishes attention on every thing and person it encounters, and calls out to them all to attend in turn, Celan goes on ask his audience:

Meine Damen und Herren, what am I really talking about, when I speak from this direction, in this direction, with these words about the poem—no, about the poem?

Indeed, I am speaking about the poem that does not exist!

The absolute poem—to be sure, that doesn’t exist, it cannot exist!

Yet with every actual poem, with [even] the least ambitious poem, this irrepressible question, this un-heard-of demand, is put.

In those remarks, and in “The Meridian” as a whole, Celan is concerned with poetry that truly comes “after the Holocaust”—the sort of poetry he himself writes, and for which he has just been awarded the Büchner Prize. However, I want to call attention to the fact that Celan does not explicitly confine his remarks to poems, however filled or emptied of poetic ambition, that are “about” the Holocaust, at least in the ordinary sense of being made up of tropes, metaphors, or images taken from the Holocaust itself. He speaks of “every actual poem,” without exception.

I think we should take Celan very much at his word there. I also think we should take very seriously his saying that such poems can even be void of all poetic ambition, all poetic pretentiousness, all claim to be “poetic.”

Indeed, I think what Celan says is meant to apply even to poems so unpretentious that they don’t even present themselves as “poems” at all any longer. After all, as I have noted before in other, earlier post series, Celan himself very deliberately follows what had already become tradition by then at the Büchner Prize award ceremonies, the tradition of making explicit reference to Büchner’s own work when accepting the Prize. Celan follows that tradition by actually casting the entirety of his own acceptance speech in the very deliberate form of a memoriam of the works of Georg Büchner, that early nineteenth-century German writer, Dichter in German, after whom the prize is named. In his acceptance speech, Celan recurrently uses examples from the writings, the Dichtungen, of Büchner himself, who wrote dramas and a novella and letters and political manifestoes but was not a “poet” in the limited sense of a writer of poems, Gedichten, as Celan himself was.

Büchner died in 1837, more than a hundred years before the Holocaust as such. Nevertheless, if we use what Celan says in “The Meridian” as our guide in defining the very nature of the poem that comes “after the Holocaust,” then, as strange as it may sound at first to say so, Büchner’s own works themselves, at least as Celan uses them, exemplify just such poetry, it seems to me—poetry that is truly after the Holocaust, and not just, at best, a precursor to it.

The idea of such a poetry that comes truly after the Holocaust is no more and no less than the idea of a poetry that truly calls our attention to what the Holocaust itself demands of us, if we are truly to remember it, as opposed to compulsively repeating it. It is no more and no less than the idea of a poetry that artlessly, unpretentiously, without any elegance or eloquence left to it, manages to take our breath away for a moment, and call our attention back to where it belongs.

Anyone who writes in such as way as to give us such moments of breath-turn, of Atemwende, writes poetry after the Holocaust, no matter when or where they write, or from whatever occasions they draw their tropes, metaphors, and images, or whether they write poems in the usual, limited sense, or voluminous novels, or even memorabilia. Whenever and wherever such poetry is actual, then and there genuine remembrance of the Holocaust takes place—is given a place to take.

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To be continued.