Poetry, Prayer, and Memory (7)

This is the next to last of a series of eight posts. 

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Theodor Adorno once famously said that poetry is no longer possible after the Holocaust. Well, if by “poetry” one means some sort of grand and flashy chatter that calls attention to itself by how catchy it is, like some advertising slogan, then certainly after the Holocaust to write such junk is questionable, to say the least. If that is all that poetry can ever be, then at the deepest levels there is even something offensive in writing poetry after the Holocaust. If that is all that poetry can ever be, then after the Holocaust writing poetry is something that one should do only with a guilty conscience, since to do it any other way would dishonor the Holocaust’s memory, rather than keep it. Anyone who would write such stuff after the Holocaust should feel obligated to do so only with apology for one’s weakness, as it were—or at least for one’s having forgotten oneself shamefully when one wrote it.

However, if “poetry after the Holocaust” means the sort of poetry Paul Celan writes, which is precisely the sort of “absolute,” “artless,” “impossible” poetry he isolates in “The Meridian,” then it is only such poetry that truly remains possible “after” the Holocaust. It is only such stammering, stuttering, impossible poetry that gives voice to the otherwise voiceless silence of all the dead of the Holocaust. Only such poetry gives way to the void and place to the chaos that is the Holocaust. It does so precisely by decomposing itself, breaking apart into artless stuttering and stammering.

Thus, the poem after the Holocaust “would be,” as Celan says in "The Meridian," “the place where all tropes and metaphors want to be led ad absurdum.” The sort of “pure,” “absolute,” “solitary” poem that alone can be written without shame “after” the Holocaust is the place where all the eloquence of tropes and metaphors is stripped from them altogether, so that they are reduced to no more than just such artless stutterings and stammerings.

Poetry that stays pure after the Holocaust can consist of no more than just such stuttering and stammerings as, for example, the mentally stricken Friedrich Hölderlin in his tower in Tübingen, Germany, is reputed to have uttered to indicate now yes, now no, now no-one (or “God,” which finally comes to the same thing, I’ve been arguing) knew what.

“Pallaksch. Pallaksch,” it is reputed that Hölderlin would say. Hence that is exactly how Celan himself ends “Tübingen, January,” the poem he wrote on the occasion of his own visit to Hölderlin’s tower one January day.

By taking all eloquence to the place where it becomes no more than such nonsense syllables, the poem after the Holocaust becomes the very place—topos in Greek—where all places end. Such artless, un-poetic poetry can only be, as it were, the place of no-place, u-topia in Greek, a place that can only be seen only “in the light of u-topia,” as Celan himself puts it in “The Meridian.” It is by taking those of us it encounters into that place of no place, where we can see with that light, that each singular, solitary poem after the Holocaust puts to each of us the question of just who each of us is, in that innermost a-nonymity, that no-named-ness marked by our names themselves, now stripped of all identifying content, all “meaning” that goes beyond the marking of an absence of identity.

The poem that truly comes after the Holocaust can only give voice in its stuttering and stammering to the absolute, irreducible singularity of each and every human being as such. Thereby, it demands of each of us, each one of us in our own irreducibly singular solitude, that we take art with us into our own innermost narrowness [Enge]—and set ourselves free.

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The “actual poem, even the least ambitions,” says Celan, is what makes us catch our breath, so that we may suddenly find our nameless selves in that nowhere place where we can set ourselves free to be nobody’s roses praying a non-prayer to a God who is no one. And by setting our nameless nobody selves free in that nowhere no-place we also set art free. We set art free of all the artificiality and artifice, all the gaudiness and grandiloquence and self-importance, that always threatens art. We set art free from "all that," letting it become utterly art-less, content in future to do no more than stammer: “Pallaksch, Pallaksch.” 

Then even the simplest, silliest things become free, as well, to be “actual poems,” though lacking any ambition whatever along poetic lines, and utterly content to be no more than their simple, silly selves.

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Permit me to end these reflections with a small example of my own, which I’d like to offer up in memory of my father, who died twenty-two years ago last November 28. When he died, I was with my mother at his bedside in our home in Longmont, where my parents lived with my wife and our daughter and me in the last years of their lives.

When I was still just a kid, my father used to embarrass me by saying, whenever he caught himself lapsing into an awkward or thoughtless way of acting or speaking, “I’m not stupid, I’m just a little bent over.”

It is testimony to my own being bent over, if not to my outright stupidity, that I was literally in my forties before, one day, my father’s line popped into my mind after I’d done or said something awkward or thoughtless myself. Suddenly this time, however, when it popped into my mind yet again after all those years—as it often had throughout all the years since my childhood, like an advertising jingle I could not get rid of—I finally “got” it! That is, I finally heard what my father so often actually said, and the utterly artless word-play at play in it, which hinges on no more and no less than the homophony of an exaggerated pronunciation of s-t-o-o-p-e-d, the past tense of stoop, meaning “to bend or kneel down,” and stupid, meaning “lacking in intelligence.”

My hope for us all is that, when we pledge ourselves always to honor the memory of the Holocaust, only to find ourselves no sooner pledging than we have forgotten ourselves in forgetting the Holocaust and letting our attention wander, we all might hear—in some voice or none, it doesn’t matter whose, and in one form another, it doesn’t matter which—my father’s reminder that, though none of us is stupid, at least in any ways that matter, we are all of us, each and every one without exception, a little bent over.

May that artless reminder gently bring our memories back under control, as they continue to stumble forward in our efforts to remember the Holocaust and all else that calls out to us never to be forgotten, always to be remembered.