Poetry, Prayer, and Memory (7)

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.

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Poetry, Prayer, and Memory (1)

At one point in “The Meridian,” his acceptance speech for the 1960 Georg Büchner Prize for literature, poet Paul Celan remarks that “the poem today,” which in his case especially means a day that dawned only after the night of the Holocaust (a day that is still passing by us), “shows, as cannot help but be recognized, a strong tendency toward holding its tongue.” 

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Forgetting Ourselves (3)

At rare times, what we call art provides us with a moment when we can at last forget ourselves in just such a truly liberating way. At those rare moments, art catches us up short, and opens before us at just that moment the opportunity to forget ourselves and to “set ourselves free”—free from ourselves, and thereby free at last just to be ourselves. It does so, according to Celan, at those moments when we are so suddenly and unexpectedly struck by a work of art, or something at work in that work, that it “takes our breath away,” as we commonly yet accurately say. We encounter “breath-taking beauty,” as we also say.

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Forgetting Ourselves (1)

“Those who have art before their eyes and on their minds [. . .] have forgotten themselves. Art draws away from the I. Art here demands a certain distance in a certain direction, on a certain path.”[1]

The poet Paul Celan made those remarks some fifty-six years ago in “The Meridian,” his acceptance speech for the Georg Büchner Prize for literature.

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