Poetic analysis: different countries, different methods?
June 20, 2006 5:50 PM   Subscribe

I am working on translating some of Paul Celan's poems into English. Are there any major differences between my traditional American understanding of poetic analysis and that of German-speaking countries?

I have sought books that might address this subject, but have been unsuccessful so far. I am in my second year of a fairly ambitious literary thesis about Bukovina, Romania and its poets. My thesis advisor, who is German herself, claims not to understand anything written by Celan. I am seeking input from native speakers and from those who have experience studying poetry in a language other than their own. Are there differences in the approach of the country you've studied and that of your own country?
posted by vkxmai to Writing & Language (5 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Well, you should really read Peter Szondi's Celan Studies, who (among other things) actually writes about Celan's own translations of English works (Dickinson, Shakespeare) into German. You are an absolutely asking a huge question. You've read Celan's Meridian speech, I take it?
posted by ori at 6:31 PM on June 20, 2006

Oh yes, that speech is amazing and just as complex as most of his poetry. Szondi is on my Ohiolink request list...quite a ways down. I thought that it couldn't hurt to see what others, if any, on MeFi think about Celan. I've never seen him mentioned here, except in passing.
posted by vkxmai at 9:28 PM on June 20, 2006

First of all, you should absolutely make an FPP about Celan. All that research and you can't use it to help people here waste more time?

In my experience, much of what German language critics find difficult with Celan's poetry stems from his Jewish background. The charge that his poetry is hermetic or resistant to interpretation depends, often, on the fact that he buries deep allusions to other poems in his poetry, and does not always make this clear. Odd words may depend on a Yiddish expression or a term from Hebrew scripture.

This idea was first put forth, I think, by Felstiner. Though much of his presentation of Celan's life in the bio is deeply creepy, this particular idea has legs, I think. Attending to the Jewish substrate in his poetry is justified by his family background and defensible also as a good-faith engagement with the moral concerns of his life. It helps make sense of his poetry both psychologically (he was known to have referred to himself as "the last one left to live out the destiny of the Jew in Europe") and hermeneutically.

I'd start with his poem Wenn Ich Nicht Weiss, Nicht Weiss and spend some time unpacking the image of "der Jüdin Pallas Athene". One hint: the word "Aschrej" which appears in the poem is an allusion to a frequent term which appears in the Hebrew biblical Psalms. It means "blessed" or "happy". But, crucially, it also appears in Ps 137 in a strange sort of sadly ironic allusion. Working through the whole thing might teach you a lot about how his poetry works.

Good luck!
posted by felix betachat at 10:19 PM on June 20, 2006

Thank you Felix! As strange as this might sound...I've met with the editor and friend of Felstiner, he's a retired professor in Cincinnati, Jerry Glenn, who's published (several times I think) THE definitive Celan-bibliography. Felstiner's book is indeed "unberuhigend."

I speak Romanian and French, in addition to German of course, but I think that Yiddish and Hebrew might also help out in the future. I also know quite a bit of Russian, which for example was very helpful when I came across his references to the well-known folksong "Katjuscha."

Right now I'm working on "Jenseits" and "Hafen," both fit the bill as being hermetic and need to be "enträtselt."

As for an FPP, I'd like to do one on the three poets I'm researching--Paul Celan, Alfred Margul-Sperber and Rose Ausländer--all three are Bukovina-born German speakers, but lived out their lives in different countries.
posted by vkxmai at 10:36 PM on June 20, 2006

Note: For those Celan fans who don't speak/read German, unberuhigend (or beunruhigend) means "unsettling," and enträtselt, "unraveled."
posted by rob511 at 1:05 AM on June 21, 2006

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