Under the Language: A Conversation with Pierre Joris on Paul Celan

By David BrazilJanuary 20, 2021

Under the Language: A Conversation with Pierre Joris on Paul Celan
2020 MARKS THE 100th anniversary of the birth of Paul Celan, and the 50th anniversary of his death. This year also commemorates a half-century of Celan translations by poet, essayist, and anthologist Pierre Joris. His publication of the prose volume Microliths They Are, Little Stones (Contra Mundum) and the early poetry, collected as Memory Rose into Threshold Speech (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), concludes Joris’s work of bringing all of Celan’s literary work into English. (His previous translations include Celan’s later poems, Breathturn into Timestead, and the poet’s major theoretical statement, The Meridian.) For the first time, readers without knowledge of German have access to all the important poetry and prose of an author whom many consider to be the preeminent voice of 20th-century literature.

Celan’s fame began early, with the publication of “Todesfuge” [Deathfugue], a hypnotic and incantatory vision of the Nazi camps. A survivor whose parents were both murdered in the early 1940s, Celan remained haunted by their deaths, and by the specter of fascism and antisemitism, for the rest of his life. Recurrent and unfounded charges of plagiarism deepened his anxiety, and his last decade was marked by recurrent institutionalizations. In 1970, he took his own life. 

His early collections — Poppy and Memory, Threshold to Threshold, Speechgrille, and NoOnesRose — are marked by lush and often bizarre imagery derived in equal parts from folk materials, French surrealism, and the visionary German-language poets he admired: Hölderlin, Rilke, and Trakl. Breathturn (1967) is often seen as a decisive shift toward the work characteristic of his late style: short, spare, and often gnomic poems, now without titles, are collected into cycles whose logic must be teased out by the reader. This is the collection that begins Joris’s translation of Celan’s final books, which also includes Threadsuns, Tenebrae’d, and the posthumously published Lightduress, Snowpart, and Timestead. These singular and sovereign works declare, as the poet states in the title poem of Threadsuns, that “there are / still songs to sing beyond mankind.”

Celan’s reputation has only grown since his death. His work has been the focus of studies by philosophers and critics including Jacques Derrida, Hans-Georg Gadamer, Maurice Blanchot, Peter Szondi, and Giorgio Agamben. But his work presents such unique challenges to the translator that until now English-language readers have been denied access to his complete body of work. Now, at last, a century after his birth, we can begin again to read the work of Paul Celan.

I spoke with Pierre Joris over Zoom in late October 2020 about his long apprenticeship to Celan’s work, the challenges of translation represented by this author’s poetry, and the political meaning of the oeuvre in light of present crises.


DAVID BRAZIL: Paul Celan called the work of the translator Fergendienst a ferryman’s labor. The publication of the prose book Microliths They Are, Little Stones and the collected early poems of Memory Rose into Threshold Speech concludes half a century of your own ferryman’s labor in bringing all of Celan’s literary writing into English. I’ve been following your work on Celan for decades, collecting the individual volumes as they came out or as I found them in used bookstores. So it’s a pleasure to have this opportunity to express my gratitude for your work. After so much study and after so many years, why do you think Celan’s work has remained so durable and influential?

PIERRE JORIS: I think it is the work that came out of the mid-20th century that most directly addresses the disaster, if you want, of Western culture. In the introduction to the prose volume, Microliths, I say at the end how relevant that work is today — a January 20. In February 2020, I wrote in that introduction that Celan was dismissed in his lifetime by not only the Germans, as being paranoid for saying that underneath that so-called Wirtschaftswunder, that great social democracy, there lurked all the old demons of fascism, of totalitarianism, of antisemitism, and he was exactly right. I once described his relation to Germany as that of a guerrilla fighter hiding out in Paris while his spiritual brother Osip Mandelstam was in Russia looking back west from there, and his spiritual mother, the poet Nelly Sachs was North, in Sweden, looking down. Celan, from his hiding place, would go east into Germany in short quick forays to do readings, bring information back to work on in Paris, while remaining certain that he had to write in German. So I think of the incredible clear-sightedness this man had in relation to the political situation of his time. He had the same clear-sightedness in terms of writing after events such as Khurbn [the Holocaust], as I like to call it in Jerome Rothenberg’s phrase, and knew that language needed to be transformed, that you could not use the old German, because the Nazi years had contaminated it. You could write poetry and in that sense, Theodor Adorno, who said “you cannot write poetry after Auschwitz” was wrong. Rather, as Jerome Rothenberg once put it, after Auschwitz, only poetry was possible — but a certain kind of poem. And that is what Celan showed us, that you have to be extremely conscious of language and you have to operate on its, on the word-matter itself. In the introduction to Microliths, I further say why he didn’t become a great prose writer though he could have been, in fact I think he could have been as great as Kafka. But the work, the operations (in a truly surgical sense) he needed to do on language were such that he needed to concentrate on words, single words, and word constructions. Prose is a question of sentences, of syntax, paragraphs, and he didn’t feel that that was really the most useful or available or interesting mode or focus for him.

As an example of that word-depth, I have a long essay you may know about the poem he wrote after his visit to Heidegger [“Todtnauberg”] in the Hutte, Heidegger’s dwelling in the Black Forest. I look, for example, in some detail at his use of a word construction, the word Waldwasen.

In the poem it sound-rhymes with the “Arnika, Augentrost” [“Arnica, eyebright”], the a’s in the first line, which are both healing plants, and so usually Waldwasen is translated as meadow or glen — the lovely area in the forest where the traditionally romantic poet can relax. But if you actually look at what Wasen are — they are not simply Wiesen, meadows — the long light “ie” has been replaced with a long darker “‘a,” a different letter and sound. And then if dig into what Wasen are, you’ll see that it refers to the turf — the top of a meadow in the grassland, but including the roots underneath. And immediately you’re in a very complex Celanesque landscape.

Then when you dig even deeper into the word-meanings of Wasen, you meet the Schinder, or Wasenmeister [the knacker], that is the one who kills animals and buries their carcasses. So the Wasen is immediately also a burial ground. And Celan says uneingeebnet — unleveled. So that mirror-recalls its exact opposite: the concentration camps — where the ground under which the dead were buried was always maniacally leveled so that nobody could see anything sticking up or out. Then, if you go to the etymology of the word Wasen you’ll find that it comes from a regional German word that goes back to the French word faisceau, because it’s used for bundles of small wood taken out of the forest. And this French word faisceau goes back to the Latin word fasces, which gives the bundle of rods with an axe projecting — from which we derive the word fascism!

Yes, yes!

So that is the depth at which you have to read Celan. That’s why he is difficult to read, but an immense pleasure, and I think the absolute relevance of the work is there once you realize that those verticalities, those polysemies are where Celan lives, and where the work is still totally as alive today as it was when he wrote it.

Yes, and that exegesis of a single word is such a wonderful précis of Celan’s method, and both the joy and the trial of reading him, but especially of translating him. So I wanted to ask following that I mean, there’s so much I want to ask following that but what was your first encounter with Celan? Do you remember the first time you read it, the first time you heard his name?

I totally remember because it is what brought me to poetry. In high school, my German teacher, Othon Scholer, invited a peripatetic scholar into our German literature class to read us contemporary poetry. And he read post–World War II poetry, the so-called Bestandsaufnahme poetry, very spare and dry. Then the man read Celan’s “Todesfuge.” And I had maybe the only epiphany of my life — my hair stood up on the back of my neck, my breath stopped. It was that absolute an experience. Thinking on it, I realized that what I had experienced was another way of using language — not how we use it everyday at home or on the street. But it was not “literature” either. This was something else. This was a level of involvement where language could get you to that was totally unique — only poetry was able to reach it. I didn’t start writing the next day, but that experience opened up the world of poetry for me, and a year or so later I wrote my first poems. IThat experience has always stayed with me, as has Celan and tit’s shortly thereafter that I bought his early volumes which I still have.

When I was 19 I decided to write in English, and soon after dropped out of medical school in Paris to come to America. I had three books with me when I got to New York in the fall of ‘67: Derrida’s De la grammatologie, Foucault’s Les Mots et Les Choses, and Celan’s Atemwende. I had come to study at Bard College. And I thought, maybe I’ll drop out again, so I have these books and maybe I can make a living as a translator. I sent 10 pages of the Derrida and the Foucault to publishers in New York. I’m still waiting to hear from them. But the second year at Bard I had to start my senior project. And so in the spring of ’68 I decided to translate Atemwende into English, with Robert Kelly as my advisor. That was the beginning of translation for me. In that sense, Celan has stayed with me all along my writing life.

Can you can you say a little more about why you started with the work with Atemwende and after?

Because I had a very clear sense that with that book Celan had moved somewhere that was totally innovative and challenging. Simultaneously I was discovering the American avant-garde of that time (besides the Beats whom I had read in Europe already), via the Donald Allen anthology — The New American Poetry 1945 to 1960. Atemwende is written in the early 60s, and one of the new features is that the poems now no longer have titles. The book is built as an assemblage of four or five cycles of poems, and what was fascinating was that you were structurally in a place that was a sequence of works, where each poem could be read as a sentence or phrase or unit in an ongoing process of writing. At the same time, I was discovering Americans like Jack Spicer or Robin Blaser, who were talking of exactly that need of writing sequential or serial works where the overall form was the book itself. So it seemed to me that Celan, with some years advance, was doing the same thing — getting away from the poem as single masterwork unit. You know, the idea, for example, that “Todesfuge,” could be singled out and considered to be a great, great poem, a masterwork, like a great Picasso painting or something. As more information became available about Celan’s work, I discovered that he himself had grown weary of the overwhelming success of that single poem and no longer allowed it to be reprinted in anthologies, for very specific reasons: the poem was being misused as an aesthetically beautiful work allowing claims that the German past had been overcome.

And then I discovered that Celan had rewritten the “Todesfuge,” in the poem “Stretto,” a poem that does away with all those lush, metaphorical, melodious and repetitious images. He said in one of his essays that the language of poetry had to become grayer in order to be able to carry the burden of history and of the present, that it has to lose its lushness and try not be mimetic. So I was both learning this about Celan, and learning this about poetry and poetics. And this is, I think, the way that today we have to read Celan. I believe that the desire is still to read the “Todesfuge” and the early work as the great work, because of those individual poems that stand out and grab you with their music and images — just think of what “Todesfuge” did to me! But the late work, well, many people think of it as a kind of strange, difficult, even hermetic, thus ununderstandable, and feel that oh, poor Celan’s losing it, he’s getting paranoid and so on. There’s even this completely false notion that he was writing less and less — that he was falling silent, drying up, because the poems became very tight and compacted constructs. But, in fact, if you look closely you’ll see that he wrote more in the last years of his life than he had ever written before.

I was very interested in one thing you said about the serial poem of the Berkeley Renaissance writers and the way that’s prefigured in the structures in Celan’s later poetry. And it reminds me of the essay Jack Spicer wrote in the ’50s when the new edition of Emily Dickinson’s poetry came out and he identified the fascicles, which are only coming to be known then, as precursors for his own work. And of course, Celan translated Dickinson, among many other poets. I wonder if you have any thoughts about the impact of Dickinson or in general his translation practice on his own work because it seems of all the 20th-century poets, he’s maybe the one who is the most founded in translation as poetic practice.

It’s that wonderful strangeness — Celan could have written in two or three other languages! He wrote a bit in Romanian, and obviously vast amounts in French for the last 30 years of his life. But he was adamant that he had to write poetry in German and that poetry had to be written in the mother tongue. Now, for him, it is understandable — it is the mother’s tongue, while at the same time being the language of the murderers of the mother. So that claim of German is absolute because so much of Celan’s work is directed to the mother, and to what happened to the family. He had deep knowledge of and abilities in other languages — if for example you read the letters that he wrote to his wife Gisèle Celan-Lestrange in French, you realize that he could have written as excellently in French as, say, someone like André Gide.

He, and I think this connects with what he said about the need to rework, reinvent German, was however was more interested in bringing other things, views, images, worlds, languages into German, and thus all his translation work — the Fergendienst or ferryman’s labor that you mentioned earlier and which to me is also a very important aspect of his work, in fact of all literary work. As I said above, before I translated him I crossed the Atlantic in a plane carrying Atemwende with me — and thus began my feryman’s labor over the Atlantic! Celan was someone who never saw translation as a secondary thing. For him, it was as important as writing.

Absolutely. Well, that makes me want to ask — 2020 is the 100th anniversary of Celan’s birth, the 50th anniversary of his death, and also the 50th anniversary of your association with the work. So in terms of all these years spent in attention to his work, how has that impacted your practice as a poet, as essayist and critic and as an anthologist?

It certainly impacted my practice as a writer and a translator, obviously. As mentioned earlier, Celan brought me to poetry. I mean, I’d always wanted to be a writer, but I was a reader of Karl May and wanted to write adventure stories and become a novelist. My son is a filmmaker and just made a bank heist movie set in Texas in the early 30s — I saw myself doing that when I was a kid because my grandmother had a movie house. And then that thing happened hearing the “Todesfuge.” The next poetry that was important was when I discovered the Beats. I didn’t like much else that was written in German, and I didn’t like much of French postwar poetry. When I started writing, it was Ginsberg, Kerouac, Bob Kaufman, Burroughs whom I had discovered in Europe already who were very, very important.

At the same time, I had Celan along, so I always had that doubleness of schlepping my European identity with me, and that involved a lot of Celan’s world — I’m born in ’46, Celan escapes Romania in ’47, goes to Vienna and moves on to Paris 7 months later. I left Luxembourg in ’65, moved to Paris, and then moved to the US in ’67, having to do this complex dance between languages, learning to write in English to become a poet in that, my fourth language. For awhile that dance was a sort of two-step, while writing in English and translating Celan and others into English too, I made a living translating books like Kerouac’s Mexico City Blues, selected poems of Gregory Corso, or prose by Sam Shepard and others into French.

Recently I looked at some very early writing— and obviously there are poems in there that are imitative of Ginsberg or of Celan. Then in the mid-’70s, living in London, I realized I needed to deal with this consciously. And so I thought I would write myself through my Celan associations and did so in a short book — a sequence of four poems — that I called the Book of Luap Nalec, which is Paul Celan spelled backward. In it I imitated, twisting his, my language, and worked with the hope of coming out at the other end — differently. After that I no longer feared that Celan would haunt me and my writing. Well, he did haunt me, or at least was an essential presence. I never got to meet him though I had already done Atemwende when I returned to Paris in ’69. I didn’t want to go knock on his door, feeling that I had nothing essential to say to him, except, you know, may I touch your hand, Mr. Celan? And he passed less than a year later. 

I’m curious to know about what you have learned from other translations and translators of Celan and where you might differ in your philosophy because your translations are quite distinct. And, of course, those of us who love Celan usually have all of the translations on our shelves. It’s like having different translations of the Bible. Everybody has a different insight into some riddle. So I just wonder if you have any thoughts about that.

My sense is that if I want to speak to mine in comparison to most of the others, I would say that mine are probably the most literal — that is, I take my cue from Hölderlin …

That’s just what I was thinking!

… Hölderlin who said about his translations from Greek, that he’s writing Greek in German. And I want to write German in English when I translate Celan. Because when you read some of the translations — and I don’t want to mention anybody — you get very smooth, nice running English poems where to my mind there’s no or very little Celan left. A Celan poem is difficult to read for a native German speaker! It is not something that can be opened up like that via translation. When a poem is easier to read in translation, when the translation reads better than the original, that’s a bad translation. The translation has to be more difficult to read. I don’t say unreadable, but it has to let the reader know, hey, I’m a translation of a poem, and that’s an added burden, for which i won’t apologize as I think it essential to say that I am a translation. 

You alluded at the beginning of our conversation to Celan as kind of a poet of the disaster of Western civilization more broadly. I wonder if you have some thoughts about that aspect of his work: what is the disaster beyond the specific historical circumstance, beyond the biographical circumstance that is written into his work? Because I feel like that is something you see more and more in the later work where it takes flight into some other territory while still remaining anchored in the reality of what he underwent and what happened” — the Khurbn, or Holocaust.

The disaster is also the disaster’s use of language, as we can see right now — what happens to language. Celan worked on the problems of language out of the totalitarian situation and his transformations, his surgical interventions in the German language, had to do with the consciousness that if language is misused in the way it was misused during the Nazi years, well, that sticks to the language somehow. There are words that will be infected and stay infected. And I think that is something that we can still certainly get a sense of from the way that our daily and our political language is badly used and devalued.

I see also as part of this work, his deep interest in the natural world — flora, geology. When he sets about to create a new inhabitable world in his poems, he sets it on an eco/echo/logical world in a way, he creates an ecopoetics, even an ecopoethics closer to the complexity we now know to be the nature of nature: those ice crystals, karstic formations, his “penitents’ snow,” all his work with fauna and flora, with the specifics of plants and flowers. This accurateness of actually knowing what you’re talking about in these various realms. The rose not as that generic poetic symbol, but as a specific flower, real or invented in and with a specific context and history. Celan had that accuracy, and this is something we absolutely need in terms of trying to think the ecological crisis of our time and how to write about it.

I’m also reminded at the beginning of our conversation, you mentioned that you had written your introduction on the 20th of January, about which Celan spoke when he received the Büchner Prize and gave the speech now called The Meridian, which you translated. For those who may not be familiar with Celan’s tropologies, January 20 is the opening date of Büchners novel Lenz, but it is also the date of the Wannsee Conference, which was the Nazi convening to decide on the Final Solution. And I couldn’t help but notice that Inauguration Day 2017 fell on January 20. You address this issue in your new introduction, and we’ve talked about it: about what Celan means to us who are engaged in the struggle against totalitarianism, against the threat of fascism, against the misuse of language. What are your thoughts as we live through this time, as we look to this election, about the relevance of his work and life to our moment of political crisis?

Well, I think we need to keep reading him throughout this time to get a certain clarity. I referred earlier to certain crystal ice structures. We need to find ways in which we can we see what is going down and we don’t know if by the time you send me the transcript of this interview, we won’t actually be in the street. We are at such an absolute, absolute juncture. But since you mentioned the 20th of January inauguration — when I translated most of The Meridian, I was at the American Academy on the Wannsee, just across from the chateau where the Nazis met. The three months I was there, I was at work on that book, and I worked on it a lot, so that book is the one that took me the longest to translate — 7 years all in all!

You know, one can and should go and reread the political thinkers Celan liked — the anarchists and socialists of the early part of the 20th century. He was a radical thinker, in that sense, very deeply so. We can’t take direct lessons from him because our situation is different. But we can also realize that — I spoke to this a bit earlier — we learn that language has an underbelly, that the way language is used needs to be opened up so that you can see all that is hidden. This is also the poet’s work. I take it to be the poet’s work to become hyper-conscious of the use of language and to reveal, expose this as much as possible, while doing the other work of creating new forms, new contents. We know from his friends that an enthusiastic Paul Celan joined a couple of the marches in the streets of Paris during May 1968 — he was all for that joyful uprising.

Well, that’s wonderful to know. Paul Celan in the streets in ’68 makes me smile.


David Brazil is a poet, pastor and translator. His third book of poetry, Holy Ghost (City Lights, 2017), was nominated for a California Book Award. He is the editor of Wave Books’s edition of Philip Whalen’s Scenes of Life at the Capital.

LARB Contributor

David Brazil is a poet, pastor, and translator. His third book of poetry, Holy Ghost (City Lights, 2017), was nominated for a California Book Award. He is the editor of Wave Books’s edition of Philip Whalen’s Scenes of Life at the Capital. With Kevin Killian, he co-edited The Kenning Anthology of Poets Theater, 1945-1985. With Chika Okoye, he was the founding curator of the Berkeley Art Museum’s Black Life series, focusing on cultural production in the African diaspora. He has presented his work at Cambridge University, Johns Hopkins, and San Francisco State University, among other venues. He lives in New Orleans.


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