Academic journal article Parnassus : Poetry in Review

All Debts Owed to Death: Economy in Simonides and Celan

Academic journal article Parnassus : Poetry in Review

All Debts Owed to Death: Economy in Simonides and Celan

Article excerpt


Humans value economy. Why? Whether we are commending a mathematician for his proof or a draughtsman for her use of line or a poet for furnishing us with nuggets of beauty and truth, economy is a trope of intellectual, aesthetic, and moral value. How do we come to take comfort in this notion? It is arguable that the trope does not predate the invention of coinage. And certainly in a civilization so unconditionally committed to greed as ours is, no one questions anymore the wisdom of saving money. But money is just a mediator for our greed. What does it mean to save time, or trouble, or face, or breath, or shoeleather? Or words? There is a story that when the poet Paul Celan was four years old he took a notion to make up his own fairytales. He began telling these original stories to everybody in his house. Until his father advised him to cut it out. "If you need stories," said his father, "the Old Testament is full of them. To make up new stories this is a waste of words."* What exactly is lost to us when words are wasted? Where is the human store to which such goods are gathered in?

I am interested in these questions of verbal economy, and what economy means as a critical term applied to the use of language in poetry. I want to explore the trope of economy through the work of two poets widely separated in time and purpose, each of whom received praise and dispraise in his lifetime for the economic practice of his verse: Paul Celan, a Jewish Romanian writer of the twentieth century who survived the Holocaust and lived out his life in Paris until his suicide there in 1970; and Simonides of Keos, one of the most prolific and celebrated of the classical Greek poets of the 5th century BC.


Simonides of Keos made his mark on the world mainly as an inscriptional poet. He composed hundreds of poems that were inscribed on stone and set up somewhere for celebratory or dedicatory or epitaphic purpose. Some of these stones still exist, although most of the poems are known to us from later citation in books or scholia.

Paul Celan also made use of the medium of stone. His stones were not inscriptional but geological. As a boy he was fascinated by rocks. When the Nazis occupied his hometown in 1940, he was sent to a labour camp to shovel stones and gravel. Friends who knew him after the war report that his library was full of geology and mineralogy textbooks, as his poetry is full of metaphors of rocks, minerals, gems, lava, crystal, and geologic formation. In a speech in 1960, describing the passage of the German language through Nazi times, Celan said that German had undergone a period of terrible silence and murderous speech in order to come back to the surface "enriched" (angereicher4. He uses "enriched" in quotation marks and not without irony, but it may also be a technical term from mineralogy.

And if so, Celan is talking about language itself as a stone that becomes solid through use, as a surface enriched by the concentration of circumstance that it survives. In a poem he calls this surface "geodes," "crystals," "ores laid bare," and "unwritten things hardened into language." It is the task of the poet, as he sees it, to react to this surface-to break it open, raise it, carve it, refine it, draw words out of its openings. The surface is not barren rock but contains precious traces of ore that will yield to intense struggle. A severe economy governs this extraction of value. It is an economy both elemental and desperate. Human language seems, to Celan, to have all but exhausted the minerals of its meanings. In his poetry he is like someone listening to the last syllables of a buried conversation.

The stones of Simonides of Keos, on the other hand, were well above ground and record a conversation neither desperate nor exhausted, although it is governed by a severe economy. Simonides was the first writer in the Western tradition to be acclaimed for his economy. …

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