Magazine article Midstream

Paul Celan and Yehuda Amichai: An Exchange between Two Great Poets

Magazine article Midstream

Paul Celan and Yehuda Amichai: An Exchange between Two Great Poets

Article excerpt

Perhaps I am one of the last who must live out to the end the destiny of the Jewish spirit in Europe." Why "must"? Writing from Paris in August 1948 to relatives in the new state of Israel, Paul Celan, having survived the "Final Solution," explains that a poet cannot stop writing, "even when he is a Jew and the language of his poems is German." This fateful pledge, from a brutally orphaned son whose stunning poem of 1945, "Deathfugue," intones, "Death is a master from Deutschland" and threads an ashen-haired Shulamith into the Hebrew Bible's Song of Songs, throws a raking light over a recently discovered exchange of letters between Celan and the Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai.

Born to German-speaking parents in Czernowitz, Bukovina, an eastern outpost of the Austrian Empire, Celan survived nineteen months of forced labor, eventually taking exile in Paris. There by hard degrees he became Europe's most challenging postwar poet. His first and only journey to Israel, in October 1969, had been long deferred for fear of yet another exile from the mother tongue. In Jerusalem, Amichai, who had left Germany as a boy with his family in 1936, welcomed Celan into his home overlooking the ancient valley across from Mount Zion.

In Hana and Yehuda Amichai's kitchen, Celan gave a radio interview. "I think that themes alone don't suffice to define what's Jewish," he remarked. 'Jewishness is so to speak a spiritual concern as well." His term for "spiritual" was pneumatisch, "pneumatic," where pneuma, or wind, calls up the Hebrew ruach, as when God's breath hovers over the deep. Celan also stressed his Germanic patrimony: "Rilke was very important to me, and afterwards Kafka."

For a reading the next day, Amichai translated some poems of Celan's into Hebrew. "From time to time he surprised us by commenting that we could be more precise," says Shmuel Huppert, the interviewer. "He would suggest some other root, which was stored in his memory." Amichai also inscribed a recent collection of his own verse for Celan, in Hebrew, "with much love." Celan read the book closely.

At the Jerusalem reading on October 9, Amichai and the poet Manfred Winkler presented the distinguished guest. An overflow crowd, including refugees and survivors from his homeland, somewhat alarmed Celan, but his reading in German overwhelmed them. In one poem he bound what happened in Nazi-ridden Europe, his parents murdered in a Ukrainian winter, to his struggle for a fit language: "Just like the wind that rebuffs you,/packed round your word is the snow." The audience clamored for "Deathfugue," but Celan declined. He ended by speaking a Six-Day War poem of intense thanksgiving for "this piece of/habitable earth,/again suffered up into life":

   Just think:
   this came toward me,
   name-awake, hand-awake
   for ever,
   from the unburiable.

A week later in Tel Aviv, thinking of the Biblical tongue revived as national vernacular, Celan told the Hebrew Writers Association: "I take joy in every newly earned, self-discovered, fulfilled word that rushes up to strengthen those who turn toward it."

Back home, in "this cold city Paris," Celan felt elated at having dwelled in a free state--"No ghetto!"--with children chattering Hebrew. He wrote a letter to Amichai in which his own loss of family and homeland, his psychic wounds and postwar anxieties, twist and strain these sentences addressed to modern Hebrew's leading poet.

   Avenue Emile Zola (15e)
   Paris, 7 xi 1969

   Dear Yehuda Amichai,

   You would have had these lines long since, but I'd forgotten
   to make a note of your address and so first I
   needed to check with a friend in Tel Aviv.

   For me it's a most heartfelt need to tell you how happy
   I was to meet you, you and your poems, how glad I was
   to be with you.

   I'm truly ashamed that I can find my way into your
   Hebrew poems only with the aid of English translations. … 
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