Paul Celan's UNF Inished Poetics: Readings in the Sous-Oeuvre

By Leeder, Karen | German Quarterly, Fall 2018 | Go to article overview

Paul Celan's UNF Inished Poetics: Readings in the Sous-Oeuvre


Leeder, Karen, German Quarterly


Connolly, Thomas C. Paul Celan's Unfinished Poetics: Readings in the Sous-Oeuvre. Legenda, 2018. 251 pp. $99/€85 (hardback).

This is an enormously ambitious book offering new readings of the late Celan; but is also a manifesto about how to read poetry and, indeed, how to read. It engages particularly with what it calls the "sous-oeuvre"-those marginalized, ob- scure, unauthorized, or "unconscious" (2) parts of Celan's work-in order to destabilize canonical readings. Moreover, it engages a kind of "genetic" reading that focuses on the "pre-text" (e.g., early drafts, newspaper cuttings, letters, or Celan's marks in books in his personal library) to give access to parts of the work that have traditionally been eclipsed. In a simultaneous move it sets itself against the critical consensus that defers to the explicatory power of Celan's own essays, especially "Der Meridian." By doing this it seeks to overturn conventional ways of reading Celan but also to usher in new ways of seeing the relation between canonical published texts and the larger oeuvre of a poet, and, finally, to reflect on a new way of reading "difficult" poetry. It attends throughout to the translation of Celan, often adducing multiple translations, and showing how transmission in English is affected by knowledge of the circumstances of composition and to the sources. This is a challenging area, especially given the wealth of existing criticism on Celan; the sensitivities in the area and Celan's insistence on the definitive moment of a poem, its "Atemwende" as it were; and also his deliberate attempts to obscure the relations between the final poem and its background sources.

Connolly focuses on the poet's later works: Fadensonnen (1968), Schneepart (1971), a translation from the late 1960s, and a rare French poem, but especially the knotty, unfinished, late cycle "Eingedunkelt" (1966). Although only eleven poems from the cycle were published in 1968, a body of some two hundred typescript pages of drafts, variants, and sources surfaced after Celan's death and were published in 1991. These poems have generally been read in the light of their creation during the poet's hospitalization at various psychiatric clinics and his later suicide. Critics have tended to be unsure whether they offered new ways of approaching Celan, because they were unfinished, unauthorized, and often obscure. Connolly, however, sees this material as an exemplary site to explore a kind of radical approach to the under-belly of Celan's work and uses this as a basis to read and compare poems from other (published) collections, early drafts, and one of Celan's major translations, and to explore new readings of canonical poems. In doing so, he asks: "What happens when the sous-oeuvre is allowed to contaminate the oeuvre?" (219).

The opening chapter "Learning to read in the Pre-text" sets out the stall for a new mode of reading which will encompass the genetic documents associated with the origin of a published work. The following chapters then go to work to employ this mode, offering soundings, as it were, especially in Celan's late work. The first chapter, "Engaging Mallarmé," appears at first unpromising, examining the (three) textual encounters between Celan and the difficult French poet with whom Celan hated to find himself compared. Nevertheless, one of these encounters proves revelatory and the detailed reflection on Celan's translation of a Mallarmé poem take this further. The third chapter is on seemingly more familiar territory with "Poetry after Frankfurt," and yet again it pays dividends in examining Celan's response to the Frankfurt Trials and Peter Weiss's oratorio Die Ermittlung from new angles, and making sense of poems that have previously been thought entirely impene- trable. The fourth chapter visits Celan's relationship with the visual arts, but through the lens of his reception of Rembrandt. It performs an unexpected triangulation of the Dutch painter with Russian poet Osip Mandel'shtam, demonstrating persuasively how Celan's engagement with Rembrandt's work goes further than has been imagined. …

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