It's not often that I encounter a poem that blows my head off. But Paul Celan, a peculiar genius, wrote the piece below (although only a translation, but a good one, I think). He was a Holocaust survivor who battled depression and committed suicide late in life. His primary trauma was to return home at 16 and find both his parents gone--Jews--and never to see them again. What losses he endured are unimaginable; we are lucky he played out his grief in verse. There are very few poems that come to such a pitch as this, turning standard theology on its head:
We are near, Lord,
near and at hand.
Handled already, Lord,
clawed and clawing as though
the body of each of us were
your body, Lord.
pray to us,
we are near.
Wind-awry we went there,
went there to bend
over hollow and ditch.
To be watered we went there, Lord.
It was blood, it was
what you shed, Lord.
It cast your image into our eyes, Lord.
Our eyes and our mouths are open and empty, Lord.
We have drunk, Lord.
The blood and the image that was in the blood, Lord.
We are near.
His use of Christian themes as a Jew are remarkable. He sought the whole of humanity from his whole heart. Another tragic figure, another great artist.
Instead of wondering at his suicide we might ask why he didn't commit it sooner, truly. His poetry speaks of inexpressible deprivation, unsatisfiable yearnings. Yet there is a dim light throughout; he tries to make peace with reality, a reality that is supercharged in his poetry, where the least experience can give rise to the greatest profundities. He called himself an "autobiographical artist" despite our difficulties with his verse. He is sui generis, a thing unto itself. I don't know who his literary antecedents were.
Then again, in literature we try to make sense of history by assigning schools, trends, influences and what not. But this is a convenient imposition on history.
There are two kinds of poets: the canonical and the upstarts. Yet the upstarts, given sufficient success, become canonical. Remember that Wordsworth and Coleridge were rebels subsequently subsumed by conservatism. Eliot and Pound were rebels too, as were Williams and Ginsberg and innumerable others. But as with Blake, Celan is one whose antecedents are hard to find. He arrives as a solitary genius like Blake. I doubt he, in the Supreme Bloviator's words (Harold Bloom) really subsumed the tradition. He went his own way, like Hopkins and Dylan Thomas: unique voices without traceable literary lineage.
Many still don't believe that the son of a suburban glover wrote Shakespeare's plays. Shakespeare was a creature of the Theater and learned his craft firsthand. He relied upon questionable histories and fantasies for his plots. He made such stories into human revelations, but as his contemporary, Ben Jonson, said of him, he had "Little Latin and less Greek." This only goes to show that there are at least two kinds of poetic geniuses; those, who like Shakespeare, Whitman, Blake and Celan, blaze an entirely new path, and those, who like Eliot and Neruda, acknowledge their literary debts yet depart from the tradition with knowledge thereof. Some poets are so gifted that they don't have to read a lot of poetry to be great. But I would warn aspiring poets that this is more exception than the rule. But ah, sweet exception! Think of Emily Dickinson.
p.s. My new book, "Unexpected Light," should be available in three weeks.