Celan Introduces the Concept of Poetic “Breath-Measure” Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Atemwende introduced Paul Celan’s influential notion of the “breath-measure” to poetry and affirmed his status as one of Europe’s greatest modern lyric poets.

Summary of Event

By 1967 and the release of Atemwende (Breathturn, 1995), Paul Celan had been living in Paris for nearly twenty years. Paris offered Celan a neutral ground for writing, one that allowed him to write in German while minimizing the memories of the Holocaust that his Jewish ancestry made particularly agonizing. In Paris, Celan could be close to who he was: a lyric poet deeply concerned with language’s capacity to speak itself. For Celan, it seemed as though language might fail sometimes, that it might be content with silence. Breathturn (Celan) Poetry Breath-measure[Breath measure] [kw]Celan Introduces the Concept of Poetic “Breath-Measure” (1967) [kw]Poetic “Breath-Measure”, Celan Introduces the Concept of (1967)[Poetic Breath Measure, Celan Introduces the Concept of] [kw]"Breath-Measure", Celan Introduces the Concept of Poetic (1967)[Breath Measure, Celan Introduces the Concept of Poetic] Breathturn (Celan) Poetry Breath-measure[Breath measure] [g]Europe;1967: Celan Introduces the Concept of Poetic “Breath-Measure”[09080] [g]France;1967: Celan Introduces the Concept of Poetic “Breath-Measure”[09080] [c]Literature;1967: Celan Introduces the Concept of Poetic “Breath-Measure”[09080] Celan, Paul Lestrange, Gisèle Mandelstam, Osip Allemann, Beda Char, René

Born to German Jewish parents in Czernowitz in what is now Romania, Celan was reared under the pressure of racism and identity that characterized Eastern Europe before World War II. By the time he was a student at the University of Czernowitz, his parents were deported to death camps, where they died not long afterward. Celan himself spent two years working in a labor camp until heavy snow forced it to close. His studies continued, as literature became a way of survival. When the Russian Army reinvaded his homeland in 1944, Celan went to Bucharest, the capital city of Romania, where he continued reading the great German lyric poets Georg Trakl and Rainer Maria Rilke. In a series of name changes, he sought an identity that would permit him to keep living, and thus the man who was born Paul Antschel became Paul Aurel and Paul Ancel before he became Paul Celan. His poem “Todesfuge” (“Death Fugue”), "Death Fugue" (Celan)[Death Fugue] written during this time and widely read, would remain his most explicit expression of the Holocaust. Celan wrote his first book, Der Sand aus den Urnen Sand aus den Urnen, Der (Celan) (1948; sand from the urns), with the hope that lyric poetry, like humanity, could be preserved like ashes in an urn.

Risking everything, Celan escaped across the border to Vienna in 1947 and to Paris a year later, where his recognition was gradual. His friends included the poet René Char, with whom Celan shared an interest in Surrealism and expressionism, and Beda Allemann, who would later edit a five-volume edition of Celan’s collected works. A lecturer in German literature, Celan began to concentrate on his work. In 1952, Celan married the graphic artist Gisèle Lestrange and was asked to read in Germany at the request of the prestigious Gruppe 47 (Group 47). Many of the poems that had appeared in his Bucharest collection were included in his first Western book of poems, Mohn und Gedächtnis Mohn und Gedächtnis (Celan) (1952; poppy and memory), which was published in Germany later in the same year. The book attracted immediate attention, and Celan quickly became known as a difficult minimalist poet who ranked among the greatest lyric voices of Europe.

During the early 1950’s, Celan’s books of poems continued to receive wide acclaim, and he won a number of literary prizes, including the Literature Prize of the Free Hanseatic City of Bremen and the Georg Büchner Prize awarded by the German Academy for Language and Literature. His acceptance speech for the latter would become one of his very few statements of poetics and would provide one of the governing metaphors of his life: the meridian, the border between an overwhelmingly muted distance from life and a closer, more painful, proximity to life. Von Schwelle zu Schwelle Von Schwelle zu Schwelle (Celan) (1955; from threshold to threshold) developed the ideas of the earlier works, focusing more on the idea of language as a mesh rather than as a crystal. Celan’s work was also becoming known for its broken syntax and short length; many of the poems were less than fifty words. Increasingly, Celan would invent new words altogether, joining two previously existing expressions with a hyphen. While some critics objected to what they interpreted as an “aestheticizing” of the Holocaust experience, Celan continued to express his perception of the fragmented world in which he lived.

Celan’s next two books, Sprachgitter Speech-Grille and Other Poems (Celan)[Speech Grille and Other Poems] (1959; Speech-Grille, and Other Poems, 1971) and Die Niemandsrose Niemandsrose, Die (Celan) (1963; the nobody rose), reflect his “middle” period, during which he composed poems that were increasingly subjective, muted, and concerned with the problems of language. In these poems, as in the earlier ones, there was no direct social commentary about Celan’s experience; these were not confessional poems in the ordinary sense. Celan’s poems were characterized in the early 1960’s by fewer and fewer images, almost as if he could no longer trust metaphor to convey what he desired. Addressed to an unattached “you,” the poems would grow increasingly remote from literal experience, from the “reality” that most people understood. The other person in the poems was at once someone close to the poet, a distant spiritual figure, and an anonymous stranger. Such a combination gave Celan’s works the label of “resisting interpretation” throughout much of the academic community. Celan himself began to regard his earlier work as being too close to the experience, too explicit for the kind of distance he wanted to maintain.

Celan suffered from depression throughout the 1960’s, which made it increasingly difficult for him to write. When Claire Goll, poet Yvan Goll’s widow, accused him of plagiarizing some of her husband’s work, Celan suffered a nervous breakdown. Haunted by the past, he seldom made public appearances and received few visitors. Atemwende, his first book of poems in five years, became associated with the beginning of his “late” period, when the struggle to locate the meridian of language reached a heightened pitch. Scholars have pointed out that the breath unit, rather than the metrical or syllabic unit, became the basis for the late poems.

The lines of the poems are short, as is their general length, and the broken syntax that characterized the early and middle work is fragmented to its limit. As one critic has said, the last work is written as if German were a foreign language to Celan. Fadensonnen Fadensonnen (Celan) (1968; thread-suns) followed a year later to mixed reception, as Celan was increasingly understood as being hermetic despite his own rejection of the term. In 1970, overcome with his struggle with language, Celan drowned himself in the Seine. His three posthumous books, Lichtzwang Lichtzwang (Celan) (1970; force of light), Schneepart Schneepart (Celan) (1971; snow-part), and Zeitgehöft Zeitgehöft (Celan) (1976; time-stead), extended the range of his work well beyond his life and time.


Paul Celan’s work echoes strongly throughout the literature of Europe and the United States and continues to influence the way poetry is written. His early study of Rilke Rilke, Rainer Maria and Trakl Trakl, Georg links Celan’s work to that of the great German lyric masters who preceded him and whose work stands on a level similar to his own. To be a lyric poet in Europe in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries meant a profound understanding of Stéphane Mallarmé’s Mallarmé, Stéphane idea that “pure” poetry should reflect what was obscure, that it should reflect the subjectivity and uncertainty of life. French Surrealism, Russian Formalism, and German expressionism all sought to reflect such an ideology. The aesthetic focused on how something was perceived rather than what was perceived, and as such found common ground with avant-garde ideals.

Poets who followed Trakl and Rilke in Europe, such as Yvan Goll, Osip Mandelstam, and Paul Valéry, sought to explore the boundaries of lyricism and language. In addition to writing his poems, Celan worked at translating the works of many of these poets into German, spreading their work across the literary canon.

For Celan’s contemporaries, the advent of World War II changed many of the assumptions that the previous generation seemed to have. Language could not be accepted as a given mantle of protection, and instead of saying “I,” the poet should speak more broadly for the experience of the other. Celan’s friends René Char, Nellie Sacks, and other poets all felt the restrictions placed on them by their identity and by the nightmare of history that the Holocaust represented. While some claimed that lyric poetry was dead, Celan and others showed through their work that it could indeed survive, although not in the same manner. As Celan said in his acceptance speech for the Georg Büchner prize, language must be set free from history.

Much the same idea came to have a tremendous impact in the United States during the 1960’s and 1970’s, when American poetry was undergoing dramatic change as a result of new theories of free verse as defined by poets such as William Carlos Williams. At first barely read by American audiences, Celan’s work began to be translated by writers such as Michael Hamburger. During the shift of focus from English models of prosody to South American and European models, Celan was embraced as a poet whose minimalist work perfectly captured the tenets of the “organic” school of poetry: a poetry the form of which followed the form of the experience it reflected. Anthologized in collections of open-form poetry, Celan became associated with a historical consciousness, although his poems were clearly related to the archetypal mythic consciousness that other European writers were developing.

Celan’s unit of the breath-measure offered an alternative to the metric, from which even free verse could not completely remove itself. The breath unit, while not unmetered, worked toward what Celan had called the freeing of the language. Already concerned with concentrating poetry to the essential core of the experience, free verse found Celan’s radical minimalism to be an extreme form of lyricism, a form that developed out of the German lyric masters. For poets trying to find a new poetry in the United States, such achievement could hardly be assessed.

A generation of American poets would follow Celan’s minimal approach by concentrating away from narrative poetry and by avoiding the first person in their work, favoring instead the power of the single image. As such, contemporary poets the world over felt a Nietzschean distrust of metaphor and the very language through which they created their art. Celan’s work helped Rilke interpretation as well, for passages that had once seemed difficult in Rilke began to seem penetrable after Celan’s super-condensed lyrics.

The entire scope of what poetry was changed in Celan’s wake. While some poets had come to be understood as confessional, Celan showed that a poet must never become too personal. His struggle with language was in another sense a struggle with the relationship that the poet must draw between the world and the poem. At his most personal, Celan was still at his most universal, writing poems that speak not only of the difficulty of surviving the Holocaust but also of the challenge of living while being so open to language that it seems ready to swallow those who seek to use it.

Celan’s work created a much greater impact than his contemporaries realized and has continued to forge the definition of what lyric poetry is. His poems provided fertile ground for the ideas of contemporary theorists such as Emmanuel Levinas and Jacques Derrida (who wrote an essay about Celan’s language). He was thus truly ahead of his time, already anticipating the problems of meaning that language in the poststructuralist world would come to express. Breathturn (Celan) Poetry Breath-measure[Breath measure]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Celan, Paul. Collected Prose. Translated by Rosemarie Waldrop. Riverdale-on-Hudson, N.Y.: Sheep Meadow Press, 1986. Celan’s few speeches and select letters for public audience are collected and translated here, although the original German is not provided. The text is nevertheless indispensable for any Celan scholar interested in interpreting the poems.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Last Poems. Translated by Katharine Washburn and Margret Guillemin. San Francisco: North Point Press, 1986. This collection was designed to complement an earlier edition of Hamburger’s collection by focusing solely on the late, posthumous works. The original German is provided along with the English translations. An introduction also illuminates this difficult period in Celan’s career.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Poems of Paul Celan. Translated by Michael Hamburger. New York: Persea Books, 1988. This collection of poems includes selections from all Celan’s books, although the selection is greater for the books prior to Atemwende. Poems are printed in the original German, with English versions printed on facing pages. The introduction by the translator is a good foregrounding of the poems themselves and provides several insights that Amy Colin’s biography does not.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Colin, Amy. Paul Celan: Holograms of Darkness. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991. Colin’s biography of Celan includes many photographs and excerpts from letters, journals, and conversations, which greatly illuminate Celan’s life and career.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Felstiner, John. Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew. 1995. Reprint. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2001. Illuminates the rich biographical meaning behind much of Celan’s spare, enigmatic verse. Bibliographic references, illustrations, map, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hollander, Benjamin, ed. “Translating Tradition: Paul Celan in France.” Acts: A Journal of New Writing 8/9, 1988. Special double issue. An eclectic anthology of writings by and about Celan. Concentrates on the years Celan spent in Paris. In addition to essays by Celan’s prominent translators, there are essays by a wide variety of writers whom Celan influenced, including Robert Duncan, Yves Bonnefoy, and Maurice Blanchot.

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