Authors: Paul Celan

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

Romanian-born German poet

November 23, 1920

Czernowitz, Romania (now Chernivtsi, Ukraine)

May 1, 1970

Paris, France


Paul Celan (TSEHL-ahn) is considered among Europe’s most important post-World War II poets. He was born Paul Antschel (or Ancel) in 1920 in Czernowitz, the capital of Romania’s Bukovina region, to a German-Jewish family. A crossroads of languages and cultures, Bukovina had only recently belonged to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In a letter to an aunt following his Bar Mitzvah, Celan remarked that “as for anti-Semitism” in the Romanian state school he was then attending, “I could write a 300-page opus about it.” {$I[AN]9810002054} {$I[A]Celan, Paul} {$S[A]Antschel, Paul;Celan, Paul}{$S[A]Ancel, Paul;Celan, Paul} {$I[geo]ROMANIA;Celan, Paul} {$I[geo]FRANCE;Celan, Paul} {$I[geo]JEWISH;Celan, Paul} {$I[tim]1920;Celan, Paul}

Paul Celan.

Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Celan’s formative years were marked not only by anti-Semitism but also by ambivalence toward his Jewish heritage. His mother, Friederike Antschel, taught her only child German songs and poetry. Her influence probably contributed to Celan’s continuing to write in German after the Holocaust. References to Friederike recur in Celan’s poetry, and his earliest known poem is a sonnet to her. His father, Leo Antschel, however, is hardly ever mentioned in his son’s poetry. Celan had a difficult relationship with his father, a disciplinarian with strong Zionist convictions.

As a medical student in Tours, France (Romania’s medical schools enforced quotas against Jews), Celan was introduced to the French avant-garde by an uncle pursuing an acting career in Paris. When World War II broke out, Celan, on holiday in Czernowitz, was unable to return to France. By 1941 the city was overrun by German troops, who, joined by the Romanian army, forced the Jewish population into ghettos and then deported them to death camps. In June, 1942, Celan’s parents were among those deported; reports vary as to why he escaped. Whatever the facts, Celan experienced guilt throughout his life over his parents’ fate. His father died from typhus, and his mother was shot by camp guards.

Sent to a series of labor camps, Celan was back in Czernowitz when the Soviets captured the city in March 1944. Probably sometime that year, he wrote his best-known poem, “Todesfuge.” Celan’s early title, “Todestange,” recalls evidence of a term, “death tango,” for the music played as German troops led camp inmates away to be shot. “Todesfuge” elicited much controversy. Some read it as a reconciliation, while others rejected it based on Theodor Adorno’s pronouncement (later revised) that after the experience of the death camp Auschwitz, to write poetry is “barbaric.” Celan later downplayed the poem, stating that he intended it neither as a balm for German consciences nor as an aestheticizing of the camp experience.

In December 1947, Celan left Bucharest, Romania, where he had been living since April 1945, for Vienna. There, he began using the pseudonym Celan, an anagram reflecting his Jewish, Romanian, and German origins. As in Bucharest, he became friendly with a group of Surrealist writers and artists. In 1948, as Austria’s denazification efforts ended, Celan resettled in Paris. He began studies in German philology and literature, receiving his Licence des Lettres in 1950. In 1952 he married Gisèle de Lestrange, a graphic artist, with whom he had a son, Eric. From 1959 until his death, Celan taught German language and literature at L’École Normale Superieure. Translation also provided an income, while offering the “encounters” Celan sought in language. He felt a particular affinity with the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam.

With the publication of his second poetry collection, Mohn und Gedächtnis, in 1952, Celan attracted significant critical attention. Included in the collection were “Todesfuge” and other selections from his first volume, Der Sand aus den Urnen, which the meticulous Celan disavowed because of misprints. A plagiarism charge issued the following year was revived in 1960. Germany’s Academy of Language and Literature commissioned Celan’s defense and awarded him that year their Büchner Prize. Celan’s acceptance speech, “The Meridian,” constituted his manifesto on poetry. Poetry, according to Celan, is a “letter in a bottle thrown out to sea,” poised between potentiality and silence.

In 1965, writing his birthdate and a motto from Psalm 45, “Ride for the Truth,” above a list of poems for a new collection, Celan showed a determined spirit that belied hospitalizations for depression beginning in 1962. His probings into Jewish mysticism were evident in his poems, and from the collection Fadensonnen on, his work grew progressively enigmatic, reflecting his quest for a new poetic idiom to convey the devastations of the Holocaust.

Separated from his family since the late 1960s, Celan lived alone. On May 2, 1970, his body was pulled from the Seine River. On his desk lay a biography of the poet Friedrich Hölderlin, open to the underlined passage: “Sometimes this genius goes dark and sinks down into the bitter well of his heart.”

Author Works Poetry: Der Sand aus den Urnen, 1948 Mohn und Gedächtnis, 1952 Von Schwelle zu Schwelle, 1955 Gedichte: Eine Auswahl, 1959 Sprachgitter, 1959 (Speech-Grille, 1971) Die Niemandsrose, 1963 Gedichte, 1966 Atemwende, 1967 (Breathturn, 1995) Ausgewählte Gedichte: Zwei Reden, 1968 Fadensonnen, 1968 (Threadsuns, 2000) Lichtzwang, 1970 Schneepart, 1971 Speech-Grille and Selected Poems, 1971 Nineteen Poems, 1972 Selected Poems, 1972 Gedichte: In zwei Bänden, 1975 (2 volumes) Zeitgehöft: Späte Gedichte aus dem Nachlass, 1976 Paul Celan: Poems, 1980 (revised as Poems of Paul Celan, 1988) Gedichte: 1938–1944, 1985 Sixty-five Poems, 1985 Last Poems, 1986 Das Frühwerk, 1989 Eingedunkelt: und Gedichte aus dem Umkreis von Eingedunkelt, 1991 (Bertrand Badiou und Jean-Claude Rambach, editors) Gesammelte Werke in sieben Bänden, 2000 (7 volumes) Glottal Stop: 101Poems, 2000 Short Fiction: “Gespräch im Gebirg,” 1959 Nonfiction: Edgar Jené und der Traum vom Traume, 1948 (Edgar Jené and the Dream About the Dream, 1986) Der Meridian. Rede anlässlich der Verleihung des George-Büchner-Preises, Darmstadt, am 22. Oktober 1960, 1961 Collected Prose, 1986 Paul Celan, Nelly Sachs: Briefwechsel, 1993 (Barbara Wiedemann, editor) Paul Celan, Franz Wurm: Briefwechsel, 1995 (Barbara Wiedemann and Franz Wurm, editors) Paul Celan, Hanne und Hermann Lenz: Briefwechsel, mit drei Briefen von Gisele Celan-Lestrange, 2001 (Barbara Wiedemann and Hanne Lenz, editors) Du musst versuchen, auch den Schweigenden zu hören: Briefe an Diet Kloos-Barendregt, 2002 (Paul Sars and Laurent Sprooten, editors) Briefwechsel / Paul Celan, Ilana Shmueli, 2004 (Ilana Shmueli and Thomas Sparr, editors) Briefwechsel / Paul Celan, Rudolf Hirsch, 2004 (Joachin Seng, editor) Briefwechsel / Paul Celan, Peter Szondi, 2005 (Christoph König, editor) Paul Celan, Klaus und Nani Demus: Briefwechsel, mit einer Auswahl aus dem Briefwechsel zwischen Gisèle Celan-Lestrange und Klaus und Nani Demus, 2009 (Joachim Seng, editor) Paul Celan, Edith Silbermann: Zeugnisse einer Freundschaft, 2010 (Diana Colin and Edith Silbermann, editors) Briefwechsel mit den rheinischen Freunden Heinrich Böll, Paul Schallück und Rolf Schroers / Paul Celan, 2011 (Barbara Wiedemann, editor) Wie aus weiter Ferne zu Dir: Briefwechsel / Paul Celan, Gisela Dischner; mit einem Brief von Gisèle Celan-Lestrange, 2012 (with Gisela Dischner and Barbara Wiedemann) Keinerlei "Silberstreifen" am Horizont: der Briefwechsel des Dichters mit dem Komponisten / Paul Celan, Jaap Geraedts, 2013 (Paul Sars, editor) Translations: Der goldene Vorhang, 1949 (of Jean Cocteau) Bateau ivre/Das trunkene Schiff, 1958 (of Arthur Rimbaud) Gedichte, 1959 (of Osip Mandelstam) Die junge Parzel/La jeune Parque, 1964 (of Paul Valéry) Einundzwanzig Sonette, 1967 (of William Shakespeare) Miscellaneous: Prose Writings and Selected Poems, 1977 Selected Poems and Prose of Paul Celan, 2001 Bibliography Baer, Ulrich. Remnants of Song: Trauma and the Experience of Modernity in Charles Baudelaire and Paul Celan. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2000. Baer sees a basis for comparison of the nineteenth and the twentieth century poet. Bibliographical references, index. Bernstein, Michael André. Five Portraits: Modernity and the Imagination in Twentieth-Century German Writing. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 2000. Compared with Celan are four other German poets and philosophers: Rainer Maria Rilke, Robert Musil, Martin Heidegger, and Walter Benjamin. Includes bibliographical references, index. Block, Haskell M. The Poetry of Paul Celan. New York: P. Lang, 1991. A collection of papers from a conference at the State University of New York at Binghamton in 1988. Chalfen, Israel. Paul Celan. New York: Persea Books, 1991. A biography of Celan’s youth and early career. Includes bibliographic references. Colin, Amy D. Paul Celan: Holograms of Darkness. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991. An overview of Celan’s cultural background as well as postmodernist textual analysis. Del Caro, Adrian. The Early Poetry of Paul Celan: In the Beginning Was the Word. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1997. A detailed treatment of the early volumes Mohn und Gedächtnis (1952) and Von Schwelle zu Schwelle (1955). 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. Includes bibliographic references, illustrations, map, index. Fioretos, Aris. Word Traces: Readings of Paul Celan. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994. Close readings. Bibliographical references, index. Glenn, Jerry. Paul Celan. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1973. Biography and criticism of Celan’s work. Includes a bibliography of Celan’s work. Rosenthal, Bianca. Pathways to Paul Celan. New York: P. Lang, 1995. An overview of the varied and often contradictory critical responses to the poet. Illustrated; includes bibliographical references, index. Wolosky, Shira. Language and Mysticism: The Negative Way of Language in Eliot, Beckett, and Celan. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1995. A useful comparative study that helps to place Celan in context. Bibliographical references, index.

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