Mesocosm

"Segne den Becher, welcher überfließen will, daß das Wasser golden aus ihm fließe und überallhin den Abglanz deiner Wonne trage!" – Nietzsche

Posts Tagged ‘poetry

Todtnauberg, by Paul Celan

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Marc Chagall

Moses Breaking the Tablets of the Law
Marc Chagall, 1931

My friend Hugh Behm-Steinberg, author of the outstanding poetry collection The Opposite of Work, tagged me in an online game, so now I must write a brief comment on the poet Paul Celan, and refer interested readers to a representative poem. I decided to take the opportunity to do an original translation of Celan’s difficult poem “Todtnauberg,” which is presented below.

This autobiographical work refers to the poet’s visit to the cabin retreat owned by the great philosopher Martin Heidegger. Now, Paul Celan was a Romanian Jew whose parents were killed in an internment camp during World War II. Heidegger, on the other hand, was an outspoken advocate of the Nazi party, who wrote in the early 40s about Germany’s “special destiny” and urged his students to think in service of the Nazi state.

After the war, Heidegger said nothing in public about his involvement with the Nazis for the rest of his career, with the exception of giving a long interview with the premier German news magazine Der Spiegel in 1966, which he gave on the condition that it be published posthumously.

The truth is, it is not at all clear how to take Heidegger’s silence, and this has posed a serious problem for many important Jewish and non-Jewish intellectuals, including not only Paul Celan, but the noted psychologist Viktor Frankl as well, who is best remembered for his account of his own interment at Auschwitz in the book Man’s Search for Meaning.

Celan was impressed by Heidegger’s philosophy, which, like Celan’s poetry, is deeply concerned with history, knowledge, anxiety, death, and the darkness which surrounds the ground of our being. It is by virtue of his fluency with these very themes that Celan was uniquely able to express in the ineffable horror of the Holocaust in much of his work.

This poem describes his one personal encounter with Heidegger, who invited Celan to visit his forest retreat, and to sign his famous guest book. Celan, a student of botany, sets the scene for us by identifying two herbaceous flowering plants they saw on their walk, arnica and eyebright.

Like its subject, the poem speaks in evocative fragments that defy attempts to synthesize them into a unified image. Vivid impressions flash from out of the darkness, and end with a sense of … what? Disjunction? Futility? Defiance? It is difficult to formulate a clear response, and I get the sense that no particular meaning was intended. Perhaps, as with Heidegger’s silence, he believed there was nothing to say.
 

Todtnauberg

Arnica, eyebright, the
draught from the well with the
star dice above,

in the
hut,

in the book
(whose name is recorded
before mine?)
the written line
in the book
speaks of hope, today,
about a thinker
arriving
word
in the heart,

forest grass, unlevelled,
orchid and orchid, separate,

crude things, later, in passing,
clear,

he who drives us, the man,
he who overhears,

the half-
trodden beaten
paths in the high moor,

moist,
much.

Now that the prayer benches burn,
I eat the book
with all its
regalia.

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Written by Mesocosm

January 4, 2014 at 8:16 am

Posted in Translations

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Epigram for Poetry

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by Heiner Müller, translated by Mesocosm

Pegasus served the brave and honest of the poets of old
Carried them wingedly away over the terrestrial dust.
Today, busy with making the earth more palatable,
we need poets who are earthly and mechanized.
But our poets – what do they do? Drag out the old,
reliable horse from the stable, where he fed on charity.
Before the fragile one, they span the fast-driving
                                                                    tractor,
The lame horse behind the fast vehicle.
And it does not bother them, if he stumbles and breaks a
                                                                    bone
Spending old moans for new songs.

For J. K.
Dogs value lamp posts as much as birches.
Not so, the poet — he holds to birches alone.

To be permitted, it is allowed, one must only be capable, wrote one who was able.
Could the gods do nothing, because they could not?

 
Comments

I looked at this poem in particular because I’ve been reading Heidegger’s rather profound interpretation of Hölderlin’s hymns recently. Hölderlin perhaps represents the pinnacle of the German nostalgia for classical Greek culture, which he depicted in his poems as a distant realm of the absolute spirit, a place where gods walked the earth.

Hölderlin contrasted Greece with the materialistic and systematic character of his own culture, and interpreted Greece’s power to inspire the German imagination as the pull of the dialectical contrary or antithesis. In a sense, he believed, the spiritual vitality of Greece belonged more to the people of Germany, who, in making the journey outside of their home to the place where spirit made unveiled, encountered that realm in a way that the Greeks could not.

It is interesting to compare that view of of classical Greece with another great German poet, Heiner Müller, who worked a century and a half later. If Hölderlin’s Germany was animated by questions implied by the dialectical idealism of his close friend Hegel, then Müller’s DDR was structured by its antithesis, Marx’s dialectical materialism.

In Müller’s poem we have a much more ambivalent and tragic view of Germany’s use of classical Greece. Instead of the acme of immortality, the lyricism classical culture embodies is intensely fragile, and its message is perhaps no longer audible over the roar of the engines.

Müller’s own work is very much involved with reconceptualizing Europe’s relationship to its own heritage – please see my post on his masterpiece The Hamlet Machine for more on that subject.

Written by Mesocosm

May 18, 2012 at 10:13 am

New on Mesocosm: Links Roundup and Poetry Fridays

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Cupid and Psyche, Roman, c. 2nd Century CE
Altes Museum, Berlin

Hello, Mesocosm readers! I’m going to be trying out two new regular features – a periodic links roundup, and poetry Fridays.

Link Roundup

Some exciting news in paleobotany this week! First, a report that Russian scientists successfully grew flowers from 30,000-year-old fruit. A few days later, I read of a joint expedition in northern China excavating a Pompeii-like buried forest that is a staggering 300 million years old.

An international archaeological expedition is working in the Sumerian city of Ur, I am excited to report, and they have discovered a new temple dating back to around 2500 BCE.

The great songster Leonard Cohen has a new album out, and Cohen-biographer Liel Leibovitz has a story for the ages in this Tablet article.

From Bruce Schneier, I learned of this interesting post about a letter the famed game theorist John Nash wrote to the NSA in 1955. His musings appear to anticipate much of mainstream cryptography by decades.

National Geographic has an excellent article in their February issue about a beautiful charcoal and ink drawing that may well be a previously-unknown Leonardo da Vinci. The article is online here.

Finally, I was deeply saddened to learn that Arikamedu, an important historical site in India, has been recently devastated by a cyclone. First excavated by the great British archaeologist Mortimer Wheeler in the 1940s, Arikamedu was a Roman trading post in Tamil Nadu in southern India, established in the first century CE. The site had recently been ravaged by the 2004 tsunami.
 

Poetry Friday

On Poetry Friday I’m going to refer readers to poems that I enjoy on my Twitter Account – you can click the Follow button on the right of this page if you like.

We started two weeks ago with an snippet from the great Indian poet Kalidasa, and last week I referred readers to a lesser-known poem by E. E. Cummings, enter no (silence is the blood whose flesh.

(Yes, I said “E. E. Cummings,” which is how he more frequently signed his own name).

This week I would like call attention to the magnificent poem The Book of Thell, a (relatively) short work by William Blake. In this excerpt, the young maid Thell contemplates transience:

“O life of this our spring! why fades the lotus of the water?
Why fade these children of the spring, born but to smile & fall?
Ah! Thel is like a watry bow, and like a parting cloud,
Like a reflection in a glass, like shadows in the water,
Like dreams of infants, like a smile upon an infant’s face,
Like the dove’s voice, like transient day, like music in the air.
Ah! gentle may I lay me down, and gentle rest my head,
And gentle sleep the sleep of death, and gentle hear the voice
Of him that walketh in the garden in the evening time.”

The Lily of the valley, breathing in the humble grass
Answer’d the lovely maid and said: “I am a watry weed,
And I am very small, and love to dwell in lowly vales;
So weak, the gilded butterfly scarce perches on my head;
Yet I am visited from heaven, and he that smiles on all
Walks in the valley and each morn over me spreads his hand,
Saying: ‘Rejoice, thou humble grass, thou new-born lily flower,
Thou gentle maid of silent valleys and of modest brooks;
For thou shalt be clothed in light, and fed with morning manna,
Till summer’s heat melts thee beside the fountains and the springs
To flourish in eternal vales.’ Then why should Thel complain?”

Written by Mesocosm

February 24, 2012 at 9:24 am

Posted in Links, Poetry

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Lettuce is My Hair

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Inanna's Descent, Sumerian Clay Tablet
Library of Ashurbanipal
British Museum

This charming Sumerian song was composed for a priestess to sing in the guise of the goddess Inanna, celebrating her mystical marriage to her lord Dumuzi, here incarnate as Shu-sin, the king of Ur at the dawn of the second millennium BCE.

The identification of the king with a god and the high priestess with the goddess, usually Inanna or Isthar, was the centerpiece of Sumerian and Babylonian religious culture for many centuries. During the New Year’s festival, the king would ascend the colossal pyramid-like ziggurat in the center of the city, and consummate his love for the goddess in a chamber at its apex. In this way, the Sumerian creation myth was ritually reenacted, setting the cycle of the seasons in motion for another round.

We’ve looked several times at the bull/moon god and his consort/mother on Mesocosm, such as in this post. Inanna and Dumuzi are the earliest such pair to figure in written material.

Though it is riddled with lacunae, the song is lovely, not least for its titular image of lettuce hair, which is beguiling for reasons known only to the vanished Sumerians, I think.
 

Lettuce is My Hair

My hair is lettuce, [planted] by the water,
It is gukkal-lettuce, [planted] by the water….
My attendant arranges it,
The attendant arranges my hair which is lettuce, the most-favored of plants.
The brother brought me into his life-giving gaze,
Shu-Sin has called me to (his) refreshing …. without [end].
[…]
You are our lord, you are our lord,
Silver (and) lapis lazuli – you are our lord,
Farmer who makes the grain stand high, – you are our lord,
For him who is the honey of my eye, who is the lettuce of my heart,
May the days of life come forth…..
It is a balbale of Inanna.

 
Translated by S. N. Kramer, from the indispensable volume:
Pritchard JB (ed.), Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament. Princeton University Press. 1969.

Written by Mesocosm

February 9, 2012 at 11:03 am

Posted in Ephemera, Poetry

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