In response to an interesting and provocative comment from Nicholas Manning regarding my post on difficulty in poetry, I don’t presume that meaning is always a good thing (I propose, for one thing, that understanding can often be excruciating painful). I’m not quite sure what it would mean to do so, or conversely to presume that meaning is a bad thing. What would "good" or "bad" mean in such a context? One may have a positive or negative response to a particular meaning one derives from a poem, but that would not apply to meaning itself, which simply is.
Poetry offers many other pleasures and possibilities than meaning. But meaning is one of the possibilities that poetry offers, a not inconsiderable one, and poetry cannot help but offer it. That possibility cannot be evaded or denied, because poems, even the most aleatory or rigorously procedural, are products of human intention, including the intention to write an aleatory or procedural poem from which individual intention will be evacuated. (One could put this as “I intend not to intend.” Or, more precisely but more verbosely, “I intend that my intention will not determine the outcome of the process of writing this poem.”)
A throw of the dice will never abolish chance, as Mallarmé wrote, but it is the human hand that tosses the dice and the human mind and will that decide the meaning of that dice toss’s outcome. As human productions, aesthetic objects are infused with what Kant calls purposiveness, though aesthetic purposiveness is a paradoxical purpose without a purpose, without, that is, any practical or instrumental aim. As Adorno writes in Aesthetic Theory, “In art, the true point of reference continues to be the subject” (63).
To assert that Paul Celan was not interested in meaning or communication is to evade or shrug off the work of actually reading his poems: it is to trivialize those poems, to erase their working at and working through. Celan, who insisted that his poetry was “absolutely not hermetic” (Ganz und gar nicht hermetisch, as he inscribed in Michael Hamburger’s copy of Die Niemandrose), often questioned the possibility of saying, but never its value or its necessity. As Michael Hamburger writes, “If Celan had set out to write hermetic poems, his work would be less difficult than it is, because it would not require us to make the kind of sense of it that we know it can yield” (“Introduction,” The Poems of Paul Celan xxv). Celan did not set out to babble in or play with language. Celan's work is not “experimentation” in the sense which Adorno condemns as “chimerical and specious: on the one hand [the most recent experimental procedures] are tinged with subjectivity; on the other they suppose that art can divest itself of its subjectivity through experimentation, becoming at last what it has always pretended to be, namely a being in itself free of appearance” (Aesthetic Theory 36).
Celan writes in his 1958 speech on receiving the city of Bremen’s literature prize that “In this language [he is referring specifically to the German language, stained and scarred by the enormity of the Holocaust] I have sought…to write poems so as to speak, to orient myself, to find out where I was and where I was meant to go, to sketch out reality for myself.” As he writes later in the same speech: “A poem, as a manifestation of language and thus essentially dialogue, can be a message in a bottle sent out in the—not always greatly hopeful—belief that somewhere and sometime it could wash up on land, on heartland perhaps. Poems in this sense too are underway: they are making toward something.” Despite and by means of their difficulty, Celan’s poems seek, desperately and perhaps hopelessly, communication, contact, connection, even if not in the here and now: as he writes in the poem “Threadsuns” (Fadensonnen), “there are/still songs to sing beyond/humankind.” There is almost always a “you” to whom his poems are directed, to whom his poems try to speak. “Without a You,” the brainless, Youless hordes rush in, with their meaningless words. The message may not reach anyone, and if it does, it may not be apprehended, comprehended. But the possibility, the likelihood even, of failure makes more acute the will to attempt contact, to try to make a connection.
In 1961’s “The Meridian,” his longest and best-known piece of prose, Celan writes that:
“The poem wants to reach an Other, it needs this Other, it needs an over-against. It seeks it out, speaks toward it.
“For the poem making toward an Other, each thing, each human being is a form of this Other.
“The attentiveness a poem devotes to all it encounters, with its sharper sense of detail, outline, structure, color, but also of ‘quiverings’ and ‘intimations’—all this, I think, is not attained by an eye vying (or conniving) with constantly more perfect instruments. Rather, it is a conversation that stays mindful of all our dates.
“A poem—under what conditions!—becomes the poem of someone (ever yet) perceiving, facing phenomena, questioning and addressing those phenomena; it becomes conversation—often despairing conversation.”
Far from disdaining meaning, reference, or communication, Celan is the textbook example of the modern poet who, in Eliot’s description of his activity, “must become more and more comprehensive, more allusive, more indirect, in order to force, to dislocate if necessary, language into his meaning” (“The Metaphysical Poets”). He must wrestle with, deform and be deformed by language (the angel from the struggle with which one rises lamed but blessed, renamed) to make it mean anew, to make it mean again. In particular, Celan attempts to speak the unspeakable, to redeem by reinventing (and rebuking) a language permanently tainted by the incommensurable horror of the Shoah. He seeks to remove “the veil/over road-weary/mouths” (“White noise, bundled”/“Weissgeräusche”), the mouths which can no longer speak and the mouths which, despairing and overwhelmed, will no longer speak.
Even when one doesn’t derive an immediately paraphrasable statement from his poems, one feels the urgency, one is struck by the vivid imagery, immersed in the miniature worldscapes Celan conjures. The poems never seem to be about nothing, though they sometimes brood on the void of Nothing. They are always, in the words of “Wet from the world” (“Die abgewrackten Tabus”), “pursuing/meaning, fleeing/meaning”: fleeing the easy meanings, the always-on-offer lies, seeking a deeper, more hard-won meaning.
Celan was passionately committed to what Nicholas Manning calls “the entire edifice of meaning and reference itself.” He often asked himself “How assemble meaning?” (every poem of his asks that question), but never “Why assemble meaning?” As Michael Hamburger writes in The Truth of Poetry, “His artistic purism is content with nothing less than ‘raids on the inarticulate.’ It would be impertinent to speculate how much of Celan’s later practice is due to extreme experience, how much to the artistic rigor of an unrepentant modernist. What is certain about Celan’s later poems is that they explore the limits of language and the limits of consciousness, groping their way towards a communion that may be religious or mystical, since their starting-point is total solitude and their destination [‘beyond humankind’]” (295).