New book highlights brilliant, tragic life of WWII poet

When Stanford professor John Felstiner first encountered the poetry of Holocaust survivor Paul Celan in 1977, he was drawn not only to the words, but to the man behind them.

Felstiner's father, like Celan, was born to German-speaking Jewish parents. Had Felstiner grown up in war-torn Europe rather than the United States, his history might have resembled Celan's.

Still, more than the affinities he feels for Celan's life, what compelled Felstiner is the emotional bareness of Celan's work.

"He doesn't speak about extreme duress. He speaks it," says Felstiner, a professor of English and Jewish studies and author of a new biography of Celan. "That's the great difference between Celan and a lot of poets. He doesn't speak about things. He utters them. He expresses them."

Indeed, Celan's poems lay bare the rawest of human experience. His most famous, "Todesfugue," or "Deathfugue," is a wrenching epic of concentration camp life that Felstiner puts on the scale of Yevgeny Yevtushenko's "Babi Yar," Pablo Neruda's "United Fruit Co." and William Butler Yeats' "Easter 1916."

Required reading in German high schools, "Deathfugue" is among the poems analyzed in Felstiner's "Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew," the first critical biography of the poet published in any language.

In writing the book, which draws on interviews with Celan's family and friends, unpublished letters and manuscripts, and materials from the poet's library, Felstiner hopes to introduce American audiences to the man he views as the most critical poet to emerge from World War II.

"He's such a vital poet and yet many literary people in this country aren't familiar with him," the author says.

Celan, born Paul Antschel in Czernowitz, Romania, in 1920, lost both parents during the Holocaust and survived a ghetto and forced labor.

As a German-speaking Jew who survived World War II, Celan spent his post-war life trying to renew his mother tongue, a language that had been brutalized by Nazism. Following the war, German, in Felstiner's words "was both privileged and fatal."

But as Felstiner shows, Celan's larger purpose was not only to renew the German language, but language itself in the aftermath of the mid-century catastrophe.

"There's nothing in the world for which a poet will give up writing," Celan said after moving to Paris in 1948, "not even when he is a Jew and the language of his poems is German."

So Celan wrote, prolifically, some 800 poems from 1938 to 1970. These spoke of himself, his mother, wife, or sons, a friend, nature. Celan also wrote about the Jewish dead and their religious faith, as in "Psalm," a 1961 exploration of Jews' post-war relationship to God which, like many Celan poems, alludes to scripture.

Blessed art thou, No-one.

In thy sight would

we bloom

In thy

spite.

A Nothing

we were, are now, and ever

shall be, blooming:

the Nothing's-, the

No-One's-Rose.

"Psalm" like many of Celan's poems, evokes the Holocaust, though it does not address it explicitly. "Every word he ever wrote was in some way conditioned by that experience, but very seldom did he write directly about [it]," Felstiner explains. "`Deathfugue' is his best known poem. Part of the reason is it's so direct."

Written in 1944 and 1945, "Deathfugue" has drawn more passionate attention than any other poem from the war, according to Felstiner. In addition to being read in German high schools, it was read in the seat of German government, the Bundestag, on the 50th anniversary of Kristallnacht.

"Black milk of daybreak we drink it at evening," the poem reads, "we drink it at midday and morning we drink it at night/we drink and we drink."

As Celan's life progressed, the extent to which the Holocaust affected him became increasingly clear. "The poems themselves get more and more ruptured and wracked by his efforts to speak the truth, an unspeakable truth," Felstiner says.

That truth, combined with chronic mental illness, led Celan to commit suicide at age 49 by drowning in the Seine.

Though that end is a crucial aspect of Celan's story, Felstiner makes a concerted effort not to let it overshadow his biography of Celan's life.

"I was very, very careful not to let his suicide enter the book until the moment that it happened," the author says.

Despite a life marked by tragedy, Celan managed to see heroism and epiphany in the world around him.

A brief 1969 poem, titled "There Stood," for example, recreates a perfect moment spent in a Jerusalem square. The square contains a boat-shaped sculpture commemorating the Danes' 1943 rescue of Jews.