Features May 1996
Death fugues: the poems of Paul Celan
On Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew by John Felstiner.
Poetry is the meeting point of parallel lines—in infinity, but also in the here and now. It is where the patent and incontrovertible intersects with the ineffable and incommensurable. It can be as complicated as Mallarmé or Paul Celan, or as simple as Heine or Verlaine, but something about it, however strongly it is felt, surpasses comprehension. It is what, when thought of, made A. E. Housman’s face bristle, and his razor inoperative; it is what made Emily Dickinson’s whole body so cold no fire could ever warm her.
There is a wonderful story I. A. Richards used to tell that I remember only imperfectly. It seems that word got back to the University of Chicago that young David Oppenheimer, who had been given a grant to pursue his scientific studies in—Vienna, was it?—was writing poetry instead. So a great scientist, his mentor (I forget his name, alas), was deputized to restore him to his senses. Poetry...
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