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Selected Poems and Prose of Paul Celan Hardcover – November, 2000

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Though fluent in a number of languages, Celan (1920-1970), who had come to Paris from Romanian Bukovina, pointedly wrote in German after WWII. His decomposition and recasting of that language, through a style that can seem dizzying in its complex poly-referentiality, was compounded by his erudition, by his own history as a Holocaust survivor whose parents were murdered in the camps, and finally by his suicide. For many, he one of the major poets of the 20th century. Though Celan's work presents obvious difficulties for any translator, his English-language readers have long been well-served by Michael Hamburger's starkly graceful selected translations (Poems of Paul Celan, Persea), which remain the best available, and more recently, by Pierre Joris's acute renderings of Celan's later work. Of the new collections here, the volume from Celan biographer and critic Felstiner is easily the most comprehensive, containing ample cullings from all of Celan's books, including many poems not included in Hamburger's selection, along with previously untranslated early and late work and four prose pieces. Felstiner handles these translations competently, rendering Celan in a somewhat more colloquial style than Hamburger or Joris. But his shifting diction (including "Thou") and his tendency to capitalize nouns and to let German words stand untranslated in the English text can make for a distracting admixture, as it does in Celan's much-anthologized early work, "Deathfugue": "Black milk of daybreak we drink you at night/ we drink you at midday Death is a master aus Deutschland." On the whole, Felstiner's efforts often pale beside those of Hamburger and Joris, but the page count of this dual-language collection will make it the default choice of those who will buy only one Celan volume. Popov and McHugh's collection also ranges over Celan's oeuvre, but far less comprehensively or successfully. Unlike Felstiner and Joris, Popov (The Russian People Speak: Democracy at the Crossroads) and poet McHugh (Father of the Predicaments, etc.) don't present the German texts en face, a practice they regard, in their preface, as a potential distraction from the reader's experience of their renderings. It would indeed be a distraction, making painfully clear just how far they depart from the originals to arrive at their idiosyncratic versions, which alter Celan's precise line and stanza lengths significantly, and forsake Celan's vertiginous difficulties for a more simplisticAsometimes macabre or wittyAstyle that's littered with heavy-handed gestures. One poem, for example, contains an ex nihilo insertion gleefully riffing on a German pun, others tip the scales of Celan's carefully weighted pronouns into one viewpoint or another. Even when hewing closer to the source text, Popov and McHugh incessantly heighten the poems' language, degrading their thorniness with more traditional sentiments. Fortunately, many of the poems translated by Popov and McHugh can be found in Joris's new volume, or in his 1995 rendering of Celan's Breathturn, both of which present entire books in razor-sharp, finely nuanced translations. Threadsuns represents the continuation of a marked turn in Celan's poeticsAaway from lusher effusions to intensely compressed, increasingly stark investigations of language, history and the poet's own capacities. Because much of this later work is serial in nature, Joris's decision to render the books in their entirety is profoundly important, and helps to make them necessary complements to Hamburger's selections. While it may not consistently attain the dazzling heights and depths of Celan's finest work in Breathturn and 1963's The No-One's Rose, Threadsuns contains an abundance of brilliant poems and provides ample evidence for the magnitude of Celan's stature in the last century, and in the one to come. (Nov.)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc.


Felstiner translates . . . brilliantly. -- John Bayley, author of Elegy for Iris, in New York Review of Books

John Felstiner's brilliant translation brings us closer to Paul Celan's tormented and melodious universe. -- Elie Wiesel

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 416 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; First Edition edition (November 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 039304999X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393049992
  • Product Dimensions: 9.5 x 6.5 x 1.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (9 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,007,329 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

19 of 19 people found the following review helpful By Arch Llewellyn on December 9, 2000
Format: Hardcover
I bought this book after reading a single line--"the light and the Light." Felstiner renders Celan's notoriously intricate verse into poems so direct and luminous that you might mistake them for having been written in English. I also appreciated the spare notes; he trusts you and the poems to find each other on your own, and doesn't try to footnote away the mystery. I'm grateful for a book that makes Celan's beauty, sadness and experiment so visible in English. A labor of light.
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12 of 14 people found the following review helpful By Incantessimo VINE VOICE on April 22, 2002
Format: Hardcover
Paul Celan is now considered one of the great postwar poets, perhaps the greatest poet to come out of the Holocaust, and the 2nd most influential German poet after Rilke. His most famous poem, "Todesfuge" (Deathfugue) is considered the most important poem on the Holocaust.
But beyond all that hyperbolic praise lies a poet who defies easy description, whose poetry is both demanding, difficult, beautiful and lyrical, and who deserves to be read by a wider audience.
Felstiner provides us with one of the 2 best bilingual editions of Celan's most important work (the other is by Michael Hamburger), and supplements it with a very well written introduction and translations of Celan's most important prose writings, including the Buchner speech "The Meridian". These prose pieces will be essential for students of Celan, and cast an important light on the poems.
The translations of the poems themselves are quite good, and at times brilliant, such as the innovative way that Felstiner translates "Deathfugue," subtly interweaving the original German more and more in the repetitions of the chorus until the poem ends with two lines entirely in German. The effect is chilling. Felstiner deserves the translation award he won for this book solely on the basis of this one poem, which shocked me anew when I read it in his English translation.
If you are unfamiliar with Celan up to now, this is a good place to start. If you are already an admirer of Celan's poems, this will be a welcome addition to your library. See also Felstiner's biography on Celan, "Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew".
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on May 18, 2002
Format: Hardcover
This is a great, highly satisfying translation of the poetry of a tortured genius whose voice rang through holocaust death camps into 21st century living rooms. The metaphors of Celan are of tragic acuity, & his tropes & experiments will keep you awake at night. He didn't write to avoid the real world. He wrote so that he could clench in his sore fists the very world that clenched him in its. The prose selections at the end of the book, speeches he gave, are also very, very interesting & provide a different angle by which to view his great mind, of how he spoke when not funneling the thinking into a certain art.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Driver9 on December 16, 2006
Format: Paperback
An excellent translation of one of the great voices of modern poetry. Celan, perhaps more than any other poet, bore witness to the destruction of humanity by the Nazi German regime. His poems sear through the heart like no other. One of he greatest works, "Deathfugue" or "Todesfuge" which resonates through the past throughout time:

"Black milk of daybreak we drink it at evening

we drink it at midday and morning we drink it at night

we drink and we drink

we shovel a grave in the air where you won't lie too cramped

A man lives in the house he plays with his vipers he writes

he writes when it grows dark in Deutschland your golden hair

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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful By Christopher Culver TOP 1000 REVIEWER on March 10, 2008
Format: Hardcover
Paul Celan stands as one of the most influential and visible poets of the second half of the 20th-century. The work he produced from World War II to his suicide by drowning in 1970 has been lauded by subsequent poets, taught in German history courses, and set to music by Berio, Birtwistle, and Rihm. The central theme of most of Celan's poetry is the slaughter of European Jewry in the Holocaust, as the poet was born in a German-speaking Jewish enclave in Bucovina and there lost his parents and his home, scars which even a successful new life in Paris could never erase. This volume of selected poems with English translations by John Felstiner (author of the biography Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew) is a fine introduction to his work.

Celan's poem "Todesfuge" (Death Fugue) is one of his earliest mature pieces and the most common introduction to his poetry. It's opening lines "Black milk of daybreak we drink it at evening / we drink it at midday and morning we drink it at night / we drink and we drink / we shovel a grave in the air where you won't lie too cramped" are a powerful depiction of the death camps and fully repudiate Adorno's claim that poetry after Auschwitz is impossible.

Some critics have claimed that "Todesfuge" was Celan's only great poem and had it not been for that, then we would have never heard of him. That poem was certainly his break into the literary world, but other material in this volume is just as fine. "Einfuehrung" (Stretto) is something of a rewriting of "Todesfuge" in considerably more desperate language and my favourite of Celan's poems. Here the motifs of the first poem are shattered into pieces ("Grass, written asunder.
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