Genre: Lyric Poetry
Paul Celan & The Americas: Poetry After Fascism, Before Post-Democracy?
[Note: This course is “Co-Listed” as Comparative Literature 202B and as Critical Theory 290]
Paul Celan’s poetry has often been characterized as the most groundbreaking in European poetic art since 1945; likewise as the poetry—perhaps as the body of work across all the arts—most crucial to the “after Auschwitz” debates that shadow countless artists, critics, and philosophers (though none more consequentially, none more controversially, than Celan and Theodor W. Adorno).
What happens when we return to these much-considered works and debates, but supplement “after Auschwitz” with the related yet distinct phrase “after fascism”—while introducing still another term, “before post-democracy?” The question isn’t just speculative. Well before the iconic photos taken on January 6, 2020 of Capitol-storming insurgents alternately waving the Confederacy’s Stars and Bars or wearing the deathshead-imaged “Camp Auschwitz: Work Brings Freedom” sweatshirt, poets, other artists, and critics across the Americas had already broached dialogues between Celan’s work and their own: between their historical materials and formal aesthetic explorations, and those of Celan. Both the convergences and differences mattered. These queries, at least as posed within art and criticism, have asked how aesthetic form and experience might uniquely illuminate the ways that struggles over formal and substantive democracy relate to another artstic-aesthetic archive often thought to have received more attention: histories and historical experiences of genocide. Yet thre's a substantial if not always apparent record of art trying to engage these phenomena--distinct, however much also related--in tandem. Indeed, art and criticism have for some time paid attention to how the ways that authoritarian, fascist, or neo-fascist movements articulate and pursue core impulses and programs that cannot but be described as genocidal, while also insisting on something else they see as also central to their movements, their governing, their exercise of power: namely, their opposition to democracy. All that--taken together, and just for starters--has sparked questions too about just how many “afters” or “posts” there had and have already been, about what might be the relations among them.
Though we’ll read a fair amount of critical, theoretical, and historiographical writings (sociopolitical analysis; philosophy; poetics, aesthetics, and diverse modes of art criticism), most of our reading will be in poetry (with some attention as well to other arts, including sculpture and installation; music; film; painting). Our initial point of departure will involve asking how Celan's groundbreaking or unprecedented body of German-language poetry—radically innovative in form and content, with great international resonance, and widely perceived to have “gone for broke,” as Adorno famously put it—finds its poetics taken up by poets of different languages, cultures, and sociopolitical situations. We’ll spend approximately the first half of the semester reading Celan (b.1920, d.1970) in English translation (though also hearing and reading/seeing the original German texts, which we'll always have at hand); we'll also read a few of Celan's European interlocutors. In the latter part of the semester, we’ll read poetry from across the Americas that responds to Celan’s work and/or has been received in conversations with it. Our western-hemisphere poetry will come from across Latin America and the Caribbean, as well as the U.S. and Canada. Just as we'll read Celan in English translation but with some awareness of and work with the German, we'll do the same with poems originally written in French and Spanish. (Ability to read in German—and/or Spanish and French—will of course prove beneficial, but is by no means required for the seminar, whose working language throughout the semester will be English.) As we read Celan, we’ll consider some of the poetry he regarded as foundational for his writing; and we’ll read poet-contemporaries with whom he engaged. We’ll also undertake readings in some of the aesthetics, critical theory, and philosophy that inform Celan’s work, or that have been significant for its reception history. Among the central issues taken up will be the notoriously “difficult,” “hermetic,” “elliptical,” “obscure” character of Celan’s poetry. We’ll try to evaluate Celan’s claim that the difficulty stems largely from the poetry’s sociopolitical and historical materials themselves, and that his perceived radical experimentalism was simply what was required to bring the materials to form and expression.
The seminar will perforce take up the social and personal history often retold in accounts of Celan and his art. Born and raised in Romania (but with German as a a mother-tongue), interned in a Romanian-fascist labor camp during the war, Celan—having lost his parents to the Holocaust—lived most of his postwar life in France. He composed almost all his major poetry in German; he was thus continually vexed by the problem of how to make poems in the very language in which the National Socialist genocide had just been carried out. His wrestling with that and related dilemmas—and his development in consequence of unprecedented formal means of artistic expression that might begin to do justice to his given materials (materials derived from “what has happened” [das, was geschah], Celan’s term for the Holocaust)—led to the creation of a remarkable body of poetry that broke new ground while holding onto and indeed intensifying much in the history of lyric (albeit via a severely attenuated, yet perhaps thereby ever more virtuosic, musicality). It may be no coincidence that that question of "breaking new ground" while "holding onto" also makes Celan's poetry crucial for something it's rarely been discussed in relation to: the question of when, why, and if modernism ended, or if, on the other hand, it later struggled to re-invent itself and certain values of critique and emancipation in ways different if not downright inimical to what became known as postmodernism (into which Celan's work has often, but, at best, awkwardly been drafted). We'll ask as well how these latter issues might have something to do with the contemporary international crises facing formal and substantive democracy.
When we shift hemispheres, we’ll turn to consider how poetry and poetics in the Americas, starting in the mid-1950s, attempts to understand what Celan is doing in poetry and what he's asking postwar poetry to attempt. Among our queries—which we’ll see various poets likewise raising—will be the degree to which Celan proves translatable (in the literal sense of the translation of his poems into English, French, Spanish; and in the metaphorical sense of attempted translations of his poetry’s poetics, aesthetics, ethics, and politics to contexts that will involve, among other things, the concerns and claims of the working class, anti-colonial, civil rights, feminist, and anti-war movements). We’ll observe this questioning perhaps above all in poets’ processes of thinking, in their poetry and criticism, about what is shared and what’s distinct in the historical experiences of European anti-semitism and New World slavery and racism: their thinking, in short, about what in Celan’s pathbreaking poetry in the wake of European fascism and genocide can, and cannot, help them as their artistic work develops its own relations to pressing ethical and sociopolitical matters. Suffusing these reflections will be the issue of what kinds of critical agency—if any—might be generated from Celanian poetics, and how such agency would relate to longstanding notions of art’s ethical and sociopolitical commitment or engagement.
In addition to Celan’s work, the poetry we’ll read will range from brief excerpts to more substantial selections by a number of poets and other artists including, most likely: Hölderlin, Heine, Dickinson, Mallarmé, Rilke, Sachs, Brecht, Bachmann, Daive, Albiach, Du Bouchet, Césaire, Glissant, Darwish, Monchoachi, Zurita, Gelman, Pizarnik, Perlongher, Adnan, Pérez, Paz, Castellanos, Blaser, Brossard, Rothenberg, Duncan, Rich, Levertov, Harjo, Palmer, Joudah, Lloyd, Tejada, Mackey, Rankine, Sigo, Marriott, S. Whitney, D. Salcedo, A. Resnais, and others. Critical, theoretical, historiographical, and/or philosophical readings will likely include writings by Adorno, Benjamin, Arendt, Du Bois, Habermas, M. Rogers, T. Halperín Donghi, C. Lafont, Marcuse, Heidegger, Derrida, Kristeva, Agamben, Lacoue-Labarthe, Felstiner, J. Rothenberg, Masiello, M. Cooke, J. Bernstein, M. Jay, A. Carson, P. Oyarzún, and Coetzee.