Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Tenth Anniversary (Tin)

I started this blog on the 14th of June, 2006, so this is the tenth anniversary of The Imaginary Museum's existence. Five years ago I put up a post which listed five major web projects I'd undertaken in the first five years of the blog's existence.

I've tried to do the same this time (albeit with somewhat shakier chronology). And, just as I remarked last time, every time I complete one of these endeavours I tell myself never again, but the impulse doesn't seem to have dried up just yet ...

So here they are, in rough chronological order:


  1. (January 1, 2011-August 14, 2012) Tree Worship.

  2. This blog is linked to my novel The Annotated Tree Worship (Forthcoming: Pania Press, 2016), and constitutes the "research project" undertaken by that book's protagonist - with somewhat disastrous results to his professional reputation ... If parts of it seem a little unusual for me, then, it's because they are supposed to have been written "in character." I is another, as Rimbaud once remarked.


  3. (March 31-July 3, 2012) Jack Ross: Notes on NZ Poetry (Commentary: Jacket2).

  4. Pam Brown asked me to edit a feature on contemporary NZ poets for the American poetics site Jacket2 to match the one she was compiling on Australian poetry. It was a very enjoyable experience (the results can be looked at here, if you're curious), and it went live in late 2011.

    As a result (I presume), they asked me to write a set of posts on NZ poetry and poetics for the Commentaries section of their site. This proved a little more arduous, and the results have received a certain amount of healthy criticism - not least from Vaughan Rapatahana, whose own Jacket2 commentary begins with the remark:
    Jack Ross has ... enabled a series of earlier commentaries in Jacket 2 (during 2012), where he reflected about ‘my ongoing engagement with New Zealand poetry.’ Yet, Jack, for all his ensuing comments, never touched on the first New Zealand poetry that had existed on the shores of this country for hundreds of years before any English language versifiers ever entered the scene. This, of course is ngā mōteatea Māori, which necessarily must be included as a vital and ongoing component of Aotearoa poetics. ‘Maori language and Māori oral literature may come to be seen as being … crucial to the development of New Zealand literature … an acquaintance with Māori language and literature is a necessary prerequisite for making Olympian judgments about the nature of New Zealand literature as a whole’ wrote the late Michael King back in 1993.
    It's hard to quarrel with Vaughan's position on that. I've tried to redress the balance a bit in my editorial for the latest issue of Poetry NZ Yearbook. There are certainly things I would probably write differently if I were to begin this task again, but one does, after all, have to start somewhere.


  5. (August 18, 2013- ) Opinions: Published Articles, Essays, Prefaces & Reviews - 1987 to the present.

  6. It sounds like a simple enough thing to do - listing your old essays and reviews on a single website - but in practice locating all the texts, scanning all the journals, and collating all the bibliographical information took far longer than I'd expected.

    Nor did I have any real idea of how much work I'd actually done in this category (a few statistics: 290 separate pieces, published over 25 years, incorporating over 350,000 words of text). Now that it's done, it only requires updating every time I publish something new.

    Occasionally I get flack about some of the information in one or other of these ancient pieces, which makes me wonder if it was worth saving them from the newsprint they could otherwise just quietly fade away on, but I suppose one should face up to one's mistakes as well as the occasional thing I may have got right.


  7. (January 1, 2014-February 17, 2015) Poetry New Zealand Index: An International Journal of Poetry and Poetics (1951-2015).

  8. This one was a bit of a hoor to get finished, I must admit. "Never again, never again, never again," kept on shrilling through my head as I scrolled through issue after issue of New Zealand's longest-running poetry magazine, entering the contents onto my author index. But now it's done, and I never have to do it again! The only maintenance required now is to update it as each new issue comes out (something I already do - for my sins - for New Zealand's longest-running alt lit journal brief.


  9. (February 25, 2015- ) Advanced Fiction Writing: 139.329: College of Humanities and Social Sciences - School of English and Media Studies - Albany Campus - Massey University.

  10. And, last but not least, a work in progress: the website for my latest Creative Writing course, our new stage 3 Advanced Fiction Writing paper, which I'm teaching as a kind of backward glance over traversed roads, as befits its status as a follow-up to my colleague Thom Conroy's Fiction Writing course (139.285). It kicks off in semester 1, 2017.

So what does the future hold for this blog - and for the bloggy empire to which it constitutes the gateway (38 at last count)? Who can truly say? These are deep waters, Watson.

More of the same, no doubt, but perhaps it might be a good idea to learn to expend my energy in ways which make more sense to the authorities presiding over my professional development: PBRF [Performance-Based Research Funding, for those of you lucky enough not to be in the know], for instance... Nah, just kidding.

Tuesday, June 07, 2016

Richard Taylor on Celanie

My friend Richard Taylor, author of three books of poems, most recently Conversation with a Stone (Auckland: Titus Books, 2007), who blogs at EYELIGHT and Richard, You MUST try to be more focused -, has sent me the following hitherto unpublished review of Celanie. It was originally intended to appear in Bill Direen's journal of international writing Percutio, but grew beyond the bounds of the issue.

I'm pleased to be able to print it here instead, although it contains some brickbats as well as bouquets. Anyone who's met him knows that Richard is better read in poetry than almost anyone one could name: he does suffer from that unfortunate (and unusual) condition called honesty, however. Anyway, here it is:

Paul Celan (1920-1970)

CELANIE: Poems and Drawings after Paul Celan

(Pania Press 2012)

Belated review of Celanie by Jack Ross and Emma Smith.

Richard Taylor: Michele Leggott speaks
[Celanie launch (25/11/12)]

Celanie was published in December of 2012, so some time has elapsed. This book is a book of translations by Jack Ross from the German to English of many of Paul Celan’s poems sent to his wife at the time in the late 60s and 70s. She was a French artist, so it is perhaps appropriate that another woman artist has added a number of works, semi-abstract that attempt to ‘capture’ the essence of a number of the poems so translated.

After mulling over this book for some time, and wondering how I would approach a review or ‘appreciation’ of the book and some discussion of Celan himself (and losing my notes I made some time ago) I have broken my ‘block’ and am now launching into what will be only the first of some literary essays, reviews, and other aspects of EYELIGHT which I will ‘place’ in this Blog, which I call my ‘control Blog’.

I also want to consider, in time, books by writers I myself have read (not necessarily recent), or by such as Ted Jenner (‘Gold Leaves’) and comment on various events personal and other. I want to emphasise again that this, all of this is still really part of my larger ‘poem’ or art-lit text called EYELIGHT, but that is for the ‘technically minded’!

Richard Taylor: Isabel Michel, Mark Fryer et al.
[Celanie launch (25/11/12)]

So Celan. Firstly the launch. It was a hot day and Michele Leggott, one of NZ’s most outstanding poets, gave a speech endorsing the book. Her emphasis was on the intensity of Celan’s poetry [and I will ‘cheat’ here, as I have it from the NZEPC] that her, and perhaps Jack’s ‘take’ on these poems, which were sent with letters to Celan’s wife, was that that intensity derives not only from the well known factors of Celan’s life and poetics but that in fact they were essentially ‘love poems’.

His wife, to whom the letters (in French) and poems (in German) were sent, was Gisele Celan-Lestrange. Due to Celan’s deteriorating mental condition (or so it seems) and some violence, they were separated, but perhaps still in love and these were seen as poems of love. Also, if one agrees with J. M. Coetzee, they are poems to God, and they are poems to the Third Reich.

But Michele saw them as great poems to which she – and one would expect this of a poet of her genius – responded with great emotion and acuity. It took me a long time to come to any such appreciation or view of these poems but, and I will get to this later, I have always struggled to get, poetically or psychically one might say, as much from Celan as say, poets such as (for me) the great poet John Berryman (who also was tormented all his life by a family tragedy and also committed suicide by jumping off a bridge). I have also, of course, been deeply moved by works by Primo Levi (not a poet), and Anne Frank. The first survived Auschwitz but not the second, and it might be argued that Celan also failed to survive the deaths of his parents by the Nazis.

Richard Taylor: Karl Chitham, Therese Lloyd et al.
[Celanie launch (25/11/12)]

Coetzee, in the essay "“Paul Celan and his Translators,” from his book of criticism Inner Workings: Literary Essays 2000 – 2005 (2007), if we take him literally, might “disagree” with Leggott and others, but he has a point, for in many of these poems, and others I have seen (such as those in Breathturn by Pierre Joris) it seems always that Celan is struggling, not only to encapsulate, more and more complexly and riddlingly (and ingeniously if one can read German which unfortunately I cannot, but this has been reported by those who can): more and more desperately it seems his ‘messages in bottles’ (as Scott Hamilton, when he first ‘introduced me’ to Celan, said someone had said of his works) are complex cries for some kind of redeeming meaning in the world that, with the loss of his parents, and millions of fellow Jewish people, and the fact of his tragic love-hate of the language that, for him and his parents had been, not only their main spoken language, but a language of a great culture of Goethe, Rilke, Mann and such as Richard Strauss, and earlier, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven (and yes, Nietzsche and Wagner) and so much else (including maybe my own favourite pre-war German poet Georg Trakl).

These, or some of these artists and writers, were only some of those that Celan’s parents had loved. But they had been murdered by Germans.

This left Celan to reinvent himself and attempt to continue, alone, without parents, and unable for probably deep psychological reasons (and because of a gathering storm of conflict in his own mind as a creative writer, torn between his intense need to write), to avoid writing in German. It was the main language he had used already to write poetry prior to the horrors of WW2. And he was primarily a poet, but a man, aggrieved, and thus deeply conflicted. In my own opinion he thus began a long conversation with himself and God, or to whatever and whoever one feels is 'out there'. However, this is from a relatively limited study of Celan on my part, as well as the aforementioned view of Coetzee.

Celan’s early poem, the famous "Todesfuge" [Deathfuge], is hauntingly powerful and an indictment of Nazi Germany, and was a cry of protest to Germans and others. However it was perhaps so strange, or read too soon after the war (at poetry gatherings) that it wasn’t understood in many cases, and Celan was accused of ‘sounding like Goebbels’. But it is not. It is simply a great poem and goes for the jugular.

Richard Taylor: Jack reads
[Celanie launch (25/11/12)]

However, Celan was not only a ‘political poet’, he wanted to write poetry of language and meaning. He did so, and became one of the greatest modernist poets. His poetry (mostly in German) has been deeply analysed. Someone, reviewing Jack and Emma’s book, felt that there needed to be more explanation of the complexity inherent in that original German. That Ross could have pointed out that the word ‘Farben’ means colour but refers to the company that made the gas that killed the Jews.

Perhaps, and indeed a larger book may have had some such discussion and analysis, but that we have this translation here means that a reader, regardless of their knowledge of German, or what Celan was ‘about’ has the means to gain some (possibly further) insight into the (admittedly difficult and sometimes perhaps too prolix or ‘tortured’ – although that ‘tortured’ or ‘burnt’ nature tells us something about the poems and the poet, so perhaps not ‘too’) strange poetry of Celan. The critic might have mentioned the word ‘Mandel’ which means ‘almond’ and also refers (probably) to the Russian poet Mandelstam and to the scent of the gas, which was, apparently, like that of almonds.

And the gas killed at least 6 million Jews. Mandelstam and many other intellectuals faced a similar if stranger holocaust in Stalin's Dictatorship of the USSR.

Richard Taylor: Jack reads some more
[Celanie launch (25/11/12)]

Celan’s parents and the Jewish people dig their grave in the air in the early "Todesfuge":

a man lives in the house your golden hair Margarete
your ashen hair Sulamith he plays with the serpents
He calls out more sweetly play death death is a master
from Germany
he calls out more darkly now stroke your strings then
as smoke you will rise into air
then a grave you will have in the clouds there one
lies unconfined

Emma Smith: Drawings from Celanie (2012)

However, Jack Ross and Emma Smith’s book has his later, more complex, but concentrated poems, and includes Smith's haunting images of what are abstracts or semi-abstracts modeled on a sheep’s skull. These make it seem almost as if we are looking into the soul of Celan: this book seems to me to do much.

Not all the poems are so good, and as far as I can tell, the German translations veer (as often with Jack Ross’s deceptive methods) to the quotidian. Yet the simplicity, or apparent simplicity that sometimes results, is not only an (possibly inevitable) effect of such a translation from the German. And, indeed, even in the earlier poems of Celan, there was an increasing move away and toward complexity and simplicity and an urge toward the almost knot-like seethe of language messages and codes which we see in Celanie. And these poems or 'messages in bottles' are speaking to the reader, as if the writer was talking to the reader but looking past into the distance.

And, as he said to his wife, who, it seemed, had great difficulty with his poems, these poems will become clear as time passes. The analogy is perhaps with Picasso’s statement about his portrait of Gertrude Stein (another great poet of some linguistic complexity and innovation), when she said it didn't look like her, that that was so: “But it will become to look like you”! Dorian Grayish! Indeed, will become. Celan insisted that his poems would come to be understood.

Richard Taylor: Jack keeps on reading
[Celanie launch (25/11/12)]

But many remain obscure, and perhaps can only be fully appreciated in the original German. In this respect I have far less trouble appreciating the poetry of Rilke (especially of the extraordinary superb Duino Elegies) or Georg Trakl, another tortured being who committed suicide, dismayed at the terrible suffering he witnessed as a doctor in WW1 (for which see further here).

Trakl is more ‘expressionist’ and perhaps slightly less inner driven (he was lumped with the so-called Hermetic school, although that perhaps oversimplifies his work, especially as it is not too clear if such a unified ‘movement’ or school ever existed.) Rilke too is more expansive.

But none of these writers benefited from reading Laforgue, great poet, but saved also by his clever satire, although influenced somewhat by Whitman. Thus many of the contemporaries of T. S. Eliot, who did discover Laforgue, as perhaps in his own way, Auden of The Orators was to use the writing of Stein. But neither of these was so close to blood: to war, to the Holocaust, the terrible Shoah.

Richard Taylor: Richard von Sturmer, Mark Fryer et al.
[Celanie launch (25/11/12)]

Were Trakl and Celan too close to these events? The Italian poet Ungaretti, also like Trakl in WW1, wrote poems of great and moving intensity and beauty that are perhaps closer to those of Keith Douglas than Wilfred Owen or even David Jones. But each man or woman caught in the weave of these historic events experiences them in different ways and sees through different eyes.

Celan was not a ‘war poet’ but the effects of the Holocaust and the war are clear. His own reaction was to drive inwards into himself so that it seems to me that John Berryman, who also struggled for his own self’s survival through his art (and terrible alcoholism in his case), is a closer tragic parallel. Both writers, while stylistically rather different, but struggling in similar ways, were deeply read in literature. Celan knew of Rilke, Holderlin, Mandelstam and many of the other great poets. He had married and had a child, and there seemed some hope, but perhaps like Primo Levi, the trauma, the loss, were ultimately all too much.

It must be noted that Ross has included an excellent and revealing introduction showing how he came to translate these poems and the importance that these poems were to Celan, sent with letters to the woman he loved.

Richard Taylor: Winding down
[Celanie launch (25/11/12)]

Jack Ross and Emma Smith have created a singular book in Celanie which also refers to that area of Paris that Celan lived in, the places he moved to. Also working here is the concept of translating these poems that accompanied personal letters, that in fact were written at a time when Celan was struggling with a deep disorder in himself, and was to take his life not too long after the last of these were written, has brought another valuable addition to the culture. By culture I mean not only that of NZ, but the world, and to literature everywhere Celanie can reach.

That these are not always ‘great’ translations, is perhaps real, but, in reading Breathturn (by Pierrre Joris who is German-English speaking and spent some years working on that book), I didn’t find all those poems (or translations of poems) to move me in many cases (some did) is much the same as I find with Ross’s work. Perhaps one misses the German. It seems good to see the German (or the original language) beside the translated text even if one has little knowledge of that language. And perhaps more of the letters. Perhaps. But I feel the criticisms were a little too severe. I also find that perhaps only 20 of the 100 or so poems affected me strongly. But of Breathturn there was perhaps a similar ratio.

Richard Taylor: Michele Leggott, Kelly Malone et al.
[Celanie launch (25/11/12)]

What is the difficulty? Perhaps it is the ‘failure’ of translators. It is true that Ross combines an attempt to render the ‘urgency’ or Celan’s lines with an almost casual, almost idiomatic style that might upset purists, but there is merit in that, by this method, the reader’s attention is shifted from any fixation on autobiography. And many will see this as the central fact of Celan, which might move them too much from the poems themselves. His life and experiences count for a lot, that is obvious, but what we see here is a struggle, not only with the self and history, but for love and for art. Art was his legacy: a sometimes infuriatingly in-spiraling vortex of reforged suffering. But it was more than that. It was a unique art of language, and even of play, the play of light against shade.

But more likely than any supposed failure (all translations of any work will be different, so failure is not the term): it is perhaps simply the difficulty of translating a poet who, not in all cases, but many, uses a complex of double or triple meanings, obscure references, ambiguities and other Modernist devices, such as sound, and neologisms, often in the form of compound words. Such things can be nearly impossible to render into another language. It is at least a hard task. But this is the nature also of the writer, as his difficulty, his coding of complex linguistic references and sound puns etc, was that of an innovative poet, who, like Stein, was struggling to create something new. His brief was not only to record history or his own anguish (although that is there), but history and a unique art. The art of his poetry, some permanence. His way of surviving as a Jew and a human being.

It seems to me, that while I struggle with Celan, this is not a new thing, and Celanie is a book I am glad to possess.

Richard Taylor: Emma Smith
[Celanie launch (25/11/12)]

The art of Emma Smith is a great addition to it and the work is rightly the work of Emma Smith and Jack Ross together. Art and language interact.

Emma Smith (2011)

Saturday, June 04, 2016

Collecting Paul Celan (2)

Paul Celan: Breathturn to Timestead: The Collected Later Poetry,
trans. with a commentary by Pierre Joris (2014)

Quite some time ago now (2011), I wrote a post, Collecting Paul Celan, which listed most of the salient books by and about Paul Celan then available in English. There are now some new ones which deserve celebration, however.

It's now (almost) possible to read all of his complete published books of poetry in English translations, for instance. That might seem like an odd thing to want to do, but there's certainly a strong argument that each of them is a coherent work in itself:

  1. Der Sand aus den Urnen [The Sand from the Urns] (1948)
  2. This, the first of Celan's collections, appeared in a form so riddled with errors and misprints that he disowned it soon after publication. It does, however, include his most famous poem, "Todesfuge."

  3. Mohn und Gedächtnis [Poppy and Memory] (1952)
  4. The contents of Celan's first collection were reprinted here in a corrected form, together with much new material. Nobody has yet provided us with a complete translation of the book, though there are substantial selections from it in the translations by Michael Hamburger (1988) and John Felstiner (2001), among others.

  5. Von Schwelle zu Schwelle (From Threshold to Threshold] (1955)

  6. Celan, Paul. From Threshold to Threshold. 1955. Trans. David Young. Grosse Pointe Farms, Michigan: Marick Press, 2010.

  7. Sprachgitter [Speech Grille] (1959)

  8. [Paul Celan: Language Behind Bars]

    Celan, Paul. Language Behind Bars. 1959. Trans. David Young. Grosse Pointe Farms, Michigan: Marick Press, 2012.

  9. Die Niemandsrose [No One's Rose] (1963)

  10. [Paul Celan: No One's Rose]

    Celan, Paul. No One's Rose. 1963. Trans. David Young. Grosse Pointe Farms, Michigan: Marick Press, 2014.

  11. Atemwende [Breathturn] (1967)

  12. [Paul Celan: Breathturn]

    Celan, Paul. Breathturn. 1967. Trans. Pierre Joris. Sun & Moon Classics, 74. Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press, 1995.

  13. Fadensonnen [Threadsuns] (1968)

  14. [Paul Celan: Threadsuns]

    Celan, Paul. Threadsuns. 1968. Trans. Pierre Joris. Sun & Moon Classics, 122. Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press, 2000.

    [Paul Celan: Fathomsuns]

    Celan, Paul. Fathomsuns / Fadensonnen and Benighted / Eingedunkelt. 1968. Trans. Ian Fairley. Manchester: Carcanet Press Limited, 2001.

  15. Lichtzwang [Lightduress] (1970)

  16. [Paul Celan: Lightduress]

    Celan, Paul. Lightduress. 1970. Trans. Pierre Joris. Green Integer, 113. København & Los Angeles: Green Integer Books, 2005.

  17. Schneepart [Snow Part] (posthumous: 1971)

  18. [Paul Celan: Snow Part]

    Celan, Paul. Snow Part / Schneepart. 1971. Trans. Ian Fairley. Riverdale-on-Hudson, New York: The Sheep Meadow Press, 2007.

  19. Zeitgehöft [Timestead] (posthumous: 1976)

So, to summarise, Paul Celan's 1955, 1959 and 1963 collections are now available in single-volume, dual-text translations by David Young. Celan's three subsequent collections (dated 1967, 1968, and 1970), together with the two posthumous collections (1971 and 1976) are all included in Pierre Joris's new book Breathturn to Timestead: The Collected Later Poetry (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2014).

To complicate matters somewhat, Ian Fairley has provided us with his own single-volume editions of Fadensonnen [Fathomsuns] (1968) and Schneepart [Snow Part] (1971), so there we have some doubling up.

[Paul Celan: Corona, trans. Susan Gillespie (2013)]

What else? Susan Gillespie has provided an attractive new selection from Celan's poetry (Corona: Selected Poems of Paul Celan. Trans. Susan H. Gillespie. Station Hill of Barrytown. New York: Institute for Publishing Arts, Inc., 2013). No doubt there will be many more such to come.

On a rather more egotistic note, my own Celan versions from Celanie: Poems & Drawings after Paul Celan (Auckland: Pania Press, 2012) can also be accessed here, together with Emma Smith's wonderful drawings here, as well as various textual notes. "The Twenty-Year Masterclass," my introduction to the book can be read here.

[Jack Ross & Emma Smith: Celanie (2012)]