Thursday, 11 October 2012

Paul Celan on London's Mapesbury Road

I have just started reading Homage to Paul Celan, a collection of essays, translations, poems and miscellania about Celan, edited by Ilya Kaminsky and G C Waldrep. Kaminsky's introduction begins: "If there is a country named Celania - as Julia Kristeva once proposed - its holy texts are filled with doubt, and they overcome this doubt almost successfully, with words of wrenching, uncompromised beauty." Pretty irresistible.

It's a couple of years now since I went to the Celan/Poetry after the Holocaust evening at Southbank, with readings by A S Byatt (among others) and musical settings of some of the poems by the Michael Nyman Band. Around the same time, the Saison Poetry Library had an exhibition about Celan's poem 'Mapesbury Road' but unfortunately I missed this. Mapesbury Road, in Kilburn, is closer to where I used to live in west London but it is not somewhere I ever went. Celan visited his aunt, a Holocaust survivor, there in 1968. There is also a glancing reference to the assassination of Martin Luther King and the attempted murder of the West German student leader Rudi Dutschke, both around the same time in 1968.

The poem can be found on the BBC link below, although sadly the radio episode can't be accessed any more. It is a short poem which balances between violence and tenderness, and pivots around stillness. All in a few brief lines.


At work one day some months ago, I took a book order over the phone which was to an address on Mapesbury Road. I was quite transported when the customer gave me their address. So much so, that apparently I neglected to put the book in the envelope. The customer very politely told me a few days later that they had received an empty envelope in the post. This was a lesson to me to not let poetry annihilate practicality in my life. (It was also funny.)

I have not been reading Celan so much recently and I know I have to pace myself with him, but I think Homage to Paul Celan may inspire me to go back yet again.


  1. Lovely to read about reading Celan, thankyou. I think his Meridian speech is one of the most beautiful pieces I have ever read. Have you seen the translation by.. Waldrop, I think it is? I have just had a quick look through your blog and hope to return. Astonishing painting of snow by the Finnish artist. Best, C.Ege

    1. I think you mean the translation by Rosmarie Waldrop? I may have read it, but I'm not sure. I think I am most familiar with the Felstiner translation. I agree that Meridian is extraordinary and probably one of the most important pieces on poetics/linguistics/criticism/the burdern of history, to come out of the last century. I love how he talks about poetry being an exchange, a dialogue, and something that is always going towards an other.

      I'm glad you like the blog! By the way, I can't recommend Akseli Gallen-Kallela too highly. He was a very diverse and powerful artist. He was a childhood influence on me as I always saw his paintings when visiting Finland, but I think he deserves to be better known. It was great that a major exhibition of his work visited the Musee d'Orsay in Paris this year (though I couldn't go) because I think that will have raised his profile.

  2. Thanks for the recommendation. I googled his name and see he is well known for illustrations of the Kalevala, a happy coincidence as I have just begun reading this and have it beside me now. Yes, the Waldrop translation varies interestingly from the Felstiner. Worth reading both I think.
    cheers CE

  3. The empty envelope story is both funny and charming. I bet Celan would have liked that (or at least I would, if I were a writer).

    Reading your post I just got an idea to look up some poetry readings in my city. I've attended one many years ago in college and it was great. Can't believe I didn't go to any other afterwards...

    Also, your comments about the poem are very helpful, I would never get those references from the poem alone. xx

  4. Thanks Paula! I'd like to think Celan would like the story. I definitely had to laugh at myself.

    There is no way I would have deduced all that from the poem, on its own... I have found the best way to approach Celan's (often very difficult and obscure) poems is to learn a bit about his troubled life, and to read a lot of the poems in conjunction with each other. When you start to see what images and themes recur, they sort of interpret themselves. It took a long time, though...

    Poetry readings can be really fun/interesting/inspiring! We're quite fortunate in London - there are some amazing poets who appear, and often for free or not at all expensive.