Tuesday, 27 November 2012

In Memoriam: Poetry for Paul Celan and Keith Douglas

Photo of Paul Celan's grave by Martin Ottman. Used under Creative Commons license

I have friends who are very drawn to the ambiance of graveyards, but while I tend to find them interesting and moving, I don't feel the same pull. I probably never had quite the degree of morbidness (morbidity?) required. When I have visited graveyards, I have had experiences both intriguing and difficult, and so it's an area which I handle with some care.

Very rarely, I have felt drawn to visit a cemetery specifically to see the gravesite of a person who I admire and perhaps to leave some tribute there. I've only identified three people for certain (those who are not my own relatives, that is) for whom I have felt this was something I really wanted to do. The first was Fryderyk Chopin, the great Polish-French composer, and I did visit his grave a few years ago at Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, and left flowers. I was one of many, of course; the grave hardly needed the white roses which I carefully placed to one side. By then it had been something in my mind to do for at least ten years, so I was glad that I was finally able to go. I think Chopin was very important for me in my teens - when I discovered him and found that I was able to play some of his music, especially the Nocturnes, I wanted to play little else, slightly to my teacher's frustration. It also had something to do with the fact that he died young.

More recently, I have thought that I would like to visit the graves of Paul Celan and Keith Douglas. Both are also buried in France: Paul Celan at Thiais, near Paris (pictured above), and Keith Douglas at the Tilly-sur-Seules war cemetery near Bayeux, close to where he died. Again, I can't quite explain it. Both died prematurely and both have meant a lot to me, that's all I can say for certain.

Poetry dedicated to other poets is a difficult area. I have made tiny attempts and have found so far that it is hard to write anything except pastiche. I suppose it is likely that there will be an element of tribute to the poet's style, but a direct emotional reaction is perhaps the best thing to strive for. A very few such poems have become famous in their own right. One is W H Auden's great poem 'In Memory of W B Yeats', which I would like to write about on its own one of these days. It might help me to get over some of my Auden issues (yes...I have Auden issues.) But I think that degree of achievement is rare.

I have found poems dedicated to both Paul Celan and Keith Douglas, and you can find them on the links below (although the Keith Douglas poem is, I think, only an excerpt from a longer work).



'In Memoriam Paul Celan' is directly inspired by Celan's own 'In Memoriam Paul Eluard', written for the great French surrealist poet.

Lay those words into the dead man's grave
which he spoke in order to live.
Pillow his head amid them,
let him feel
the tongues of longing,
the tongs.

(from 'In Memoriam Paul Eluard', translated by Michael Hamburger)

Hirsch's poem also contains many references to Celan's works: "beheaded tulips" from 'Chanson of a Lady in the Shade', "clawed and handled" from the darkness of 'Tenebrae', and so forth. I like the poem; I feel that the images are beautifully woven together and it is moving, but at the same time it's perhaps a little close to pastiche for my taste.

In some respects I prefer Tim Kendall's 'At Keith Douglas's Grave', and I want to read the whole poem now. I relate very much to the feelings of inadequacy and sadness in the few lines that I have read: "I/bring nothing and my eyelids itch." There is a trueness to the feelings there and I would like to go and see if I feel something similar in the same place.


  1. and now, I am curious as to those Auden issues :-)

    1. They're not the kind of issues which normally require counselling ;)

      I just can't find my way with Auden, with rare exceptions. Whenever I read his poems, I recognise half the lines already because they're so famous...and on some level I am impressed, because his skill is unquestionable, but he leaves me kind of cold. Louis MacNeice is often remembered more as Auden's contemporary than as a great poet in his own right, but I would rather read almost anything by MacNeice, any old day. Auden, however, is cited by many as perhaps the greatest poet of the last century. Maybe one day the whole Auden thing will click for me, but I'm not sure...