Saturday, 31 March 2012

'Tal-y-llyn': Wales and Ten Years Gone

Photo of Lake Tal-y-llyn by mattbuck. Used under Creative Commons license

TAL-Y-LLYN (Clarissa Aykroyd)

No one knows the nature of water.
I was never so close before.
It is created through contact
with the eye. There was nothing
beneath the slope, until the curve. Now
my eyes ache with the strain
of water's presence. The lake
is blowing away to a gap in the sky.

The surface is almost ready
to be walked on. Soon
I will know the way. Above
sky dissolves to air. Steam rises
from the cold conjunction.

The lake is waiting patiently
to be created. Waiting
for silver light to liquefy,
for the mountains to unfold their revelation.
For the touch of an eye.

© Clarissa Aykroyd, 2012. Not to be reproduced without permission.

I wrote this poem almost ten years ago, in August 2002 (although this is a recently and very slightly tweaked version). This was just after I moved to Dublin, and also just after a trip of a few weeks in Wales. I spent a week at the International Arthurian Society conference in Bangor, and then about ten days travelling in Snowdonia, from Caernarvon down to Aberystwyth.

I can't believe that ten years of my life have gone by since I left Canada. It has gone by very quickly. Anniversaries - good and bad - tend to be a big deal for me, so I am preparing for a lot of soul-searching in July, when it will be ten years since I moved to Dublin, and seven years since I moved to London. Or perhaps I should just have my crisis now. (I had an early crisis when I turned 30, for example - about six months before the fact - and that worked quite well.)

My trip to Wales still holds a very special place in my heart. I keep meaning to go back, but I almost wonder if I should just leave it there, pristine and exciting and amazingly beautiful. The IAS conference was great fun, though I was well out of my depth - most of the people there were professors or well on their way, but what touched me was that they were delighted to have someone who was more of a novice in their midst. Then I travelled for ten days around Snowdonia, more or less on my own, and fell quite hopelessly in love with the place. I stayed with my relatives' friends in a centuries-old house up in the hills near Mount Snowdon; I remember a feeling of delighted shock at how beautiful and ancient it all was, when I walked out in the morning. I walked in the footsteps of Susan Cooper's characters from her great The Dark Is Rising series, which is how I came to Tal-y-llyn Lake. It was exactly as described:

His aunt had called it the loveliest lake in Wales, but lying dark there in the grey morning, it was more sinister than lovely. On its black still surface not a ripple stirred. It filled the valley floor. Above it reared the first slopes of Cader Idris, the mountain of the Grey King, and beyond, at the far end of the valley, a pass led through the hills - away, Will felt, towards the end of the world. (from The Grey King, Susan Cooper)

Those books also led me to the Bearded Lake above Aberdovey, and other locations. There are few things in travel that I love so much as seeing places in books, so it was pretty wonderful. I also tracked down other locations from Arthurian legend, and walked a mile up a hillside in the rain to get a glimpse of Bron-yr-Aur, where Led Zeppelin worked on their third album. The culmination of the trip was my trek up Mount Snowdon by the Watkin Path - one of the most difficult routes - with two lovely Israeli guys I met in the hostel. I am more of a city girl than a nature girl, and I'm not much of an athlete, but that day I felt like I had summitted Everest.

After that trip I settled into a life in Dublin, and everything became progressively more complicated, as a life does when you build it anywhere. London has been complicated, too. Perhaps my memories of Wales are so shining partly because it was a moment caught in a glass bubble - in between Canada and Ireland. It will always be there, ten years ago, and it will never stop being perfect.

Sunday, 25 March 2012

'The Underground': Seamus Heaney Goes to the Realms Below

The BBC is currently showing a documentary called The Tube, which in my opinion knocks most "reality shows" into a cocked hat. It is, of course, about the London Underground.

I have already written a bit about the Underground's poetic implications in a previous entry, but I'm very much afraid to say that my thoughts, feelings and opinions on the world under London are endless. Normal people either hate the Underground from day one of their time in London, or they come to hate it pretty soon. Sometimes I hate it. The words "signal failure" fill me with a weird combination of resignation and fury. There are times when I feel that I simply cannot face the District line on the way home, especially on the chance that I will not be able to sit down. I moan about it as much as any Londoner.

And yet, and yet...the Underground continues to fascinate me - sometimes in the way that a snake fascinates a rabbit before killing it, and sometimes with simple delight, and sometimes through pure metaphor. Although I feel that the theme music is far too jolly and straightforward, The Tube show has captured a lot of this. I am partly thrilled and partly horrified to realise just how many of the stations and employees who have wandered through the show are familiar to me. I lived near Warwick Avenue, on the Bakerloo line, for several years, and enjoyed the presence of the legendary Tim Pinn during that time. Tim is deservedly legendary: he manages to maintain a sincere smile and pleasant banter in the face of grumpy commuters every day, and his message board writeups were consistently classic. There is at least one Facebook page dedicated to him. More recently, there is the guy at Victoria station who urges us to "chill out, enjoy time with family and friends, don't let no one cramp your style, and mind the closing doors." These employees have featured on the show, and I am sure that there are a few others who have been familiar. I love how the employees and Londoners interviewed somehow become larger than life. Many of the employees seem to have become philosophical. One says "People act like animals at Leicester Square on the weekend, but I'm religious, so it doesn't affect me much." Another says "We're not meant to live in cities like this. London can be very hard especially if you have an illness or have suffered a bereavement." Others rhapsodize about the overground portions of the Central line, or declare a basic faith in humanity despite it all. You get a glimpse of important aspects of their personalities, surprisingly quickly.

Since living in London, I have worked in the West End, Hammersmith, Ealing, the City, Pimlico, and Barons Court (am I missing somewhere?). I previously lived in west London and now live south of the river, also spending a good deal of time around the southern reaches of the Victoria and Northern lines. So there are not many Underground lines that I have not used regularly or semi-regularly, at least for a few months or years. The Tube shows a lot of what goes on behind the scenes, of course. Some of it is distressing. I didn't watch all of the episode which dealt in some details with the "one unders", or people who commit suicide by jumping under trains (although sometimes it is accident or occasionally malicious action, as well, and a large percentage survive.) I find it very upsetting to hear the "person under a train" announcements, so I was reluctant to expose myself to too much detail on the subject. Shortly after that episode, I walked past the station in Hammersmith one day just when it had been closed for that very reason, and the ambulances and police cars were congregating outside - that brought it home, for sure. But much of the behind-the-scenes action is simply fascinating or amusing. The detective work done by the employees responsible for tracking down fare evaders; the good nature and tolerance in the face of thousands of more or less intoxicated revellers at the Notting Hill Carnival; the falconer who brings his bird to sort out the pigeon-ridden stations...the list goes on.

Time, space and social norms all seem to operate a bit differently down there. I am not terribly sensitive to my physical surroundings, so I can often just zone out, watch people and listen to Queensrÿche so loudly on my earphones that heads turn. For many people, however - and at least occasionally for me - it seems that getting on the Tube is something like this painting by the great Finnish painter Akseli Gallen-Kallela about crossing the river to the underworld:

Everyone has got at least a handful of weird Tube stories, or if they don't, they probably haven't reached "true Londoner" status yet. My crazy French friend asked a bemused Englishman if a Northern line train "went magically to Waterloo". No, but if you change at Kennington, the unicorns and Care Bears will help you out! One night I got onto a train, sat down, and noticed that a guy with a large camera was looking at me a shade too intently. He then ostentatiously waved his camera about, pointing it at the ceiling in a "this lens is being a bit funny" manner, and finally not-so-subtly took at least six pictures of me. I wasn't sure whether to shout "You pervert!" and smash the camera, or whether to nervously pretend I'd noticed nothing and wonder where the heck those pictures were going to end up. (I chose the latter.) There is generally a parade of weird and funny announcements, and odd or strikingly handsome characters, who have marched through my hours on the Tube.

I really want to write a whole series of poems about the Underground. I wrote one which I felt came out quite well, except that it rather surprisingly turned out to be about an invisible rainforest, as well as the Northern line. The thing is, in the metaphoric world of the Underground, this all makes sense.


Seamus Heaney's 'The Underground' is one of my favourite poems by Heaney, out of a field of many to choose from. He has commented that it reflects his love for London and his gratitude for the inspiration and gifts that the city and its people have given him. It is about a night on his honeymoon when he and his wife went to the Proms at the Royal Albert Hall, near the South Kensington tube station. (Some people do go to London on their honeymoon; I personally know at least one couple who did.)

It is so appropriate that he evokes the myths of Pan and Syrinx ('And me, me then like a fleet god gaining/Upon you before you turned to a reed"), and Orpheus and Eurydice ("all attention/For your step following and damned if I look back"), as well as the fairy tale of Hansel and Gretel. These are the kinds of stories and images that the Underground brings up within us. It is one of the mysteries of London.

Saturday, 24 March 2012

Rilke's 'Archaic Torso of Apollo': "You Must Change Your Life"

Photo © joxin. Used under Creative Commons license


The above link will take you to Stephen Mitchell's translation of Rainer Maria Rilke's 'Archaic Torso of Apollo'. It also includes a commentary by poet Mark Doty on the poem.

In a sense, there is not a great deal that I can add to the reams already written about Rilke. He is so pervasive and influential that you cannot be a poetry lover, or even an art lover in general, without coming across him repeatedly.

I have come to Rilke quite late, partly because of my mental semi-block about reading poetry in translation, for many years. Paul Celan was an exception. Something about his work told me to keep him in my life and to be patient, and this now seems to have been rewarded. Rilke is also a German-language poet - who knows, perhaps Celan and Rilke together will lead me to learn German. I would love to.

But in any case, I had no idea where to start with Rilke. I have still read relatively little of his work. In his poems, I've found a Romantic passion, a modern and forward-looking sensibility, an acute sensitivity to beauty, and a deep empathy for the human experience.

'Archaic Torso of Apollo' is a good place to start. It is thought to have been based on a statue in the Louvre, although I do not think that the exact statue is known for certain. It is a poem about the transformative power of art, and about deducing the whole from only a part. Perhaps as William Blake wrote: "To see a world in a grain of sand/And a heaven in a wild flower" ('Auguries of Innocence'). The poet, and the reader, can see implications in the statue which are not physically there. The person undergoing this artistic experience connects with the statue as though it still had a smiling, open, almost living face.

The concluding lines of the poem are like a blinding flash of light:

Otherwise this stone [...]

would not, from all the borders of itself,
burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.

This is grateful thanks to the transformative power of art, and a call to action. Even if the reader - or the viewer of the statue - were not involved at the start of the experience, they now are. It is a poem about messages that cannot be ignored.

Sunday, 18 March 2012

Coleridge's 'Kubla Khan': Canada, Van Halen, Cairo and All Between

KUBLA KHAN (Samuel Taylor Coleridge)

    In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.

So twice five miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers were girdled round:
And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills,
Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree;
And here were forests ancient as the hills,
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.

But oh! that deep romantic chasm which slanted
Down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover!
A savage place! as holy and enchanted
As e'er beneath a waning moon was haunted
By woman wailing for her demon-lover!
And from this chasm, with ceaseless turmoil seething,
As if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing,
A mighty fountain momently was forced:
Amid whose swift half-intermitted burst
Huge fragments vaulted like rebounding hail,
Or chaffy grain beneath the thresher's flail:
And 'mid these dancing rocks at once and ever
It flung up momently the sacred river.
Five miles meandering with a mazy motion
Through wood and dale the sacred river ran,
Then reached the caverns measureless to man,
And sank in tumult to a lifeless ocean:
And 'mid this tumult Kubla heard from far
Ancestral voices prophesying war!
The shadow of the dome of pleasure
Floated midway on the waves;
Where was heard the mingled measure
From the fountain and the caves.
It was a miracle of rare device,
A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice!

A damsel with a dulcimer
In a vision once I saw:
It was an Abyssinian maid,
And on her dulcimer she played,
Singing of Mount Abora.
Could I revive within me
Her symphony and song,
To such a deep delight 'twould win me
That with music loud and long
I would build that dome in air,
That sunny dome! those caves of ice!
And all who heard should see them there,
And all should cry, Beware! Beware!
His flashing eyes, his floating hair!
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread,
For he on honey-dew hath fed
And drunk the milk of Paradise.

'Kubla Khan' is perhaps the ultimate poem which has intertwined with at least fifteen or twenty years of my existence. Perhaps it has been with me for so long that I can't remember how it came into my life. I am nearly certain that my brother introduced it to me, perhaps while studying it in high school (or when he started university? But I think it was earlier than that.) As well as a writer and student of literature, he also happens to be an expert on Van Halen. One of their songs was (at least partly) inspired by this poem, although I think it is about the pitfalls of fame. Perhaps that was Kubla's problem.

Into a world so far from home
Miles and miles from nowhere
Rooms without doors open for me
Taking me miles and miles from nowhere

Lost in this pleasure dome
Lost in my own pleasure dome

(from 'Pleasure Dome', Van Halen)

My brother and I always found the "damsel with a dulcimer" sequence a bit disappointing compared to what had gone before, even though the portrait of the insane guy was appealing. However, the poem certainly stimulated my interest in poetry, and it confirmed Coleridge as my favourite Romantic poet, if not one of my favourite poets. I never did like Wordsworth, but I am slowly coming round to him.

I knew the poem off by heart for years. I can still recite most of it at least, though there are a few bits in the middle where I tend to get stuck. I have recited it as an assignment in my grade eleven Drama class, and in al-Azhar Park in Cairo (see the above picture - it felt incredibly appropriate for the setting). My parents also bought me a psychedelic pop-up version by Nick Bantock, author of the then very trendy Griffin and Sabine. A lot of memories - some which make me smile, some with an element of loss involved.

Monday, 12 March 2012

Louise Glück's 'Trillium': Voices from the Garden

Photo by and (c) 2007 Derek Ramsey. Used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License

My last entry, about poet and gardener Stanley Kunitz, kept me thinking about gardens and flowers in poetry. I am a bit of an ignoramus when it comes botany in general, but I still love gardens and flowers. I just need someone to tell me what they are and how to look after them.

The trillium is a North American and Asian flower, found in temperate regions. In the Canadian province of Ontario, it is the province's official flower, and rarer varieties are protected. It is also the theme of one of Louise Glück's great poems, from her Pulitzer Prize-winning collection The Wild Iris.

TRILLIUM (Louise Glück)

The Wild Iris was my entry point into Louise Glück's work, as I am sure it has been for many people. Its poems speak with various voices - primarily those of the flowers, but also a gardener's voice, and a god's voice. The flowers speak like resurrected beings, or angels, or Wordsworthian children who have just been born.

At the end of my suffering
there was a door.

Hear me out: that which you call death
I remember.

(from 'The Wild Iris')

The flowers describe pure, unmediated emotion, prescient but still innocent (although some of these emotions are dark). The language of the poems is clear, shining, needing no adornment.

I didn't even know I felt grief
until that word came, until I felt
rain streaming from me.

(from 'Trillium')

I'm definitely not expert enough to really comment on the differences between contemporary British and American poetry, but it seems to me that American poetry is (in general) far more willing to acknowledge the spiritual dimension, whether it is reacting against it, or celebrating it. The Wild Iris seems like a good example of this trend. It is a beautiful collection which I highly recommend.

Friday, 9 March 2012

The Luminous Vision of Stanley Kunitz

THE LAYERS (Stanley Kunitz)

The above link will take you to 'The Layers' by Stanley Kunitz on the Poetry Foundation website, as well as an impressive collection of his other poems, and biographical/critical information.

I must have started reading Stanley Kunitz in 2000 or 2001 - coincidentally, right around when he was appointed US Poet Laureate. I would have been 20 or 21, but unlike many of my poetic discoveries around 17-21, this one owed nothing to my university experience. If I remember correctly, I picked up a book of his poems in the used bookshop where I was working after I finished my degree. Russell Books in Victoria, BC was a wonderful shop - still is! - run by a lovely, book-obsessed family, and I discovered enormous numbers of books and authors while working there. I certainly began to build my travel writing and poetry collections around that time.

I think that I must simply have dipped into a collection of Kunitz's poems, been struck and bought the book. I have often cited him as one of my favourite poets since then, but I have to admit that I haven't really absorbed his body of work (yet). I have just dipped in and out, and discovered a number of poems that I really loved, and some phrases which will stay with me forever: "O Heart; this is a dream I had, or not a dream" (from 'Poem'), or "I caught the cold flash of the blue/unappeasable sky" (from 'Robin Redbreast' - why do I love poems about birds, but I don't love birds?!)

There is something luminous and, I feel, optimistic about Kunitz's work. Certainly not in every poem - there are many poems haunted by the suicide of his father before he was born, and by the wars. Both of his parents were of Jewish Russian Lithuanian descent, and he encountered anti-semitism even in academic settings. In a lecture on Paul Celan, he said: "Through the years, I realize that the Holocaust has been the basic subtext of a good part of what I have produced in poetry." And yet, when I read him, I see phrases like bars of brightness, streaming with light.

He lived to a great age right through the events of the twentieth century, an extraordinary time period. His dates were 1905 to 2006, and he died shortly before turning 101. His first collection, Intellectual Things, appeared in 1930 - he was writing when W B Yeats was still alive and writing, and was deeply influenced by Yeats's beautiful, fire-burnished symbolism. His later work was to be more personally emotive and stylistically restrained, and less intensely formal. I have found poems which I have loved right through his creative output.

'The Layers', a poem from the late 1970s, is a great example of Kunitz's style and outlook. He is on a journey on a hard road, partly in darkness; he experiences loss and deep uncertainty, but finds himself still "exulting somewhat" (perfectly balanced in ambiguity). "I am not done with my changes"; if there is fear there, I feel that it is overwhelmed and conquered by defiance and hope.

Kunitz was also a gardener and cultivated a renowed seaside garden in Provincetown, Massachusetts. Despite my incurable laziness, there is something that draws me to gardening - metaphorically - to the idea of it. It seems like a good sideline for a poet or a poetry lover. We'll see. "I am not done with my changes..."

Thursday, 8 March 2012

Paul Celan's 'With a Variable Key': Language Beyond Loss

(Photo source:

WITH A VARIABLE KEY (Paul Celan - translated by Michael Hamburger)

With a variable key
you unlock the house in which
drifts the snow of that left unspoken.
Always what key you choose
depends on the blood that spurts
from your eye or your mouth or your ear.

You vary the key, you vary the word
that is free to drift with the flakes.
What snowball will form round the word
depends on the wind that rebuffs you.

(Paul Celan, Von Schwelle zu Schwelle. © 1955 Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt, München, in der Verlagsgruppe Random House GmbH. English translation © Michael Hamburger, taken from Poems of Paul Celan (Third edition, 2007), Anvil Press Poetry. Reprinted by kind permission of the publishers and the estate of Paul Celan.)

It has taken me some time to get to the point of writing this entry, though it has been on my mind for months. This was partly because it took a little while to seek permission to reproduce 'With a Variable Key' in this entry, which I am very grateful to have received. Mainly, I knew that it would be a difficult entry to write, so I have been avoiding it.

In a previous entry about the work of Paul Celan in my life, I mentioned that I had started reading him about fifteen years ago, but that until late 2010 it had been a slow process, rather like walking in the dark. I simply had not put in the effort required to find my way in, and perhaps the timing had not been right until then. In the end, 2011 was the year when Celan really opened up to me.

I am sure that I had read 'With a Variable Key' earlier, but maybe only in passing, like so many of the other poems. It was also in 2011 that I finally realised what I was seeing when I read the poem. It was the gas chamber which I had walked through on my visit to Auschwitz in 2008, with the door open and snow drifting through.

My visit to Auschwitz was part of a quick weekend trip to Krakow, a city that I had wanted to see for a long time. It was very much what I had hoped for; beautiful, friendly, relaxed and mysterious. Auschwitz is nearby, and I had never visited a concentration camp. I felt that it was something that I should do, and I had tried to prepare myself mentally. I was travelling alone and booked onto a tour.

Auschwitz must be a very different experience for different people. Some go for historical interest, some to bear witness, some because they have a personal connection. My connection is not personal, but is still significant. I am one of Jehovah's Witnesses, who were also targeted by the Nazi regime - about 10,000 were imprisoned, and 2,500 to 5,000 died. A relatively small number of Jehovah's Witnesses were sent to Auschwitz, while more were imprisoned in camps such as Dachau.

While the tour at Auschwitz was largely about the experiences of the Jews - quite rightly - I was very pleased to find a book in the bookshop about the experiences of the Witnesses in the camp. I was also touched to find, in a one-on-one conversation at the end of my tour, that my tour guide was also a Witness. The experience necessarily led me to reflect on my own convictions. The Witnesses had the option to sign a declaration renouncing their faith and to be freed, but very few took up this option. I needed to reflect on my faith and my own stand, if I had been born in a different country or at a different time.

I know that some of the people who I saw touring Auschwitz had closer and more directly personal connections. I remember the distress on the face of a crying woman in the room where mounds of human hair sit behind glass walls. There was also a group of young people carrying an Israeli flag. I wondered about the other people I saw, what connection they might have, or if they simply wanted to learn and remember.

I couldn't forget Auschwitz, although some days later I realised that I almost wanted to. I think that it is natural when visiting such a horrible place to go into a kind of low-level shock. It was only days or weeks later that I was aware how painful it had been for me to visit the camp, and how it would leave a lasting mark on me.

Paul Celan is often referred to as a "Holocaust poet", or even the greatest of the Holocaust poets. In large part, this is due to the fame of  Death Fugue, an extraordinary and frightening poem which at the same time is not very representative of Celan's style. There are those who think that calling him a Holocaust poet is the wrong approach; that he must be read from a linguistic perspective, or that he should be read alongside the work of philosopher and critical theorist Jacques Derrida, who himself wrote about Celan.

My view is that Celan should be for everyone who can find their way to see through his beautiful, terrible, obliterating vision. I do not believe in closing off the work of an essential poet to those who may not have read all the right theorists (although these approaches could add extremely valuable dimensions). Holocaust poet, philosopher, linguistic genius: Celan is all of these, and all of his readers will probably find a particular aspect to focus on. My own approach to most poetry, and certainly to a poet like Celan, is partly intellectual, but largely emotional. Celan demands persistence and attention, which I was finally able to give; then his work begins to interpret itself. It was then that I really started to realise the strength of what I was dealing with.

Celan certainly did not only write about pain and genocide. He also wrote poems about love and sex ('Corona'), about friendship ('Zurich, the Stork Inn', written for Nelly Sachs), and other subjects. However, his principal themes seem to have been trauma and its aftermath, and how language provides both access and obstruction in the face of such difficulties. Famously, he said of language after the Holocaust:

Reachable, near and not lost, there remained amid the losses this one thing: language. It, the language, remained, not lost, yes in spite of everything. But it had to pass through its own answerlessness, pass through frightful muting, pass through the thousand darknesses of deathbringing speech. It passed through and gave back no words for that which happened; yet it passed through this happening. Passed through and could come to light again, "enriched" by all this. (Bremen Prize speech, 1958. Translated by John Felstiner)

Celan had to go on writing in German, as it was his first language and his poetic language. But in his poems, it is a wounded and fragmented language, reflecting the fact that he was himself wounded and fragmented. He lost his parents in the Holocaust, and although he would not speak much of his own experiences in labour camps, it must have been dehumanizing and frightening. Some of his poems explicitly convey imagery of the mass murder of the Jews. In 'With a Variable Key', "the blood that spurts/from your eye or your mouth or your ear" is a realistic description of what happened to the gas chamber victims. In the poem, it is literal, but it also symbolises the various pain of people in various situations, and Celan tells us to choose the key and the word carefully to confront our own version of suffering. A number of poems are also more or less explicit:

Handled already, Lord,
clawed and clawing as though
the body of each of us were
your body, Lord.

Pray, Lord,
pray to us,
we are near.

(from 'Tenebrae', translated by Michael Hamburger)

[...] heavily
encamped in the shallows, their bodies
piled up into thresholds, embankments [...]

(from 'In the air', translated by Michael Hamburger)

More often, though, the imagery is indirect, and equally if not even more striking:

Eyes, world-blind, in the fissure of dying: I come,
callous growth in my heart.
I come.

(from 'Snow-bed', translated by Michael Hamburger)

I have realised that for me, the images in Celan's poems are so often like the tangible evidence of a psychic wound that cannot heal. How he does this through his pictures of minerals, plants and stars, I am not sure. It is as though he knew the pressure points for pain and loss. I suppose this is why I have to pace myself when I read his poems. I tend to end up feeling exhausted and overwhelmed, though also moved and exhilarated. Michael Hamburger said of translating Celan: "From the first my engagement with the work of Celan had been difficult and sporadic. Had it become a full-time occupation and specialisation, it could have driven me into suicide, as it did his friend and interpreter Peter Szondi." I was shocked when I first read this, but I have found that Celan does not merely show you his trauma - when you pay attention, he takes you inside it. The close engagement with his work - work which witnesses to extreme suffering - required by a translator would at least be very tiring, and potentially dangerous, I think.

E M Cioran, who knew Celan, wrote: "He clung to his biases against one person or another, he sustained his mistrust, all the more so because of his pathological fear of being hurt, and everything hurt him... [H]e lived in fear of disappointment or outright betrayal. His inability to be detached or cynical made his life a nightmare." This is merely confirmation of the testimony of the poems. It is quite obvious that Celan's nerves were permanently raw, that he was suffering a great deal and that his pain eventually led him to suicide.

So, why do I read Celan - why do I find him essential? In a purely poetic sense, he is totally unique: spare and surreal, incredibly precise. Once the reader finds his or her way into these poems, and sees how they reflect and complement and interpret each other, there is a real excitement about tackling the body of work. And Celan was brave. He knew what he was up against. He was an extremely sensitive being who had to deal with loss and feelings of guilt every day of his life after his parents' disappearance and eventual death. He bore witness, to his own personal experience and more broadly to the experiences of the Jewish people and of all innocents who suffer. "Noone/bears witness for the/witness", says Pierre Joris's translation of 'Ashglory' - but he did. He refused to be driven out of the homeland of his own language. He made it his own, almost its own language. Reading Celan has made me wish I understood more than a tiny amount of German. Translated works tend to fill me with anxiety, but I became aware a long time ago that I would rather see Celan's vision through a glass darkly than not at all.

What I find hard is the knowledge of how much Celan must have suffered. This also leads me through to the wider experience. At Auschwitz, what upset me the most was the mountain of suitcases. There were thousands, but I saw the individual names and addresses written on the suitcases, one by one. Then, beyond that, I saw the thousands.

Paul, I love your work, but I wish you could have been an ordinary man with a happy life, even if we had lost all of the poems.