Monday, 23 November 2015

Paul Celan: Sounds and Visions at Kings Place

Edmund de Waal, Karen Leeder, Grete Tartler and Isobel Colchester at Paul Celan: The Romanian Context (Kings Place, London, November 2015). Photo by Clarissa Aykroyd

On Thursday 12 November I went to a Paul Celan event hosted by Poet in the City, at Kings Place (a great arts venue near London's Kings Cross station).

It was actually a dual event, the first part of which was 'Paul Celan: the Romanian Context' and featured Edmund de Waal (author of The Hare With Amber Eyes - I finally read it and it's wonderful), Karen Leeder (Professor of Modern German Literature at Oxford, and translator) and Romanian poet Grete Tartler in conversation about Celan. Grete Tartler's opening talk on Celan was wonderful. She drew attention to his various roots - German (language), Romanian (geography and his Bucharest period), Viennese (surrealist context), French (Paris for much of his life) and of course Jewish. Apparently "all Romanians are born poets" is a saying in Romania (I can imagine), but because of his background as a German-speaking Jew, when he went to Bucharest people there were amazed by the quality of his Romanian. (He wrote early poetry, much less known, in the Romanian language). Two beautiful phrases which emerged from this part of the evening described his poetry as "a music of suggestions" and "symphony of origins". Celan had a collection whose title is usually translated as Poppy and Memory, but Tartler called it Moonflower and Memory, which I found equally wonderful.

In the subsequent discussion with Karen Leeder, Edmund de Waal talked about discovering Celan at 17, through a tribute poem by Geoffrey Hill - a mysterious reminder of my own discovery of Celan, at almost exactly the same age, through a song by U2 called A Sort of Homecoming. (Never, ever disdain the origins of your passions. I still love the song.) De Waal, as well as an author, is a potter, and talked passionately about the "texture" and "granular" quality of Celan, a wonderful sidelight for someone like me who has pretty much zero grasp of the world of pottery.

The second part of the evening, 'Paul Celan: Sounds and Visions' was the main event of the evening. Karen Leeder spoke about his life and poems, and Edmund de Waal spoke again about crossover and the inspiration provided by Celan for visual artists. We saw photos of some of his Celan-inspired works, with names such as Black Milk and Lightduress, and the number of pots echoing the number of syllables in a poem - and especially the spaces and silences. "He brings breath and white to the foreground," said de Waal. Celan also wrote about home and homecoming a good deal, but we were acutely reminded that this had resonances of loss and horror for Celan: when he came home one night in 1942, his parents were gone and he never saw them again - the key moment in his life which created a trauma he could never recover from.

There was music by Webern, Berg, Harrison Birtwistle and finally a premiere, Psalm by Martin Suckling (who was sitting two seats away from me), a tribute to Celan's own devastating 'Psalm'. The music was, I admit, avant-garde for my rather conservative tastes, but I was impressed by how Psalm, performed by players from the Aurora Orchestra, created a sort of echo chamber of reaching and loss (there were three quartets placed around the auditorium). Very unfortunately, for me, the real downside to the evening was the reading of Celan's poems. The selection was excellent - many of my favourites, including 'Homecoming', 'Etched away', 'Think of it' and others. However, the readings by actor Henry Goodman went way too far into 'actor' territory, and not in a good way (working for LAMDA, I know well that actors can perform poems superbly). Poems shouldn't be an opportunity for an actor to overact, and the power of Celan's words is such that just love, respect and restraint are needed (that goes for most poetry, actually). Sadly, he injected obvious sarcasm into every pronunciation of "Lord" in 'Tenebrae', and "over the top" doesn't even describe what happened to 'Death Fugue' (shouting in a fake German accent? Really?). I hope some of those who were less familiar with Celan in the audience look for the recordings available online of him reading his own poems, in the original German, in a tentative, trancelike voice.

Paul Celan was born 95 years ago today. It is sad to contemplate the fact that he committed suicide and that he could possibly still have been alive today. It's good, though, to see that a lot of people still love him, or that they're interested at least. I spoke with Grete Tartler afterwards and at the end of our conversation I said "I just really love him. I'm very sentimental about him, actually." She said "Yes, yes! You must be sentimental about him." She certainly understood. I am not quite sure whether she meant that my sentimentality about Paul was obvious, or whether it was a necessary approach for any reader, but certainly in my case, both apply.


  1. Thank you, Clarissa - reading this makes a good start to the morning. And I agree 100% about the reading. I kept thinking: 'He can't, can he? - oh, he has.'

    I interviewed the three speakers for the Poet in the City archive. The interviews were very interesting [I thought] and will go up on the Poet in the City website in due course.

    And it's very good to hear what you thought and heard and said.

    1. Thanks Tom. I did think it was a lovely evening. In the end, overall I enjoyed the Romanian context bit the most. Admittedly the Romanian wine helped, but I really liked Grete Tartler's talk and Edmund de Waal's comments in that part.

      And it was a shame about the poems. There was actually a gentleman sitting near me who didn't applaud at the end of Death Fugue and I noticed because otherwise he generally applauded. I thought he looked annoyed and possibly I did too.

      I will be looking out for the interviews.