Chain of Sayings: On Paul Celan’s “I heard it said,” translated by Pierre Joris

In 1960, Paul Celan traveled to Darmstadt, West Germany to accept the Georg-Büchner Prize for Literature. In his acceptance speech, now known as his “Meridian” lecture, Celan gave an argument for what poetic language should do and be after the Holocaust, as well as a poetological account of his own work:

“The poem becomes—under what conditions—the poem of a person who still perceives, still turns towards phenomena, addressing and questioning them. The poem becomes conversation —often desperate conversation.

Only the space of this conversation can establish what is addressed, can gather it into a ‘you’ around the naming and speaking I. But this ‘you,’ come about by dint of being named and addressed, brings its otherness into the present.” [1]

It is not surprising that a poet, having selected language as material and thus interested in what it might do, should be concerned with modes of speech and address. And yet Paul Celan’s work is especially invested in such zones of encounter, spaces in which difference is recognized as both knowable and not. [2] All the while, his poems remain as specifically restricted by the etymology and grammatical requirements of the German language as they are by his experiences in and through it. Given this, it would seem that any project in translation would be impossible, as all translations are, to a certain extent (just ask translators). And yet Celan’s work requires its readers—and its translators, and its readers of translations—to participate in tracing the contours of what is sayable, all the while interrogating how it got that way. [3] The impossibility is the point—and so, too, is the attempt.

“I heard it said,” translated by Pierre Joris in Memory Rose into Threshold Speech (FSG 2020), the first poem in Celan’s 1955 collection Threshold to Threshold (in German: “Schwelle zu Schwelle”), maps such a zone of contact between speaker and addressee, person speaking and person being spoken to, and—inevitably—writer, translator and reader. Its title (“I heard it said”) can be understood to recount received history or speech, though it does so without disassembling and neologizing the language itself, formal gestures for which Celan’s later work is known. Here is the translated poem’s first stanza: 

I heard it said, there is
in the water a stone and a circle
and above the water a word
that lays the circle around the stone. [4]

As in the German-language original, Joris has retained the comma between “I heard it said” and the subsequent clause (the quasi-biblical “there is,” which in German is specifically subjunctive: “es sei”). Importantly, that which “there is” is located “in the water” before it is named—“a stone and a circle”. The stone and the circle assume form “under the water,” the “word” only appears after the reader has been located “above the water”. Stone, circle, word and water depend on one another to exist, grammatically and functionally speaking. They’re also somehow more important in their relation to one another than in what they’re actually doing individually. I see these nouns as somehow presenting a hierarchy of signs: the stone might be a unique stone, under it, the circle its drawn likeness, the word a sign of itself, whose oppressive power to “lay” is the only real action in the stanza (besides the speaker’s having heard it). I’ve drawn how I understand this constellation on the left—in my conversations with friends, I was surprised that this was not the default imagined picture. In his commentary on the poem, Pierre Joris cites an image from Edmond Jabès’ Book of Questions: “... the gash, with its fake rings in the water, made by the stone fallen into the pond. The wound closes instantly. It is the wings that reproduce themselves while growing larger and that witness—oh derision—of the scope of evil.” [5] I have included a drawing of this perspective on the right.

The sort of difficult syntax of this stanza could be chalked up to the translation, and a translator more interested in English-language smoothness may have inverted some of these clauses: “there is / a stone and a circle in the water / and a word above the water / that lays the circle around the stone” reads far more clearly, doesn’t it? But the lines are strange in German, too. In an interview, Joris paraphrases Hölderlin that he doesn’t want to write easy, digestible translations: “I want to write German in English when I translate Celan…[t]he translation has to be more difficult to read. I don’t say unreadable, but it has to let the reader know, hey, I’m a translation of a poem, and that’s an added burden, for which I won’t apologize as I think it essential to say that I am a translation.” [7] Just as the poem itself calls attention to its own mediation—stone becomes circle becomes word—the translation, too, asks the reader to participate in the experience of what might not be easily apprehended. The second stanza of “I heard it said” continues:

I saw my poplar go down to the water,
I saw its arm reach down to the depth,
I saw its roots beg skyward for night.

These three clear, direct assertions of witness upset the diffused mood of the first. This speaker sees their moving, fully anthropomorphized poplar tree upside-down, but doesn’t describe it so explicitly: we simply know that its “arms” reach down to the water and that its “roots beg skyward for night.” In German, the word for this reaching is “hinuntergriff,” which also indicates grabbing, seizure. At both ends the poplar tree is thirsty. Vivian Liska suggests that Celan’s use of poplar trees may refer to their etymological association with the Latin word for “populace,” that the poplar tree can be read as both an image and a site of humanity. These poplar trees are referred to with the possessive pronoun “my:” this is “my poplar,” or “my people,” and Linza also contends that this image, besides evoking a general sense of uprootedness, is historically specific, a Celanian intervention on the trope of the “wandering Jew.” [8]

The poplar may be  uprooted, but its etymology isn’t. Though “I heard it said” does not explicitly name a divine entity, it can’t be coincidental that the poplar’s roots, unrooted, gesturing, beg “skyward”—or in the direction of “Himmel,” which means both “heaven” and “sky” in German. The poem ends:

I did not hurry after it,
I picked up from the ground only the crumb
that has your eye’s shape and nobility
I took the chain of sayings off your neck
and with it framed the table where the crumb now lay.

And saw my poplar no more.

Having witnessed the poplar (or: the speaker’s people) in desperation, the third stanza looks to a new addressee, or more properly, the “crumb” whose shape resembles the addressee’s “eye.” In German, the article that precedes the word for crumb in this line is “jene,” to me an old-fashioned way of saying “that.” With this “jene,” the speaker intimates a shared point of reference with the addressee. That crumb, do you see it? I also find interesting that the German original for “I picked up” is again an old-fashioned formulation: “Ich las,” which more usually means “I read.” Even the act of attention to the crumb requires a text, a legibility. Crucially, the “chain of sayings” the speaker then removes from the addressee’s neck recalls the entrapment of the circle around the stone in the first stanza. The word: the circle as abstraction of the stone, the chain of sayings that encircling the neck—circumscribes completely.

The poem’s last line, a single-line stanza, is a negation: “And saw my poplar no more.” It’s unclear why. Has the poplar gone, or has the speaker looked away? If the refusal to see the poplar is indeed an act of willful ignorance, its initial appearance remains sandwiched between episodes of receiving language (“I heard it said”) and manipulating it (“I took the chain of sayings off your neck”). The speaker’s capacity to perceive the poplar at the end of the poem is limited by the speaker’s own ability to both convey and make sites of contact, language. The poplar’s fate rests in the speaker’s faith in what can’t—or won’t—be said. The saying (and, by necessity, its being heard—by us) creates the zone of encounter that distinguishes so much of Celan’s work.

Threshold to Threshold was dedicated to Celan’s wife, Gisèle Lestrange. In his commentary for the poem, Pierre Joris notes that the French word for “crumb” was “miette,” a nickname Celan also used with Lestrange. And yet this “you” recalls also the reader, who repeats the act of “reading” the crumb from the ground and picking it up, beholding its similarity—then removing the chain of “sayings” from their own neck. Joanna Klink describes the “instability” of Celan’s poetic endeavors as “the blurring between invoking a source of meaning and producing that source.” [9] This is happening here. The speaker of the poem “hears” a world created before them—and then, through mediation, ritual and contact builds an alternate possibility, transforms it. In translation, the titular “It has been said” is an account of things overheard, passed through and reincarnated. I think, as readers of Joris’ translation, this can expand to refer not only to the speech-act in the original (German) language but in its reiteration in English, too.

Celan’s work—especially that of the “late Celan,” though he had certainly received this moniker by the time “I heard it said” was published—is frequently assigned descriptions of hermeticism, silence. It is telling that in attending a workshop for German-language critics of poetry with the theme “hermeticism,” we were all assigned to write a close reading of Celan’s poem “Weggebeizt:” so associated is Celan with the term. [10] My friend and I, who had decided to write the piece together, dedicated four pages to the first stanza, which contains 15 words. Though his work to a certain extent confronts and navigates unsayability, they are, ultimately, said things, and to that extent require listening. Listening isn’t passive: miniatures in meaning-making, Celan’s poems remind us that it never should be.

Celan’s work reminds us how language impinges upon and is impinged on by both the broadest, cruelest strokes of history—and the smallest encounters of speech. They disrupt the way the German (and, in Joris’ translation, the English) language determines what is said, what is meant and what is. There are other ways to encounter a stone and a crumb than those that we may have learned. We can consider what makes a stone a stone, and how we arrived here. Why we are touching it, and how. We can remove the necklace, draw a circle, indicate the word, hold a crumb—all at once.



            Ich hörte sagen, es sei
            im Wasser ein Stein und ein Kreis
            und über dem Wasser ein Wort,
            das den Kreis um den Stein legt.

            Ich sah meine Pappel hinabgehn zum Wasser,
            ich sah, wie ihr Arm hinuntergriff in die Tiefe,
            ich sah ihre Wurzeln gen Himmel um Nacht flehn.

            Ich eilt ihr nicht nach,
            ich las nur vom Boden auf jene Krume,
            die deines Auges Gestalt hat und Adel,
            ich nahm dir die Kette der Sprüche vom Hals
            und säumte mit ihr den Tisch, wo die Krume nun lag.

            Und sah meine Pappel nicht mehr.

Notes & Works Cited

[1] Paul Celan. Collected Prose. Translated by Rosmarie Waldrop. Manchester: Carcanet, 2003. It appears that Pierre Joris has also translated this speech, but I was unable to access it in time for this writing.

[2] James K Lyon. "Paul Celan and Martin Buber: Poetry as Dialogue." PMLA 86, no. 1 (1971): 110-20.

[3] Paul Celan was often accused of hermeticism in his work. In an inscription to Michael Hamburger, one of his English-language translators, he wrote “ganz und gar nicht hermetisch,” or “absolutely not hermetic.” That which is private, to Celan, remains tactile to others. It’s just a different kind of touch.

[4] Paul Celan. Translated by Pierre Joris. Memory Rose into Threshold Speech: the Collected Earlier Poetry. Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 2020.

[5] Ibid, 574. Each poem in Joris’ volume is extensively commented and annotated, comments themselves informed by those made by Barbara Wiedemann in her German-language commentary on Celan’s poems. Celan’s poems can be read at face value, to be sure, but each of his expressions and words are selected with a truly striking intentionality and I find these layers of research deeply rewardly.

[6] Please excuse my horrible drawings.

[7] David Brazil interviews Pierre Joris. “Under the Language: A Conversation with Pierre Joris on Paul Celan.” Los Angeles Review of Books, January 20, 2021. https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/under-the-language-a-conversation-with-pierre-joris-on-paul-celan/.LA Review of Books.

[8] Vivian Liska. “‘Roots against Heaven." An Aporetic Inversion in Paul Celan.” New German Critique, no. 91, 2004, pp. 41–56. JSTOR, <www.jstor.org/stable/3211121>.

[9] Joanna Klink. “You. An Introduction to Paul Celan.” The Iowa Review, vol. 30, no. 1, 2000, p. 2. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/20154764.

[10] Nearing the end of the workshop’s discussion on this poem, the workshop leader, a well-known critic, revealed that the poem’s “Atemkristall” (translated by Joris as “Breath crystal”) could also indicate the crystalline chemical structure of Zyklon B, the chemical poison deployed in the death camps’ gas chambers. Celan’s work is deeply historical, researched, textured with geological knowledge, etymology, Hasidism, deep literary history, and more. An example: another image in the poem is “Büßerschnee,” or “penitents’ snow,” which is not only vivid in evoking an image of culpability but it is also quite literally a kind of high-altitude snow formation.

Patty Nash is a poet and translator and lives in Berlin. Her poems appear in jubilat, Denver Quarterly, West Branch, and elsewhere.