Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Paul Celan's "Sand from the Urns"

As I wrote on Monday, I want to spend some time dealing with Paul Celan’s poem Der Sand aus den Urnen. I want to understand its magic. In other other words, how does this poem mean and how does it convey that meaning?

In addition, I want to demonstrate and develop a method of reading poetry, a method that is similar to the way we deal with or interpret dreams, images or other flotsam and jetsam from the unconscious mind. This process will employ both a look at and discussion of surrealism, expressionism, chaos theory, rhetoric, and Jungian and Freudian psychology.

Let's begin our discussion by simply looking at the poem, walking around it, examining its physical and grammatical shape. It consists of six unrhymed lines. The six lines consist of five sentences. A semi-colon joins the third and fourth lines. Each line presents one or two strong images, usually in a declarative form, without any subordinate clauses. In this regard the poem, written in Bucharest in 1946/47 resembles the poetry of Georg Trakl. (See previous post.)

When I read the poem out loud, I am aware of the strong pause at each of the five periods and the shorter pause at the semi-colon. Because of their declarative nature, the lines seem to convey strength and integrity. The unity of the poem results from the use of two pronouns-"er" and "Du." There is no unity of action. In other words there is no narrative. Instead, the poem employs surrealistic images, without any apparent connection, to convey a mood or an emotion.

Although the odd juxtaposition of images evidences Celan's surrealistic influences, there is also a strong expressionistic tendency in the poem demonstrated by his use of basic warm colors-the mould is green, the headless minstrel is blue, the toe blackens and the lips are red. These strong colors are reminiscent of the colors employed by the Expressionist painters and provide a painterly approach to the poem’s expression.

The following translation is mine. I used the version of the poem set forth in Paul Celan Die Gedichte, Kommentierte, Gesamtausgabe, Suhrkamp Verlag, 2003.

Der Sand aus den Urnen/ Sand from the Urns

Schimmelgrün ist das Haus des Vergessens./ The House of forgetting is mold green.

Vor jedem der wehenden Tore blaut dein enthaupteter Spielmann./ Before each of the blowing gates your decapitated minstrel turns blue.

Er schlägt dir die Trommel aus Moos und bitterem Schamhaar;/He beats the drum of moss and bitter pubic hair for you;

Mit schwärender Zehe malt er im Sand deine Braue./ with festering toe he draws your brow in the sand.

Länger zeichnet er sie als sie war, und das Rot deiner Lippe./ He draws it longer that it was and the red of your lips.

Du füllest hier die Urnen und speisest dein Herz./ You fill the urns here and feed your heart.

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