Paul Celan

A Poet in Exile

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A Tragic Ending


Throughout his life Celan suffered from severe mental and emotional anguish. A particularly serious bout of depression occurred after Claire Goll, the wife of poet Yvonne Goll, accused Celan of plagiarizing from the works of her husband, which Celan had translated. Following his hospitalization after a suicide attempt in the 1960s, Gisèle requested that Celan move out of their family home.

Celan spent his last years alone, bereft of family and friends, and sinking further into depression. He wrote his final poems in this state--many of them difficult to understand, but also quite beautiful. In the end, Celan died by his own hand, drowning himself in the Seine River, just outside of his Paris apartment in April 1970.

Much of Celan’s poetry seems to emanate from a desire for deep, meaningful communication. And yet, one wonders what communication really meant to this poet, in light of one of the most striking of his final poems:

         A LEAF, treeless
for Bertolt Brecht:

What times are these
when conversation
amounts to a crime
from taking in so much
that is said?

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Shoshana Olidort

Shoshana Olidort is a freelance writer based in New York. Her work has appeared in the Forward, Ha'aretz, Pleiades and The American Book Review, among other publications.