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Patrick Cotter

Born Cork, 1963. Writer and publisher. Educated at UCC, he has published several chapbooks of his poems including The Misogynist’s Blue Nightmare (Raven Arts Press), A Socialist’s Dozen (Three Spires Press), and The True Story of Aoife and Lir’s Children & other poems (Three Spires Press). His first collection, Perplexed Skin, was published by Arlen Press in 2008. His second collection, Making Music, was published in early 2009 by Three Spires Press.







Some Meditations on Paul Celan



In the context of the Christian obsession with the rightness of the word – to the extent where the perceived incorrect interpretation or treatment of the word led to the death of innocents (first in the Inquisition, later in the Holocaust) – a rigid, ideological, politically correct interpretation of Celan’s words runs antithetical to Celan’s own ironic treatment of ‘the word’ of John’s Gospel in his own poems.

If the proper interpretation of a poem involves a journey then there must be scope for mistakes and wrong turnings made in good, informed faith – wrong turnings taken without fear of censure or annihilation.


Should a poet be primarily concerned with memory or the recording of the recent present? With retrieving the forgotten or preventing forgetting?


Celan’s growing silence within his poems developed as much from his sense of violated privacy as much as it did from his philosophical concerns. Indeed his sense of violation probably led to his philosophical concerns, causing the rightness of their universal application to be problematical.

Celan abhorred the explicit as demonstrated by his attack on Brecht’s “For the Unborn” (trees, things left said and unsaid etc.) Celan’s words were published for all the world to see, yet the world was a sea in which were islands of individuals (yes there are men who are islands) who were receptive and deserving of the “secret intimacy” contained in Celan’s poems. For anyone and everyone to have been able to read and decode these communications (messages in bottles) without investment of feeling and wide reading would have been an act of vulgarity.

This too, is the motivation of a man deeply affected by depression. His early poems were not only linguistically more open but emotionally more open – even the work written in the direct shadow of the concentration camp crematoria smoke.


The idea that Celan’s survivor guilt was a constant reason for his mortally dangerous depression bewrays a basic misunderstanding of the neurological mechanisms of depression. Survivor guilt may have been a catalyst – but such a trigger could not work on one who did not have a predisposition to the disease. Many survivors of the holocaust, with or without guilt, did not suffer auto-destructive depression and many poets who have committed suicide had no holocaust connection.


Many of Celan’s early poems are perfectly comprehensible to seasoned readers of poetry because they employ the language of dreams (an uninterpreted dream is like an unopened letter – Rabi Hisda c.250-309 C.E.). It is difficult to believe that some of the poems were not inspired directly by dreams. But just as it is a folly to interpret anyone’s dreams using a common dream dictionary, it is a folly to insist on a correct interpretation of an individual Celan dream-language poem even if the glosses upon which the interpretation is based are derived in a bespoke fashion from the overall oeuvre.

©2009 Pat Cotter



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Poems by Paul Celan

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Anti-Laureate of the People's Republic of Cork: a blog



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