“Every evening / words /–not stars–light the sky. // No rest in life / like life itself.”–Umberto Saba, “Three Cities,” trans. Stephen Sartarelli
“I hear that the axe has flowered, / I hear that the place can’t be named, // I hear that the bread which looks at him / heals the hanged man, / the bread baked for him by his wife, // I hear that they call life / our only refuge.”–Paul Celan, “I Hear That The Axe Has Flowered,” trans. Michael Hamburger
I find myself drawn to poets who survived The Second World War. This, in combination with frequently watching the remarkable BBC series Foyle’s War in the evening, as well as, on a more personal note, the recent passing of my wife’s uncle, Sven–a Marine who was at Normandy, and a man of whom I was fond–has got me thinking about the profound and continuing impact of WWII. Even as Czeslaw Milosz says that Communism was the only possible response to the atrocities of the Industrial Revolution, so, too, it occurs to me that Postmodernism may well be a kind of understandable, almost logical response to the atrocities of WWII.
Part of my thinking has been fueled by researching Seamus Heaney, including a number of essays in The Art Of Seamus Heaney wherein various critics attempt to place him, as an accessible, intelligent, lyric poet, within the context of the Twentieth century, and the decline of centrality, gentility, and structure. These abstract thoughts have gained specificity through reading selected works of Paul Celan and Umberto Saba. Both men, in the face of profoundly difficult personal circumstances, heightened their attention to language in their poems. Yet in the case of Celan, the attention presses ever more inward, into a symbolic and even cryptogrammic relationship to German; whereas with Saba, his Italian becomes more specific and spare in a way that promotes universal resonance.
Celan’s poems, which he called “messages in a bottle,” represent a disdain and almost fear of the explicit–the disdain of a learned man for superstition. Responding to Bertolt Brecht’s famous observation about the Twentieth century, Celan wrote in parody, “what times are these / when a conversation / is almost a crime / because it includes / so much made explicit?” (trans. Michael Hamburger). All poetry deals with the ineffable, with what happens beyond the explicit significance of language. In Celan’s case, however, there seems to be increasing deconstruction in the progression of his work, and with it a slipping grasp on what one might call faith in language and, perhaps, even faith in humanity and life itself.
With Umberto Saba, however, even in an early work such as “The Goat,” we see evidence of what Saba calls in his later poem, “Ulysses,” “a heavyhearted love of life” (trans. Stephen Sartarelli). His poetry also progresses toward an increasing attention to language, but at the same time is backed by a willingness to admit beauty and hope into his troubled life and work.
In considering the work of these two poets, both of whom suffered almost incomprehensible difficulty during the Holocaust, as well as obviously deep psychological conflicts, I see them manifesting different responses to the psychosocial crisis of Erikson’s final stage of development: integrity (the integration of one’s life experience and coming to terms with such experience) versus despair. Due to such profound external and internal circumstances, both men seem to have confronted the death instinct. In this, they face many of the same challenges throughout their life and work as someone facing the end of their life. In the case of Saba, he found a means to integrate his human experience through art. Paul Celan drowned himself in the Seine.
I am drawn to these poets, who suffered greatly, because I am fascinated by how they did (or did not) find a means to reconciliation in their art. I also see the horrors of the Second World War in particular as a turning point, not only in the individual lives of those who suffered, but for Western society as a whole. Even as Saba and Celan’s belief in humanity must have been challenged individually, the events of this time, brought to light on a global scale by modern news media as never before, present this same challenge to Western society as a whole. We see it, therefore, reflected in art since that time–a coming to terms with atrocity and beauty, barbarism and refinement, nihilism and hope.
As Marvin Bell has told me on a number of occasions, there are many branches on the tree of poetry, and all of them valid. I agree. Yet to me, the trunk of the tree, perennially unchanged, is poetry that confronts the human condition directly. What, therefore, might post-Postmodernism look like? My belief is that it is time for a reconciliation and integration like that which Saba found in his poems. Our faith in humanity parallels our faith in language, and, most importantly, what might exist beyond language–a poetry that is at once accessible and difficult, personal and universal, both explicit and ineffable, specific and transcendent–encompassing this beautiful, poignant, “heavyhearted love of life.”