In Light of Utopia

(The following text was given on August 27, 2011, at the University of Iowa’s 12th annual Religion and Literature conference.  The topic was “Uncanny Homecomings,” and I wrote on Paul Celan’s 1960 Meridian speech. For those who would like to consult the speech itself, click here for a link to Rosemarie Waldrop’s translation.)

In Light of Utopia

Today I will discuss with you the thought that the poem takes for “its home and hope.” The thought is this: that the poem makes possible an encounter between an “altogether other” and a “not-so-distant” other, and that the poem only exists for the sake of this encounter. I will begin by discussing what is required of the poet and the reader according to Celan’s vision for poetry, and I will finish with a freer discussion on the nature of this encounter and its consequences for us and for “poetry.” I admit that today I am not going to give you a systematic analysis of the Meridian speech. Instead I am going to try to speak in its direction, and to share with you the path of poetry that it points out. In other words, rather than trying to look upon this work from the outside, I will try to show forth its inside, and to conjure before you what Celan’s work has long conjured up for me.

It’s always with another key that
you unlock the house—inside:
the snowdrifts of what’s never spoken.
         —Paul Celan


Celan warns us to never speak of “creating the poem,” but only of the “created poem.” In this brief caution, we already can sense how the so-called poet is at a remove from their own work, and how the poem, in a sense, arises in spite of them. Celan’s remarks about poetry pertain less to the writing of poems than to the life of the person. He says that poetry requires being turned and open toward phenomena, known and unknown; a “sober intoxication,” a “constant vigil”; “attentiveness towards beings and things”; and a perception of language that is sensitive both to its limits and the possibilities it opens up. Here, language is not understood as an instrument of communication, expression, craft or creation, but instead as “shape, direction, and breath”: language as the force of the unknown, the force of an unknown future forging its way into human history. Celan designates as “poetry” this perception of language as direction in time, and tells us that “poetry” poses nothing less than the question of where-to and where-from. In fact, the poem is this questioning, and must never stop questioning itself and its foundations because of this.

To be a bit more precise, poetry requires that one turn such that there is a distance from the “I.” In turning, the I is estranged, nearly forgotten, and made other vis-à-vis this turned perception and the question of human direction in time. Going clockwise is thus not as easy as it would seem. For Celan, once this quest is taken up, there is no returning to the “same I.” Further, there is a sense in which the poet does not pre-exist the created poem. It is as if the poem and poet were created right alongside one another, such that, as Peter Szondi has pointed out, there is an absolute identity proclaimed between the poet’s being and the language of the poem. It is in this sense that we must understand Celan’s claim that poetry is “a kind of homecoming,” and that he “encountered himself” along his poetic path.

Thus, while writing poetry implies I-distance, Celan also says the would-be poet must not forget that he or she writes from “the angle of reflection which is their own existence, their own physical nature.” This means that all of the poet’s being must be implicated in this perception, in his or her turn, and in poetry. Only in this way does “language become person,” such that language “takes the shape of a voice,” and conversely, such that the person becomes language, realizing and individualizing both language and themselves along poetry’s path.

Simply put, for the poem to be written, one becomes other than what they are, for it is only in being other than oneself than the poem comes about. One must listen for a direction that is not one’s own, in constant vigil, to the point of hearing a voice that is not readily recognizable as one’s own. The shape that the poet’s voice takes in the poem is unknown and transformed. At this point, we are right to ask why this must be the case, why we are not simply dealing with the creation of poems.

Celan explains that the poem’s “ownmost cause” is to seek another. The poem seeks that other who is deemed “reachable and free,” and to let-speak what is ownmost in the other, namely, to let-speak the other’s time. While carrying the time of the author, and while marking the tone of their turn, the poem always speaks toward and of another time. We have already seen how this turn toward otherness co-determines the poet’s very being and life. But it is crucial to emphasize here that the poet remains absolutely in the dark as to the poem’s cause, for the poem’s cause is always another(‘s). This is how, paradoxically, the poem is created, even though there is no “creating” it. Put simply, the poet does not quite know why they are doing what they are doing.

Thus, on the one hand, the poem is mated to its author, to “the angle of reflection which is their own existence,” as Celan clearly says. The poem is in a sense the tone of their listening, the mark of their turn toward otherness. But the poem does not speak for the author, nor in the author’s name. The poem only speaks otherwise.

There is another, more difficult way to say this. The poet, through the poem, tries to do the impossible: he or she tries to let-speak the truth of another, without knowing what this truth could or will be. There is no truth to the poem unless it is another’s truth. For the poet to write toward someone else in this way, they must past through their own otherness, their own silence, and, in a sense, their own death. The poem is both the site and the evidence of this passage; but its only truth is in passing over to another, in becoming part of another’s own passage through silence, otherness, and death. And this passage is never guaranteed. This is what really makes for what Celan calls the “congenital darkness of the poem,” and the desperation of the conversation. This darkness, this desperation, is the crucible over which our direction through time is tested and thought out.

The poem is thus the mark, the evidence, or the materiality of this complex interaction between some person turned and thrust toward otherness, and language finally brought into its own, such that the question of where-from and where-to can be posed. Dependent on the turning of an actual person, which always happens, if it does happen, today, in the present, this necessarily applies to both poet and reader.

All of this clearly flips our normal understanding of writing on its head. It is not the poet who speaks and the reader who listens, but the poet who listens, and the reader who speaks. Celan puts it too beautifully to omit: “my hearing has wandered into my fingertips.”

This is how the poem becomes a “desperate” conversation, for the poet writes totally alone, without any pre-established world to guide them, without any already-existing destiny or destination in mind, without any foundation whatsoever. The other whose truth the poem would speak is a mystery for the poet. Inappropriable, this other cannot be internalized, cannot be understood as a representation in the poet’s mind or a presence in the poet’s world, for this other is a future other who, in all senses of the term, is not yet. The poet touches this other in one way and one way alone: by turning toward and touching their own otherness, at attention, perceptive and, in a sense, broken wide open.

And it is even more difficult and desperate than this. In order for the poem to speak the other’s truth, the other must themselves turn toward it, and be turned. We can now get a sense of how incredible the conditions must be for the poem to really speak, for the encounter to have a chance: the other must themselves turn toward their own ownmost otherness, toward the powerlessness of language, and toward their “death.” The reader must enact the very same gesture as the poet, must be as I-distant and as “vacant” as the author. Not only perceptiveness to language as shape, direction, and breath; not only attention to beings and things; but above all, one must put into play their existence as such. One must draw oneself into the very same self-strangeness, where all of them is exposed, racked and disrobed. One must read the poem as if one wrote it, as if it were addressed directly to them, as the question of their direction in time and of their truth. One must read the poem, quietly literally, as if it were their address, for in truth, these designations of poet and reader no longer even apply. There is simply the address, the poem, and its hope—a conversation, a chance encounter, the chance of coming home.

In sum, without the other’s wholehearted turn, the poem has no chance. Thus, the game that the poet plays is totally “unreasonable,” for the reason for the game they play is always the other’s; and for this reason to exist, another must themselves be turned (shaken, torn, moved…). And clearly, the poet can never impose or force that.


The “turn,” then, prepares a path for poetry and it is the path. Poetry makes it possible and it makes poetry possible. It is at the crux of the encounter, the correspondence between altogether and not-so-distant others, and shows us that poetry has nothing to do with anything unless it has everything to do with us. Analysis is unsuited to it, interpretation is unsuited to it, unless the whole of our existence is put into play. Poetry as turning, self-suspension, and encounter is suited solely to the exhaustion of being and language. It is the restlessness of Gethsemane, and infinitely so.

We must proceed under the auspices of this turning, this exhaustion, by turning ourselves, so as to discover its reason for ourselves, despite this home and hope never being guaranteed. We must believe that the impossible can happen, and does happen, and that in believing so, our belief, the impossible, will leave a mark— even if this mark is helpless to effectuate another’s turn. In this way, in placing in the world what is not of this world, the poet finds his lifelong vocation.

Between language and the terrifying silences it must pass through; between words and the impossibility of their bearing witness; between the world and the not-yet-world; between our presence-to-self and the “sending of self” that we are; between the hardest constraints of language and its setting-free in the shape of a voice; between the time the poem remains mindful of and the time it speaks toward, which is its ownmost cause—amidst all these betweens, the poem seeks its place and comes home.  It is dedicated to these “open” questions, these open betweens, “without resolution,” “which point towards open, empty, free spaces,” where we have ventured “very far out.”


I have just spoken of a series of “betweens.” I would like to rest for just a moment here, for it seems to me that Celan’s work—the poem’s home and hope— leads us in this direction.

I have said that the “turn” precedes the poet and the reader. But, in point of fact, this “turn” is what we are, if we are to be. What are we without being open to others? And not only that, but without being open to the other that we ourselves are? In our innermost regions, we are not what we construe ourselves to be during our waking lives. We neglect to listen to these regions where, in a sense, we touch everyone, dead, alive, or not yet. Thus, we are strangers to ourselves. But when this strangeness dawns, when this strangeness begins to speak, poetry begins. It begins in so many of these “betweens,” where we see that we are nothing without those we love and touch, where a kind of “law of the unknown” comes to drive our life.

I would have liked to meditate longer on the status of being as “between,” being as being-with. I would have liked to discuss how we are, whether we know it or not, suspended between this not-so-distant other, ourselves, and some altogether other. Or, conversely, how I am myself made wholly other to myself— now that you are not-so-distant. We are beside ourselves with grief and in love. To give ourselves over to our ownmost being-with, while not easing our task, situates it in a wider scope, a more encompassing direction, even if it is darker thereby. It draws us to this limit where we prove irreplaceable, and where our reason for being finally manifests— even if it is only by way of another that this reason is ever found out.

For Celan, poetry is the living practice of this between: a way of “being-with” in life and in language; an experience of silence as wordless struggle and as vigilant epiphany; an experience of freedom as an experience of being-exposed, in all the silliness and darkness, awkwardness and anticipation, sadness and joy this encounter with oneself and others implies. For each of us is “between us” in a singular manner. This is what makes us lovable, after all. And to be more “between” is, I think, to finally encounter and become oneself. It is… a kind of homecoming.

I have tried to show how poetry is the self-suspension and turning of breath, the total alteration of self and voice, brought into language as its interruption and its delivery. But poetry, when lived, suspends what we know beyond the borders of the page. Poetry, lived, halts us in our tracks. Poetry is whatever takes our breath away, whatever turns us in another direction, whatever opens and opens us. Poetry is whatever delivers us to what is ownmost in us, this strangeness that only finds its cause elsewhere. Poetry, seen in this light, is the essence of love. The other does not have to know the sign I send them, to know that it is I who sends it. In a sense, not-knowing-what-the-sent-sign-meant is… the sign of love.

Disturbing and comforting, heart-warming and heart-rending all at once, the staggering voice of Paul Celan is thus a voice of love. His home is always elsewhere, but endless— endlessly turning, and turning us, if we turn to it. And strange as it sounds, our home is always in another’s heart, in another’s throat, there where we can never be.

It takes a kind of courage to turn this way— that is, to be torn in this way, to give oneself to so many “betweens.” Celan’s poems, mated to him and yet spoken by us, are exemplary in this regard. In his work, there is an epiphany of poetry, place, and personhood that “exists beyond the concepts of… wakeful thinking.” “Its light is not daylight. It is inhabited by figures which [we] do not recognize, but know at first sight.” In reaching (for) the unrecognizable, we reach (for) ourselves. It is my belief that only in this way is poetry a homecoming. It unseats us, it sends us, and draws us beyond what we wakefully construe, such that we enter into an attentiveness predicated only on the inconstruable question of what it means to be-with.


In conclusion, let me turn to Celan’s text entitled “Edgar Jené and the Dream about the Dream.” In this text, he speaks of those oaths that we pledge in our waking lives, which are pledges made at the cost of our “secret life.” We pledge these allegiances to the Other, but this time with a capital O. These pledges, which disguise our hatred for this Other, are impatient. They feebly add themselves to whatever they take to be the given world. They attempt to purify the unconscious life, even to censor it, and consecrate their attempts on the altar of a “sanctified reason.” But death is alien to these pledges made in wakefulness. It is indifferent to them and their reasons. In the end, there is nothing on this altar but a cock crowing. Implicit with this pledge, so the text goes, is an attempt to “recapture the immediacy of the beginning.” For Celan, this is homecoming absolutely misunderstood. Of course, it is against a friend that Celan raises his objections—a stubborn friend who chastises him for dwelling too deeply in the unconscious inner life, instead of surfacing vis-à-vis reason with a clear-cut vision for life and of the parameters of the soul.

Celan’s counterword—and in the Meridian, he deems poetry to be precisely this, a gegenwort— is not a hatred of reason, a misology. It is a practice of what’s missing, a practice of the logos as the practice of what’s not-yet. Here, reason is not restorative, nor is it master, nor is it the property or tool of an identity. It is instead suspended over the question and direction of the “with,” over what it means to be “between.” It begins from the sense we have of carrying others, otherness, and another time, within us, as preceding any “world.” It begins from the sense we have of climbing up towards the impossible—the absolute poem, which cannot exist; the places which cannot be empirically proven or found, although we know where they ought to be— an impossibility that must be lived and, alas, pursued alone in our “innermost narrowness.” Again, Celan puts it too well to omit: “My heart, now that it lives behind my forehead, tastes the laws of a new, unceasing free motion. Here, where I am free, I can see what nasty lies the other side told me.”

Isn’t it strange, that we do find something? That we do encounter ourselves? Poetry, perhaps, designates this. It designates us and our words as “something that listens, not without fear, for something beyond itself, beyond words.” It designates an eternal voice allied to mortality, and “stands firm in what is human.” It designates an infinite conversation between so many finite beings, with whom we are always, and in all ways, with.

Let me close with the final words from this text where Celan speaks of another pledge, his counter-word to the cock that crows on the altar of reason:

Now let us try to make pledges in our sleep. We are forming a tower, our face breaking through at the top, our clenched stone face. Taller than ourselves, we tower above the highest towers and can look down on ourselves, on our thousand-fold climb upwards. What a chance: to gather in hordes up there to swear our oaths, a thousand times ourselves, a great, overwhelming force. We have not quite reached the top, where our face has already become a clenched fist, a fist of eyes swearing. But we can see our way. Steep, the ascent. But if it is to tomorrow’s truth that we want to pledge allegiance we must take this route. And once up there! What a site for an oath! What a climb into the deep! What resonance for the pledge we do not yet know!


Agamben, Giorgio. Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive. trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen. New York: Zone Books. 2002.

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