design language practice and theory 



symbols in the poetry of Paul Celan  (1)

 updated: May 2001
 it will take some time to load this page  because of the illustrations

What relates Poetry to Design? Similarly one wonders about the relation between philosophy and design. This page suggests some answers to these questions. 
A good starter is this citation from one of the latest books by Umberto Eco, "Kant e l'Ornitorinco" (Kant and the platypus), Bompiani, 1997, p.42 . 
" The language of poets seems to place itself in a free zone...They seem to be those that not only celebrate neccessity, but often they allow themselves (and us) to deny the resistance (n)  - because for them turtles can fly, and even can escape from death." 

n.of undeniable facts, (my note) 

If this seems to troublesome to you you might proceed directly to the page on 'rythm in design'

Paul Celan was a german poet  born in 1920 in Rumania from jewish parents. 
His life was signed by his imprisonment with his mother in a german concentration camp from which he alone survived. His hundreds of poems became, though hermetic, famous and  the subject of  analysis by, for example, Peter Scondy, Hans Georg Gadamer, Winfried Menninghaus, Petra Leutner and Paul Derrida. The extraordinary richness of his works sheds a new light on the role and sense of poetry. He died suicide in 1970 in Paris. 

This is a sample from the volume ATEMWENDE ( change of breath) from 1967 with a possible explanation that  does serve me to penetrate, be it in a lateral way, in our topic: the sense of design. 

am blanken Wundenspiegel vorbei: 
da werden die vierzig 
entrindeten Lebensbäume geflösst. 

Einzige Gegen- 
schwimmerin, du 
zählst sie, berührst sie 

past the blank mirror of wounds: 
there the forty 
skinned trees of life are floated. 

Only  she the counter- 
swimmer, you 
count them, touch them 

These words need  explanation: 

Celan shows us a place in the mountains, a place where his friends Nietsche and Buechner used to dwell, there is a forest of giant trees its eternal peace is disturbed, interrupted, killed forever. Yes activity is going on: the holy trees (there are only forty of them) are cut, skinned and floated into the river where they swim, passing through the swirls and noise of rapids, along  a quite lake that mirrors the sky, towards their destiny of human consumption, construction or pulp. The modern world is taking its toll but someone is contesting: a woman (is it green peace ?) reports. 
This is the first layer of interpretation of this poem; but other meanings are waiting to be revealed, some of them surprisingly hidden in small details. I tried to figure out some of them. 

     through melancholic rapids: in the flow of devastated language (1) and memory 
    past the blank mirror of wounds :  history is reflection of past crimes 
    here the forty : a multitude 
    skinned trees of life are floated :  revealing words are spoken 

    Only  she the counter swimmer : only poetry is struggling to announce their truth 
    you: the listener, the reader 
    count them : account for all of them 
    touches them all : concentrating on each of them

    some further comments: 

    through melancholic rapids

      as it were the  final "striate" of a fugue where the single themes or voices are superposed achieving a climax of expressive intensity (2)
    past the blank mirror of wounds
      reflection, that is knowledge and abstraction, is the source of all evil as tells us the biblical story; writes Walter Benjamin: "From the sin fall itself  arises the unity of  guilt and meaning in front of the tree of "knowledge" as an abstraction". (3)
      Past crimes that are remembered here are a constant  theme in Celan's poems, referring to the holocaust, his mother died in a concentration camp. 
      Poets are "Hurt by reality and searching for reality" states Celan in a speech from 1958. (4) The Torah, of which the Cabbala is an exegetic instrument, is an "opaque mirror of knowledge... yet it is shining in the pureness of written doctrine..., writes the eminent scholar of the Cabbala, Gershom Scholem, ... knowledge cannot be retrieved from it." This will explain the 'blank' mirror in Celan's poem.; (5)