Thought on Looking into Schneepart

I say “thought” because thinking about poems as dense and as stripped as Paul Celan’s is something you need to do over time. Impressionistic ideas are useless, because the poetry isn’t meant to work like that.  It’s supposed to give a theory of mind and a theory of experience from the point of view of a suffering one -but in a more symbolic way than, say, Plath.

Anyway, the thought isn’t that. I haven’t read it enough to comment properly on that element of it.

The thought is about vocabulary. The edition I’m reading has side-by-side original and translation. German uses compound words a lot more than English, which largely abandoned that as the major means of word formation after the Norman Conquest, although, obviously, that owed far more to political circumstance than linguistic flexibility. The translator has, however, directly translated many of the German compounds (I have no idea whether they are common or invented, by the way) into English.

One that is particularly striking is “word-shadows”.  You realise when you read something like this that the density of compound words allows connotative values to directly impinge on one another, like ripples, which is much more difficult in any other type of imagery. Smashing words together, or gently clipping them together, whichever – brings every experience of both words the reader has to bear on the writing.

Because this will differ so widely from reader to reader, it immediately gives the writing a multitude of possible interpretations – and this doesn’t cloud the writing, or the writer’s intentions, but opens it up.

You could, I suppose, charge that in a bad writer’s hands, this kind of writing is going to be clunky or pompous, or inappropriate; but that’s the risk of any kind of freedom, that idiots will foul it up. It’s not a reason against the freedom, just a plea for careful thinking.

Compound words could give us a sort of M-Theory of poetry, in that the words can so easily reach out to a history of language and culture, thousands of lives, hundreds of famous and dead writers, millions of connotations: they could encircle expression and imagery in a tight space of thought.

About Kevin Donnelly

I'm also known as Lawrence George, which is the name I write for Helium under. I think I ought to ditch my pseudonyms before I forget which one is me.
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