Brief Improvisational Thinking Regarding Organic Art and the Joris Translations of Paul Celan


These thoughts are written without much preconcieved idea of the end product. Therefore, this post is kind of improvisational and completely reflects the basic start of my thinking regarding art as a living creation that reflects the changes of its creators. I have been creating things, whether they be poetry or paintings or music, for much of my life. In that time, I have had many friends and acquaintances that also created things. What I’ve learned is that artists generally want to be free from external defined notions of what constitutes their art, free from societal definition. Artists wish to allow their art to define and grow with their growth. According to Fred Moten, CA Conrad expressed that he wanted “to be poetry.” Conrad seems to echo Rilke’s quest to “align every fiber of his being with the great ideal” of poetry (Baer, 2004). The poetry (or other form of art) that these artists wish to be is organic, ever-changing with changes in their lives and the world in which they live.


The 100 year old steps of Norman Hall at the University of Florida

Art that documents and mirrors life’s temporal quality has become more abundant. Some relatively recent examples include Basinski’s Disintegration Loops, which deteriorated as it was recorded, creating a documentation of actual disintegration as it was occuring; Kara Walker’s A Subtlety, which included statues made of sugar that started to melt and breakdown over the duration of the show; Andy Goldsworthy’s temporary sculptures made of ice, which recall the landart of another decade; or Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo, which has been in flux since its initial release earlier this spring. West’s record company has even released a statement that asserts that the album is “an innovative, continuous process, the album will be a living, evolving art project.”

A more potent (and perhaps more relevant) example of this kind of artistic document that lives and breathes the changes of society through text is Claudia Rankine’s Citizen. More specifically, pages 134 and 135. Here is a description of these changes with dates of new printings of the book. As time progresses, each new printing seems to add to the growing list of black lives that have been cut short at the hands of the police. More interesting reading about Citizen can be found in Nick Laird’s wonderful New York Review of Books article.


There are innumerable examples of this type of work. These are but a few small examples that have been more present in recent media than others.

Translations, albiet rigorously and creatively challenging like the artworks listed above, are temporal as well. These changing texts are more subtle than those referenced above. Translators that return to their previous translations can change their thinking based on their own personal relationship with the text, their experiences in life (and translating), and their reflections.

If there could be an author that exemplifies the idea of becoming poetry, Paul Celan is as qualified a candidate as one could hope. Most of Celan’s poetry is originally composed in German, so I come to the work solely through translation.

Joris Covers 05 & 16

Joris translations of Paul Celan from 2005 (left) and 2014 (right)


Pierre Joris’s translations capture the idea of growth and change over time in art. He captures a musical quality, minimal but powerfully resonant, in his translations. Joris includes captivating introductions that contextualize the work, and it seems like he is challenging himself in a way that makes me, as a reader, feel like I am in a trusted relationship. Joris is the guide, but he’s open to new ways of looking at the same path. An example of this is the subtle and gorgeous variation of lines from Joris’s translation of Celan’s Lightduress, from 2005 and 2014 respectively.

In Joris’s translated text over time, one can read subtle shifts in his reading of Celan. Below is one example of this revisioning. The differences between “bond” and “band” may not seem significant to some…but, compare the change in “knots it anew” to the more easily read “tied it anew.” The phrasing changes the tense and the entire feeling of the line. Equally interesting is the change from a proper name of Gehugnis to the uncapitalized version. There is a shift, and I am definitely not an acute enough mind to understand the ramifications on the entire text. However, I am transfixed by this. Although this translation does not indicate anything as radical as Merwin’s Hadrian examples from my earlier post, these are compelling.


You Be Like You 05 & 16

Joris translation of Lightduress from 2005 (left) and 2014 (2014)


Again, we see this subtle change in language throughout Joris’s work. Check out the lines below. “Economical ignition points/in the sky” is changed to “dotted pilotlights line/the sky.” This completely changes the interpretation of the line for this reader. The compound word “pilotlights” captures something of Celan’s own creative use of German, the limitations and illuminations that can come from working with language so closely.

Unasylumed 05 & 16

Joris translation of Lightduress from 2005 (left) and 2014 (right)


The translations of Celan’s late work are hard to uncouple from the facts of his biography. As I read these translations and their continued refinement, I can’t help but to consider Celan’s own deep commitment and challenges in using the tool of language to create his art. He has noted (again, in a Joris translation of Breathturn from 2004) that he would like to compose his poetry “even without/ language.” There are some engaging Joris conversations out there around the translations and the biography of Celan, including this one with writer, Paul Auster.

The revisioning of artistic works reflects our learning, deepens as we accommodate and assimilate more and more new information.