A great poem is like a tuning fork for the creative spirit: Celan on the Between

My interest in the between (metaxy) picked up energy recently as I studied a poem by Paul Celan.

Celan’s poem on “the between” titled, in Pierre Joris’s translation, “Line the Wordcaves,” goes like this:

Line the wordcaves

with panther skins,


widen them, hide-to and hide-fro,

sense-hither and sense-thither,


give them courtyards, chambers, drop doors

and wildnesses, parietal,


and listen for their second

and each time second and second


This poem probes an aspect of the between not often noticed: as an image of “conversation” the between involves “the parietal” — walls, spatial division. And the between as a cultural phenomenon, is maintained, constructed, as well as discovered as a given.

The elegant couplets move deeper and deeper into the build of the between. The hollows become like a labyrinth or honeycomb or a system of Ice-Age caves.

At the turn of the poem, between the penultimate and the last couplet, it is clear that  the idea of construction must be revised in light of the process of discovery. The poem, elaborated with cunning, becomes a living thing; each tone gives way to a second.

That is, Clean was cunning enough not to render the poem subject to the fantasy of an eternal series: the between retains its dialogical sense. The “wordcaves” are themselves sources of sense.

The poem thus describes the process of “performing” a poem, of “playing” it like a piece of music. And as the artist he is, by extending the formal pattern at the very end to a “final” “tone” — on a line all by itself — Celan executes what I call “metaxyturn” and reveals, in a word, the pattern in the poem as an image of the “foundation” of the pattern, a resonant whole or unity “behind” all the parietal complexity.

A great poem is like a tuning fork of/for the creative spirit.

Author: Tom D'Evelyn

Tom D'Evelyn is a private editor and writing tutor in Cranston RI and, thanks to the web, across the US and in the UK. He can be reached at tom.develyn@comcast.net. D'Evelyn has a PhD in Comparative Literature from UC Berkeley. Before retiring he held positions at The Christian Science Monitor, Harvard University Press, Boston University and Brown University. He ran a literary agency for ten years, publishing books by Leonard Nathan and Arthur Quinn, among others. Before moving to Portland OR he was managing editor at Single Island Press, Portsmouth NH. He blogs at http://tdevelyn.com and other sites.

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