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  • Writer's pictureScott M Williamson

Creative writing: the cento

Below is a draft of a new poem which honors a vital modern poet, one of the most difficult and urgent lyric voices of the 20th century.

Paul Celan (1920-1970) celebrates a double anniversary this year: the centennial of his birth and the 50th Yahrzeit (anniversary) of his suicide, cutting short a life marked by atrocity. A Romanian Jew, he survived the Holocaust which numbered both his parents among the 5-6 million victims.

Here is a link to a recording by one of the most exciting chamber choirs on the planet these days, our friends from Philly, the Crossing: "It is Time" features a variety of Celan settings.

Be sure to check out Collective Euphonia composer Kile Smith's whose "Where Flames A Word" was a centerpiece of CE's premiere residency in September 2019. You can check out Kile's work and his notes on it and the poet here.

(CE sopranos Kelly Balmaceda and Asherah Capellaro at our debut residency, Taubman Museum)

Celan's work plays with language, using the common practice in German of making new compound words from end-butting two independent words. My favorite example is his Atemwende (lit. "Breath-turn"). This makes him a great subject for word games, since reading his poetry is like deciphering a linguistic puzzle using 20th c. philosophical hermeneutics, new-objectivist close-reading and bob's your uncle...

Seriously, for those wanting some fun this holiday season, try writing a "Cento," which is a type of found-art poem of "erasure" whereby one removes interesting and/or random words from a preexisting text and "simply" rearranges them. (Be said words from an article, a book, another poem, or in this case, the introduction to a bilingual translation of Celan's work, acknowledged accordingly...)

(Commemorating Celan and other Romanian Jews with an image from earlier in 2020, when I was visiting the synagogues of Bucharest while abroad as a Fulbright teaching scholar...)

So here is my first effort at honoring Paul Celan (1920-1970), a voice I've come to know, appreciate and love more and more over the 25 years I've been reading poetry closely and reaping the rewards of its ever-rich soils.

Celan Cento, Hannukah 5781 (Dec, 2020)

(from Hamburger ed, The Poems of Paul Celan, Persea, 1972, 1995)

Dialectic of light and darkness

elliptic paradoxical impossibility

(not hermetic)

desperate voice dialogue

(extreme) imagery progression

idiosyncratic coin

(new words)

Heidegger Heidegger Heidegger

Rilke, Bachmann, Malina

Yiddish Auden

celebrates the only kind of victory

moral atonement

the survivor’s botanical reality

cryptic enough

(the negation, the lacuna, the time hole)

Negation and blasphemy

(intimate Jewish devotion)

cryptic allusion


unutterable attention

enacts authenticity

(10 December 2020 | Roa | Hannukah, First Night)

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