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  • Pound Notes in German Markets: Paul Celan, Usury, and the Postwar Currency of Ezra Pound
  • Philip Gerard (bio)

Beginning in the early 1960s, the name Ezra Pound begins to surface in Paul Celan’s notebooks. Pound is one of the few living poets that Celan mentions in the draft materials to his Büchner Prize Speech, The Meridian, and the American’s name is a returning figure in several poetological aphorisms that Celan wrote around the same time. At first sight, it is not obvious what would prompt Celan to take note of Pound. Poetically and politically, the two lie poles apart. Writing in the shadow of the Nazi genocide, Celan is known for pushing German poetry to the edge of silence in an effort to sound the abysses of personal and collective loss. Nothing resembles the austere minimalism of such work less than the noisy babel of the Cantos, which by 1960 had exceeded 750 pages. Celan was also bitterly conscious of Pound’s anti-Semitism and his defense of Italian fascism, and one can imagine Celan finding such complicities insupportable. But even so, the aged modernist, newly released from a hospital for the criminally insane, made for an unlikely foil. Celan was only thirty-nine years old when he received the Büchner Prize, modern German literature’s most prestigious honor; in 1960 Pound was seventy-four and had never in his life shown much interest in German verse, old or new. Taking this yawning poetic, political, and generational divide into account, one can only wonder, why bother with Pound at all?

If we read the notebooks carefully, we see that what provokes Celan’s references to Pound has little to do with his personal antipathy for the American poet, or even with a considered engagement [End Page 125] with Pound’s work. Instead, the notes have to do with the historical conjuncture that threw Pound and Celan together. Despite their differences, the two shared the same world, even if this “world” was no bigger than the global literary market that Goethe called “Weltliteratur.” Still incipient in Goethe’s day, the “epoch of world literature” had become increasingly concrete by Pound and Celan’s.1 In the 1950s, translations of Pound and books by Celan competed for shelf space in West German bookstores and libraries. For a time, the two men even shared a publisher.2

It is doubtful that Celan welcomed the fact that Eva Hesse’s German translations of the Cantos sold alongside his own poetry. Worse than suffering Pound’s company in publishers’ catalogues and display windows, however, was the danger that such proximity might prompt readers to measure his German against the Cantos’s cacophony of Greek and Chinese. Such comparisons, after all, are precisely what Goethe had imagined and the contemporary market for world literature actively encouraged. For a range of literary-historical and ethical-political reasons, a poem by Celan and a canto by Pound really do have nothing to say to one another. Nevertheless, in the globalized literary marketplace of the 1950s and 1960s, the two had a kind of commerce.

The most consequential of Celan’s reflections on the scene of exchange where he and Pound competed for readers takes the form of an aphorism written either during or shortly after the writing of The Meridian. Since the kind of value produced by translation is important to Celan’s point, I will give his aphorism first in the original before offering an English “equivalent.” Celan writes,

Wenn sie Pound lesen, verstehen sie sogar Chinesisch. Mit diesem Pfunde wuchern sie gerne – nicht zuletzt auch deshalb, weil sie Shylock als Klischee am Leben erhalten wollen3

In its original wording, Celan’s aphorism already engages the problem of translation on many levels. First among these is Celan’s interlingual pun on Pound’s family name. Because this pun trades on linguistic difference, it poses a special challenge for the aphorism’s would-be translator. Nonetheless, the punning exchange can be analyzed as a series of transactions. Thus, in the aphorism’s first sentence, “Pound” is a proper name, a metonym for Pound’s epic poem, the Cantos. By the time we reach...