The Language of Trees in Violent Times: Thoughts on the Aesthetics of Nikki Giovanni and Paul Celan By Michael T. Young


Paul Celan, 1967

By Michael T. Young
I recently read the poetry of Nikki Giovanni and that of Paul Celan back to back. The transition from one to the other was jarring. There couldn’t be two aesthetics so different from each other. This contrast set me to thinking about what characterizes them, what vision they each embody and where they diverge and converge. 
For Giovanni, there is a direct line from experience to expression. While she may use metaphors to open a subject, she does not allow metaphors or the music of language to follow its own course distinct from her moral perception. In many ways her aesthetics are determined by her moral or ethical values. This is necessary in a social context where injustice is pawned off as normal behavior. Indirection and even misdirection are what cloak the racism and violence of the American landscape. So, aesthetically, she needs a straight line to uncover it. One can see this compulsion for a direct moral aesthetic in her poem “For Saundra.” It addresses a problem often posed by poets in traumatic times, that is, the question of writing poems about trees. In a famous poem, Bertolt Brecht said it this way:
Ah, what an age it is
When to speak of trees is almost a crime
For it is a kind of silence about injustice!
(translated by H. R. Hays)
Since then, different poets have approached this problem, some in poems, others in prose. George Oppen, a poet well known for putting poetry aside for many years to engage in political activism said, “There is no crisis in which political poets and orators may not speak of trees.” Ignoring the obvious contradiction, it asserts a definite stance. Giovanni addresses this dilemma in her poem. After a neighbor asks her “do you ever write tree poems,” she makes the effort but comes to the opposite conclusion from Oppen:
. . . it occurred to me
maybe i shouldn’t write
at all
but clean my gun
and check my kerosene supply
perhaps these are not poetic
at all
Also, with a bit of irony, Giovanni asserts this stance in a poem. At another point in the poem, when trying to describe a tree, Giovanni, “peeked from my window/to check the image.” Giovanni doesn’t isolate herself in her writing. She is always looking outward, “to check the image,” to correspond what she writes with what is going on in the world around her. Her poetry is one of witness and disclosure. And this is why, as the poem goes on, it becomes impossible for her to write about trees or any other natural beauty.
Not seeing a tree outside in the New York landscape, Giovanni turns to writing about the sky, but can’t because “all the clouds have winged/low since no-Dick was elected.” For Giovanni, the moral ugliness in the world makes it impossible to take pleasure in natural beauty. The one colors the other and can’t be separated. This fusion requires an aesthetics grounded in a moral imperative, an aesthetics of explicit revelation.
Giovanni’s aesthetic is diametrically opposed to the aesthetic one confronts in Celan. One sees this in a poem Celan wrote in direct response to the Brecht poem.
A leaf, treeless
for Bertolt Brecht:
What times are these
when a conversation
is almost a crime
because it includes
so much made explicit?
(trans. Michael Hamburger)
This poem is a bit of an oddity. Rarely does Celan disclose his thoughts or feelings directly. But here we see a kind of ars poetica open in response to Brecht. And what is learned in that aversion to the explicit or direct language is that Celan’s aesthetic is one of indirection. Why is that?
Celan lived through the Holocaust, surviving one of the labor camps, while his parents both died in them. Much of Celan’s poetry evolved out of this trauma. The wound of the Holocaust was forever too raw to directly touch. Metaphor and symbol served as an anesthetic to perform surgery on a deeply wounded psyche. So, whether we read his earlier more imagistic poems and engage his famous “black milk of daybreak” or his later more abstruse proclamations regarding the “Illegibility/ of this world,” we are dealing with forceps and scalpel. As Hamburger translates another of Celan’s lines, “clarity troubles.” Interestingly, just like Giovanni, Celan’s poetry is all about the speaker’s feelings and yet, it is a language meant to remake the very vocabulary of feeling, which is why it is so unusual.
Both Brecht and Celan say, “almost a crime” or “nearly a crime.” Both allow a place for what they would deny because the denial is circumstantial, not absolute. For Brecht, writing about trees during the terror of the Holocaust may be necessary. For Celan, the need to speak or write in the aftermath of it is unavoidable. Giovanni too allows a way for writing to remain with her “perhaps” opening the last stanza. So while Celan’s poems are spare, words squeaking through that “almost,” Giovanni’s poems are bare, exposing the nerves in necessary confrontations in what are, let’s say, “unpoetic poems.” This is not to say her writing is not poetry but that it refuses artifice. Her drive is toward removing all artifice behind which the lie of racism can hide. In a later poem, Giovanni even declares, “This is not a poem.” While it might be said that Celan’s poetry is all artifice, he so drastically alters the typical German language, he wondered about the language he used in his own poems saying, “I am not sure the German I write in is spoken here, or anywhere.”
Strangely, it seems, the very different aesthetics of these two poets here meet, as both would reject an aesthetic of purity, a language of enchantment. It doesn’t seem possible that either poet would agree with Joseph Brodsky when he said, “With a poet, one’s ethical posture, indeed one’s very temperament, is determined and shaped by one’s aesthetics.” Such a yielding to the easy music of the given language would carry these two poets into the very dangers they try to conquer. Just like well-worn tracks on a dirt road, the language we inherit may pull us in the same direction others have taken. For Giovanni, that would be the language of racism and violence. For Celan, it would be the language of the systematic murder of a race, of people he personally knew. But each one is compelled to make or remake their languages in opposing ways to confront the pain and violence of their world. Each one is driven to create a language of confrontation that results in drastically different aesthetics.
Michael T. Young’s third full-length collection, The Infinite Doctrine of War, was longlisted for the Julie Suk Award. His previous collections are The Beautiful Moment of Being Lost and Transcriptions of Daylight. He received a Fellowship from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts. His chapbook, Living in the Counterpoint, received the Jean Pedrick Chapbook Award from the New England Poetry Club. Michael’s poetry has appeared in numerous journals including Gargoyle, One, Quiddity, Rattle, and Valparaiso Poetry Review. It has also been featured on Verse Daily and The Writer’s Almanac.  Michael T. Young


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