Reading Modern Physics in Paul Celan’s “Engführung”

by Alexander Hoefer

Born as Paul Antschel to a Jewish family in Romania, Paul Celan became one of the preeminent German-language poets of the post-World War II era. His somewhat hermetic verses retain elements of his studies in medicine — which were interrupted by the onset of war — just as they never forget the suffering of his parents. Both his mother and father were murdered in Nazi concentration camps.

The severity of his poetry offers the reader many modes of interpretation. This essay interprets them scientifically, by tracing scientific metaphors in what is perhaps Celan’s most celebrated poem, “Engführung” (“Stretto”). This essay argues that the figures operating therein mirror developments in post-Einsteinian physics; that “Engführung’s” self-construction of a poetic text-terrain also effects a spatial representation of time itself, which informs its apparent interests in conscious observation and nonduality (a la Schrödinger), and the possibility of absolute measurement (a la Heisenberg).

But Adorno’s famous proclamation — that “poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric” — may only be a diagnosis of poetry that is not about Auschwitz; for even Celan, who struggled against the title of “Holocaust poet,” must return to it. In “Engführung,” tracing the evolution of quantum physical metaphor leads the reader to a grim revelation, as the poem seems to place scientific development within the chronology of the Shoah (Holocaust), thus revealing its apparent complicity in enacting it.

Paul Celan, science, quantum physics, German poetry, Shoah/Holocaust, post-World War II


The poetry of Paul Celan, with all the stark vagueness it has become known for, seems to encourage conversation with ‘other’ avenues of thought and expression. Many readers have observed, for example, that Celan borrows from the language of scientific fields ranging from botany to cosmology. Rochelle Tobias, author of The Discourse of Nature in the Poetry of Paul Celan: The Unnatural World, takes special interest in Celan’s reliance on the vocabulary of three such fields: geology, astrology, and anatomy. However, traditional engagement with Celan’s 1958 poem “Engführung” (“Stretto”) — his longest poem, often regarded as his most difficult — seems to disqualify metaphorical interpretation. Among the most famous and sensitive of Celan’s readers, Peter Szondi initiates this critical tradition in his 1971 essay on “Engführung,” wherein he suggests that the importance of considering the poem’s literal textual landscape outweighs other possible interpretations. If the poem’s only concern is being itself, “Engführung’s” self-actualization seems to preclude the possibility of becoming anything other than itself (i.e., metaphorizing). However, by analyzing the poem’s reaction to time, we observe that its self-awareness inspires exactly this sort of transformation — “Engführung’s” self-consciousness of aging informs its metaphorical qualities.

This essay will attempt to trace those metaphorical qualities of “Engführung” with special attention to the scientific figures operating therein, many of which mirror developments in post-Einsteinian physics. I will examine the ways “Engführung” not only recognizes its own temporality, but spatially represents it. The poem’s division into nine sections creates a literal sense of movement across the space which underwrites a more complicated temporal movement. Macroscopically, the poem can be divided into two halves, with the fifth section serving as a turning point or fulcrum. Each half concerns itself with a different temporal orientation: the first with history, the second only with the present moment. I will also argue, with recourse to Tobias’ justification of reading metaphor in Celan’s work, and Dennis Bohnenkamp’s essay on “Post-Einsteinian Physics and Literature,” that readings of “Engführung” should incorporate the tenets of both ancient corpuscular science and post-relativistic quantum theory. Because his poem creates a space that is not only informed by and self-conscious of time, but that enacts it, Celan demonstrates the inextricability of the two: he creates a poetic world capable of simulating spacetime itself, with all its elusiveness and immutability. The reader of “Engführung” then encounters the legacies of Einstein, Heisenberg, and Schrödinger. The encounter, however, culminates in an accusation, as the poem plants science firmly in history and implies its complicity in the Shoah[1].

The Poetic Landscape’s Need to Metaphorize

Tobias diverges from critical tradition by contending that the temporality of Celan’s poems vary according to the scientific figures within them: in short, she accepts metaphor even in the literal space constructed by Celan’s most self-actualizing poem. The uniquely performative qualities of “Engführung” are best described by Peter Szondi: “[Other] interpretations are precluded by the textuality of a landscape that is not merely the subject of what we are reading — it is what we are reading” (Szondi 30-31). According to Szondi, “Engführung” marks a discontinuation of figurative poetic tradition. The poem refuses to serve reality, a role assigned to it by thinkers as early as Aristotle, for the poem is no longer concerned with representing a world beyond the text. Instead, its only concern is being itself: “Poetry is ceasing to be mimesis, representation; it is becoming reality” (ibid., 31). Szondi suggests that in the act of reading “Engführung,” the reader actively contributes the poem’s creation of itself — its unfolding in space — such that the poem becomes a physical space where the reader can wander, stopping at various landmarks. Just as Descartes mathematicised space as an arena for geometric calculation, Celan’s poem serves as a space in which language can be arranged and rearranged in different combinations. But as Tobias notes, “Szondi’s primary interest in his reading of “Engführung” is not the poem’s organization in space but of space. To the extent that the poem unfolds as a terrain, it is identical with its utterances” (5-6). The self-sameness of “Engführung,” or its ability to be itself by instantiating what it says, is threatened only by one fact — that the poem, as observed by Werner Hamacher, is subject to time.

If time, as Tobias writes, “negates everything finite that exists,” we may define time as a movement from nothing, through the existence of something, back to nothing (6). This entropic definition aligns with the principles of thermodynamic law, which state that the universe tends to disorder, and which, as a poem that typifies literary self-awareness, “Engführung” must also be wary of. Being aware of its own tendency to disorder, the poem must act preemptively to preserve itself. The poem therefore unfolds in sections; with every new section, the poem becomes something other than what precedes it, while retaining enough of its old self through repetition to be considered a whole (reflecting the musical significance of the term “Stretto,” i.e., a method of fugal composition that overlaps answer and subject). The section breaks allow the poem to effectively re-order itself, thus affirming Tobias’ claim that a thing may only persist in the face of time by continuously reinventing itself, by taking “ever-new forms, its old forms having been sentenced to disappearance” (ibid.).  More abstractly, Tobias claims that the figures embodied in Celan’s recourse to scientific fields effect a sort of self-replacement that parallels “Engführung’s” sectional movement. His poetry, by embodying a particular scientific idea, makes itself over, becomes something other; this protects it from time’s negation. The poem thus demonstrates a self-awareness of its vulnerability to time’s passage, and of its resulting need to metaphorize. In the case of “Engführung,” its unified representation of spacetime configures the principles of higher physics.

The Representation of Spacetime

Celan is far from the first to jointly represent space and time in poetry. In works as early as Aristotle’s Physics, it was supposed that time can only be represented as a movement through space, such as the path of the sun across the sky or a hand around the clock. But “Engführung” distinguishes itself from tradition with a radical self-consciousness of that limitation, and of its own vulnerability to entropy. Tobias analyzes the beginning of “Engführung” to highlight this vulnerability, or more specifically, the poem’s reaction to it:

Verbracht ins
mit der untrüglichen Spur:

Transported into the
with the unmistakable trace:

Verbracht,” which she defines as “transported” or “deported,” suggests an unwilling movement toward an other which denotes the condition of translation or metaphor. The poem is, as all language, translated from absence, wrested from the silence that frames it; and “as translations, Celan’s poems are condemned to speak of themselves in figures since they have no native tongue” (6). Again the poem demonstrates a need, because it exists in time, to constantly re-figure itself lest it become lost or returned to its original silence. In other parts of her monograph, Tobias focuses on poems that reference singular natural phenomena in a moment of immense change or upheaval, such as the volcanic eruption of “Schliere,” or the earthbound comet in “Soviel Gestirne,” in order to emphasize the immediacy of the poem. The poem occurs quickly, changing even as it speaks, before it expires. “Engführung” however, as a poem that is itself — a physical space, a text-terrain in which the reader must “Stop reading: look! Stop looking: go!” —does not depend on a singular natural phenomenon to demonstrate its own mortality. Rather, it does so by integrating its representation of time into the space it constructs.

After the reader is “transported” to the text-terrain of the poem, and instructed to enter, he is presented with the first image of movement within this new poetic reality:

A wheel slowly
rolls by itself, the spokes
clamber over the darkening field, night
needs no stars, nothing
is asking about you

Szondi attributes the apparently self-propelled movement of this reality to the “forward motion of the poet-reader,” thus marrying several dualities in this image of the wheel: author and reader; subject and object; motion and time (33). Harkening back again to the Aristotelian assumption that time can only be represented as spatial movement, the forward movement of the wheel (which the poet-reader becomes), also becomes the forward movement of the poem through space and time. The night through which the wheel clambers also “needs no stars,” no light or witnessing eyes in the heavens, because the poem unfolds with the wheel and its creation of the space it witnesses. But as it clambers forward, it traverses spaces that divide the poem into nine sections. The words that end the first section recur at the beginning of the second:

                                                                       asking about you —

The place, where they lay, it has
a name — it has
none. They didn’t lie there. Something
lay between them. They
didn’t see through it.

The result is a sort of double motion that pervades the poem: as it rolls forward, it recalls the previous section in what at first appears to be an echo. However, further consideration of the musical significance of “Engführung” (Eng. “stretto,” from the Latin strictus) reveals that these reprises are not, in fact, mere echo. They do not repeat but actively respond to, and in some cases build upon, what has been said; they signify the “tightly interwoven (“strict”) linkage between the nine sections of the poem” (Szondi 35). In the linear act of building on itself, the poem contains itself in a circular pattern of self-reference. It bends backward toward history as it moves forward into the future. The double movement of this intersectional threshold also reflects itself in a change in tense.

The first section, comprising two subjects with one issuing orders to the other (“Stop reading: look! Stop looking: go!”), is written in the present tense; the second exchanges a speaking subject with the more ambiguous “they,” and adopts the past tense. Szondi observes that, “since to advance is to return, the second section evokes a place in the past “where they lay,” a place that “has / a name — it has / none” (39). The transition to the third section then introduces a first-person speaker, an “I,” who declares an answer in both present and past tenses: “It is I, I, / I lay between you.” The fourth section continues to combine present and past tense, but introduces perhaps the most blatant declaration so far of the poem’s temporal interest, turning its attention away from persons and toward “the time they pass through or that forms their past (“years. / Years, years a finger / gropes up and down”)” (ibid., 35). The transition to the fifth section — by inversing the closing line of the fourth (“who / covered it up?” in section four becomes “Covered it / up — who?” in section five) — redirects the passage of time from present—>past (i.e. remembering) back to past—>present (i.e. instant experience), if but momentarily before the poem resumes its past tense. Situated in the middle of the nine sections, this fifth section marks a turning-point for the poem, orienting it away from history and toward the immediate.

Because the second half occurs in the present tense, it takes on a new sense of immediacy that befits the momentary and finite nature of speech. The sixth section, by the far the longest, recapitulates the command to go “to / the eye, go, / to the moist,” — an ocular image whose theological and scientific implications we will soon unpack — before it exchanges the distinct “you” or “I” for the collective “we.” This “we” recurs once in the second half of the poem (in the eighth section, “near / our fled hands”), which otherwise entirely omits the use of personal pronouns, again evidencing the non-duality of speaking subject and reader. The parenthetically enclosed ninth and final section returns us into the past by reprising the beginning of the poem, reminding the reader of the poem’s circular evolution. This is not to say that it has returned to its beginning. Rather, this reprise serves to remind us of the change that has occurred during the poem’s passage — through its own space, and through the time therein formed.

Although Celan himself expressed a pronounced aversion to “bebilderte Sprache” (image-laden language), his work cannot escape the imagery that even his most self-realizing poem configures. It continuously transforms itself, not only acknowledging, but founding itself on the notion of metaphor. And if the poem derives its metaphorical qualities from other scientific avenues of thought, it invites readings from those scientific perspectives. As Dennis Bohnenkamp claims in his essay arguing for the incorporation of modern science in literary analysis:

If one accepts that there are some areas of similarity in the theoretical models projected by scientific theories and in created fictional worlds, then perhaps it is not too improbable to suggest that the laws governing one area, the ones most thoroughly codified (in this case, those of physics), might illuminate the other less systematized field, in this case literature. A number of concepts evolving from Einsteinian physics and quantum mechanics provide metaphorical insights into the literature of our period. (20)

Such science-based readings of “Engführung” would be precedented by Celan’s admitted fascination with the writings of Democritus, whom Aristotle credits for the hypothesis that the eye is composed of water. Given this context, the emphasis on moisture in the fifth section’s instructions (“To / the eye, go, to the moist”) becomes an insistence on understanding the ‘scientific’ process of perception, albeit the process of an ancient science. This eye, however, takes on new significance when analyzed, as Bohnenkamp suggests, with insight afforded by concepts of modern physics.

Post-Quantum Analysis

Erwin Schrödinger, attempting to present flaws in the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics (wherein the behavior of material particles, and hence the objects they comprise, remain unpredictable until directly measured), introduced in 1935 his famous thought experiment on quantum superposition, commonly known as ‘Schrödinger’s cat.’ The hypothetical scenario illustrates the almost divine primacy of observation, as it seems to suggest that the observer plays a role in creating the observed subject. The literary implications of this are perhaps more profound than those of any other modern scientific principle: “Central to the paradigm of relativity [quantum mechanics and ‘Schrödinger’s cat’ being derived therefrom] is the notion that reality, instead of lying in the objective world, lies in the act of measuring or perceiving it” (Bohnenkamp 22). This bears obvious relevance in the context of “Engführung,” which unfolds only as the poet-reader moves through and perceives it, or because the poet-reader also becomes the poem, as the poem perceives itself. This is especially apparent after the middle turning-point, at the beginning of section six:

                                    the eye, go
                                                                     to the moist –

hurricanes, from wherever,
particle drift, the other,
know the one, we
read it in the book, it was

The “eye,” the organ of perception — and in light of quantum theory, also that of creation — becomes central to the poem’s construction. This eye becomes the means by which the verse, which begins in a deconstructed state, creates itself from the “hurricanes” of drifting particles, and from which we derive “meaning” in “the book.” The collapse of duality that occurs between subject and observer also reflects itself in the progress from the discombobulated “other” and “you” to the holistic “we.” The poem, beneath the eye that rests above them in the sky (and on the page), gathers itself into a meaningful whole whose vitality preludes the organic, vegetable imagery comprising much of the section. That empyrean placement of the eye is suggested in section five, by the upward movement of ashes in the night, recalling and perhaps even replacing the “grave in the sky” described in Celan’s early poem “Todesfuge,” which “Engführung” aims to rewrite.

This physics-informed reading of “Engführung” — in keeping with Szondi’s assertion that reading Celan “isn’t a matter of selecting one of several meanings, but of understanding that they do not differ, but coincide” — does not contradict readings that involve the ancient scientific theory of Democritus (81). The Greek thinker, whom Celan is known to have read, famously believed all things were constituted of atoms and the emptiness between them, also postulating that the eye perceives an object by reflecting that object’s efflux of atoms in the eye’s water (Tobias 17). Hence, the absence, the empty space that frames the poem — visually, on the page; sonically, between line and stanza breaks — becomes as central to its formation as the words themselves.

The ‘absence’ of the poem assumes relevance from the first section, in the “night” which “needs no stars.” But it takes new precedent at the end of the sixth section, where the organic language is suddenly replaced by the hard, angular imagery of “a thousand crystal, / shot forth, shot forth.” The seventh section continues with these geometric figures: “Circles, / red or black, / bright / squares, no / flight shadows.” In alternating vague description of shapes with that of color and shade, the poem transitions from an organic, vine-like, “gritty and stringy” world to a “crystalline universe of pure forms … and bright colors … lacking all movement and mediation — there is nothing terrestrial about it, nothing mixed” (Szondi 66). We have, in effect, been brought from the everyday confusion of visceral experience to a sort of quantum realm — with “thoroughly codified” laws, as Bohnenkamp would say (20). This realm is characterized as much by its negative, or by what it is not (“no / flight shadows, / no / measuring board, no / smoke soul”) as by what can be directly measured, which recalls Heisenberg’s famous uncertainty principle (asserting that pairs of physical quantities for a particle, such as its velocity and position, cannot be simultaneously measured with accuracy); one can only make inferences about the positive from the given data about the negative, but there can be no clear observation of both.  However, the crystalline, “unmixed” quality of the universe seem to suggest that the measurements have already taken place: physical quantities are discrete, neatly recorded, static, and decided. There is nothing uncertain about it; even Heisenberg’s worries have been resolved, for the universe has been subjected to complete understanding. Pure science has triumphed.

The Indictment of Pure Science

If the seventh section describes a universe of pure science and discrete particles, devoid of any auxiliary verbs that indicate a place in time, then the eighth section plants it in a mixed universe, rooting it in time. The wheel rolls into a universe that has brought ‘pure science’ to its most awful practical end, and reinstates it in the context of Jewish history, or more specifically, its role in expediating Jewish suffering: where the “fled hands, in / the latest rejection” demark a long history of alienation and mistreatment, during the “back then,” when psalms and “Ho, ho / sanna” were sung by Jews before executions carefully calculated by Nazi Germany. Suddenly, the obscure “bright / squares” of the previous section’s crystalline universe become the glowing doors of an incinerator; they are the gates of hell the reader has already passed in his Dantean entrance to the eighth section. The poem transports us to, in a word, Auschwitz.

It does so without adopting the past tense, instead maintaining an orientation to the present moment, where “temples still stand,” and the night sky, differing from earlier sections, holds a star: a star which “still has its light / Nothing, / nothing is lost.” This language seems at first to hint at some persistence of Jewish faith, perhaps even its immortality, but this would contradict the poem’s apparent preoccupation with finiteness. One can resolve this tension with a literal reading of the word “nothing”: i.e., understanding it as a description of the entity that is empty space or absence. This line then documents the loss of ‘nothingness.’ In the absence of ‘nothing,’ which is to say, in a universe composed only of things, those things become indistinguishable; the “day gray, / of groundwater traces,” harkens back to the poem’s beginning (“Transported into the / terrain / with unmistakable trace”) yet diverges from it with the notable omission of “unmistakable” — the poet/reader, once transported to the terrain of the poetic space along the clear, pronounced path of the wheel, has now been reduced to ambiguity. With the ambiguation of the self-actualizing poet/reader, the verse itself and its construction of spacetime must also become obscure. Time — which we defined earlier as a movement from nothing, through the existence of something, and back to nothing — cannot exist without the distinctions between absence and text. And poetry — which exists in the present moment, in the turn of breath and its similar transformation from nothing, through speech, and back to nothing — is also lost. When science is taken to its absolute end, leaving only a single (perhaps fascist) observer, a lone “star” in the night, where all things become measured and the universe stagnates in a crystalline, pure form — where nothingness is lost — language itself will fail. And for those who suffer its consequence, even their prayers will fragment:


The ninth and final section’s reprise of the first then reminds us of the path taken not only by the poem itself, but by the scientific concepts it borrows from. By bending backward to reconnect with its beginning, the poem takes on a circular structure that suggests the inevitability of its ending; if the reader re-traces this peculiar sequence of events, he will find that it returns every time to the broken prayer of suffering Jews — thus, the trace of the poet/reader is “unmistakable.” This poem will always, in the movement from past to present, form a spatial arena of time that introduces the specters of higher scientific thought; it will always illustrate the role pure science plays in enabling the Shoah, and disabling the spoken word. Language requires the frame of nothingness (i.e., time) in order to distinguish itself. It requires the inexplicable; science, however, deals only in explanation. Thus, pure science culminates in the erection of Auschwitz just as it stifles the breath of those forced to enter.


The cross-sectional movement of “Engführung” acts as a form of self-replacement that stems from the poem’s anticipation of its subjectivity to time. As the poem unfolds in expectation of its own decay, the promise of entropy seems to propel it forward into updated versions of itself. Rochelle Tobias points to this natural self-metaphorization as justification for focusing on its figurative imagery, which marks a departure from the longstanding critical bias toward the poem’s self-realizing qualities — a tradition inaugurated by Peter Szondi. “Engführung’s” self-construction of a poetic text-terrain, which Szondi’s analysis clearly illustrates, also behaves as a spatial representation of time, which calls for a reading of scientific metaphor that Tobias first undertakes. The scientific figures I observe in “Engführung” belong chiefly to the field of physics, where developments in quantum theory bear special relevance to the poem’s interests in nonduality, conscious observation, and the possibility of absolute measurement. The poem culminates in a dystopian depiction of the Shoah, which serves to highlight the risks of an absolutely measured science, and places it accusingly — “unmistakably” — within the chronology of the Shoah.

Works Cited

Bohnenkamp, Dennis. “Post-Einsteinian Physics and Literature: Toward a New Poetics.” Mosaic: An Interdisciplinary Critical Journal, vol. 22, no. 3, 1989, pp. 19–30.

Celan, Paul, and Pierre Joris. Paul Celan: Selections. University of California Press, 2005.

Szondi, Peter. Celan Studies. Stanford University Press, 2003.

Tobias, Rochelle. The Discourse of Nature in the Poetry of Paul Celan: The Unnatural World. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006.


[1] The word “shoah,” meaning “catastrophe” in Hebrew, is now often used to refer to the genocide of six million European Jews by Nazi Germany, an event known in English-speaking countries as “the Holocaust” (from the Greek for “sacrifice by burning”). This essay will use the former term.

Dedication: For the breathless.

Citation Style: MLA