The death of his parents and the experience of the Shoah (The Holocaust) are defining forces in Celan’s poetry and his use of language. In his Bremen Prize speech, Celan said of language after Auschwitz that:
Only one thing remained reachable, close and secure amid all losses: language. Yes, language. In spite of everything, it remained secure against loss. But it had to go through its own lack of answers, through terrifying silence, through the thousand darknesses of murderous speech. It went through. It gave me no words for what was happening, but went through it. Went through and could resurface, ‘enriched’ by it all.
Celan also said: “There is nothing in the world for which a poet will give up writing, not even when he is a Jew and the language of his poems is German.”
His most famous poem, the early “Todesfuge“, is a work of great complexity and power, which may have drawn some key motives from the poem “ER” by Immanuel Weissglas, another Czernovitz poet. The characters of Margarete and Sulamith, with their respectively golden and ashen hair, can be interpreted as a reflection of Celan’s Jewish-German culture, while the blue-eyed “Master from Germany” embodies German Nazism.
In later years his poetry became progressively more cryptic, fractured and monosyllabic, bearing comparison to the music of Anton Webern. He also increased his use of German neologisms, especially in his later works Fadensonnen (“Threadsuns”) and Lichtzwang. In the eyes of some, Celan attempted in his poetry either to destroy or remake the German language. For others, he retained a sense for the lyricism of the German language which was rare in writers of that time. As he writes in a letter to his wife Gisèle Lestrange on one of his trips to Germany: “The German I talk is not the same as the language the German people are talking here”. Writing in German was a way for him to think back and remember his parents, particularly his mother, from whom he had learned the language. This is underlined in “Wolfsbohne” (Lupin), a poem in which Paul Celan addresses his mother. The urgency and power of Celan’s work stem from his attempt to find words “after”, to bear (impossible) witness in a language that gives back no words “for that which happened”.
In addition to writing poetry (in German and, earlier, in Romanian), he was an extremely active translator and polyglot, translating literature from Romanian, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Russian, Hebrew, and English into German.