Here are more of my translations of the great Trakl poems of 1914. These include the terrifying war poem, “In The East,” the odd and lovely and desolate “Homecoming,” and a first version of “Lament.” This is not the famous “Klage,” one of Trakl’s last poems, but neither is it an early version. It stands on its own. All of these poems were published in the magazine Brenner in 1914-1915.
Trakl’s work has had an interesting publication history, reception, and influence. In his lifetime, only his Gedichte (Poems) was published, in 1913. In 1915, the year after his death the extraordinary Sebastian im Traum (Sebastian in the Dream) was published, a volume he had prepared prior to his suicide. Both books proved popular, and in 1918 his publisher brought out a collected poems, Die Dichtungen. As his fame grew, translations appeared in Czech, Rumanian, and English in the 1920’s, and musical settings of some of the poems were published in 1922 by Paul Hindemith. Appreciation was wide, though there was not much critical commentary or deep analysis, perhaps because the poems seem to travel directly into our appreciation and sensibility without much room for the usual kinds of critical analysis. In fact, there was not much deep critical commentary on Trakl until the 1950’s. Interest grew markedly with the publication in 1961 of Robert Bly and James Wright’s Twenty Poems of Georg Trakl (Sixties Press (Madison), 1961).
One of the more interesting comments came in 1915, from Rilke in a private letter on Sebastian I’m Traum that was published much later: “I imagine that even those standing close shall still experience these views and insights as if through a window-pane: since Trakls’ experience goes as if in reflections and fills his whole room, which is unenterable, like the room in a mirror. (Who could he have been?)” I like these comments a lot, that description of wide vistas in enclosed space circling back endlessly on itself. Heidegger has also made some wonderful and fascinating comments on the poems, in the way they open and close, present and distance themselves and their objects and images. I also like this by Robert Bly: “The poems of Georg Trakl have a magnificent silence in them. It is very rare that he himself talks—for the most part he allows the images to speak for him.”
The images speak, not the poet. It is a brilliant comment, and perfectly describes the feeling we get reading the poems:
The coolness of dark years,
Pain & Hope
Preserved by cyclopean rock,
Autumn’s gold breath,
Looks on with blue eyes;
Under dark spruce
Dew that falls
From fiery eyelids onto the stiff grass—
The gold path
Breaks in the snow
Of the abyss!
The dark valley
Breathes blue coolness,
Lonely churchyard, welcome!
Child, from your crystal mouth
Your gold gaze sank into the valley;
The woods trembling red & lifeless
Wave in the black evening hour.
Evening strikes such deep wounds!
Fear! The dream-sickness of death,
The withered grave & the spent
Year gazes from the tree & deer;
A sallow field, & an acre of land.
The shepherd calls the frightened sheep.
Your blue brows, sister,
Beckon gently in the night.
The organ groans & hell laughs
& the heart is seized with horror—
It would rather look upon star & angel.
The mother must fear for her child;
The ore sounds red in the pit,
Lust, tears, stony sorrow,
The dark legends of the Titans,
Sadness! Sad cries of solitary eagles.
Holy Sister, let your darkness embrace me,
Your mountains so cold & blue!
The dew bleeds down & is dark;
The cross looms up against the glittering stars.
When the mouth & the lie finally broke
There was purple in the room’s decaying coolness;
Then the laughter shone, then the gold game,
Then the last windings of the clock.
A cloud across the moon! At night,
Wild fruit falls black from the tree,
& the room becomes a grave,
& this earthly pilgrimage a dream.
In The East
The grim anger of nations,
Like the wild organ-sounds of the winter storm,
The purple wave of battle,
Stars that have shed their leaves.
With shattered foreheads & silver arms
Night calls to the dying soldiers.
The spirits of the battle-dead groan
In the shadow of autumnal ash.
A desert of thorns surrounds the city.
The moon chases the terrified women
From steps that are bleeding.
Wild wolves have broken through the gate.
Let me conclude this blog entry with James Wright’s wonderful description of his own experience of Trakl’s poetry, made in his 1975 Paris Review interview. He was talking about a time in the 1950’s, just after reading a copy of Robert Bly’s magazine The Fifties, which contained a translation of a poem by Trakl:
Some years earlier, at the University of Vienna, I had read in German the poetry of Trakl and I didn’t know what to do with it, though I recognized that somehow it had a depth of life in it that I needed. Trakl is a poet who writes in parallelisms, only he leaves out the intermediary, rationalistic explanations of the relation between one image and another. I would suppose that Trakl has had as much influence on me as anybody else has had. But the interesting thing is that when I read Robert Bly’s magazine, I wrote him a letter. It was sixteen pages long and single-spaced, and all he said in reply was, “Come on out to the farm.” I made my way out to that farm, and almost as soon as we met each other we started to work on our translation of Trakl.
It resulted in one of the great Bly-Wright collaborative books of translation, mentioned above, Twenty Poems of Georg Trakl. Wright was so taken by that experience that Trakl’s modes influenced some of his subsequent poems. You can see the influence for example in a poem like “Rain”:
It is the sinking of things.
Flashlights drift over dark trees.
An owl’s eyelids fall.
The sad bones of my hands descend into a valley
Of strange rocks.
I spent hours with that poem as an undergraduate at Hobart, as I was trying to learn the craft of writing poetry, understand the taxonomy and power of images. This poem overwhelmed me as tried to understand how Wright had composed it, and how he balanced out the relative weight of these apparently so simple lines to reach that extraordinary conclusion. How does a line like “Girls kneel” manage to occupy the same space and weight—for it does—as the “sad bones” line. What are those “strange rocks,” and how do they receive this sinking? There is something magical in all of that, an set of invisible relations, an ordering of things that resists analysis, and that, as in so much of Trakl’s work, makes the poetry.