Collected Poems of Georg Trakl
APPROACHING SILENCE: THE POETRY OF GEORG TRAKL
Trakl's elusive, enigmatic poems have been the subject of interminable debate in the modern age. The resulting presentations may illicit admiration from the reader, but also frustration. As the rational mind struggles to explain what cannot be explained, these dreamlike, otherworldly poems have been dubbed mood paintings, tonal poems, impressionist collages, colour-coded dream images and so on. The general consensus is that they are unique, a visionary flare sent up at a specific point in European history, at a vital schism between the old order and the new, lending the work a special force, insistence and sense of being outside linear time. Today the word "visionary" is of course catastrophically over-employed in a culture which bestows it on almost anyone with a modicum of talent in his or her field; but occasionally in our European culture a special case emerges and we recognize the rarity of a poetry, music or painting that sounds or looks like nothing else of its kind before or since. Trakl's poems strike the senses in both a visual and an audible way, their imagery is innately mystical, reverberations of some primordial longing; yet his work is also uncompromisingly apocalyptic, the dislocation at the heart of the modern age always strongly present.
In the English-speaking world there have be number of studies of Trakl's poetry over the last decades. These are in the main academically driven works by German-literature scholars, whether attempts to elucidate the existential religious contours of their subject, to decipher the composition and symbolism of the complex dream imagery which is the hallmark of Trakl's oeuvre or to thresh out elements of his short biography, not his incestuous relationship with his sister Grete. Such works, the fruit of considerable research, often prove interesting and even helpful; but none of these studies, any more than the attempt by the philosopher Martin Heidegger to analyze Trakl's colour palette, are wholly successful, nor do they explain how Trakl could, with a handful of lines on a page, encompass a mood or feeling so consummately.
There are also of course a range of introductions available, like so many smaller craft attending the growing flotilla of translations of Trakl's poetry into English. Each translator, one perhaps more a scholar, the other more a poet, who has resided within Trakl's image-extravagant universe wishes to express their ardently held personal take on the poetry and the particular challenges they faced in landing their cargo safely on English or American shores. Each translator, because of their perhaps long-standing personal connection with the poems, would like to think they have an exclusive angle on this prescient spirit which has somehow eluded the others. They may be suspicious of, even in certain depressing cases hostile to, the other translators who have dared to breach their domain, so they try all the harder to nail their colors to the mast, to ensure that their assumptions, laced with critical seriousness, are foremost.
Then there will be the more abundant crop of German-language essays and biographies, from the post-war years to the present day, an international slough of monographs and theses. And there will be well-organized conferences at which leading scholars will deliver papers and there will be applause and there will be centenary memorials for birth, for death, there will be still more carefully organized debates and colloquiums and there will be pilgrimages. But where exactly does all this "activity" lead in terms of helping the general reader meaningfully to interpret the supernatural forces and secret alchemy- that must have colluded to enable human inwardness to deliver such a vision—borne so painfully by an awkward, ungainly, oneself-loathing young man in provincial Catholic Austria in the years preceding the First World War?
The answer is: it leads nowhere, or at least the “terra firma” it may initially promise suddenly begins to shift beneath the reader, making any sense of firm anchorage a chimera. For to approach Trakl's poetry with our carefully amassed, painstakingly interwoven thought and words, with the language each of us has been granted at birth, in whichever country on this earth, merely causes a frustrating veil to descend over that which we wish so ardently to illuminate. To encounter Trakl's reclusive poetry with the tools at our disposal is to remain permanently cut off, like passengers marooned on a craft, who see the verdant island they wish to land on but can never actually reach, due to unseen currents that keep them back from the line of surf breaking on the shore. They see the poetic language glinting there like ice in the sun on a glacier, see it clearly; but how do they read it and how deeply do they feel it? At which level of receiving does their consciousness come to rest, and is there for the next reader still further to go? Kafka can be read on a variety of levels, so why not Trakl? In order to create these arcane visions, "this chaos of rhythm and images" as he himself termed it, Trakl surely needed access to another undisclosed language, a mysterious connecting filament which hovers about his own poetic one and that of the external world.
But what is this language and can we really term it as such Walter Benjamin, in his legendary essay on translation, "The Task of the Translator", evocatively suggests of an elusive pure language, "that ultimate essence", which it is the task of translators to liberate from the original.
Rilke, the curator of solitude, had the rare capacity to articulate inwardness, and, like a skilled watchmaker, by employing the most sensitive adjustments, sought to pinpoint Trakl’s poetic essence. In 1915, following Trakl's death, Rilke wrote to Ficker, after encountering the works of his late contemporary. "I have discovered much in them: overwhelmed, amazed, wondering and mystified; for one soon realizes that the conditions of these tones which rise and fall away are irrevocably singular, like those circumstances in which a dream might arise. I imagine that even one who stands close by must experience such spectacles and perceptions as though pressed, an exile, against a pane of glass: for Trakl's life passes as if through the images of a mirror and fills its entire space, which cannot be entered, like the space of the mirror itself." In 1917 Rilke was back, seeking again to define the mysterious aura: "For me the Trakl poem is an object of sublime existence... but now it puzzles me how its form, fleeting from the start and delicately by-passed in description, could possibly bear the weight of its own oblivion in such precise images."
The complexity of Trakl's imagery is a result of a mind that, in order to continue without fragmenting entirely, must create an alternative poetic language as a bulwark against an increasingly onerous and destructive external reality. Only through this dream reconfiguration of the past, this shaping of nature into complex patterns of symbol and allusion, can the inherent absurdity of existence, and personal failure to retain spiritual authenticity in a world increasingly stripped of it, be atoned. For Trakl, hounded by his demons, there is nowhere else to go but deeper into still-darker places, to mine as if from an always depleting seam the ore of images piled on images; and the shaft he scores is impossibly constrained through the intensity of its subjectivity—there is no deviation. As Michael Hamburger attested, only a narrow furrow is ploughed, but it runs deep. Where other poets may broaden out or change radically at various mellowing or radicalizing stages of their life, Trakl's existence allows only for decline, thus he is imprisoned and propelled onwards to his own tragic finale. His poetry is, in a sense, one long poem using the same motifs endlessly reworked and reanimated in different combinations, an instinctive struggle to locate the image of final release. With such an endlessly shifting tonal palette available, is it any surprise that so many composers, from Anton Webern to Oliver Knussen to Thea Musgrave, have seized on Trakl's tortured yet lyrically profuse "songs"? One long poem, or one score of music, a visionary signature read over and again, whose content fine-tunes itself, increases in potency over a matter of months, of brief years. As the carapace of influences is shed and the drapes of the “fin de siècle” are raised, we sense the poetry evolving into something far weightier, permanent, of greater human import, more visibly itself. With Holderlin as teacher, Trak1stretches out, taps his inner reserves, sings his despair rather than howls it. In a poem like "Night" the transformation is complete: the poet's voice is pitched at fullest freedom; anything is possible and yet there is control. With the poems of “Sebastian in Dream” and those published in “Der Brenner”, Trakl achieves greatness, and by greatness we mean absolute authenticity, the moment when image and language combine, solidifying in a perfect way. As the pain of existence and the certainty of cataclysm increase, so the tension is intensified as the form is obliged to bear even more, thus the impact on the reader is heightened.
Trakl’s finest poems, then, do not belong to the first stage, but need time to emerge, through increasing suffering and experience. In 1909-11 there is an evolving memory/dream landscape with cryptic figures active within it: Joanna, Sonia, Sebastian, Elis, who graft their haunting presence onto vignettes of coarse peasants and gentle maidservants, asters blooming, children play around rustic fountains, chestnut-shaded courtyards, the poet's drunken forest rambles. These motifs are repetitive, monotonous, following the rhythm of those scythes which swing mournfully over the corn. But something must be added. The answer comes with the alienating paraphernalia of the metropolis—this, and the pernicious memory of the corruption of innocence, the sense of death's foot firmly in the door, stepping forcibly into life, the anxiety felt by one confronting a reality in which he senses he is superfluous and stillborn. Then the five-part poem "Helian" miraculously emerges; the freely creative dream image assumes command.
Rationally speaking, Trakl's depressions, delusion and hallucinations suggest he may have suffered from a schizophrenic illness. As the philosopher Karl Jaspers states: "One observes how schizophrenics create own mythology, which for them exists self-evidently and unquestionably, and which often adopts this timeless quality." The shade of madness accompanies the poet through St Peter's churchyard, where "rocky loneliness is all around", on the steep paths of the Monchsberg and by the formal ponds at Hellbrunn. The spectre of insanity and Gerard de Nerval's "black sun of melancholy” are Trakl’s constant companions, and, like the assistants that plague K in Kafka's “The Castle”, they are ever present without any explanation, unable to be dispensed with and difficult to despatch. In 1914, desperate missives to Ficker show Trakl more and more concerned that he will imminently fall prey to madness. "Tell me that I must still have the strength to live and do what is true. Tell me that I am not insane. A stony darkness has broken in..."
One of the most recurring themes of Trakl's poetry is the divinity and sacredness of childhood, of what cannot be recovered, but with childhood as the threshold to the propensity for evil in maturity as the external world breaks through. The early poems, saturated with those alternately morbid or tenderly wrought scenes of rural life, lie prone to infection by the demands of adulthood. In this world of an industrialized new century he, the embalmer of a romantically envisioned, more courtly age, echoing that for which Holderlin mourned, has no place. Trakl's anachronistic dream-realm of shepherds, solitaries, monks and saints, wayfarers and lepers is a far cry from the whipped-cream-factory floor of culture-driven Vienna, and equally its reactive counterpart, the nerve-jangling visual experiments and time-sensitive revolutionary zeal of Expressionism, the movement he is commonly associated with. In 1913 he writes the following in a letter from Salzburg: "I long for the day when the soul neither will nor can live in this unholy body blighted by melancholy, that the soul will depart this absurd body filled with filth and decay—a body which is only an all-too-true reflection of a godless and accursed century." Trakl fused his own body with the decay he saw around him. He longed to be cleansed of the brutalities and insensitiveness, the lack of grace common to the external world, and with it his own disappointing physical form.
In Trakl's early works we clearly see the ghost hand of Rimbaud, not only with the delirious imagery let loose but the statement style of delivery, which recalls the “Illuminations”: "There is a stubble field where a black rain falls” ("De Profundis"); "There is a room, which they have white-washed with milk" (Psalm). Images of hospitals, invalids, corpses and epidemics, not to mention Christian motifs are as if lifted from the Belgian Nobel-Prize-winning writer Maurice Maeterlinck's seminal early collection of poems “Serres Chaudes” of 1889. This Maeterlinck influence has been strangely overlooked, due no doubt to the existing Belgian blind spot in European literature, but in a poem such "Psalm" the references to both Rimbaud and Maeterlinck are equally valid. Later, Holderlin's presence is inescapable. Trakl's voice seems to ripen—to locate, through the great Swabian Romantic, a new pietistic lyrical grandeur. The personal anguish is undimmed, but there is a new control of this dissolution, where the striking, unexpected image more persuasively bears the suffering. This eerie beauty wrought from ugly struggle is gaining all the time, like the sun on a winter's day behind a breaking scarf of grey cloud, which, just before it goes down, miraculously floods the landscape, transforming it, remaking it with a rich, glowing light.
Reading "Helian", Rilke was overwhelmed and sought to articulate: "It is built on its pauses, a few satisfactions about the limitless wordless: so stand the lines. Like fences in a flat land beyond which extends the unfenced in a vastness which remains unpossessed." The same might be said of many of Trakl's major works, such as "Limbo", -Melancholy (II)", "The Heart", "Night" etc. What is left at the end, the final reckoning, is "Grodek", Trakl's most renowned poem, which seems to fittingly present all his poetic qualities, yet with an even stronger, more confident insistent rhythmic quality, a noble requiem. The Haman catastrophe has now occurred. We know what followed for Europe's young men and this lends the poem added weight today. But this is not a war poem per se, a lament about industrialized war and its futility; it is a wider lament for humankind forsaken by God, the fall of man as encapsulated by the internecine war, a new world where the "heroes" are indistinguishable corpses. The notion of downfall is already rooted long before, and the Grodek battle provides a convenient scene of hell in real terms, which the poet personally witnessed. Grodek, then, is a backdrop against which Trakl can conclude his existence with a desperate upholding of truth, whilst still hoping for possible future redemption through the figure of "the unborn descendants" in the last line. Alongside the dark eagles of "Lament (II)", "Grodek" was scrawled on the back of Trakl's last will and testament, sent to Ficker from the Krakow hospital on 27th October 1914. These find a natural pairing with the striking message Trakl handed his publisher before boarding the train to Galicia. Ficker read: "Feelings in moments of death-like existence: all humans are worthy of love. Awakening you sense the world's bitterness, in which resides all that unresolved guilt; your poem an imperfect atonement."
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