Tuesday, November 20, 2012

forgotten things, extinguished angels - the poetry of Georg Trakl

Georg Trakl, a drug addict with mental health problems, died young of a drug overdose, possibly a suicide.  He was also a poet – one of those poets, like Rimbaud and Baudelaire, derangers of the senses.

This is how he sounds in English, or one way he sounds:

Rest and Silence

Shepherds buried the sun in the naked forest.
With a net of hair
A fisherman hauled the moon from the icy pond.

The pale man dwells
In a blue crystal, his cheek at rest against his stars,
Or he bows his head in crimson sleep.

But the black flight of birds always touches
The watcher, the holiness of blue flowers;
The nearby silence thinks forgotten things, extinguished angels.

Again the brow turns night in moonlit stone;
A radiant youth,
The sister appears in autumn and black putrefaction.

Trakl’s only book was published in 1913, the year before he died, but otherwise I do not know how to date his poems; this one could have been written years earlier.  I took this translation from Robert Firmage’s ideal Song of the Departed: Selected Poems (Copper Canyon, 2012), but there is a lot of Trakl in English.

Trakl’s favorite words (or those of Firmage's Trakl): silence, stillness, angel, and then colors, primary mostly but also silver and black and white.  “Crimson” is almost too fussy, but Firmage is working with a problematic word, “purpur,” that does not quite overlap with English color words.  Mostly it is “brown wine,” “white water,” “black destruction,” “the yellow walls of summer” (all from “Helian”).  Seasonal words, those should go on the list, too.

With a little simplification, the pale man is just the man in the moon (“a blue crystal”) so of course his cheeks brush the stars.  Why the shepherds bury the sun is a puzzle – they didn’t murder it, did they?  The forest is naked because of the season, I see at the end, so a bit of early strangeness becomes plain description.  But then should the blue flowers be there?  They allude to Novalis and German Romanticism, a century in the past at this point. The strangeness of the silence “thinking,” and what it thinks (“erloschene Engel”), remains.

Firmage matches the poem’s form and, as far as I can tell, images.  He makes no attempt at its rhythm or sound.  Trakl sometimes rhymes:

from The Accursed

The night is black.  The nightshirt of the child,
Who wanders, bloats out ghost-white in the wind.
And tenderly snakes the dead woman’s hand
Into his mouth.  Sonia smiles, fair and mild.

Perhaps some readers would enjoy the German.  In this case, Firmage sacrifices literal sense for rhyme and meter.

Die Nacht is schwarz.  Gespenstich bläht der Föhn
Des wandelnden Knaben weißes Schlafgewand
Und leise greift in seinen Mund die Hand
Der Toten.  Sonja lächelt sanft und schön.

This does not sound like fair and mild German to me, but perhaps someone else will hear it differently.

I could have fun just pulling out lines:

Lepers, who rot away perhaps at night,
Read convoluted omens of birdflight.  (“Dream of Evil”)

Unspeakable the flight of birds, a meeting
With the dying; dark year follows year.  (“Afra”)

Immersed in the gentle string music of his madness  (“Helian”)

Across the footbridge of bone, the hyacinthine voice of the boy,
Softly reciting the forgotten legends of the forest.  (“At Mönchsberg”)

Tomorrow I will see if I can make anything of Georg Trakl.  Meine Frau reminds me that I have been to his childhood home.  That should help.


  1. Yes, "one of those indeed".
    It would never have crossed my mind before to read a German poem in translation but it's an interesting experience. It sounds new and allows to see it from another angle.
    I like him better than Stefan George but maybe less than Gottfried Benn.

  2. It is interesting - I think this is why translators of poetry do it, for the most part. I mean, the translator can already read the poetry! And there is certainly no money in translating Trakl. Some prestige, I guess.

    Firmage has been translating Trakl for decades, returning to the poems, experimenting, tinkering.

    I have not read either George or Benn. Or Hofmannsthal. Or Christian Morgenstern. Someday. Except perhaps for Morgenstern who might be untranslatable.

    Rilke, who I have read, was also a contemporary and loved Trakl's poetry. It seems he did not discover it until after Trakl's death, but it is curious to see all of the angels flying around in the poems of both poets.

    1. I mentioned George and Benn because together with Trakl they are seen as a trio and linked to French poets like Rimbaud and Mallarmé.
      Hofmannsthal and Morgenstern are totally different.
      Else Lasker Schüler belongs with the trio. I doubt a lot has been translated of her.

    2. That is a good guess, but there are three English collections of Lasker-Schüler's poems and one of her plays! All recent - the oldest is from 1994. I guess she has attracted some interest from I do not know who.

      I just looked all this up; I had no idea.

  3. German poetry seems to be filled with angels.

  4. Is that true? I would like to see evidence for that, preferably from a searchable database of poetry from around the world.

    I will admit that I have not noticed this so much myself outside of Rilke and now Trakl. I am counting Faust, which has some outstanding angels, as something other.

  5. I'll send you the link to the Universal Poetry Image Database. Give me a few minutes to locate it.

    I read a lot of German poetry when I was a kid, studying German, and I recall (possibly the reading list was heavily skewed because I was at a parochial school) running into angel images all the time. Though of course now I can't think of anyone but Rilke. Schiller had no angels. I'll have to think about this a bit longer. It's entirely possible I'm thinking of texts of hymns.

    Agreed about Faust.

  6. Some Trakl poems are derived from or indebted to hymns. I do not really understand the Christian Trakl. There is also a pagan Trakl, just to confuse things.

  7. I think it's easier to come to a satisfying misunderstanding of the pagan romantic poets than of the christian romantic poets. Poets always make the symbols which should be familiar to me into baffling idiosyncratic images. Or at least the good poets do. Pagan/classical images seem to be left alone by most poets. About which, hmm. The poets invoke Dionysus but never reinvent him. Or at least I haven't seen it.

    "Satisfying misunderstanding" is the best I can do with poetry.

  8. I shall claim satisfying misunderstanding as my own, starting now. I'm glad I thought of it.

  9. In the new post I brush against an example of pagan Christian Trakl, where an angel behaves a little strangely.

    Trakl, for all of his drug use, is not Dionysian. He is a follower of Hera, a version of her Fury Alecto from the Aeneid, darkness visible.

    Yeah, "satisfying misunderstanding" is pretty good, and almost the best we can expect with a poet like Trakl. Make it plural - that's even better.

  10. An interesting translation :) But 'fair and mild' is pretty good for 'sanft und schön' - well, the other way round, anyway.

  11. Trakl has always seemed to me to be the continuation of Holderlin and the precursor of Paul Celan. Probably completely wrong from the point of view of literary criticism, but they evoke the same feelings in me when I read them. So pleased to find someone discussing him on the Internet, though, and so many informed comments too. I thought he had been completely forgotten!

  12. To clarify, I meant that Trakl's German is not "fair and mild" - he is not a sweet, smooth poet, and his German has prickles.

    Marina - Hölderlin, yes, I sometimes heard strong echoes of Hölderlin. And Celan makes sense, too. Trakl is a poet of the wasteland.

    I was surprised by how many times Trakl has been translated. Not forgotten, I guess, but a cult figure. The cult of poetry.

  13. Silence is always thinking forgotten things. That's what makes it dangerous. And I love the word "nearby" there. Silence near or far is different.

    What a wonderful poet. Perhaps because I have strange sleeping quarters- but I often think of my cheek resting against the stars, although not "my" stars.

  14. You are reading the poems in the right sympathetic spirit!