The poetry of Georg Trakl is challenging, with its symbolic arguments and narratives, that sense in each poem of being always on the cusp of a great apocalyptic revelation. It makes the poetry fantastically rich, strange, and mysterious. And yet it is also somehow intimate, with a warmth and vulnerability, even a humanness that feels as vulnerable and naked as the confession of a friend.
I have translated some of his work, an interesting and sometimes frustrating exercise, as German sentence structure and its use of verb tenses is much different than English. Mark Twain has a famous and wonderful example: “But when he, upon the street, the (in-satin-and-silk-covered-now-very-unconstrained-after-the-newest-fashioned-dressed) government counselor’s wife met.” This is all made more difficult in poetry, which bends grammar near its breaking point. It is sometimes frustrating, as I say, but I find that working through the differences can bring us closer to the poetry, and make the reading richer.
But much as I love the completed poems, there is something about fragments that seems so very revealing. Whether they actually are or not, they seem unguarded, like casual remarks that suddenly shine a light on character. We’ve all had the experience—a friend’s joke over beer that reveals an unexpected lost love, a snide whispered remark that exposes something unexpectedly venal and small, the arbitrary line-drawing of a colleague in the middle of a too-long meeting that shows the gateway to the heart.
Here are some of the fragments I have translated. I love much about them. A phrase like “your poem an imperfect atonement” to a never specifically but only generally described sin (the loss of the sense of the loving worth of others in favor of something he calls “world-bitterness”) shines a strong light on a lot of the poetry, for we never know what the actual sin was, only the guilt it leaves behind, an invisible stain. Guilt is everywhere in Trakl’s poetry. But it shares space with moments of absolute beauty. Here, for example, a sudden outbreak of beauty: “It is God’s peace. The evening shadows linger.” Lovely.
Heidegger has a beautiful essay—really a lecture— on Trakl and language in which he talks about the naming and calling functions of the poetry, by which he means that we hear the naming and calling at this time in the physical space we occupy, but the poetry brings the things named no nearer to us. What comes near to us is the presence of things in language, a “presence sheltered in absence.” One has this sense continuously in reading Trakl, that things have been summoned, that there presence here feels very powerful, and yet—they are not here. He says, “The things that were named, thus called, gather to themselves sky and earth, mortals and divinities,” a remark almost as mystical as some of those of Trakl.
Here in any case are my translations of some fragments of Trakl:
Aphorisms & Fragments
Wisdom only to one who scorns happiness.
The feeling at those times closest to death: that all are worthy of love. Then waking to the world‑bitterness; your sin remains; your poem an imperfect atonement.
What passes silently under autumn trees Near the green river while gulls glide above — Falling of leaves; simplicity of dark times. It is God’s peace. The evening shadows linger. A black bird sings in autumn trees.
The hands folded as for prayer weary & harmonious Evening & the eyes follow the omen‑birds Before surrendering to dream‑memories Of the boy so delicate so slight.
A black bird sings in autumn trees The peace of days so vast so sweet The soul also silently prepares itself.
The cross looms up Elis Your body on darkening paths
A walk with the father, a walk with the mother — (Birth)
Spring Evening has come to the ancient garden
When I collapsed on the black hill of Sleep weary of the wild land & the desperation of bleak winterdays, the vision came suddenly on glowing wing: — (Nocturnal Metamorphosis, Death & Spirit)
As the sun sank away K. departed
The Homeless One returns To moss-grown forests
Munch woke at the wood’s edge toward evening. A gold cloud faded above him & the dark peace of autumn filled him with fear. Everywhere the solitariness of hills.
Spring; a frail corpse Shining in its grave Among the wild Elder-trees of childhood.
Birch-trees of night; a red worm Lives in the heart’s dark country.
Snowy night! Dark sleepers Crystal sweat that falls From the shattered brow
A little background: Trakl was an Austrian poet, an expressionist, who committed suicide in the first months of the First World War. He was an alcoholic, drug-addicted, probably schizophrenic. He began writing poetry in his teens, and at the same time began visiting brothels, drinking, and using drugs, including opium. His addictions resulted in him quitting school in 1905. He went to work for a pharmacist with the idea of making that his career. He enlisted in the army, where he served as a pharmacist at an Innsbruck hospital. While there he met Ludwig von Ficker, editor of Der Brenner, who managed to find a publisher for Trakl’s poetry collection Gedichte (Poems), published in 1913. Ludwig Wittgenstein admired Trakl’s writing and provided him with a regular allowance to allow him to continue.
With the start of World War 1, Trakl was despatched as a medical officer to Galicia. There the strain of seeing severely wounded soldiers drove him to extreme depression. He attempted suicide, but was prevented by his colleagues. He was then sent to Krakow military hospital for observation, but his depression worsened. He wrote to von Ficker and to Wittgenstein, who came immediately. But by the time he reached the hospital, Trakl had died from an overdose of cocaine. This was November 3, 914, barely three months into the war. Trakl is viewed as one of the most important expressionist writers. It is perhaps not a surprise that language philosophers like Wittgenstein and Heidegger would value him so highly.