Fragments of Trakl: Imperfect Atonements

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.

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Georg Trakt


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.

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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.

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