To The Silenced – Georg Trakl
by P. Stubbs
The task set themselves by most major European poets of expressing what it feels like to be alive in any one epoch does not, on the whole, apply to the poetry of Georg Trakl. The world outside was always something seemingly out of joint, screened off from his conscious awareness of it. His human existence appears to us now like a fragment of unearthly phenomena, which never could consist of the sum of its parts. Instead, he lived his life inside the body of a self already lost. His poems on the other hand are so acute, so memorable, that they seem born of a chronic poetic infection, an incurable destruction of their host by words. We feel the power of his images as though we were watching the ‘negatives’ of God’s own creationist film clack and shudder onto the spools of pure space. Thus we witness image after image flash onto the retina of our mind’s eye:
‘Eternity’s icy wave would devour man’s golden image’
‘I sing you wild fissure.’
‘Light with magnetic scourge drives out the stony night.’
The translator Will Stone subtly and beautifully ushers us into those ‘pure spaces’ where the projection of Trakl’s mind is forever being played out. Those interested in discovering such a major poet should, in this book at least, immediately isolate themselves from the arguments for and against translation. Stone has given us almost a bone-by-bone crib rather than a word-by-word one. Like a palaeontologist reconstructing the image of a creature from a distant past, Stone assembles this wonderful resurrection, always allowing Trakl’s voice to be spoken through the two now assimilated minds.
In Trakl’s poetry we have the ‘image of man’ continually disrupted, pared down, marginalised by the phantasmagoria of the world opening up inside his head. Trakl embodied a feeling of oncoming extinction by casting aside his own body-weight in words, as if dust thrown from the palm of his hand. As in the war poems of August Stramm, who died in 1915, a year after Trakl, we see a language stripped back to those flashpoints of the psyche that need no stylistic device or usage of language to render them as ‘poetry’. And it is because of such ‘flashpoints’ that we feel his experiences so compressed into the moment, so undeflectable as mirrors of mortality. In this seminal book of translations, Stone has managed to put on and take off, from poem to poem, the masks of those faces which Trakl felt itching most beneath his flesh:
‘But in dark caves a mankind more silent bleeds
from hard metals forms the redeeming head.’
To translate great poetry effectively, the translator must at times possess a sensibility as heart-rending and haunted as the poet whom he is translating. Stone, a supreme individualist himself, achieves this with translations that permanently affect the reader with their formidable knowledge of what is being accounted for. His experience in handling such European poets as Nerval, Baudelaire and Rodenbach lends these translations great vitality and resonance. Stone has tapped-in brilliantly to what Trakl really was: a visionary (a term nearly every purblind or myopic English poetry critic has for years been attempting to neologise into something more acceptable – vision as ‘foresight’ or ‘temperament’.) We should treasure this collection for reintroducing to the English speaking world a poet who never quite allowed ‘reality’ to disrupt his slipstream of almost pure being:
‘On to the grave goes space
And into dream this earthly passage,’
Traditionally German Romanticism focused on a myriad of interrelated themes, including nature, longing, the occult, night and death. In the poems of Trakl we receive all these in a work of almost supernatural power, with the evocation of the soul and the deliverance of man’s image at a time when it had never been more in doubt, never closer to being demasked.
Will Stone’s greatest accomplishment in this book is to arrive at Trakl’s side as a living counter-force to the work, treating the original lines as one treats a wound. Stone, whose poetic glance never displaces the original sound or music of the poems, captures Trakl’s precarious balance between obscurity and lucidity. Recognising the handicap of Trakl’s relative unfamiliarity among English speakers, the translator’s comprehensive introduction and biographical notes provide a valuable contribution to modern literature. Of course we discover the lurid facts regarding Trakl’s mental instability, alcohol and drug addiction, the fiercely debated theory of his incestuous attraction to sister Grete. But the real achievement of this introduction is to inform us of a life lived firmly in the grip of suffering – not just the product of a schizoid personality, but of an imagination impatient for the potential of poetry to find a suitable match, to locate the most enduring mask for each persona, to name those unnameable beings who walked, crawled and (with great psychological effort) surfaced eventually up onto the pages of his poems. It is these ‘unnameable beings’ that catapult the reader’s mind into the kind of compulsive concentration necessary to endure the boundless reaches of Trakl’s mind.
This endurance takes us finally to those last great poems: ‘Klage’ and ‘Grodek’. In the latter we witness ‘red clouds, in which a wrathful God resides,’ and a state of despair where ‘all roads lead to black putrefaction’. These lines should not be so surprising given the horrors endured by Trakl as medical orderly in the Austrian Army in the early stages of WWI. I think Trakl’s contemporary Gottfried Benn, noting the atrophy of the senses caused by that epoch, should have the last word: ‘A people’s or a race’s degeneration always seemed to me to imply a decline in the number of men born with the potentialities and the secure source of inner values that enable them to give legitimate expression to the essential nature of that last, late phase of their own civilization and to carry on, in spite of all obstacles, toward an undefined goal.’
Review first published in Agenda, issue 42, Spring 2007.
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