Monday, April 28, 2014

Dark Imagining: The Ecstatic Poetry of Georg Trakl

What's a soul to do when confronted with poems that defy normality, that take you on excursions toward slant time and altered being? I suppose one option is to just be quiet, be content in those moments of aesthetic stupefaction. Or one can refuse silence, do what I'm doing now – try to say something about what's not really sayable.

I'll start by looking at a photo of the poet, as if some clue to the hidden spirits of language might be registered there.

1887 - 1914

It's probably wayward for me to say it, but I will anyway: the face of Georg Trakl is mad with hidden spirits of language. If I were told this picture had been taken inside a locked asylum for expressively coiled savants, I wouldn't be surprised. There's nothing of the poseur in his face. He looks genuinely odd, like the second cousin of some ancient Chaldean wheat god.

The finest poetry, apparently, has something to do with sort of looking, sort of being crazy. After seeing this photo of Trakl, I'm not sure I should expect much from poems not written by (or at least in the spirit of) old dead eccentrics.

Those old dead poets don't appear in their poems as regular-world subjects; rather, they are implicit shapes of wonder, vagabonds of heightened consciousness, doppelgänger mediums through and around which the ectoplasm of deep words comes to presence. Their images and metaphors are unavailable to regular-world poets. Things that are otherwise impossible happen in their poems.

In Hellbrun

Once more following the blue grief of the evening
Down the hill, to the springtime fishpond—
As if the shadows of those dead for a long time were
      hovering above,
The shadows of church dignitaries, of noble ladies—
Their flowers bloom so soon, the earnest violets
In the earth at evening, and the clear water washes
From the blue spring. The oaks turn green
In such a ghostly way over the forgotten footsteps
      of the dead
The golden clouds over the fishpond.

Most poems written today are lifeless things. How strange that certain poems by old dead poets are still so “ambulatory.” But maybe it's not so peculiar after all – those poems remain vivified owing to their dark spirit of creation, to their sense of world as mysterium, to their harrowing of vision into beauty. I think Georg Trakl and Novalis have something in common. Both considered reality large enough to contain itself and more than itself – the mythic, deathly sublime. 

Descent and Defeat
To Karl Borromaus Heinrich

Over the white fishpond
The wild birds have blown away.
An icy wind drifts from our stars at evening.

Over our graves
The broken forehead of the night is bending.
Under the oaks we veer in a silver skiff.

The white walls of the city are always giving off
Under arching thorns
O my brother blind minute-hands we are climbing
           toward midnight.

I suspect that poetic art happens when experience is transformed by imagination, is saturated with ambivalence. Ecstatic melancholy is the distinctive aura of a true and lasting poem. Such poems are treasures that language bequeaths to itself from out of its own eerie matrix.

My Heart at Evening

Toward evening you hear the cry of the bats.
Two black horses bound in the pasture,
The red maple rustles,
The walker along the road sees ahead the small tavern.
Nuts and young wine taste delicious,
Delicious to stagger drunk into the darkening woods.
Village bells, painful to hear, echo through the black fir branches,
Dew forms on the face.

Experience for this poet in this poem is a composite texture or scheme of time. The perception of given phenomena has, through the dark prism of ecstatic emotion and morbid imagination, been refracted into a spectrum of hallucinatory images. In the throes of poetic trance, a paradox of profane spirit and sacred duration is somehow reconciled.

Beethoven's music happened in that un-repeatable moment when German Classicism and German Romanticism were sewn together in a unique fabric. The Apollonian and the Dionysian – reason and instinct – touched in the mind of Beethoven, and music reached its greatest happening. I have a strong hunch that something deep about consciousness as such and time as such occurs in Beethoven's profound spiritual music. In such fractal moments when sensibility is transformed by paradox and complexity, art realizes a rare potential.

Trakl's poetry happened in that un-repeatable moment when German Romanticism and German Expressionism came together in a tension of visionary forces. Other dynamics were afoot: Trakl's poems also lived in the fold of Symbolism and Surrealism. His consciousness inhabited an eccentric version of time, and written event took on a quality of ecstatic-pessimistic dream. Art realized another, different layer of mystical texture.

Like Beethoven's music, Trakl's poetry allows us a rare glimpse at how an artistic form of language seems to speak from its own riddling, occult depths. Experiencing Trakl is an aesthetic delirium of the finest vintage.

In Venice

Silence in the rented room. 
The candlestick flickers with silver light 
Before the singing breath 
Of the lonely man; 
Enchanted rosecloud.

Black swarms of flies 
Darken the stony space,
And the head of the man who has no home 
Is numb from the agony 
Of the golden day.

The motionless sea grows dark. 
Star and black voyages 
Vanished on the canal. 
Child, your sickly smile
Followed me softly in my sleep.

Poem translations by James Wright and Robert Bly


  1. I read that Wittgenstein said of Trakl, “I do not understand his poetry, but its tone delights me. It is the tone of a man of real genius.”

    What a remarkable post. The poems are infused with a vision of nearly unbearable beauty-within-sorrow.

    "The spirit's hot flame is fed now by a tremendous pain.." (Trakl, 1914).

    Such youth and talent--lost too early.

  2. PS -- Regarding fractal moments, I think you have something there. Yes.