The dying gold of ruined stars – Poems: Book One of Our Trakl by Georg Trakl

“Sun, autumnal, thin and shy,
And the fruit falls from the trees.
Stillness dwells within its blue rooms
During a long afternoon.”

– from “Whispered during the Afternoon”, Georg Trakl, translation by James Reidel

Many years ago when I was in school, poetry, in so far as we were introduced to it, was almost exclusively the works of English language poets. In high school I fell under the spell of the English Romantic writers and that was the beginning. Over the years though, I would be inclined to think that most of the poets I have become obsessed with wrote in English, that is, until I began to read more translated fiction. With that my attention shifted, or to be more precise, my horizons became broader.

TraklThis year, a German book enthusiast I have come to know through the “internet of book discussions”, the corner of the web I inhabit, introduced me to Austrian poet Georg Trakl. Somehow he had escaped my attention before. Of course, when you come to read poetry in translation, the question of the translation itself becomes critical. Typically, when more than one translation of a poet’s work exists I try to access and compare a few. But when Seagull Books released the first installment of a three part series of Trakl’s poetry, I did not hesitate to order a copy, sight unseen.

Poems: Book One of Our Trakl is a new translation, by American poet and translator James Reidel, of the poet’s first collection, simply titled Poems (Gedichte), which was originally published in 1913. In his note at the opening of this volume, Reidel recounts that he has endeavoured to preserve the same concentrated mania that marks the works of the 19th century poets Trakl would have read: Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Verlaine, Hölderlin and Poe. He says:

“I want to actually channel Trakl, his craft (with its implicit painterliness) and work ethic, to have him, so to speak, absorbed in the right dosages he – as a poet, pharmacist and addict – intended.”

Reidel does go on to add that to emulate Trakl’s delivery in English, the rhyme scheme of the original poems is often necessarily sacrificed, but the contortions required to retain  rhyme can trivialize a poet’s spirit and tone.

In an essay in the online poetry journal Mudlark, Reidel expands on his Trakl translation project. He provides an overview of Trakl’s short and tragic life, as well a discussion of his approach to the translation, and a selection of his translations presented with the original German. A poet himself, Reidel brings a sensitivity and insight to his reading and approach that I, as reader, value:

“I have found that when you read Trakl in the original German, you get a snapshot of what is there. When you go back, you get another view. It may be sharper or less so, and with the feeling that it is intentionally less so. This can be frustrating for those who speak and think in English, that lawyer of languages. There is no fixed point to reading him or rendering him. This makes any book of translations simply a collection of snapshots of a particular reading at any point in time. Another way of rendering/reading a Trakl poem is through the barrel of a kaleidoscope, where one can only fix on a view when one stops or when the glass bits sometimes jam. I do this.”

Born in 1887, into a prosperous Salzburg family, Trakl was a precocious child, creative and intelligent – by his early teens he was experimenting with lyric verse that showed great promise. He could, however, be withdrawn and prone to depression. He was exceptionally close to his sister Margarete (Grete), a musical prodigy with whom he is thought to have engaged in an incestuous relationship. He began publishing poems in 1908, in Vienna where he had gone to study pharmacology, a tempting profession for one who already had a tendency towards addiction. As a budding poet, he enjoyed early success and mentorship during the following years, ultimately attracting the discreet patronage of Ludwig Wittgenstein. But the outbreak of war forced him into military service. Relying on his training as a pharmacist he hoped to avoid direct combat, but the trauma of trying to attend to desperately wounded troops without adequate supplies would drive him to attempt suicide. He was sent to a military hospital in Kraków for observation, but suffered a relapse and was found dead of a cocaine overdose on November 3, 1914. He was 27 years old.

                Patterns of Decay  (c) JM Schreiber, 2011
Patterns of Decay , Copyright JM Schreiber, 2011

This first volume of Trackl’s poetry, beautifully bound and presented by Seagull books, readily lends itself to an immersive reading from beginning to end. The autumnal themes that feature so strongly make it an even more evocative read for someone like myself at this time – that is, in November in the northern hemisphere – but autumn is rendered almost metaphorical in his verses. Nature figures in his work, rendered through rural and religious imagery; however nature, for Trakl, is one which couches death and decay as an intrinsic element of its stark beauty and haunting appeal:

In the evening, when the bells toll of peace,
I follow the birds in their glorious flights,
Long multitudes, like pious trains of pilgrims,
Disappearing into autumn’s clear breadths.

Wandering through the twilight-filled garden
I dream following their brighter destinies
And feel the sundials barely move any more.
So I follow their journeys above the clouds.

There a blast of decay makes me start to tremble.
The blackbird laments in the leafless branches.
The red vine totters on rusting trellises.

While like a dance of death of pale children
Around the dark weathered rim of the fountain
The blue asters toss shivering in the wind.

– “Decay”

These are quiet, brooding poems that show a clear obsession with decline. They speak to a young poet struggling to capture the gloom in his own soul, consequently the poems have a very immediate and personal feel. Are they depressing? As someone who has had his own lifelong challenges with mood dysregulation, I find his words oddly comforting. I am not equipped to offer a critique of poetry, I am afraid I can, in this case, only speak to what I feel. And I don’t believe I am alone in registering a profound personal response to Trackl’s poetry. In his short life he produced a small, but vital, body of work that would have an important influence on other German language poets including Paul Celan, Thomas Bernhard and Peter Handke; and draw the ongoing interest of poets, translators and readers outside of German speaking countries that continues to this day, just over one hundred years after his death.

For my part, I can only eagerly look forward to the upcoming additions to Our Trakl.

22 thoughts on “The dying gold of ruined stars – Poems: Book One of Our Trakl by Georg Trakl

  1. This is a tempting book.. The Robert Firmage translation published by Copper Canyon is good, but it would be pleasing to read Trakl’s first book as a book, especially one so well produced.

    I have been to Trakl’s childhood home in Salzburg, for what that is worth.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I was surprised that our public library system did not have any Trakl whereas with other poets such as Celan I was able to take out a few and at least select my starting point. This book is lovely to hold and read as a whole which I appreciated. I also appreciate what the translator has to say about there being no one definitive way to read or translate Trakl. This stands as one “moment” so to speak.

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      • When I read of libraries that have the poetry of Celan, it makes me realize how much the tropical mega city of ten million plus in which I live is culturally hurt by the lack of public libraries.

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  2. I am so glad you mention Trakl: Celan, Holderlin and Trakl all fall very much into the same tradition and sensibility – and they are my favourite German language poets. I’m afraid I don’t know much about the translation of Trakl, but it does look like a lovely volume and an interesting approach.
    There is a beautiful online version of his poems set in his native Salzburg (one of the prettiest cities in Europe), with descriptions of the setting and how it was written. All in German, but well worth a look.
    http://www.kulturvereinigung.com/fileadmin/user_upload/downloads/Georg_Trakl_-_die___Salzburg__-Gedichte.pdf

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  3. I have a large collection of Trakl’s works which I’ve only dipped into so far. He’s certainly a fascinating writer and I’m looking forward to reading more.

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    • I find that the matter of translation itself is well explored within the context of poetry, as I see it as an art unto itself. The translator of this volume said, in another interview that I found, that he believes all poets should translate poetry – not only does it help them improve their own craft but they bring a certain sensibility to the process of transforming a poem to another language while maintaining the spirit and intention of the original.

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    • I have a certain affection (read: obsession) with Seagull books. They are not inexpensive but they do produce lovely books and work with some fine translators. They are based in Calcutta (Kolkata), India, and if it wasn’t for the world of blogs/twitter I might never have discovered them. I gather that there have been a number of Trakl translations, though he was also new to me this year.

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  4. That’s a pleasant surprise to see Trakl translated in English – a quite courageous venture of Seagull Books in a time when more and more publishing houses seem to be mainly driven by marketing departments only. The translation sounds beautiful and congenial. What a loss that so many of the poets of this decade died so early (Trakl, Heym, Stramm, Lichtenstein, Stadler, Rheiner). Thanks for your excellent introduction and thoughtful review of this book. I still know his last poem Grodek by heart, once read and analyzed for school, many years ago.

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    • I understand there are a number of Trakl translations which always sets up that “where do I start?” issue if you can’t access and compare a few. I do like this translator’s approach to translation as a poet himself. Seagull has a collection of short stories by Bernhard translated by Reidel coming out next year that has caught my eye (Reidel has translated his poetry). Seagull is one of those publishers that celebrates the art of the book and does not seem to be driven by marketing departments. I think they count on readers like myself becoming addicted to their publications!

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      • They also publish among other German-language authors Ralf Rothmann in English; Naveen Kishore, the publisher was awarded the Goethe medal for his extraordinary engagement to promote German literature in the English-speaking world. Such a pleasure to see such publishers at work!

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      • They publish some interesting South African work too which was my first introduction, but the books I have bought from them so far are predominately German. I agree, publishers that value the book and work to bring under appreciated writers (in any language) to an English speaking audience deserve to be recognized.

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