Georg Trakl was one of the great poets of the first decades of the C20th. His poetry — as with his life and his poetics — had a narrow trajectory, and was contained within tightening and harrowed limits. He died on the Eastern Front in November 1914 when he was twenty-seven years old, taking his own life in the face of what finally were unbearable barbarities.
Like certain other poets — the Argentinean Jacopo Fijman or the Grado dialect poet Biagio Marin come to mind — Trakl's poetry echoes and is constructed around a relatively small number of repeated, almost obsessional motifs, clusters of words, colours and images. The semantic range of his language may not be wide, but it is powerful and its power is constructed from densities and repeated auras. As with such poets, and in contrast to more effusive or voluble writers, Trakl's work is never either empty or limited by constraint.
He has the rare ability to ripple outwards and beyond the immediate meaning of his words. Colour and colour clusters and spectra – and Will Stone writes very well of these in his perceptive introduction – drugs and an addiction to morphine and alcohol, a certain sort of anachronistic Austrian or Central European landscape (but not at all one that embraced nationalism of any form, which seems totally out-with Trakl's register or temper) and tied to inward realities, the presence and image of his sister to the point of incestuous love, his loneliness, his tendency toward suicide: all of these recur right the way through his poetry, sharp vivid veins through the grain of his work. Like his contemporary Georg Heym — who also died young, aged 24 in 1912 — Trakl's work is sited in Expressionism, yet is clearly set apart from it.
The first translations into English of Trakl's poetry are Michael Hamburger's and these were gathered into a chapbook published in Cornwall in 1952. Subsequently and more substantially a volume in green wrapping from the Cape Editions series — pocket-sized and solid as gold — was published in 1968 and chimed in with the cyclic interest in translation associated with Poetry International, MPT and the Cape and Penguin Modern European Poets series. This book, simply called Selected Poems contained translations by Hamburger, Christopher Middleton, David Luke and Robert Grenier. It was reissued in much the same form by Carcanet in 1984 and there have since been at least five separate volumes in North America and Canada, including one with translations by Robin Skelton. Despite these translations, UK interest in Trakl waned and it wasn't until Libris handsomely published a book of Alexander Stillmark's translations in 2001 that his poetry was once more available in this country. Will Stone's book therefore stands well in a long, if interrupted, path of Trakl translation and also, hopefully, close to the outset of a renewed interest here in this poet's seminal work.
His approach to Trakl's work and to its translation is idiosyncratic, it is very much that of the poet-translator, and I think important for being so. He is saying 'this is what Georg Trakl's poetry means to me as a poet in English and I am translating it to share it with you'. I think we should be grateful to him for this. It is an approach that widens ‘translation’ out into our language and that therefore also widens out the language of our poetry, and this surely is one of the key and most fruitful roles translation can have. As he writes in his introduction: “It is high time Trakl was released from the rather narrow confines of German-language academia and was given the opportunity to appeal to a more diverse readership.” This is what Stone attempts to do, as also to convey the poetry's sense of a “spring-coiled visionary energy gathered in the least number of words needed to contain it.” His immediate sense that Trakl's poetry “comes from a profound inwardness” gives him lucid insight into the work.
But Stone's approach goes beyond the physical acts of translation and helps determine how he sets the context of Trakl's work and life. Thus his afterward focuses on Trakl's home city of Salzburg and Stone not only describes in warm and almost domestic detail buildings important to Trakl (not just his home, but the pharmacy and the bookshop that were vital to him), he also provides us with photographs he himself, as translator, has taken in situ, much in the way certain novelists have extended the nature of their prose by intruding photographs. Neither does he stint the contexts of the poet's work or life, providing both a general introduction, and a translator's introduction in addition to the afterward. Even so the weight of the book remains in the poetry, as it should, and Stone's distinctive approach manages to be very objective precisely because of his personal insights.
Important poetry deserves to be translated again and again. I have to say that I still feel very attached to the first Trakl translations I read and I still think that some of Michael Hamburger's Trakl is difficult to better and that Christopher Middleton's translation of the key long poem Helian is outstanding. But Will Stone's translations work very well and these new translations are much needed.
This is the opening of the first of Helian's five sections in Will Stone's translation :
In the solitary hours of the spirit
Beautiful it is to walk in the sun,
By the yellow walls of summer.
The poem continues through well-worked Trakl motifs :
Evenings on the terrace we drunk on brown wine/ … /Beautiful is the stillness of night./ … /When autumn comes/A sober clarity enters the grove and again Trakl's use of the word 'schön' echoing his sense of both reality and destruction:
Beautiful is man and emerging in darkness,/When marvelling he moves his limbs,/And silently his eyes roll in crimson hollows.
Helian moves on through a sort of litany of sublime existence and calm, unerring breakdown towards
you psalms in fiery midnight rains and
you broken eyes in black mouths and further to the intense unavoidable corruptions of the late poems, Klage (Lament) I & II and Grodek. Here the emotional and the spiritual seem to explode together and then to transcend whatever might seem to be purely personal. Trakl is at the edge of what was overturning Europe and embodying pain:
The dark eagles, sleep and death
Night long sweep around this head:
Eternity's icy wave
Would devour man's golden image.
Against terrible reefs
His purple frame is smashed.
The seventeen lines of his last poem Grodek read, or sound, like a musical offering, complex in the tide-pull of its shortness:
The night embraces dying warriors, / The wild lament of their broken mouths and ending with a very brief coda on the agony of
The grandson still unborn.
In a sense Trakl's poetry does not allow of much variation in translation. His motifs are repeated and his voice and tone are highly singular. If the translation is at all good, there is not much space for leeway. There may be a danger in too closely retaining the German grammar or meaning structures to the extent they become too odd in English. On the other hand this poetry should sound rather odd to our ears: that is part of its quality, part of its power to impart difference and allow us to question the values of what we write. Most of the time Will Stone achieves this balance between ease and singularity, between strong sense and flatness.
I don't want to consider Trakl in psychoanalytic terms, do not want to consider either the poet or his poems in terms of schizophrenia or illness — and not only because others have and will continue to do so. Trakl wrote poetry of luminous terror that seems to me almost to have been demanded by the limits and nauseas of his time, by the grain and abuse of when he lived. And he took his own life, a fragile one for sure, in direct reaction to some of the worst human experience anyone could then have faced, amidst the desperate pains and atrocities of war. This reaction of depriving himself of his own life seems to me, unfortunately, neither exaggerated nor untimely to what he'd been put through.
Of course we can wish he hadn't, both in that we could have a longer sweep of his poetry and because our worlds in time of war, as we still are and seem almost always to be, are in deep need of poetry such as Trakl wrote. That is one reason to praise Will Stone's work here, particularly as he is clearly aware of the contexts and scope of Trakl's work.