May 29, 2023
May 29, 2023
The Last Gold of Expired Stars The Poetry of Georg Trakl
|by P. G. R. Nair|
The Last Gold of Expired Stars: Complete Poems 1908 - 1914 by Georg Trakl ably translated by Jim Doss and Werner Schmitt is a wonderful treat to all poetry lovers. I was first introduced to the poetry of Georg Trakl in an anthology titled "The Winged Energy of Delight" by Robert Bly. This bilingual edition includes all of Trakl's mature published work, as well as his youthful poems and prose, drama fragments and selected letters, and is the most comprehensive collection of his work in English to date.
Trakl decided to train as a pharmacist, against his father's wishes which gave him easy access to drugs his entire life. During his three year apprenticeship, Trakl wrote plays and poetry. From 1908 to 1911, Trakl lived in Vienna, where he studied pharmacy, eventually graduating with a Masters of Pharmacy degree. The death of his father in 1910 who ran a hardware business that went into insolvency was a severe financial blow to him. After this Trakl's life grew more and more unstable; his depression, drinking and drug use escalated. He returned to Salzburg in 1911 and took up job as a pharmacist and later as an accountant in Ministry of Public works.
After the battle of Grodek, ninety badly wounded men were left in a barn for him to care for. He had no supplies and was not a doctor and hence could provide little comfort to them. His already fragile mental state deteriorated further. The uninterrupted contact with mutilated soldiers and morbidity of battle overwhelmed him. One evening, as he left the barn that served as an impromptu hospital, he was startled to see the bodies of disloyal townspeople hanged on a tree. He broke down and attempted to commit suicide with a pistol, only to be disarmed by his comrades. A short time later he received orders to report to the Krakaov military garrison hospital, where he thought he was to serve as a pharmacist, only to be placed in the psychiatric ward for observation of schizophrenia and was later confined in a separate cell.
Trakl’s style demonstrates how poetry empowers words, giving them new emphasis and freshness of meaning. He had a new “visionary” approach, an “inner landscape” that defies the laws of realistic and logical presentation. In spite of its visionary quality, Trakl’s poetic “world” never completely emancipates itself from the “real” world. Rather, the reader observes a gradual dissociation from a realistic representation, a shift toward the imaginary. This is why Trakl can indeed be called an expressionist, since the expressionist artist does exactly what Trakl attempts in his poems: He turns away from a realistic or naturalistic approach to the representation of reality. He no longer copies, imitates, reproduces. He follows the emotional impulse of his inner vision and expresses it, whether this means deforming or distorting reality as it is known, changing its perceptual and logical structure at will, or shifting from a representational to an abstract creative mode.
Among the abstract concepts that recur in Trakl’s poetry are decay, disintegration, disease, and, ultimately, death. These concepts all point to a facet of reality that elicits the poet’s lament even though it cannot be regarded as the fruit of modernity. Trakl often links decay and disintegration with humanity’s sinfulness and with an undefined. The mood in many of Trakl’s poems is one of melancholy, anxiety, and desperation. Subdued emotions such as melancholy, however, prevail over the harsher expressions of negative emotions. The poet frequently establishes a connection between expressions of negative emotions and the themes of decay and sinfulness, which are in turn interrelated.
Let us see an excerpt from another wonderful poem titled "Occident". This one no longer presents a view of reality as it is traditionally and normally perceived. The images joined together in the stanza can still be construed, with some effort on the part of the reader, as the evocation of a moonlit night in spring. However, who is the “sickly shape,” and why are the lovers in their black boat moving toward death? This stanza seems to have originated in a dream.
To Else Lasker-Schüler, with admiration
An aura of mystery surrounds the life and poetry of the Austrian poet Georg Trakl. Although he was born over a century ago, his starkly original poems provide a window into the psyche of the early twentieth century with its anguish, melancholy, and occasional exaltation. From a life inflicted with drug addiction and mental torment, Trakl paints a vivid, musical portrait of his autumn soul as in the one below titled "Grodek". It is a ferocious poem constructed with great care. A short passage suggesting a whole of German Romantic poetry of nineteenth century appears, and is followed by a passage evoking the mechanical violence of the German twentieth century. This alternation is strongly felt even in translation.
If Munch’s art can be said to culminate in a scream, it can be said that Trakl’s poems culminate in a whisper. With gentle expressions, Trakl, who lived his brief life in the chains of mental anguish and pharmaceutical dependency, sought light through the wormhole of melancholy and wrote from the hellhole of addiction.
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