Thursday, May 10, 2012

Georg Trakl: Poems, translated by Stephen Tapscott

Originally published in the May issue of Gently Read Lit, edited by Daniel Casey.  You can find this literary journal at

Translated by Stephen Tapscott
Oberlin College Press/FIELD Translation Series

Stephen Tapscott’s new translation of Georg Trakl’s poetry illuminates an internal dimension to the poet that is often ignored in favor of the more external and controversial elements that sidetrack a serious discussion of the poet. Trakl isn’t well-known, but those who’ve heard of him are likely to think of his mental illness, suicide and suspected incestuous relationship with his sister and stop there, leaving examination of the poetry aside.

Tapscott lets the reader know immediately that his translation isn’t going to cover the scandalous factors of Trakl’s life, or categorize him as disturbed genius. Instead, “I wanted to try to register, in English, that droll ascetic tone. I tend not to hear the cri de Coeur of a young Expressionist victim…” This viewpoint is new and recognizes that the six years of Trakl’s writing career contains much deeper elements than controversy. In fact, viewing him as a victim seems to minimize much of the breadth of his lasting oeuvre. Tapscott finds wit, bravery, and elegance in the few poems Trakl wrote:

His lyricism is lean and acute: pointing lucidly toward what both is and is not there, firm in its stillness. In his silences I hear confidence, not victimized muteness, and I see clean, conscious craftsmanship in his sentences, lines, and patterns of repetition.

With this in mind, Tapscott’s translation looks instead at Trakl’s contemplation of self, and notes that in his poems, Trakl “details dynamic facts of the physical world – seasons and landscapes and times of day –as if they were already constituent elements of the self.” In doing this, Trakl creates an indivisible line between the exterior and internal, making each element stronger and yet more fragile.

Georg Trakl 1887-1914
In his Foreword, Tapscott mentions the essayist Martin Heidegger who wrote extensively about Trakl’s work. “Every great poet creates his poetry from one single poem,” Heidegger stated. Heidegger states that he feels that one underlying current, a single unwritten poem, outlines the work of each individual poet. It begs the question stated by Karsten Harries in his essay “Language and Silence: Heidegger’s Dialogue with Georg Trakl” (boundary2: Winter 76 Vol 4 Issue 2): “Even single poems are often too ambiguous to rule out different, even antithetical interpretations. Is such ambiguity only superficial, to be penetrated by more searching interpretation? Can we assume that a particular poem possesses one determinate meaning?” The interpretation Tapscott seems to deliver in this collection is that the language comes first, and that only within the complexities of the language and semiotic images that Trakl chose can an understanding be reached.

In his essay, “From the Evening-Land to the Wild East,” Richard Millington wrote that that the poems contained “visions of natural and historical decline that within the poems themselves are figured concurrently on several time-scales: diurnal, seasonal and cultural-historical” (German Life & Letters, Oct 2011, Vol 64 Issue 4). That this could apply internally on the part of Trakl is reasonable, especially in that Millington notes Trakl’s “symbolic geography” as well as his literal locations in Austria. Most of the poems take place out of doors, at night, with the play of shadows in action in the words.

In "Helian", the movement between locations in that symbolic geography is most obvious. Never still, it appears that Trakl’s words make the same journey as his subjects: motion is always present either in the walking or in the streams of water or wine, even the flight of birds.

It’s lovely, the quiet of the night.
On a dark plain
We meet shepherds and white stars.

When autumn has come,
A solemn clarity appears in the grove.
Gentle, we drift beside red walls,
Our wide eyes following the flight of birds.
At evening white water settles in urns.

Millington spoke too of the “semantic nuances” that Trakl’s poetry contains. In discussing the poem “Evening Song”, Dean Rader (Masterplots II:Poetry Jan ’02) notes that the poetic device “that Trakl employs in almost every one of his poems is silence…and Trakl is also fond of silencing objects that cannot speak anyway.”

Evening Song

At evening, when we walk the dark paths,
Our own pale forms appear before us.

When we feel thirsty,
We drink white water from the pond,
Sweetness of our poignant childhood.

….And yet, when dark harmonies haunt the soul, then
You appear, Whiteness, in your friend’s autumn landscape.

All of the details that Millington refers to are apparent in this poem, and the “if…then…” style of the poems suggests a forward motion that is unified and purposeful. “We” becomes the variable that can change the meaning of the poem per the reader’s impressions.

Color is another factor that is repeated throughout Trakl’s poems, however, the usages are never typical. The wine is brown, not red. Dew is black, not clear. Silence and sleep are both depicted as blue in some poems, black in others. What is intriguing is how he chooses these colors to seemingly catch us off guard and re-examine the cultural images of what a color should mean.

Trakl’s tragic death, after days of horrific experiences, makes many of the poems that much more meaningful. Yet, we have to remember he didn’t know how he’d die when he wrote these. Clearly distraught, and likely emotionally damaged already, he couldn’t have known of the chain of events that left him in charge of a hospital of wounded soldiers who he was helpless to assist. The mobs outside and bodies and decay all around him…one can only imagine that the exit he chose made sense in the world of madness he was locked into.

Christian Hawkey’s book, Ventrakl (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2010) is an excellent companion to Tapscott’s translation. In it, Hawkey analyzing Trakl’s work but uses radical ways to translate the work: experimental translation that literally rips Trakl’s poetry apart and reconfigures it in a way Trakl would likely sanction. Hawkey also dissects photos of Trakl and experiments with an imagined interview. Combining that book with this translation would give any reader a solid background in Trakl’s works, history, and indelible contribution to Austrian and global poetry.

----Amy Henry 2012

1 comment:

  1. Grerat post.Translating book shows the rich blend of knowledge and culture in a society.It is important that books written in a foreign language since it helps one to get acquainted with the thoughts, traditions, principles and actions of the people from the region.English translation or in any translation it would be a informative.