Dark Imagining: the ecstatic poetry of Georg Trakl

What’s a soul to do when confronted with poems that are one step beyond, that take you toward slant time and altered being? What to do when confronted with a poet who has a spiritual imagination, who creates written beauty, who is a genuine artist? I suppose one option is to just be quiet, be content in those moments of reading stupefaction. Or one can do what I’m doing now – try to say something about the experience.

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 odd.

Certain old dead poets like Trakl don’t appear in their poems as regular-world subjects; rather, they are implicit shapes of wonder, vagabonds of unusual consciousness, mediums through which deep images come to presence. Things that are otherwise impossible in poetry somehow 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 strike me as rather lifeless. How strange that certain poems by old dead poets are still so “ambulatory.” But maybe it’s not so peculiar after all – they were culturally and constitutionally predisposed to consider art as a harrowing of vision into beauty. As an ever-looking, ever-being form of time. For them, reality was large enough to contain both regular-duty reality and poetic reality – the mythic, dark, deathless 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 imagination is saturated with ambivalence. Ecstatic melancholy is the distinctive aura of a 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 has been transformed into a composite texture of ecstatic suspense and morbid imagination. Vision has been refracted into a spectrum of almost hallucinatory images. The paradox of profane spirit and sacred duration is somehow reconciled. In such fractal moments when sensibility opens onto complex, entropic mood, written art of a rare quality happens.

Trakl’s poetry speaks from its own riddling, occult depths. His poems are aesthetic deliriums 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


[A concluding aside. When I began this essay, I wanted to say something specific about Trakl’s poetry. I think, though, I only managed to dance around whatever it is I want to say. I wanted to bring out how it is that his poems and those of others similar in spirit to him constitute an extreme poetics. In my opinion, those old poems are more advanced and more avant-garde than anything today. Far more extreme. Why? Because those poems construe being as a mysterium, look beyond self, speak music, don’t blather, aren’t pipsqueak. Maybe that’s what I wanted to say.]



Posted by Tim Buck



7 thoughts on “Dark Imagining: the ecstatic poetry of Georg Trakl

  1. First impression is a reverence for life in general – in a noncommittal way. The subject is no one in particular and there are no historic references attached to the dead. It borders on that fence I’ve hovered over before but always found myself too restive to sit upon it. He is set aback by the sound of village bells, which suggests a recluse who is more at home in his own company.


      • It was a sort of reflective mirror; all the more pronounced since I was brooding along parallel lines in writing an Elegy for Giles. Thousands pass away every day leaving us virtually untouched unless there’s an appeal for urgent aid or something. Then something out of the blue pierces that bubble of consciousness, and a void opens up – for someone like me, the only solution is to write.

        Once more following the blue grief of the evening
        Down the hill, to the springtime fishpond—

        Such memories are seldom stark – but intermingled with variant hues.


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