I used to be really hard headed about poetry; I would only read poems that "made sense," ones that I could "understand." And so, I would only read certain poets, particularly narrative poets. I was the kinda guy who thought all the cool poets were Whitmans and all the crazy poets were Dickinsons. John Berryman was simply a mind f---. My perspective was that poetry should write about the mysterious, not be mysterious. I'll admit it now just to keep you reading, I was very wrong. I came to see my mistake by falling in love with work of the Austrian expressionist poet Georg Trakl (1887-1914).
Trakl's story is heart-wrenching. Trakl began to write poems at the age of 13. He dropped out of high school at the age of 18 and began working for a pharmacist. Three years later he moved to Vienna to study pharmacy, where he fell in with a group of artists who helped him publish some of his poetry. Eventually his work captured the attention of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, who anonymously gave him a stipend to work on his poetry. After the outbreak of WWI, he became a medical official. Trakl would go through bouts of depression and caring for 90+ critically wounded eventually sent him over the edge. He was hospitalized and put under strict observation. Wittgenstein, learning of Trakl's condition, went to see him, but was too late. Three days before he arrived, Trakl committed suicide by overdosing on cocaine.
Here is my story of how I discovered Trakl, and thus a more open perspective of what a poem can be and do. This past semester the teacher/sage, Norman Dubie, noticing that I was limiting my growth as a writer and reader with my nothing-short-of-anal poetic tastes, recommended that I read Trakl's work. It's important to do what the Dubie says. So I found myself at the library, swept into the turbulence of Trakl's language. Through elegant lyricism, his poems combine the ephemeral and concrete to create fresh metaphors. In his imagery, he is famous for the use of primary colors to depict a diverse array of scenes. And throughout all of his poems I have read, there are deep meditations upon silence and stillness- the in-between spaces of life that startle us with a need for meaning.
Here is a the first stanza from one of his more widely anthologized poems, "De Profundis," which illustrates his simple, yet haunting imagery.
There is a stubble field on which a black rain falls.
There is a tree which, brown, stands lonely here.
There is a hissing wind which haunts deserted huts---
How sad this evening.
(Read the rest here.)
Georg Trakl is a poet whose work deserves to be read today. He reminds us that one of the essential aims of poetry is to show the emotive power that words can have without the need of a linear cognitive coherence. In recent years, Robert Hass and Norman Dubie have written poems in his memory. To read his poems, check out this 20 poem collection that James Wright and Robert Bly put together.