Magazine article The Antioch Review

Bringing Blood to Trakl's Ghost

Magazine article The Antioch Review

Bringing Blood to Trakl's Ghost

Article excerpt

"We were like Lewis and Clark, tracing out the delicate strange dark places inside Trakl, all alone without anything from the past to guide us." So James Wright wrote to Robert Bly when, after a two-year process, Twenty Poems of Georg Trakl, the first book of Bly's Sixties Press, was in the final stages before publication. Wright added: "I think that our translation has profited a great deal by our doing it slowly.... His poems are there, and our translations are like encampments from which we make excursions in among the trees and sudden clearings, and make notes while we interview those odd beautiful little animals in there. So the delay was a ripening."

The book appeared in late 1961, with a small scene from Hieronymus Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delights on the jacket. Poet and editor John Logan, who would soon try his own hand at translating Trakl, offered Bly his interpretation of the picture: "It is such a beautiful detail. The boy has learned how to hold the owl without hanging on to him and the owl has learned how to love the boy and transmit to him his power without frightening him.... It has a curious rapport with the Trakl poems." That transmission of power--how it worked for Bly and Wright especially, by way of their fresh translations and on into their Trakl-saturated poems, and the legacy of the kinship they felt with him and with each other--is a pivotal event in twentieth-century American poetry. They had not stuffed the owl, but revivified it; the art was thaumaturgy, not taxidermy. Thereby they made Trakl an essential figure for English-language poets to reckon with. Since then, in a steady stream of English translations and poetic nods, Trakl has continued to enjoy an active afterlife.


In Ventrakl (2010), Christian Hawkey fuses his own work to Trakl's, calling it a collaboration, so that questions of agency hardly apply. He uses photographs, and deploys various modes of composition to communicate with or to channel his predecessor. It amounts to what one critic (in another context) has called "apocryphal" translation, to the creation of a new version of Trakl, as Hawkey, cleverly negotiating their cultural differences, imagines and thereby reanimates a ghost. To write this off--as rogue taxidermy, mere ventriloquism, another intertextual contrivance, or transgression against some hallowed poetic principle--would be a mistake. Hawkey is utterly sincere, and he has the precedent of Jack Spicer's prodigious After Lorca (1957). In the vast gray area between conceptual and more conventional poetry, he plays with translation and pastiche while he seeks common ground. All poetry, in the end, is built on artifice; likewise, all translations are apocryphal to some degree. Ventrakl is a tribute by another poet in thrall to the evergreen force of Trakl's vision.

In 1958 Bly started his little magazine The Fifties (later The Sixties and The Seventies). Through it and its sibling small press, hunkered down on a farm in western Minnesota, he launched a sharp attack on the reigning North American literary aesthetic, in part by going beyond the bounds English-language poetry. A couple of generations earlier, Ezra Pound's insistence on translation had been a vital component of the Modernist program. Since then, American poetry had been de-radicalized and was largely stuck in the mire of New Criticism, rhyme, iambic pentameter, and a willful isolationism. The poetic establishment valued rational, linear processes. In contrast, Bly touted an openness to and trust in the hidden currents of imagination and intuition springing from the unconscious mind.

Thus, all for the sake of "the new poetry" and "the new imagination," Bly restored translation to a place of central concern. He found representatives of a still prevalent international modernism, poets from other lands, to serve as exemplars and transmitters through whom American poets might receive subconscious, pre-rational material that had been lost or was as yet untapped in the U. …

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