Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The Twin Poles of Poetry

The Poems of Georg Trakl and The Selected Poems of Umberto Saba

Umberto Saba

Trakl and Saba were both born in the 1880's, were romantic modernists, clinically depressive, poets of yearning (Saba for erotic fulfillment, Trakl for death), both were participants in the First World War, each was addicted to opium, both were recipients of generosity from notable patrons (Trakl's patron was Ludwig Wittgenstein, who delighted in giving away his father's money; Saba's early supporter was Mario Novaro of the journal La Voce), and both wrote lovely, lyrical verse that stands in contrast to much of what was produced in the same period by English, French, and American modernists.

"Tell me that I am not insane. A stony darkness has come over me." (Trakl to Ludwig von Ficker, 1913)....There is a great deal of Rimbaud in Trakl, or perhaps of Heine--Trakl's body was constantly at war with his spirit, his propensity for self-destruction was restrained, unsuccessfully, by his love of nature, books, and ideas.  He was a poet of contradictions, or, since all poets are fond of contradiction (what else is poetry for but mediating ambiguities or obscuring clarity?), perhaps it is more accurate to say that Trakl allowed contradictions to dominate his poetic voice:


Evenings, when bells are chiming peace,
I follow the flights of birds in wonder
That long have gathered like pious pilgrims
To vanish in clear autumnal distance.

I stroll through the garden dense with twilight,
And trace their brighter fates while dreaming,
Barely feeling the hour-hand's movement.
Thus over clouds I follow their journeys.

Then a scent of decay makes me shudder.
The blackbird laments in leafless branches.
The red wine sways on rusting fences,

While the death-dance of pale children
Around dark well-rims worn by weather,
Blue asters in the wind bow low and shiver.

Georg Trakl

Large doses of Trakl are not going to cheer your heart on a day like today--gray and cold and bleak. His poems typically begin with a kind of Keatsian pleasure in the natural world, but quickly devolve into lamentation or fear: "Into the court the autumnal moon shines white./From the roof's edge fall fantastic shadows./In the empty windows a silence dwells;/The rats appear quietly from below..." (The Rats).  In addition to the cocaine that would kill him in 1914, Trakl was an alcoholic, and some of his poems have the nightmarish quality of delirium about them: "God's vultures gnaw your metallic heart."  In many ways--the intensity of his images, his distortions of 'reality', his tendency to parody romantic conventions--Trakl reminds me of the tragically short-lived protégé of Klimt and Kokoschka, Egon Schiele.

 Umberto Saba's poetry seems to me to be far more complex in feeling if not in expression than Trakl's.  To be sure, Saba finds much to lament and a great deal to fear in nature and in his fellow man; but his vision of things displays a detachment and irony that one doesn't find in his Austrian contemporary.

"Illusion, falsehood,
vanity of things
that are not itself, or are
the many forms it wears
to not be seen, and still are that one
in which the flesh embraces
all the sweetness of creation."

This is from "Desire," a poem that laments vanity and the tug of eroticism, but at the same time  concedes that most of what a person does is stimulated by desire, that life-force perfectly described by Freud as libido, whose power over the human will is frightening but whose affirmation of life is the source of all that is beautiful and much that is moral in our lives--"oh life-giving desire." 

Saba's beloved city of Trieste figures in many of his poems, as does his yearning for the flesh of both men and women; some of these erotic poems are, frankly, mawkish, but others are touching: "I pursued my thought as though/hunting a beautiful creature/that leads one where it wills, and at last/you lose its grace forever/at a curve in the road."

Saba's testament might be this simple epigram: "O my heart divided in two at birth,/how much pain have I endured to make them one!/ How many roses to hide an abyss!" 

Here is my favorite of Saba's poems, one that reminds me of Eugenio Montale:

It’s night, a bitter winter. You raise
the drapes a little and peer out. Your hair
blows wildly; joy suddenly
opens wide your black eyes,
and what you saw—it was an image
of the world’s end—comforts
your inmost heart, warms and eases it.
A man ventures out on a lake
of ice, under a crooked streetlamp.

(trans. George Hochfield and Leonard Nathan)

George Trakl's Poems, translated by Margitt Lehbert, are published by Anvil Press, with a fine introduction by Lehbert

Songbook: The Selected Poems of Umberto Saba, trans. by George Hochfield and Leonard Nathan, with an introduction, notes, and commentary by Hochfield are published as a "World Republic of Letters Book" from Yale University Press.

George Ovitt (4/10/13)

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