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Verlaine and Trakl, complete at lastBY: Andrew Mangravite 12.22.2012
Here is a pair of worthy possibilities for the poetry-lover in your life: A complete work by Verlaine and a first-time ever translation of Trakl’s early poems and dramatic works into English.
Poems Under Saturn. By Paul Verlaine; translated by Karl Kirchway. Lockert Library of Poetry in Translation, Princeton University Press, 2011. 176 pages; $15.95. press.princeton.edu.
The Last Gold of Expired Stars: Complete Poems 1908-1914. By Georg Trakl; translated by Jim Doss & Werner Schmitt. Loch Raven Press, 2010. 530 pages; $18.95. www.amazon.com.
Second life for two SymbolistsANDREW MANGRAVITE
Paul Verlaine (1844-1896) has always been the runt of the major Symbolist poets. He lacks the dark gravitas of Baudelaire, the experimental flair of Rimbaud or the cool intellectuality of Mallarmé. Because so much of Verlaine’s poetry is pretty, he runs the risk of being seen as a “jingle-man.”
Karl Kirchway’s new translation is noteworthy because it is not another volume of “Verlaine’s Greatest Hits.” Rather, Kirchway has translated an entire book-length collection. (I think the last time this was done for Verlaine was back in the 1890s, when Arthur Symons translated Les fêtes galantes.)
Interestingly, Kirchway has chosen to give us an English version of Poemes saturniens, Verlaine’s first published collection— a book written very much under the influence of the waning Romantic school and the emerging Parnassian one. (The Parnassians tried taming the excesses of the Romantics by yoking their exotic fantasies to the strict meters and rhymes of classical French verse.)
Verlaine’s collection, in the true Parnassian spirit, ranges all over the place. It contains references to the ancient world, India and the Far East; the capstone of the collection is a long dramatic dialogue, The Death of Philip II, in which the dying Spanish king is reassured by his confessor that his “good deeds” (such as the Inquisition) will be recognized and rewarded. Well, the poet warns us in his verse introduction that this is a “malignant sign.”
Darkest of the dark
Of course to Georg Trakl (1887-1914), Verlaine’s malignant sign would have been like the Moon over Miami. Nobody writes poetry darker or more doom-laden. So, if a little Trakl goes a long way— why celebrate still more of it?
One reason, of course, is to chart the poet’s growth, although any collection spanning a mere six years can’t really be expected to progress that much. (Here, in fact, Trakl fools us: His work does progress from a mere bookish young man’s despair to the vision of Hell on Earth that is his Grodek.)
The other reason is to enjoy the richness of Trakl’s imagery. What makes this volume especially welcome is that it’s a translation of Trakl’s complete work, including his youthful— and later rejected— poems, which rarely see the light of day. In some cases, individual poems appear here in several versions, and the prose poems and surviving dramatic verse are also represented— making this book, at least in terms of content, the definitive volume of Trakl in English.
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