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This review is taken from PN Review 253, Volume 46 Number 5, May - June 2020.

Cover of Surrender to Night: Collected Poems
Brian MortonIllicit Trakl
Georg Trakl, Surrender to Night: Collected Poems, selected and translated by Will Stone (Pushkin Press) £15

There is a minor slip in [translator] Will Stone’s introduction that delivers a happy coinage. He says quite rightly that Trakl’s poetry has been the object of unceasing debate for more than a century (there is a rival new translation abroad by James Reidel, from Seagull Books) but then adds that ‘the resulting presentations may illicit [sic] admiration, from the reader, but also frustration’. It is not immediately clear whether this frustration comes from the poems or the interminable debate, but no matter: ‘illicit admiration’ is exactly what Trakl invites, together with an emotion other than frustration. If there is a such a thing as a guilty pleasure, then devouring page after page of verse that plays on a narrowed bandwidth of themes – evening, silence, animals, colour, death – without understanding much of what is going on must count as one. Even Wittgenstein, who admired Trakl and sent money to keep him solvent, admitted he didn’t have a clue, and if for Wittgenstein, the limits of our words were the limits of our world, then Trakl inhabited a very small one at best. And yet we keep on reading him.

The effect, if we stick with guilty pleasures, is like eating a box of liqueur chocolates, one after the other. After a while, the flavours become undifferentiated and the intense sensation gives way to a queasy guilt. Trakl’s addictions were more severe. Working in pharmacy kept him close to the drugs he depended on. Circumstance and marriage kept him away from Grete, the gifted sister he doted on and ...

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