A closer look at Trakl’s principles of poetic composition reveals that the expressionist style breaks down in many different ways the established, “normal” modes of perception and logical thinking. The new expressionist “perspective” that emerges as Trakl’s poetry matures is one that disengages the reader from the customary and conventional manner in which he grasps phenomenal reality as it appears to him—to his senses and his mind.
Trakl’s “arsenal” of images, protagonists (the sister, the boy, the dreamer, the lovers, the child, the hunters, the shepherd, the farmer, the monk, the lepers), and abstract concepts is surprisingly small. The immense variety of the real world has been drastically reduced to a small number of images and concepts which are presented in various guises and which appear in ever-new configurations. This reduction represents a subtle first step toward the expressionist, nonmimetic mode of poetic composition.
Another stylistic device derived from the same basic artistic premises might be called “defocusing.” Trakl likes to use nouns derived from past participles or adjectives. In the first stanza of his poem “The Occident I,” one finds expressions such as ein Totes (something dead) or ein Krankes (something sick). The image has been reduced to its essential core (being dead, sick, and so forth), but no further individualizing details are given. It is almost impossible for the reader to “picture” anything concrete when such blurred images are evoked.
A very effective as well as expressive technique, the nonmimetic thrust of which goes far beyond mere defocusing, is the tendency to present images which denote destruction, dismemberment, and dissolution. This is a stylistic device used by many expressionist writers and artists. Here is an example taken from one of Trakl’s late poems: “. . . the black face,/ That breaks into heavy pieces/ Of dead and strange planets.” This “destructionism” can be interpreted either as a symptom of the broken and fragmented quality of reality itself (Trakl wrote to his friend Ficker in November, 1913: “It is such a terrible thing when one’s world breaks apart”) or as the poet’s attempt to destroy symbolically a world with which he can no longer identify....