Bertolt Brecht: Poet and Communist
THE COLLECTED POEMS OF BERTOLT BRECHT
Translated and edited by Tom Kuhn and David Constantine
1,286 pp. Liveright Publishing. $49.95.
Bertolt Brecht spent the summer of 1953 in his holiday home by a lake halfway between Berlin and the Polish border. In this “not unaristocratic” villa with its tea pavilion and private pontoon he worked on poems that would enter his final collection, the “Buckow Elegies.” Stalin had died earlier that year. In June an uprising of about one million East Germans had been brutally suppressed by a regime Brecht had fought for, and continued to defend publicly.
But the “Buckow Elegies” are needled by Brecht’s bad conscience. “Would it not be simpler,” he asks in “The solution,” if instead of punishing the populace, the government “Dissolved the people and / Elected another one?” In “The Muses” he likens pro-Stalin intellectuals to codependent prostitutes adoring their abuser.
But where did that leave him? The Roman poet Horace had said that poetry outlives anything cast in bronze. Would his, Brecht wondered in one of his last contributions to the genre?
Not even the Deluge
Came a day when its
Black waters subsided.
True, though, not many
Lived to outlast it.
For many, the aspects of Brecht (1898-1956) that have outlasted the black waters of time are his plays and his politics. With “The Collected Poems of Bertolt Brecht,” the translators Tom Kuhn and David Constantine invite English-speaking readers to discover Brecht the poet. The more than 1,000 entries — some published for the first time in English — are only about half of Brecht’s lyric output. But they give a sense of the fertility of his pristine, unsentimental language and the breadth of subject and form.
A collection this size is often said to contain something for everybody. In this one, every reader is sure to find something to take offense at. There’s Brecht’s politics for starters, the unblinking zeal with which he defended Communist violence and Communist rule. There are pornographic exercises inspired by a procession of women, many of whose brains he exploited along with their bodies.
And yet. “Brecht is a great poet,” the translators write in their introduction, “one of the three or four best in the whole of German literature.” This volume holds enough evidence to support that claim, from the Rabelaisian brilliance of the “Domestic Breviary” (1927) and the bitter clarity of the poems written in exile from the Third Reich to the meditative grace of late poems that is found in between — or sometimes within — odes to machines and Marxist dialectic.
Translating Brecht is no easy task, especially in the early rhyming poems that borrow their form from Dante and Shakespeare. The “Domestic Breviary” is full of ballads that are meant to be read out loud, preferably while smoking, to lute or guitar.
The lurid palette of Expressionism colors these works and their obsession with death and decay. A newspaper item inspired “Apfelböck or the lily of the field,” about a young man who kills his parents, shoves them into a cupboard and continues to live in the house until the stench forces him to sleep on the balcony. In “The ship,” told in the first person, an empty vessel disintegrates and fills with parasitic creatures as it glides “Mute and fat towards the ghastly heavens.”
In the “Ballad of Mazeppa” a condemned man is tied to the back of his horse with ropes that cut into his flesh with every movement of the fleeing animal. Over the course of 11 stanzas the reader becomes complicit in the sadistic ride, propelled by the lilting meter and roped in, as it were, by the simple rhyme scheme.
The translation retains much of that power as well as the archaic boldness of the language.
Three days till the ropes that bound him revolted
The heavens were green and the grass was dun!
Oh the crows and the vultures above his head
Were brawling already over this live carrion.
The title of the “Domestic Breviary” is borrowed from Lutheran and Catholic manuals, with Brecht’s didactic energy turned toward exposing a world in which human suffering is man-made and unredeemed. “The Infanticide Marie Farrar” tells the true story of a teenage domestic who had tried to abort her pregnancy “with two injections, allegedly painful,” but was forced to carry to term. It works all the way through her contractions.
After Marie has given birth in an outhouse she is “quite at a loss by then and barely / Able to hold him, being half stiff with cold / Because the snow blows in the servants’ privy.” When the child cries, she beats it to death.
In the original German the interlocking rhymes have the simple mnemonic power of devotional verses for the layman; each stanza ends with a rhyming couplet exhorting the reader to compassion. In this translation the rhymes are often approximate and the refrain wan: “I beg of you, contain your wrath for all / God’s creatures need the help of all.”
The translators’ work becomes easier after this initial period in Brecht’s life. By the time he writes from exile — by his own estimate, he changed country more often than shoes during the Nazi years — he begins to develop a style devoid, as the Bauhaus aesthetic would have it, of the crime of ornament.
“The thought bobbed on the waves” of rhyme and meter, Brecht later said of his early output. Now the thought was the form.
Meanwhile the bard became a teacher and guide offering encouragement, advice and warning to fellow political travelers. Poems like “A Lesson in Sabotage” now seem dated. But the prescience of “Questions of a worker who reads,” from 1935, is borne out on every college campus:
“Who built the seven gates of Thebes? / In books you will read the names of kings. / Was it the kings who dragged the stones into place?” it begins, deflating the historiography of powerful men. Even in Atlantis, he writes, “That night when the ocean engulfed it, the drowning / Roared out for their slaves.”
For all its dry precision Brecht’s language in works like this retains poetic dignity. The poet speaks in unadorned verses like an orator with a soapbox under his feet. These lines demand to be recited slowly, with clear enunciation as in an echoing space.
That sense of resonance also gives lingering power to the miniatures that Brecht penned throughout his career. Many of these speak of simple pleasures — a garden, birdsong, the splash of cold water on a work-grimed face — and the best have an enigmatic stillness that is far removed from the ideological din of the political poems.
Take, for instance, “Smoke,” from after Brecht had returned to what was then the German Democratic Republic:
The little house among trees by the lake
From the chimney smoke is rising
If it weren’t
How sad would be
House, trees and lake.
And in “Changing the wheel,” part of those late “Buckow Elegies,” Brecht seems to question to what extent his lifelong drive for social change is an expression of a much deeper and personal restlessness:
I am sitting by the side of the road.
The driver is changing the wheel.
I don’t like where I was.
I don’t like where I am going to.
Why do I watch the changing of the wheel
Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim is a contributing classical music critic for The Times.
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