Brecht wrote poetry all his life although he is more usually associated with plays, like “Mother courage and her children”, “The Caucasian chalk circle” and “The resistible rise of Arturo Ui”, and the notion of what he called ‘non-Aristotelian’ theatre. A hefty new collection (over 1200 pages) of his poems will go a long way to redress the balance.
Brecht wrote poetry in a variety of forms and reflected on the nature of poetry just as he theorised on drama. In this new publication, translators David Constantine and Tom Kuhn do justice to the power of his writing and the spirit of his mind.
One term or adjective can no more describe Brecht’s poetry than it could Dylan’s songs. They cover a wide range of topics and feelings and although they are never sentimental you will find pathos, fear, nostalgia, protests, indignation and compassion in the poems.
For someone who liked leather trench coats, there is much to surprise you about Brecht in this book.
One of his poems, written in the early 1930s, concerns a woman, a sex worker from the age of seventeen, who looks back on her life and knows what it has cost her:
Just thank Christ the whole thing’s quickly over
All the loving, the worry and fear.
Where are the tears that flowed so freely?
Where are the snows of yesteryear?
In 1949, Brecht moved to East Berlin and wrote the Bucknow Elegies which include short poems like “Smoke”:
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.
Brecht read Marx in the 1920s – “the only spectator for my plays I’d ever come across” he said – and his political awareness made him aware of the danger Hitler represented. In “Bad time for poetry” he says how the joy he feels at seeing blossoming apple trees contends with “horror at the housepainter’s speeches” “But only the latter / Drives me to write”.
He left Nazi Germany in 1933, exiling himself and his Jewish wife in various parts of Europe until there were few safe places left but gaining a visa to enter the US in 1941.
After the war but still in America, he was called to account for himself by the House Un-American Activities Committee. He did so but immediately afterwards left for East Germany, a communist state that he thought he could align himself with. In time, he came to know the dark side of Stalinism and wrote ‘The Solution’ after an uprising in East Germany was crushed in 1953.
After the uprising of the 17th of June
The Secretary of the Writers’ Union
Had leaflets distributed in the Stalinallee
Stating that the people
Had forfeited the confidence of the government
And could win it back only
By redoubled efforts. Would it not be easier
In that case for the government
To dissolve the people
And elect another?
“The collected poems of Bertolt Brecht”, translated and edited by Tom Kuhn and David Constantine, is published by Liveright Publishing.