[Marxism] Bertolt Brecht: Poet and Communist
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Sun Dec 16 12:39:41 MST 2018
NY Times Sunday Book Review, Dec. 16, 2018
Bertolt Brecht: Poet and Communist
By Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim
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
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
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