Monday, 06 July 2020 15:47

Living in dark times: the poetry of Bertolt Brecht

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Living in dark times: the poetry of Bertolt Brecht

Edward Mackinnon shows how Brecht successfully integrated Marxist theory into his poetic practice

“What is robbing a bank compared with founding a bank?”

“In the dark times
Will there also be singing?
Yes, there will also be singing.
About the dark times”

“And I always thought the very simplest words
Should be enough. If I say how things are
Everyone’s heart must be torn to shreds.
That you’ll go under if you don’t stand up for yourself
Surely you see that.”

Bertolt Brecht was long known to the English-speaking world chiefly as a dramatist and dramatic theorist, as the creator of “epic theatre”. Increasingly, however, it is recognized that Brecht the poet, acknowledged in Germany as one of the major poets in the country’s literary history, is at least as important as Brecht the playwright. It was from poetry, moreover, that Brecht ventured into drama, while poetry and song were incorporated into almost all his plays.

For Brecht poetry was a communicative, spoken art. His poems tend to be narrative rather than lyrical. He despised the notion of poetry as a hallowed art voicing “spirituality” and the “unique individual”, and wrote verse that is mostly political or at least has a social dimension, often re-working poetic themes and forms of the past. While he described his drama as “epic”, he saw his poetry as dialectical, i.e. emphasizing contradiction and change, and in this way having “use value”. Judging a poetry competition in 1927, Brecht famously decided not to award a prize, considering all the entries quite literally “useless”.

There have been three main collections of his poetry in English: a small selection translated by H.R. Hays and published in the USA in 1947, the 1976 Methuen edition of over half of Brecht’s poems translated by John Willett and Ralph Manheim and a fairly comprehensive edition translated by Tom Kuhn and David Constantine in 2018. His vast opus of some 2,500 poems has still not all been translated into English. (The translations in this essay are mainly those of Willett/Manheim, with some of my own.)

Prior to his identification with the Communist cause in the late 1920s, Brecht’s poetry represented a conscious rejection of the pathos and utopianism of Expressionism, the dominant trend in German literature in the decade from 1910. His poems of the early twenties were characterized by the amoral nihilism voiced in his first play, Baal. Looking back on them later, Brecht was to refer to them as poems typical of a “crumbling society”, as poems dealing with “decline”, though quite rightly he still credited them with poetic vitality. Insofar as they were political, they were rebelliously scornful of the bourgeois values and militarism on which Brecht had been raised in Augsburg , for instance in The Legend of the Dead Soldier, a poem which is sardonically dismissive of the notion of glorious death for the Fatherland and which earned its author the lasting hatred of the Nazi movement .

Many of the poems of the twenties were set to music, the form that was favoured being the narrative ballad or the parody of sentimental ballads about criminals and those on the margins of society, the Moritat. Influenced by poets such as Villon and Rimbaud, they featured a motley collection of social outcasts: railroad gangs, pirates, murderers, prostitutes, etc. One, The Ballad of Hannah Cash, celebrates the tough, elemental sensuality of the poor, rough-living inhabitants of the American savannahs and anticipates the songs written by Brecht a few years later in collaboration with Kurt Weill for the musicals Happy End and Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny. Another musical play/opera that enjoyed great popularity, The Threepenny Opera of 1928, was derived from John Gay’s 18th century satirical work The Beggar’s Opera.

The most powerful of the poems of this period is in my view the ballad On the Infanticide Marie Farrar. It tells of how a poor unmarried servant girl gives birth to a child in conditions of great squalor and, overworked and tormented by the cold, is driven to kill the child. Brecht relates the story in the matter-of-fact style of a newspaper or legal report and at the same time manages to convey powerfully the suffering of the servant girl. Her crime, an affront to “respectable society”, is viewed as an illustration of a wider human predicament and should not, the poet says, be condemned.

Marie Farrar, month of birth April:
Died in the Meissen penitentiary
An unwed mother, judged by the law, she will
Show you how all that lives, lives frailly.
You who bear your sons in laundered linen sheets
And call your pregnancies a “blessed state”
Should never damn the outcast and the weak:
Her sin was heavy, but her suffering great.
Therefore, I beg, make not your anger manifest
For all that lives needs help from all the rest.

The translation of the refrain by H.R. Hays, which I consider to be better, is: “But you, I beg you, check your wrath and scorn,/For man needs help from every creature born”, while Constantine and Kuhn’s version – “I beg of you, contain your wrath for all/God’s creatures need the help of all” – is anything but an improvement, as it forgoes the rhyme, has an awkward enjambment and introduces a “God” that is not in Brecht’s poem.

This poem provided the template and the idea for the refrain in Bob Dylan’s song The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll, though when writing of Brecht’s influence in his Chronicles Dylan makes no mention of two of Brecht’s poems that influenced him – this one and Brecht/Eisler’s later Song of the Moldau, which gave Dylan his famous line The Times Are A’ Changing – instead only citing Pirate Jenny, less directly influential on his When the Ship Comes In.

One of the few poems of this period written about Brecht himself, Of Poor B.B., shows how far its author still was from his later Marxist standpoint. In autobiographical fashion the poem depicts the young writer who had made his way from Augsburg to the metropolis of Berlin: “I, Bertolt Brecht, came from the black forests./ My mother carried me into the cities as I lay/Inside her womb. And the chill of the forests/Will be inside me till my dying day./In the asphalt city I’m at home ….” The reader is given a studied picture of Brecht as a member of a deeply sceptical, disillusioned young generation of city dwellers. The feeling that informs the poem brings T.S. Eliot to mind, as Brecht continues: “Of those cities will remain what passed through them, the wind!/The house makes glad the eater: he clears it out./ We know that we’re only tenants, provisional ones/And after us there will come: nothing worth talking about”.

Yet Brecht was soon to go beyond this sense of nihilism. His scorn for bourgeois values and his sympathy with the oppressed and the victims of society were soon to take on a more political character. As the class struggle intensified in the Germany of the late 1920s, Brecht familiarized himself with Marxist theory and aligned himself with the working class and the Communist Party. From 1929 he began to produce didactic plays and other ones explicit in their support for the working class, such as The Measures Taken and The Mother (adapted from the novel by Gorki). This was a period of fruitful collaboration with other Communist and progressive artists. Together with the composer Hanns Eisler he produced the inspirational Solidarity Song for the censored and initially banned film Kuhle Wampe (Brecht was also mainly responsible for the script).

After the rise to power of fascism in Germany, Brecht and Eisler were commissioned by the International Music Bureau in Moscow, at the end of 1934, to write what was to become the United Front Song, which found its way across the world, notably to Spain where it was sung by the International Brigader Ernst Busch and between 1937 and 1939, until the defeat of the republican Spanish government, from Spain to Germany via the anti-fascist shortwave radio station Deutscher Freiheitssender.

Unlike these militant marching songs, however, most of Brecht’s poetry now showed a predilection for unrhymed verse with irregular rhythms. Just as in the theatre he rejected Aristotelian drama, which induced among the audience a kind of identification that precluded critical reasoning, in his poetic practice Brecht moved away from what he considered to be the soporific effect of rhyming, regular verse to a form more suited to express conflict and contradiction. Unrhymed, irregular verse made for a greater sobriety of expression but, as the poems show, Brecht was right in believing that sobriety of expression was compatible with genuine poetry.

The choice of a more dispassionate, sober mode of expression was not unrelated, of course, to the political struggle in the service of which the poems were written. In the early thirties Brecht wrote poems on the building of socialism in the USSR, on Dimitrov and the Reichstag fire trial, poems satirizing the “house-painter” Hitler and poems addressed To the Fighters in the Concentration Camps:

Little as we hear about you, we still hear you are incorrigible.
Unteachable, they say, in your commitment to the proletarian cause
Unshakably persuaded that there are still in Germany
Two kinds of people, exploiters and exploited
And that the class struggle alone
Can liberate the masses in cities and countryside from their misery
Not by beatings, we hear, nor by hanging can you
Be brought to the point of saying that
Nowadays twice two is five.

In face of the growing danger of war Brecht’s poetry written in exile, initially in Scandinavia, displayed a new succinctness of expression, particularly in a group of poems called From a German War Primer:

It Is Night

The married couples
Lie in their beds. The young women
Will bear orphans.

In these grim years of exile, when fascism was growing ever stronger in Europe, Brecht keenly felt the contradictions of writing poetry at all in such times: ‘In my poetry a rhyme/Would seem to me almost insolent”. The tension between poetic imagination and overriding political obligation informed many of the poems written by Brecht in the beautiful landscape around Svendborg: “Inside me contend/Delight at the apple tree in blossom/And horror at the house-painter’s speeches./ But only the second/Drives me to my desk”. (Bad Time for Poetry).

The finest of the reflective poems written in Brecht’s Scandinavian exile and arguably his greatest poem of all is the one called To Those Born Later:

Truly, I live in dark times!
The guileless word is folly. A smooth forehead
Suggests insensitivity. The man who laughs
Has simply not yet had
The terrible news.

What kind of times are they, when
A conversation about trees is almost a crime
Because it implies silence about so many horrors.

In these dark times, in these times of mighty international class battles and fascist atrocities, merely to cultivate private virtue is an impossibility:

I would also like to be wise.
In the old books it says what wisdom is:
To shun the strife of the world and to live out
Your brief time without fear
Also to get along without violence
To return good for evil!
Not to fulfil your desires but to forget them
Is accounted wise.
All this I cannot do:
Truly, I live in dark times.

Political commitment, however, means involvement in the class struggle; and the fight against capitalism means involvement in the injustice and barbarism of an unjust and barbarous society. Hence the underlying reflective sadness of the poem, yet also the certain knowledge of the Marxist that the “realm of necessity” will one day be followed by the “realm of freedom”:

You who will emerge from the flood
In which we have gone under
When you speak of our failings
The dark time too
Which you have escaped.
For we went, changing countries oftener than our shoes
Through the wars of the classes, despairing
When there was injustice only and no rebellion.

And yet we know:
Hatred, even of meanness
Contorts the features.
Anger, even against injustice
Makes the voice hoarse. Oh, we
Who wanted to prepare the ground for friendliness
Could not ourselves be friendly.

But you, when the time comes at last
And man is a helper to man
Think of us
With forbearance.

After exile in Scandinavia came exile in the USA, an altogether unhappy experience for Brecht. Like many exiled German writers, he had to try to make a living by selling film scripts to Hollywood: “Every morning, to earn my bread/I go to the market where lies are bought./In hope/I take my place amongst the sellers” (Hollywood). Worse was to follow on the East coast, where Brecht was summoned before the House of Representatives Committee on un-American Activities.

The period of exile was also marked by the loss of close companions, such as Brecht’s friend Walter Benjamin and his collaborator and lover Margarete Steffin, and the attendant sense of guilt.

I, the Survivor

I know of course; it’s simply luck
That I’ve survived so many friends. But last night in a dream
I heard those friends say of me: Only the strong survive.
And I hated myself.

In 1948 Brecht returned to Germany, to the part that was the Soviet Zone of Occupation and was in 1949 to become the German Democratic Republic. “The travails of the mountains lie behind us./Before us lie the travails of the plains” (Observation), he wrote. Brecht set to work in the theatre that was provided for him in Berlin and wrote poems on the reconstruction of Germany, poems on peace, including the Peace Song based on Neruda, and in the manner of Shelley’s Mask of Anarchy he wrote The Anachronistic Process, or Freedom and Democracy, a mordant commentary on the restoration of capitalism and militarism in the western part of Germany. Finally there came the Buckow Elegies, a group of poems whose extreme economy of expression testified to the influence of Chinese verse and the Roman poet Horace.

Changing the Wheel

I sit by the roadside
The driver changes the wheel
I do not want to be where I have come from
I do not want to be where I am going to
Why do I watch the changing of the wheel
with impatience?

This poem, apparently occasioned by Brecht’s being driven to a poetry reading, became standard reading in the GDR. Nonetheless some have claimed that it is evidence of the author’s political disillusionment in the 1950s and link it with the anti-government uprising of 1953. I think it rather expresses Brecht’s general impatience with the pace of political progress. Impatience, usually a pejorative term, was a positive one for Brecht. It cannot be denied, however, that the events of 1953 cast a shadow over the elegies written in that year. The much-quoted The Solution, suggesting the government should elect a new people, an ironic riposte to a foolish statement issued by a leading member of the writers’ union, was a direct comment on those events. It was not intended for publication, however, and Brecht communicated his support for the GDR government and the measures taken to restore order, while endorsing the legitimate demands of the building workers whose protest sparked the uprising.

Brecht excelled in all major literary forms, in drama, prose and poetry; and within his poetry there is a tremendous range of genres and styles, from traditional forms like narrative ballads and sonnets to irregular, unrhymed verse, from compressed little aphoristic poems to the long, ambitious poem such as the attempt to put into verse the Communist Manifesto. Nor should one fail to mention his children’s verse. The Tailor of Ulm (Ulm 1592), for example, is a delightful little tale in which the representative of conservatism seemingly has the last word:

Bishop, I can fly
Said the tailor to the bishop.
Just watch me try!
And with a couple of things
That looked like wings
To the big, big roof of the church he climbed.

The bishop walked by.
It’s nothing but a lie
A man is not a bird
No man will ever fly
Said the bishop to the tailor.

The tailor has passed away
Said the people to the bishop
A farcical affair.
Broken-winged he crashed
And now lies smashed
On the hard, hard city square.

Let the church bells ring
It was nothing but a lie
A man is not a bird
No man will ever fly
Said the bishop to the people.

It should come as no surprise that Brecht wrote children’s songs, given his emphasis on the “use value” of poetry. His conception of the poet was of someone from whom one could learn: “I need no gravestone, but/If you need one for me/I would like it to bear these words:/He made suggestions. We/carried them out./Such an inscription would/Honour us all”. (I Need No Gravestone). And for anyone with a critical mind there is much to be learned from Brecht’s poetry. What, for instance, could be a more effectively simple expression of the Marxist view of history than the poem Questions of a Worker Who Reads:

Who built Thebes of the seven gates?
In the books are written the names of kings.
Did the kings haul up the lumps of rock?
And Babylon, many times destroyed
Who re-built it so many times? In what houses
Of gold-glittering Lima did the builders live?
Where, the evening the Great Wall of China was finished
Did the masons go? The great city of Rome
Is full of triumphal arches. Who erected them?
Over whom did the Caesars triumph? Had Byzantium,
Much praised in song, only palaces for its inhabitants?
Even in fabled Atlantis, the night the ocean engulfed it
The drowning still bawled out for their slaves.

The young Alexander conquered India.
He alone?
Caesar defeated the Gauls.
Did he not even have a cook with him?
Philip of Spain wept when his armada
Went down. Did no-one else weep?
Frederick the Second won the Seven Years War.
Who else won it?

Every page a victory.
Who cooked the victory banquet?
Every ten years a great man.
Who paid the bill?

So many reports.
So many questions.

A lesson with an unavoidable implication: these questions of a worker who reads should also be questions asked by a writer who thinks.

Read 20617 times Last modified on Wednesday, 05 August 2020 13:34
Edward Mackinnon

Edward Mackinnon's fourth collection is "The Storm Called Progress", published by Shoestring Press.