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Singing About the Dark Times

The Poetry of Bertolt Brecht

by Michael Hofmann

IN Die Welt on 12th August 2006, just before turning his energies to his own extenuation and defence, Günter Grass put in a few words for Bertolt Brecht. While there were things in Brecht’s life he didn’t condone, he said, the author’s reputation had unfairly waned; Brecht’s remained a large and important oeuvre, and the poetry in particular was magnificent and diverse (some of Grass’s own earliest works were poems). It was a typical instance of Nobel largesse, a man speaking up for another of greater deserts, though less able to look after himself. Grass soon found he had to redraw his own frontiers – a different pair of consonants (not ‘BB’, but SS) became the focus of his person – and so Brecht, who died on 14th August 1956, was probably the last beneficiary of his leverage.

Grass is right about Brecht’s poetry, though. Available in German either in octavo size in dingy purple cloth, not unlike a pocket Bible (which would have tickled his fancy), or in a standard size thin-paper edition in Red Flag red, it comes to about 1,300 unfussy pages. (Over half of them have been translated into English by John Willett and Ralph Manheim, in two volumes, warmly recommended: Poems 1913-1956 and the supplementary Poems and Songs from the Plays). Brecht wrote poetry all his life, from private scurrilities and Kiplingesque Wild West ballads when he was 15, to poems out of the window in the hospital where he died, the Charité on the Oranienburger Strasse in East Berlin. He wrote songs for himself to perform to friends on the guitar (he had a thin and high, rather metallic voice), and included chorales and free verse poems in most of his plays. His verse kept record of his views on theatre and performance, on day-to-day political events (many of the poems of the ’30s feature “the housepainter”, his invariable designation for Adolf Hitler), on affairs and friendships, household objects and sayings. When in the course of his 15-year exile from Germany he came to a new country, he would preserve his impressions in poems, hence the Svendborg Elegies from Denmark (“The house has four doors to escape by”) or the Hollywood Elegies (“The four cities / Are filled / With the oily smell of films”). In the course of a mobile, active and engaged life, the poem was the intelligent, compressed, adaptable and self-contained form for both his private and his public address. It was, as John Reid might say, “fit for purpose”.

The odd thing, or actually perhaps the corollary of this, is that Brecht only ever published a single book of poems in German in his lifetime: the Hauspostille or Devotions for the Home of 1927. Many of his poems were circulated privately, or stayed in the drawer; others were sung or performed, printed in ones and twos occasionally, or took their chances with his other work in a regular series of offprints called Versuche – Essays or Experiments. The ordering, collecting and publishing of his poems qua poems seemed not at all to interest him. Rather, he held the ‘professional’ lyric poet, working from magazine appearance to collection to anthology inclusion, to be a figure of horror and ridicule. When asked to judge a contest once, he scrupulously excluded all the professional poets, and awarded the prize to some fanzine-style verse-making about competitive six-day cycling. Other German poets of the times – Rilke, George, Benn – were anathema: he hated the hallowedness of poetry, its claim to other-worldliness and spirituality, its immateriality, its complacent separateness.

Brecht’s poems run the gamut from public to private – and back again. Most of one’s attempts to classify them would probably be wrong anyway. It seems true to say that little verses that read like private jottings – what about this one: “Painstakingly I go over / My plan, it is / Grand enough, it is / Unrealizable” – are as robust as anything public, while his longprojected 1945 effort at recasting the Communist Party Manifesto in verse (in classical hexameters, no less) would seem to have something anxiously private about it. Take probably his best known later poem, ‘Changing the Wheel’:

I sit by the roadside
The driver changes the wheel.
I do not like the place I have come from.
I do not like the place I am going to.
Why with impatience do I
Watch him changing the wheel?

This poem, written shortly after the East German uprising of 17th June 1953, uses the first person pronoun six times in six lines, but it is hard to think of anything more witheringly and disaffectedly political. It sits in the middle of all sorts of time and space, and says “No”. One would not like to be the state that furnished the roadside, the wheel, the driver, the place behind and the place ahead. Brecht in his lifetime was careful not to release it to East or West. And yet, as I learned from a poet friend brought up in East Germany, it was subsequently taught in schools there as a showpiece of socialist verse. I cannot imagine how: surely its elitism – the man comes with a driver, for God’s sake! – and its do-nothing despair doubly disqualify it from the socialist pantheon. It is, as my friend said, an abdication to the future.

POETRY was for Brecht something he did on the side, almost a vice, a peccadillo. He didn’t want it to be his living, but was helpless to prevent it from remaining his primary expression. It was his mode of thought, of scrutiny, of play. This, I think, is what he meant when he said that the best argument against his drama was his poetry: the one deliberate, stylized, engineered and engineering – Brecht endlessly revised his plays to bring them ideologically into conformity with what was expected of them – the other anarchic, intelligent and trustworthy. The mere range of subjects, of occasions, is reassuring. His poetry flourished like a weed, out of control. Nor is the notion – prevalent in the Anglo-Saxon world – that he is a joyless, austere writer the least bit correct. He is one of the great and subtle celebrators in literature, from early poems like ‘Of Swimming in Lakes and Rivers’ to late accountings such as ‘1954, First Half’. He did write, in the poem ‘Bad Times for Poetry’, “In me, there is dissension / Between my pleasure in the blossoming apple-tree / And my horror at the speeches of the housepainter. / But only the latter / Compels me to my desk”, but that was never true. Accordingly, while there are many poems that are shallow and propagandistic and conniving, and the many anti-Hitler poems can hardly be said to have achieved their aim, one is saved time and time again by Brecht’s dialectical habit – his propensity for getting into an argument with himself. The poems are never placid, they ripple; they are shapely thought. Over the forty-odd years of his writing, they got quieter, the ripple somehow even purer and more distinct. The early influences, the rackety Kipling, Villon and Rimbaud, were gradually supplanted by Horace and classical Chinese poetry. Even poems that seem wholly private, like this one, ‘Study’, from 1943, for Ruth Berlau, away in New York while he and his family were in Santa Monica, show that persistence of thought that is ‘political’ at its best:

The copper pans are yours.
The Confucius (on the wall)
The deal table
The manuscript cupboard
The stand-up desk
The tin tub

You are very much present and you are not here.

Brecht’s example adapts and refines Shelley’s tag, of poets as “the unacknowledged legislators of the world”. Poems, as long as they are not predictable, pre-bought and pre-sold, have the ability to work on our thought and our action. The freshness, the rebarbativeness, the surprise that make a poem work, are also vital factors in political thought. Where one feels the heavy presence of ideology, of plan, of lock-step, both are vitiated and fail. Beyond that, any sort of singleness, overtness, heaviness of emphasis, lack of ambiguity, perhaps doesn’t do too well in poetry, and good politics on their own do not make good poetry. Brecht never coveted political power – true, he did describe one directing stint as “a nice little dictatorship”, and there are the photographs of him on Berlau’s Manhattan roof sporting a raggle-taggle Stalin moustache; but both those good-humoured episodes tend to bear me out. What he sought was the licence to comment, for his words to come from the off and affect. Hence his 1933 poem:

I don’t want a gravestone, but
If you want one for me
I should like it to read:
He made suggestions. We
Acted on them.
Such an inscription would
Do honour to us all.

The wily modesty – to some, merely outrageous pride – is typical of Brecht. It is the political poem as serenade, as sweet talk.

Michael Hofmann is a poet, critic and translator,
and editor of The Faber Book of 20th-Century German Poems.

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