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Poetry for the Masses
1,200 newly translated poems from Bertolt Brecht offer an unexpected survival guide for difficult times.
“Songs for Singing in the Dark”
In the dark times
Will there be singing?
There will be singing
Of the dark times.
—From Bertolt Brecht’s Svendborg Poems, “German War Primer” (1939)
The German playwright Bertolt Brecht, one of the most influential dramatists of the 20th century, was gaunt as a young man, with deep-set eyes and a bony face. He liked to wear silk—a pleasure inherited from his mother, an expert seamstress—and leather trench coats, and he was rarely without a cigar. He was just 30 when he captivated audiences—first in Berlin in 1928, quickly followed by Vienna, Prague, and Budapest, then later Paris, Moscow, and New York—with his instant-hit opera for the masses, Die Dreigroschenoper (The Threepenny Opera), the most famous song of which, “Die Moritat von Mackie Messer” (“The Ballad of Mack the Knife”), set to a trippy-carnival score by fellow future emigre Kurt Weill, still epitomizes the shock of alienation that has come to be known as “modern.”
Brecht’s oeuvre also includes the often-staged plays Mother Courage and Her Children, Saint Joan of the Stockyards, Life of Galileo, The Caucasian Chalk Circle, and The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, a satirical allegory of Adolf Hitler’s rise to power set in Chicago, about a ruthless gangster trying to corner the cauliflower market. (Yes, the cauliflower market.) Yet Brecht’s poetry, which he composed nearly every day of his life, is far less well known in English due to Brecht’s own selectivity about translations during his lifetime.
Now, Tom Kuhn, a professor of 20th-century German literature at St Hugh’s College, Oxford, and the poet, author, and translator David Constantine have remedied the translation problem. Together they edited and translated more than 1,200 of Brecht’s poems, many available for the first time in English. The Collected Poems of Bertolt Brecht is packed with verses full of solace and wisdom, paranoia and fear, humor and music (literally—many of Brecht’s early poems were meant to be sung). Taken as a whole, the poems are, in some ways, a survival guide for difficult times—and provide insights, as well, into our own. Kuhn and Constantine have carefully set the oeuvre against the eras in which they were created: The Collected Poems is organized chronologically into five parts, then further subdivided into previously published collections and uncollected work, with an occasional unpublished verse fragment here and there.
Brecht’s poetry, like his life, the authors point out in short introductory notes at the beginning of each section, was defined by some of the crueler moments of the 20th century: the horror and devastation of two World Wars, hyperinflation, mass unemployment and hunger, the postwar division of Germany, and Joseph Stalin’s crimes. Brecht himself was not imprisoned, but some of his closest associates were brutally buffeted by the authoritarian regimes of his time. His publisher Peter Suhrkamp was accused of high treason in Nazi Germany and was briefly sent to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp; the actress and singer for whom the Threepenny Opera character Polly Peachum was written, Carola Neher, died of typhus in a Soviet gulag in 1942. Death shadowed Brecht’s crowd in other ways as well. Walter Benjamin, Brecht’s friend and philosophical sparring partner, committed suicide in 1940 at the French-Spanish border while attempting to flee the Nazis, and Brecht’s young communist lover Margarete Steffin died of tuberculosis at a Moscow sanatorium just before she was scheduled to accompany the Brecht family on their overland journey across the Soviet Union into exile in the United States in 1941.
These experiences affected Brecht deeply; politics is a throughline of his poetic legacy. Consider “My Pipes” (1940), about the acute insecurity of the refugee, written at a time he himself was displaced from his birthplace:
I left my books, in haste to reach the border
To friends, I can get by without a poem
But smuggled out my pipes, so broke the order
To refugees: take nothing of your own!
To him the books have little left to offer
Whom foes pursue with murderous intent.
The smoker’s kit wrapped in its pouch of leather
Right now holds promises more pertinent.
Born in 1898 to a middle-class family in the Bavarian city of Augsburg, outside Munich, Brecht entered adulthood just as most of his classmates were leaving for the Western Front for World War I. Many never returned. (Brecht himself became a medical orderly just before the armistice agreement ending the war. He eventually worked at a hospital for soldiers with venereal disease.) An avid student of poetic form, including the free verse he encountered in early German translations of Walt Whitman, Brecht mastered sonnets, close rhyming quatrains, psalms, songs, and other forms of metrical verse including the German Moritat, or street ballad, of which “Mack the Knife” is perhaps the most well-known. One early such ballad of his, “Legend of the Dead Soldier,” included in the collection Domestic Breviary (1927), tells the story of a zombie in Kaiser Wilhelm’s army called up from the grave to continue to fight.
Brecht was an early anti-Nazi. He had seen Hitler give a speech in Munich in 1923 and though he contemptuously referred to the dictator as “the housepainter” in his poems, he took Hitler’s murderous rhetoric literally. Though never a member of the Communist Party, Brecht was deeply influenced by his study of Marx, as was his second wife and lifelong artistic collaborator, the Austrian-born actress Helene Weigel. The combination—Brecht’s own communist leanings and his Jewish wife and children—put the family in mortal danger in Germany. (Weigel’s Austrian father, Siegfried Weigel, was deported in October 1941 to the Lodz Ghetto. He died there some months later.) Brecht and Weigel left Germany the day after the Reichstag fire in 1933. Their two children joined them shortly afterward. It would be a 16-year exile. They settled first on the island of Fyn in Denmark, and then moved on to Lidingo, Sweden; Helsinki and Marleback, Finland; and finally on to Los Angeles—where, he later wrote, “even the fig trees sometimes look as if they had just told and sold some contemptible lies.”
In 1935, the Nazis stripped Brecht of his citizenship; he was accused, among other things, of insulting German soldiers in the aforementioned “Legend of the Dead Soldier.”
And when in the spring of that fifth year
No sign of peace showed through
The soldier saw what his options were
And died the death of a hero
The war however wasn’t done with yet
And Kaiser Bill was sore.
His soldier had done and died a death
That he thought premature.
Becoming stateless didn’t depress Brecht’s output. His poems are unmatched in this period. In 1939, he published a selection of these verses as Svendborg Poems; they are presented complete in this new volume for the first time in English. Having personally witnessed the paramilitary street fighting of the 1920s in Munich and Berlin, Brecht understood the deadly reality of tumultuous times, and the themes of the era recur again and again in his verse. (“When the misdeeds come as the rain falls, then no one any longer cries halt.”) He found the natural world, normally a poet’s inspiration, an insufficient—even offensive—spur to his own creativity in dark times. Brecht uses this sense of metaphoric exile to heart-chilling effect, for example in “A Bad Time for Poetry” (1939):
A rhyme in my song
Would seem almost wanton.
Inside me contend
Enthusiasm at the blossoming apple tree
And horror at the housepainter’s speeches.
But only the latter
Drives me to write.
One of the most striking aspects of Collected Poems is just how timely and modern these verses feel. Brecht was responding to authoritarian political tactics, which haven’t much changed in three generations. “Those who know the truth become the wildest liars,” he writes in “To Those Who Have Been Brought Into Line” (1935).
During the final years of their exile, in California, Brecht and Weigel found themselves once again under scrutiny. They were regularly monitored by the FBI and informed upon by members of the German-speaking exile community. Brecht was brought before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947. “Is it true,” he was asked, “that you have written a number of very revolutionary poems, plays, and other writings?” In a strong German accent he answered the committee that, yes, he had written poems and plays against Hitler, which could therefore be seen as revolutionary, but he denied—truthfully—ever having been a member of the Communist Party. (Remarkably, he also mocked the committee’s translation of a poem he wrote.)
Brecht left for Europe the next day. His quick departure and willingness to speak stood in stark contrast to the collective silence of the Hollywood Ten, who vocally denounced McCarthyism, refused to testify, and were subsequently imprisoned for contempt. Brecht was criticized, screenwriter Dalton Trumbo would later say, by Hollywood Ten writers for failing to speak up for fellow artists in danger, though Trumbo claimed he understood Brecht’s reluctance to challenge the U.S. government, considering his official statelessness and tenuous U.S. visa situation. (Similarly, Brecht never publicly condemned Stalin’s show trials of the late 1930s, during which fellow writers, artists, and journalists were imprisoned in Stalin’s purge of Trotskyites.)
Brecht and Weigel returned to what was now East Germany in 1949. It was the only country that would have them, given their known Communist sympathies. The poems he produced in this era are often technically impressive but sound forced; there are songs celebrating communist advancements alongside shorter poems of real sadness and doubt, especially a group of verses published as Buckow Elegies, which were little known in English until now. But while Brecht was inspired by East Germany’s commitment to socialist principles, and his Berliner Ensemble, the theater group he and Weigel founded with help from the East German state, gained in worldwide renown, his health rapidly declined. Childhood rheumatic fever left Brecht with a lifelong heart weakness as well as a nervous disorder characterized by involuntary movements of the facial muscles and limbs, now known as Sydenham’s chorea. Brecht died in 1956, at age 58, of a heart attack.
In this new, impressive, compilation, Tom Kuhn and David Constantine have labored to give English readers a fresh, comprehensive view of a man and the century whose aftershocks shake us still. It’s a Herculean effort that, inevitably, has missteps. The book encompasses more than a thousand poems, and many originally appeared in rhyme or regular meter that Constantine and Kuhn have taken obvious pains to preserve. Yet, in certain verses, bilingual readers will recognize that their monolingual counterparts are simply not getting the full Brechtian experience. In German the humor is stranger, the words more apt, the rhythm more refined. Nevertheless, what the authors have done here is nothing short of heroic; even if occasionally flawed, the work is important.
That’s because, reading Brecht’s poems today—particularly if accompanied by the 2014 biography Bertolt Brecht: A Literary Life by Stephen Parker—is an essential antidote to the ails of our age, which so mirror that of Brecht. After all, the poet speaks to small-mindedness and cowardice, to lies posing as truth, to the narrowness and fear that so often lead to exclusion, if not outright violence, disguised as defense. Every kind of totalitarian ploy in use today is commented on, questioned, derided, but at the same time taken seriously, as an enemy should be. From fake news to the demonization of the foreigner to the corruption of the language in service of a deeper, moral corruption, it’s all here, Volks. Read and weep. Then raise a voice.