Michael Hof­mann

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The Col­lected Po­ems of Ber­tolt Brecht trans­lated from the Ger­man and edited by Tom Kuhn and David Con­stan­tine

The Col­lected Po­ems of Ber­tolt Brecht trans­lated from the Ger­man and edited by Tom Kuhn and David Con­stan­tine. Liveright, 1,286 pp., $49.95

If this col­lec­tion of Ber­tolt Brecht’s po­ems in English were half its length, it would be great; if a third, spec­tac­u­lar; if a quar­ter, in­dis­pens­able. The book it re­places, the 1976 Methuen Po­ems 1913–1956, edited by Ralph Man­heim and John Wil­lett (and mostly trans­lated by Wil­lett and by Michael Ham­burger, though there are thirty-five con­trib­u­tors in all), can, at a featly

627 pages, be picked up and carted around and read and held in the mind. This new trans­la­tion, six hun­dred pages longer and in a big­ger, out­size for­mat (one that re­sists flip­ping and brows­ing), just about can’t. The gi­gan­tism per­plexes me.

Do we re­ally have such gar­gan­tuan ap­petites for (mostly small) po­ems? It seems to take an un­duly long time in the new col­lec­tion, trans­lated and edited by Tom Kuhn and David Con­stan­tine, be­fore one reaches fa­mil­iar ground: the bal­lad of the serene par­en­ti­cide Jakob Apfel­böck, called “Apfel­böck or the lily of the field,” is on page 166

(24 in Man­heim/Wil­lett); “Re­mem­ber­ing Marie A.” on page 220

(35 in Man­heim/Wil­lett); “Poor B. B.,” one of the great twen­ti­eth­cen­tury po­ems, which Brecht wrote in pi­quant cir­cum­stances at the age of twenty-four on the night train from Ber­lin—which was in 1922 still re­sis­tant to his ap­peal—to his long-since-out­grown home­town of Augs­burg, on page 250 (107 in Man­heim/Wil­lett).

Nor is this just a mat­ter of some pe­cu­liar fa­mil­iar­ity fetish; the first time I en­coun­tered a lit­tle run of po­ems I en­joyed and thought were worth read­ing (which is surely how a big book like this sinks or swims), it was af­ter page 50. The Psalms of 1920 are mag­i­cally dis­oblig­ing things, full of ce­les­tial surli­ness: “Our dwelling place was a black hut by the river. Of­ten and griev­ously the horse­flies bit her white body. I read the news­pa­per seven times, or I said: Your hair is the colour of dirt. Or: You are heart­less.” Nor should one sup­pose the Kuhn/Con­stan­tine has sim­ply eaten the whole of Man­heim/Wil­lett; there are things in the lat­ter baf­flingly not in­cluded in the for­mer, great things, too: the seven-page apoc­a­lyp­tic jeer called “Late lamented fame of the gi­ant city of New York,” a poem I of­ten think about and al­ways look for, never more ap­po­site than now; one of the best of the sub­tle and thought-pro­vok­ing “the­ater po­ems,” called “Speech to Dan­ish work­ing-class ac­tors on the Art of Ob­ser­va­tion”:

You, ac­tor

Must master the art of ob­ser­va­tion Be­fore all other arts.

For what mat­ters is not how you look but

What you have seen and can show us. What’s worth know­ing Is what you know.

People will ob­serve you to see How well you have ob­served.

Or a tiny (and very early!) ex­is­ten­tial rien called “Born Later”:

I ad­mit it: I

Have no hope.

The blind talk of a way out. I See.

When the er­rors have been used up As our last companion, fac­ing us Sits noth­ing­ness. “Der let­zte Ge­sellschafter”—the Ger­man for “our last companion”—comes un­bid­den. I find it rather strange to imag­ine the new ed­i­tors think­ing their book of 1,200 pages is the bet­ter for not hav­ing these won­ders.

In the ruck of po­ets, I see Brecht as al­ways hav­ing faced the other way: they are inof­fen­sive line­men; he prac­tices judo. He was a born con­trar­ian, made all the more so by his ex­pe­ri­ence and the habit of dia­lec­tics. “From the very start,” as he says in “Poor B. B.,” he showed a ha­tred of depth, a ha­tred of beauty and spir­i­tu­al­ity, a ha­tred of sen­ti­ment, a ha­tred of fake vel­vet and ten-cent words. He dis­dained these stand­bys of most other po­etry as val­ue­less, stupid, in­ef­fec­tual. Asked, as a young poet him­self, to judge a con­test for young po­ets, he made no award but said he would like to ban sleeves (to shake some­thing out of one’s sleeve is a Ger­man ex­pres­sion for do­ing some­thing ef­fort­lessly and fatu­ously). Po­etry isn’t a nu­mi­nous waft to Brecht, it’s a tar­geted ef­fect. He of­fers a lik­ing for thought and an aware­ness of the shape of thought, the cor­rec­tion of pop­u­lar id­io­cies and foul pol­i­tics, a will­ing­ness to con­tra­dict, to mock, to doubt. He is ag­ile in his po­si­tion­ing, ad­mirable in his de­tach­ment, de­pend­able in his so­bri­ety. His fa­vorite book? Don’t laugh, he said, the Bi­ble.

Slight, sur­pris­ing shifts in logic or phras­ing are hugely, dis­pro­por­tion­ately, un­for­get­tably ef­fec­tive. The style is eco­nom­i­cal, the man­ner the per­sonal/im­per­sonal of folk po­etry: “When the wound/No longer hurts/ The scar does”; “Care­fully I test/My plan, it is/Good enough, it is/Un­re­al­iz­able”; “It is night./The mar­ried cou­ples/Take them­selves off to their beds. The young women/Will bear or­phans” (from the “Ger­man War Primer”); “Their moth­ers gave birth in pain, but their women/Con­ceive in pain”; a host people (the Swedish Finns) is de­scribed as “mute in both its tongues,” or, bet­ter, in Michael Ham­burger’s old trans­la­tion, with in­ten­tion­al­ity, “silent in two tongues.” Such qual­i­ties cul­mi­nate in the fa­mous late po­ems, such as “Chang­ing the wheel”:

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

With im­pa­tience?

(Again, I like the Ham­burger trans­la­tion bet­ter: “I do not like the place I have come from./I do not like the place I am go­ing to.”) Or “The So­lu­tion,” which goes, in its en­tirety:

Af­ter the upris­ing of 17 June On the or­ders of the Sec­re­tary of the Writ­ers’ Union

Leaflets were dis­trib­uted in the Stali­nallee

Which read: that the people

Had for­feited the gov­ern­ment’s trust

And only by work­ing twice as hard

Could they win it back. But would it not

Be sim­pler if the gov­ern­ment Dis­solved the people and

Elected an­other one?

To Brecht, a poem—say, the po­ems on the the­ater, the son­nets on books, the reflections on cur­rent events and on his own life—comes to be sim­ply the most strin­gent and eco­nom­i­cal mode of pre­sent­ing an ar­gu­ment. Not the least at­trac­tive as­pect of him is that he re­mains sub­ver­sive, mod­est, tren­chant; he doesn’t crow, doesn’t bully, doesn’t tub- or chest-thump. There is al­ways wit, and of­ten del­i­cacy; you see him taking care where he places his feet. In the poem “Letter to the work­ers’ the­ater,” he de­scribes him­self ac­cu­rately as writ­ing “with­out di­gres­sions, in spare lan­guage/Plac­ing my words cleanly, choos­ing/Ev­ery ges­ture of my fig­ure with care, as one/Re­ports the words and deeds of the great.” “He made sug­ges­tions,” he pro­poses as an epi­taph for him­self, and the po­etry is a suada, a plea, or a se­ries of suadae—cor­rect, pur­pose­ful, well in­ten­tioned but ring­ingly un­suc­cess­ful. It didn’t over­turn the Ger­man bour­geoisie, didn’t de­feat Hitler, didn’t sink cap­i­tal­ism, and didn’t prompt his East Ger­man masters to re­think their dim pro­ject. The lack of suc­cess is im­por­tant, and is a rea­son to read him, not the opposite. Po­etry doesn’t take the cause of the vic­tor. A lit­tle four-liner lead­ing off Brecht’s fi­nal col­lec­tion, Buckow Ele­gies (un­pub­lished in his life­time), goes:

If there were a wind I could put up a sail. If there were no sail

I’d make one of sticks and can­vas.

Note that when the speaker tells this po­lit­i­cal para­ble, there is still no wind, and the ves­sel, if there is a ves­sel, is still be­calmed (nei­ther cir­cum­stance re­ceives any commentary), but Brecht to the last re­mains com­mit­ted to his sin­gu­lar, me­lior­ist, some­how heroic, home­made en­deav­ors. He was al­ways much more Ham­let than Fort­in­bras.

Brecht’s bi­og­ra­phy ex­hibits the range and vi­cis­si­tudes re­quired of the twen­ti­eth-cen­tury poet, the one con­stant be­ing prodigious, al­most con­tin­u­ous work. Like his con­cept of “epic the­ater,” the life seems a suc­ces­sion of op­pos­ing tableaux. The idyl­lic child­hood, brought to an abrupt con­clu­sion by the early death of his mother and the con­scrip­tion of his friends in World War I. The pro­vin­cial up­bring­ing in Bavaria, cock of the walk in Augs­burg, where he rapidly fa­thered three chil­dren with three dif­fer­ent women; then the un­avoid­able but dif­fi­cult move to the “cold Chicago” of Ber­lin. The years of hon­or­able and (mostly) dis­hon­or­able, Machi­avel­lian striv­ing; the award of the Kleist Prize in 1922, when he was still in his twen­ties. The rack­ety, scan­dal-rid­den, pub­lic­ity-hun­gry 1920s; the in­de­struc­tible do­mes­tic setup with the ac­tress He­lene Weigel. The huge—but knife-edge—suc­cess of The Three­penny Opera in 1928 and Brecht’s sub­se­quent per­verse de­ter­mi­na­tion to make only the most un­watch­able doc­tri­naire shows there­after.

The wildly orig­i­nal and en­dur­ingly in­ter­est­ing the­ater ideas (“Show­ing

must be shown,” as the poem ti­tle has it) evolved over decades, from first prin­ci­ples, and largely in the ab­sence of any the­aters. The pur­chase of a house in Bavaria in 1932 (“Seven weeks of my life I was rich”) and the overnight flight to ex­ile in Den­mark fol­low­ing the Re­ich­stag Fire. The al­ter­na­tions of power and pow­er­less­ness, charisma and ne­glect, happy col­lab­o­ra­tion with a suc­ces­sion of gifted (and usu­ally fe­male) ac­tors and writ­ers, and a des­o­la­tion that left him al­most de­pressed (though he might just be the only un­de­pressed poet there has ever been). The dra­matic flight up through Scan­di­navia (“High up in La­p­land/To­wards the north­ern ice sea/I still see a lit­tle door”) and across Stalin’s Soviet Union to Vladi­vos­tok and the last steamer (the SS An­nie Johnson) crossing the Pa­cific be­fore Ja­pan en­tered World War II, and the ter­ri­ble flat calm of Hol­ly­wood: “Ev­ery morn­ing, to earn my bread/I go to the mar­ket where lies are traded/In hope/I take my place amongst the sell­ers.”

The writ­ing of one play af­ter an­other in the 1930s and the fi­nal grant­ing of his long-stand­ing wish for a the­ater to man­age, as im­plied in the proud, though al­ways pro­vi­sional-sound­ing, poem “1954, first half,” re­versible and sub­tractable, as all lists are: “I saw the li­lac in Buckow, the mar­ket­place at Bruges/The canals of Am­s­ter­dam, Les Halles in Paris./I en­joyed the friend­ship of the lovely A.T./I read the let­ters of Voltaire and Mao’s es­say on con­tra­dic­tion./I put on the Chalk Cir­cle at the Schiff­bauer­damm.” End­ing his days as the un­easy state poet in the state of his dreams (not!), the Com­mu­nist GDR, with his writ­ings pub­lished in the Fed­eral Repub­lic (West Ger­many), his plays pro­duced in Mi­lan, his money parked in Switzer­land, and the na­tion­al­ity of his pass­port—Aus­trian, if you please. Who can hope to have a simple, straight life in such crooked times? But there is some­thing also rep­re­sen­ta­tive about it. It is the life of a twen­ti­eth-cen­tury writer, not all that dif­fer­ent from the lives of Achebe or Bald­win, Bei Dao or Brod­sky, Her­bert or Breyten­bach, Neruda or Tsve­taeva: tal­ent the mo­tor, the an­chor, the cargo; a work on the hori­zon; ev­ery­thing else (even lan­guage) ne­go­tiable.

All this—and much more—is re­flected, some­times obliquely, some­times straight­for­wardly, some­times ex­cerpted, some­times bunched to­gether, in the po­ems. This is where Brecht records Franz Wedekind’s funeral and Al­fred Döblin’s “10,000th birth­day,” the pen­du­lous belly of Charles Laughton and the ac­tor’s gar­den over­look­ing the Pa­cific (“It seems/There’s not much time in which to com­plete it”). He writes love po­ems of ev­ery stripe, from cyn­i­cal to sad to sweet (these were in Love Po­ems, re­leased by the same trans­la­tors in 2014—the sin­gle, so to speak, from the al­bum now un­der re­view). He writes po­ems of ad­vice, crit­i­cism, de­mur­ral. He writes po­ems to sta­bi­lize or sit­u­ate him­self. That’s prob­a­bly what Brecht meant by the oth­er­wise puz­zling sen­tence given much promi­nence in the Wil­lett/Man­heim in­tro­duc­tion: “The thing is that my po­etry is the strong­est ar­gu­ment against my play­writ­ing ac­tiv­i­ties.”

The plays, ob­vi­ously dis­tanced, ob­vi­ously de­lib­er­ate, ob­vi­ously fic­tive cru­cibles, eth­i­cal-po­lit­i­cal in in­ten­tion, ob­vi­ously like noth­ing else—we’d known about those since the in­ter­na­tional Brecht boom of the 1950s. It was a mat­ter in 1976 of re­veal­ing Brecht the poet (the in­tro­duc­tion is even called “Dis­clo­sure of a Poet”) in his full ex­cel­lence and va­ri­ety to an ig­no­rant and un­pre­pared world, since trans­la­tions to that point had been too few and too bad. The An­glo-Amer­i­can world now may still be ig­no­rant, but it can­not be called un­pre­pared—or maybe the other way around—yet there re­mains a dis­tance, an ap­pre­hen­sion. It may be that the idea of a po­etry so built around clev­er­ness, so di­a­gram­matic, fails to find fa­vor; it may be Brecht’s the­o­ret­i­cal and po­lit­i­cal bag­gage (one never re­ally warmed to the Alien­ation Ef­fect, and has lit­tle sym­pa­thy for an old but­toned-up Com­mu­nist); it may be his per­ceived de­tach­ment from the tra­di­tional murk of po­etry (we are still ad­dicted to the old gravy brown­ing); it may be an un­ap­peased ir­ri­ta­tion with trans­la­tion.

Brecht has a knack of writ­ing or­di­nary Ger­man and mean­ing it that makes him ex­traor­di­nar­ily dif­fi­cult to trans­late—maybe (sur­pris­ingly) the hard­est of all the twen­ti­eth-cen­tury Ger­mans. Of Rilke the sim­i­les sur­vive, even if they baf­fle as they daz­zle; of Trakl some­thing gaudy and bar­barous; of Ce­lan the twist of an opaque pain; of Benn the hu­man mut­ter. In Brecht, simple words (kalt, fahl, früh, böse) and plain state­ments are asked to bear an aw­ful lot of weight. The great poem “An die Nachge­bore­nen,” writ­ten in 1938, a con­fes­sion of inadequacy to com­ing gen­er­a­tions, has a stanza that goes:

Die Kräfte waren ger­ing. Das Ziel Lag in großer Ferne

Es war deut­lich sicht­bar, wenn auch für mich

Kaum zu er­re­ichen.

So verg­ing meine Zeit

Die auf Er­den mir gegeben war.

Not one word sticks out, sounds pre­ten­tious or hol­low, even though the plu­ral Er­den is ar­chaic. Ab­strac­tion and con­crete­ness, the per­sonal and im­per­sonal, are held in ex­quis­ite bal­ance. The whole thing has a grav­ity and state­li­ness of cen­turies. The stanza, in Tom Kuhn’s English ver­sion, “To those born af­ter,” goes:

Our pow­ers were fee­ble. The goal Lay far in the dis­tance

It was clearly vis­i­ble even if, for me Hardly at­tain­able.

Thus the days passed

Granted to me on this earth.

Here, there’s just one odd- or off­sound­ing word af­ter an­other: “pow­ers” (what pow­ers be these? magic pow­ers? dark pow­ers? height of his pow­ers?), “fee­ble,” “goal” (though per­haps the fault is with the ar­ti­cle), “thus” (al­ways a lit­tle high-smelling in English), “granted.” The poem, which in Ger­man sounds uni­ver­sal, sounds in English equiv­o­cal, vague, even a lit­tle co­quet­tish. The lines—and hence the ac­tion in them—have an un­cer­tain tempo (“days,” when it comes, is a sur­prise), and hence an un­cer­tain weight. Ed­win Muir, you think, does this kind of omi­nous­ness much bet­ter. The Man­heim/Wil­lett trans­la­tion (it’s

un­signed, and hence col­lab­o­ra­tive) goes:

Our forces were slight. Our goal Lay far in the dis­tance

It was clearly vis­i­ble, though I my­self

Was un­likely to reach it. So passed my time

Which had been given to me on earth.

This seems prefer­able to me all over. A lot of trans­lat­ing is the avoid­ing of weak­ness, or the need­less dis­play of weak­ness; hence no “the goal” and no “thus”; the ac­tive con­struc­tion in the mid­dle with the em­phatic “I my­self” fol­lowed by the (very English!) un­der­state­ment of “was un­likely” is clev­erly done; and “time” and “given” are bet­ter than the more por­ten­tous “days” and “granted.” The last line has al­to­gether more force and pur­pose. (This is some­thing one sees a lot more of in the rhyming po­ems; the lines are al­lowed to go at will; they be­come some­thing like bouts rimés.) Sim­i­lar ten­den­cies are ob­serv­able through­out the poem. In other stan­zas Kuhn makes more words (“Yet I do eat and I drink” for “And yet I eat and drink”), and his dic­tion pro­duces a sort of wa­tery over­com­pli­ca­tion (“A con­ver­sa­tion about trees is al­most a crime/Be­cause it en­tails a si­lence about so many mis­deeds!”— en­tails? mis­deeds?—for “A talk about trees is al­most a crime/Be­cause it im­plies si­lence about so many hor­rors”; or “To hold your­self above the strife of the world and to live out/That brief com­pass with­out fear” for “To shun the strife of the world and to live out/ Your brief time with­out fear”). His con­clu­sion doesn’t have the req­ui­site firm­ness:

And yet we know:

Ha­tred, even of mean­ness Makes you ugly.

Anger, even at in­jus­tice Makes your voice hoarse.

(The second per­son—which should not be in play here any­way, as the poem is in the form of an ad­dress, and so “you” was used ear­lier cor­rectly, and, more im­por­tant, will be needed later—is a bad mis­take.)

Kuhn’s ver­sion of the poem goes on:

Oh, we Who wanted to pre­pare the land for friend­li­ness

Could not our­selves be friendly.

You, how­ever, when the time comes

When mankind is a helper unto mankind

Think on us

With for­bear­ance.

The Man­heim/Wil­lett ver­sion ends:

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.

Kuhn’s “think on” and “mankind” and “unto” stand re­vealed as forced and un­nec­es­sary and a lit­tle histri­onic—all, of course, dam­ag­ing to the poem.

An­other poem that I’ve long adored, very dif­fer­ent, so dif­fer­ent that the two edi­tions end up putting it at opposite ends, is “What Orge wants,” or, in Man­heim/Wil­lett, “Orge’s list of wishes.” (Orge is a friend of Brecht’s youth, one Ge­org Pfanzelt.) In Les­ley Len­drum’s rol­lick­ing By­ronic ver­sion it sets out:

Of joys, the un­weighed. Of skins, the un­flayed.

Of stories, the in­com­pre­hen­si­ble. Of sug­ges­tions, the in­dis­pens­able.

Of girls, the new. Of women, the un­true.

Of or­gasms, the un­co­or­di­nated. Of en­mi­ties, the re­cip­ro­cated.

Of abodes, the im­per­ma­nent. Of part­ings, the un­ex­u­ber­ant.

(Note how much “Brecht” is con­tained, prospec­tively or ret­ro­spec­tively, even in this jolly dog­gerel.) David Con­stan­tine does it al­to­gether more cir­cum­spectly and con­strainedly:

Of joys, the full-blown. Of skins saved, one’s own. Of stories, the un­in­tel­li­gi­ble. Of coun­sels, the un­us­able.

Of girls, the new. Of women, the un­true.

Of or­gasms, the not to­gether. Of en­mi­ties, the one an­other.

Of so­journs, the not-here-to-stop. Of part­ings, the not-over-the-top.

Where Len­drum hur­dles each rhyme en­thu­si­as­ti­cally and tri­umphantly, Con­stan­tine in the mod­ern man­ner wan­gles around them like some­one mim­ick­ing the dou­ble helix. This, too, is some­thing one sees much more of in the book, a rather sheep­ish or de­fen­sive rhyming, rhyming that may even go un­no­ticed first time around, but can be pointed to later. When I took out my copy of Jan Knopf’s 2000 Suhrkamp edi­tion of Brecht’s Gedichte, I was quite star­tled by the gen­eral level of ex­u­ber­ance and in­ven­tive­ness. His spirit­ed­ness has got­ten lost some­where.

It’s never good news when some­thing new isn’t as good as some­thing old, par­tic­u­larly when the old thing is be­ing re­placed by the new one. I’m sure, over the long length of the book, there will be many more pluses and mi­nuses. The Psalms, as I say, read well, and a cou­ple of the sim­pler, briefer se­quences brushed up nicely, such as the “Ger­man War Primer” in the Svend­borg Po­ems; and “The Reader for City Dwellers,” like a lit­tle ex­is­ten­tial un­der­cover spy se­quence, es­pe­cially #9, but also lines like “We don’t know what’s com­ing/ And have noth­ing bet­ter to of­fer/

Ber­tolt Brecht, Ber­lin, 1927

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