Michael Hulse

More than Mack the Knife

The Collected Poems of Bertolt Brecht

By

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Mine was an oblique induction into Brecht’s poems. Often in my teens I’d go for long walks in the Westphalian forests with my (English) father, who knew his German poetry, and if we were starting out at daybreak we’d catch the sound of gathered dew cascading off the branches of firs, and my father would quote, ‘in the grey first light the fir trees piss’. The accuracy of the observation and the coarseness of its expression were equally striking. The poem it came from, written in 1922, presented ‘poor B B’ in disabused, no-nonsense terms: Bertolt Brecht, ‘from the black forests’, knows he will carry ‘the cold of the forests’ within him until he dies, but now he leads a life of newspapers, tobacco and brandy, a provisional life, a life of mistrust, a life of awaiting the earthquakes to come. The poem’s formidable voice, speaking after the First World War and the abortive postwar German revolutions and before the Nazi movement gained traction, announced the arrival, fully formed, of a new, authoritative poet who could speak to his times.

That poem, with a rough-and-ready manner that owed a lot to François Villon, appeared as a coda to Hauspostille (‘Domestic Breviary’), Brecht’s first collection of poems in 1927 (a small collectors’ edition of twenty-five copies had appeared the previous year, designed to look like the missal every churchgoer then possessed). The works in Hauspostille occupy almost ninety pages of this new Collected Poems, and that’s ninety out of more than three hundred pages of poetry Brecht produced between 1913 and 1927. The copiousness of his writing was remarkable from early on, almost as remarkable as his apparent indifference to publication – only three collections of his poetry appeared in his lifetime (four, if you count War Primer of 1955, a gathering of his wartime newspaper photos and cuttings, to each of which he’d attached an epigrammatic quatrain: one of them declares ‘God is a fascist’, another instructs us that the Red Army defeated the Germans in the name of all the peoples of the earth, even the Germans). Catching up with Brecht’s immense output has been a major task, first for German publishers, then for the world’s translators: the sheer number of poems in this new book, and its two hundred pages of notes, tell their own story.

The Hauspostille, one of the 20th century’s most energetic and overwhelming books of poems, was published the year before Brecht’s annus mirabilis, when the enfant terrible of Drums in the Night and Baal became the famed creator of the Threepenny Opera. The triumphal progress of Brecht the dramatist – in the Weimar Republic, then in exile from Hitler’s Germany, and finally in the postwar years after he had taken up residence in East Germany, when his Berliner Ensemble conquered Paris and London and all the world was listening, for a while – has long obscured the achievement of Brecht the poet. But those who have hailed him as a great poet, from Hannah Arendt and George Steiner to the translators of this enormous book, have been many. Tom Kuhn and David Constantine observe in their introduction that Brecht passes the tests of greatness that T S Eliot proposed, possessing ‘abundance, variety, and complete competence’. So he does, so he does.

It is hard to think of the poetry of the First World War without thinking of Brecht’s ‘Legend of the Dead Soldier’, written in the war’s final year, with its wild satire of the soldier who has died a hero’s death being dug up again, pronounced fit for active service by the medics, and, after a grim parade before a cheering populace, sent on his way to a hero’s death once more. It is harder still to imagine the canon of 20th-century song without ‘Mack the Knife’. Through the years of the Third Reich, which he spent chiefly in Denmark and the USA, Brecht produced enough poems to fill some six hundred pages of this book. His Svendborger Gedichte, published in London in 1939, is the richest imaginative response to the approach of the Second World War by any writer of the 1930s, and the poem that concludes that volume, translated here as ‘To those born after’, has given the Germans and their language a template for understanding dark times: ‘The man who laughs/Has simply not yet heard/The terrifying news’, and ‘What times are these, when/A conversation about trees is almost a crime/Because it entails a silence about so many misdeeds’, and ‘You, however, when the time comes/When mankind is a helper unto mankind/Think on us/With forbearance.’

After the war, when Brecht returned to Germany, it was to the Soviet-occupied zone. In settling in what became East Germany he was careful, after long years battling one totalitarian regime, to keep his escape routes from another open, taking out Austrian citizenship and opening a Swiss bank account (into which much of the proceeds of the Stalin Prize awarded to him in 1955 by the Soviet Union were paid). A late masterpiece, the cycle ‘Buckow Elegies’, includes the wonderfully multivalent ‘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?

It also includes his response to the East Berlin uprising of June 1953, which ends sardonically with the suggestion, ‘would it not/Be simpler if the government/Dissolved the people and/Elected another one?’ At every step of the way, Brecht nailed what needed to be said, in memorable words.

Well, they’re memorable in German, and have entered the language. Several obstacles face the reader of his poetry in English. One is simply that so many cooks have by now been busy at the translation broth, from H R Hays through John Willett to the two editors of this volume, that it’s been well and truly spoilt: no memorable formulations have been able to establish themselves. Another is that the background and occasions of many poems now require extensive elucidation, and we live in times when many are content to remain historically illiterate. And then, the very large proportion of Brecht’s poetry that stigmatises the malpractices of power, the ugliness of wealth, the woes of war and the unavailability of justice can easily be dismissed as preaching to the converted.

Brecht is truly a poet of the highest order, and it would be wonderful to see a definitive English-language translation of his verse that would assure his position in the Anglophone world, but this book sadly isn’t the one. Kuhn is an outstanding Brechtian scholar and Constantine a fine poet and Germanist, but too many lines are dutiful or stiff in their English. What they give us as editors (such as checking Brecht’s manuscript and finding that a misreading lies behind long-established descriptions of his hospital room at the Charité as ‘white’) they sometimes take away as translators (Brecht’s Krankenzimmer at the Charité was a room, not a ‘hospital ward’). And then, the book weighs in at just under two kilos and isn’t a pleasure to read in an armchair. My 1981 Gedichte is a fraction of the size, clothbound and printed on fine paper. It weighs just 400 grams and has accompanied me on many journeys.

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