Unknown Tale

Brecht–the Poet

Anjan Basu

Brecht seldom let go of an opportunity of making light of the whole business of writing poetry. "(M)y poetry is laid so heavily to my account", he somewhat dismissively said in response to a request in 1928 for a public reading of his poetry, "that for some time now the least rhyme has stuck in my craw".

In fact, a large majority of Brecht's poems were not published before his death, prompting the editors of the 1976 Methuen collection of his poetry to remark that "more perhaps than any other major writer except Kafka, Brecht was content that the greater part of his achievement should remain unknown".

But can the readers of his plays fail to see that Brecht's language was that of a poet? Think of The Threepenny Opera, among Brecht's most earthy—some may even say ribald—plays written, appropriately enough, in a rambunc-tious, racy idiom. The dainty Polly Peachum, daughter of Jonathan Jeremiah Peachum (who is very nearly the model of bourgeois respectability) stuns her parents by announcing her resolve to marry Mack the Knife, the London underworld's uncrowned king. Polly has had many suitors—all of them well-heeled as well as well-groomed—and yet she always said no.

But then one day,
          and that day was blue
Came someone who didn't
          ask at all

What he called 'Psalms', evocative prose pieces that read like chants:

Evenings by the river in the dark heart of the bushes I see her face again sometimes, face of the woman I loved: my woman,
who is dead now.
It was many years ago and at times I no longer know anything about her, once she was everything,
but everything passes.
And she was in me like a little juniper on the Mongolian steppes, concave, with a pale yellow sky and great sadness.

The 22-year-old Brecht puts on paper his last memories of his mother in a tender little haiku-like poem that could well be a song:

And when she was finished they laid her in earth
Flowers growing, butterflies
juggling over her...
She, so light, barely pressed the earth down
How much pain it took to make her as light as that!

But he was equally capable of fashioning superbly lyrical poems which are not meant to be 'performed'. One late night in the spring of 1922, when travelling back home in Augsburg from Berlin by train, Brecht jotted down some lines that were later to be chiselled into the magnificent 'Of Poor B B', which begins thus:

I, Bertolt Brecht, came out of the black forests.
My mother moved me into the cities
As I lay inside her. And the coldness of the forests
Will be inside me till my dying day.

A speeding train on a dark night must have seemed to the 24-year-old Brecht the perfect symbol of Weimar Germany—tentative, transient, even unreal.

Over western and northern Europe, living in Denmark, Sweden and Finland before moving to the US in 1941 where he lived through the war years. He eventually returned to what by then had become East Germany and settled down in Berlin. The long years in exile produced poems of several different kinds, including such quatrains as:

This, then, is all. It's not enough,
I know.
At least I 'm still alive,
as you may see.
I'm like the man
who took a brick to show
How beautiful his house
used once to be.


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

Or the tongue-in-cheek epigram written while in Los Angeles:

Every day, to earn my daily bread
I go to the market where lies are bought
I take up my place among the sellers.

In his poetry as much as in his plays, Brecht was in his element in irony, as witness this laconic account of a friendly Encounter with the poet Auden:

Lunching me, a kindly act
In an alehouse, still intact
He sat looming like a cloud
Over the beer-sodden crowd.

And kept harping with persistence
On the bare fact of existence
I.e, a theory built around it
Recently in France propounded.

"Well after his death in 1956", the editors of the excellent Methuen collection note, "Brecht the poet remained like an unsuspected time-bomb ticking away beneath the engine-room of world literature". It may well have been so, but it had not been possible even for Bertolt Brecht lo hold back from the world s view his most consummate achievement as poet, the incomparable 'To Those Born Later', written in exile in Denmark:

Truly, I live in dark times!
The guileless word is folly. A smooth forehead
Suggests a hard heart. The man who laughs
Has simply not yet had
The terrible news.
What kind of times are these, when To speak of trees is almost a crime.

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Vol. 52, No. 29, Jan 19 - 25, 2020