Home > Uncategorized > Bertolt Brecht 10/24/10

Bertolt Brecht 10/24/10

I have previously written about the disappearing poetry section in bookstores. I guess this is not surprising given the decline of bookstores generally, especially independent bookstores. Many poets who deserve notice and recognition are out of print or they have vanished into oblivion given the volume and massiveness of media and the lack of attention to poetry.

A good example is the German playwright and poet Bertolt Brecht. I went around Anchorage trying to find Brecht poetry collections. Other than the Anchorage Public Library, the only Brecht poetry I could find was an old copy of Manual of Piety in Title Wave Books, an excellent used bookstore in Anchorage. Brecht appears to be out of print.

I would imagine that most Americans have never heard of Brecht. That is too bad because Brecht speaks to our present time. Brecht lived in Germany during the era preceding and during the Nazi rise to power. He was a political poet, an anti-fascist, and his stance as a poet was very different than elite or academic poets.  Brecht connected to everyday people and he was very much the social poet. He remained politically engaged his entire life.

In America, clarity of expression and the poet’s voice seem to be lost in the exposure to far more information than we can ever hope to sort or comprehend. The sheer volume of media creates a meaninglessness where lack of discriminating taste rules.

I want to offer up some of my favorite Brecht poems. I actually had a hard time deciding which poems to feature since there are so many I like and admire. I hope this encourages readers to further check out Brecht.

The Song of the Waterwheel

Ancient tale and epic story
Tell of heroes’ lives untarnished:
Like the stars they rose in glory,
Like the stars they set when vanquished.
This is comforting and we should know it.
We,alas, who plant the wheat and grow it
Have but little share in triumphs or disasters.
Rise to fame or fall:  who feeds our masters?
                        Yes, the wheel is always turning madly,
                        Neither side stays up or down,
                        But the water underneath fares badly
                        For it has to make the wheel go round.

Ah, we’ve had so many masters,
Swine or eagle, lean or fat one:
Some were tigers, some hyenas,
Still we fed this one and that one.
Whether one is better than the other:
Ah, one boot is always like another
When it treads upon you. What i say about them
Is we need no other masters: we can do without them!
                         Yes, the wheel is always turning madly,
                         Neither side stays up or down,
                         But the water underneath fares badly
                         For it has to make the wheel go round.

And they beat each other’s heads all bloody
Scuffling over booty,
Call the other fellows greedy wretches,
They, themselves, but do their duty.
Ceaselessly we see their wars grow grimmer,
Would I knew a way for them to be united.
If we will no more provide the fodder
Maybe that’s the way all could be righted.
                          For at last the wheel shall turn no longer,
                          And shall ride the stream no more,
                          When the water joins to water as it gaily
                          Drives itself, freed of the load it bore.

Song of the Inadequacy of Man’s Higher Nature

A man lives by his head:
His head will not suffice.
Just take a look at your own heads
At most supporting lice.
                        For this world we live in
                        None of us is sly enough
                        Never do we notice
                        All is lie and bluff.

Make yourself a plan,
One that dazzles you!
Now make yourself a second plan,
Neither one will do.
                       For this world we live in
                       None of us is bad enough
                       Yet our higher nature’s
                       Made of splendid stuff.

Chase after luck and joy
Yet running will not find them!
For all men chase and luck and joy
Are running just behind them.
                      For this world we live in
                      None of us has modesty enough.
                      Thus our higher nature
                      Is but pose and bluff.

Man is not good at all
So boot him in the can.
Perhaps if he’s kicked soundly
He’ll be a better man.
                        For this world we live in
                        None of us is good enough
                        Therefore let us calmly
                        Boot each other’s can.

A Worker Reads History

Who built the seven gates of Thebes?
The books are filled with names of kings.
Was it kings who hauled the craggy blocks of stone?
And Babylon, so many times destroyed,
Who built the city up each time? In which of Lima’s houses,
That city glittering with gold, lived those who built it?
In the evening when the Chinese wall was finished
Where did the masons go? Imperial Rome
is full of arcs of triumph. Who reared them up? Over whom
Did the Caesars triumph? Byzantium lives in song,
Were all her dwellings palaces? And even in Atlantis of the legend
The night the sea rushed in,
The drowning men still bellowed for their slaves.

Young Alexander conquered india.
He alone?
Caesar beat the Gauls.
Was there not even a cook in his army?
Philip of Spain wept as his fleet
was sunk and destroyed. Were there no other tears?
Frederick the Great triumphed in the Seven Years War. Who
Triumphed with him?

Each page a victory,
At whose expense the victory ball?
Every ten years a great man,
Who paid the piper?

So many particulars.
So many questions.

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