I have taken too little heed of BB, the poet. The chances are that you have too. This would certainly have been the case in 1976 when John Willett and Ralph Mannheim published Brecht’s Poems 1913-1956 (Eyre Methuen) with its stellar cast of translators. The Introduction to that selection pointed out that, until well after his death in 1956, “Brecht the poet remained like an unsuspected time-bomb ticking” under world literature. It’s our desperate bad luck that most of us have only ever been encouraged to approach Brecht through his dramatic theories, then his plays, “only coming to the poems as a by-product of his theatre work”.
Things may have changed more quickly on mainland Europe, but only 10 years ago Michael Hofmann could still argue that the “prevailing British view of [Brecht was] as an arid theorist of drama [. . .] and the author of a few baffling but conniving plays” (Introduction to The Faber Book of 20th Century German Poems). In fact, Hofmann thinks of Brecht as the writer who took “poetry into the twentieth century”, its single most crucial figure. Against the claims of Eliot, Valery or Lorca this may seem a bold statement but Hofmann is thinking of poetry as “a living counter-force in socio-political reality [. . .] poetry of dissent and fear and protest and rebuke and pleasure”, an art that is “heartening and inspiring”. There is some risk of this drifting back towards BB the purveyor of proletarian political messages, but Hofmann’s contrast of Brecht with “his great counter-pole” in German poetry, Gottfried Benn, a poet of more familiar “private griefs and musics, of monologue, of fascination”, makes Brecht’s distinctive contribution clearer.
In beginning to explore Brecht’s poetry I’ve been looking at poems from 1925-1928 and, like plenty before me, I’ve become intrigued by ‘Of Poor B.B.’ (German original and Michael Hamburger’s translation here; Hofman’s translation read here). Apparently the poem derives from lines jotted down on a speeding express train at 9.30pm in April 1922, when Brecht was travelling home to Augsburg after spending a difficult first winter in Berlin. The impact of the Great War is still visible here but Brecht is also very interested in exploring the impact of big city life. ‘A Reader for Those who Live in Cities’ was the title of a projected group of poems from around 1926.
From the notes in Poems 1913-1956 it’s possible to reconstruct Brecht’s early draft which, compared to the final published version, demarcates town and countryside more simplictically: “I, Bertolt Brecht, came out of the black forests.” Paradoxically, the use of his own initials in the title and the bold use of his full name in the opening line, actually distances the poem from the straightforwardly autobiographical. BB is a representative figure and his move from countryside to town (is this the Industrial Revolution?) was wholly passive, beyond his control, as he moved while still in his pregnant mother’s body. In fact Brecht’s mother had died before he began visiting Munich and Berlin and the poem claims that the “coldness” of the forests remains inside BB and will do so till his “dying day”. Quatrains 3, 4 and half of 5 of this ballad-like ABCB poem-draft also characterize the cold, unrestful, uncomfortable woods, even to the extent that the pine trees “piss” with rain and the birds are “vermin”.
The early draft’s modernist anti-pastoral seems to be confirmed by the opening of the second quatrain: “In the asphalt city I’m at home” and quatrain 5 follows the noise of the bird-vermin in the trees with the seemingly-content city-dwelling BB: “At that hour in the city I drain my glass”. But there is clearly trouble in the urban paradise. Quatrain 2 portrays BB at ease (with a dig at religion in describing newspapers, tobacco and brandy as ‘sacraments’) yet there is something unsettling in the three adjectives that follow: BB is mistrustful, lazy content. Having drained his glass and stubbed his cigar he “worriedly” goes to sleep. In quatrain 6 of the draft the reasons for this worry are clarified (one of the changes in the final version is to remove some of these more logical connections) as BB plays a guitar to an uncomprehending audience and has “difficulty understanding” himself as the city dwellers seem “different animals”. Quatrain 7 wonders whether this is because he has been “carried off to paper and women” (which I take to mean the ‘pleasures’ of the city) from the black forests which still thrive “in me” along with the “roar of pines”. So the early draft suggests BB’s displacement to the city has not achieved an escape from the darkness and coldness of the black forests of his birth and he seems therefore ill-equipped to live truly contentedly in the modern city.
Brecht’s revisions of the poem between 1924 and 1925 make it both more modern and more mysterious. Hofmann has described the result as “strange and pitiless”. The most clear change is in the final version’s quatrain 3 where BB makes efforts to fit into city life (being friendly, polite, wearing a hat), finding other inhabitants “animals with a quite peculiar smell” (I’m now quoting Michael Hamburger’s rhymed translation). But then BB admits “does it matter? I am too”. The draft’s more ‘easy’ theme of the outsider is being dismissed. Two new stanzas follow in which BB seems ever-more at home in the city, with both its women and men. With the former he is “untroubled”, boastfully suggesting he is “someone on whom you can’t rely”. With the men he heartily hails them, feet up on a table as they say “things will get better for us” but he knows not to “ask when”. BB is now wholly complicit in the urban insincerities, the lies and pretence that make life bearable.
So the changes show neither city nor the black forest offers any real contentment or fulfillment and it’s this profound sense of alienation that Hofmann links to the Modernist pessimism of an Eliot: “nature and culture, friendship and love, are all travestied and diminished”. This is why BB still falls asleep “worriedly”. In the new stanzas (7, 8 and 9) this pessimism becomes positively apocalyptic as the poem becomes about a cultural moment, a whole culture. Quatrain 7 uses the first person plural significantly; we are “an easy generation” (Hamburger) or “a whimsical tribe” (Hofmann) living in great cities that we hubristically believe are “indestructible” (Brecht refers to Manhattan here, a place he had yet to visit in 1924). In reality, of our cities only the “wind” will survive and we are (in our hearts and as we fall asleep perhaps) dimly aware that “we’re only tenants, provisional ones / And after us there will come: nothing worth talking about”.
Had the poem ended here the comparison with Eliot’s 1922 wasteland pessimism would be more apt but, in the apocalyptic “earthquakes to come”, BB hopes to keep his Virginia cigar alight and whether we read this as a perky priapic image, a gesture of New World hope, or insouciant resilience to prevailing socio-political conditions, it’s here that we find something heartening and inspiring, even if the tone is mostly pyrrhic. The concluding balladic repetition (“I, Bertolt Brecht, carried off to the asphalt cities”) now reads like a more determined declaration of identity, a will to life, to a better world. This is despite the whole poem’s extraordinarily thoroughgoing portrait of alienation and cultural decadence. There’s life in poor BB yet.