bertolt brecht | the burning of the books | bad time for poetry | reading the paper while brewing the tea

22 02 2010

Poetry Dispatch No. 313 | February 22, 2010

Bertolt Brecht

Brecht, it seems to me, still remains under the radar in this country. Invisible. An enigma of sorts. Much of this dealing with his Marxist politics, no doubt, though he lived here in exile from 1941 to 1947 — escaping Hitler, Nazi Germany. And wrote three of his best known plays at that time: Mother Courage, The Caucasian Chalk Circle, and The Life of Galileo.

I can’t recall any student in the past twenty years telling me he studied or was taught Brecht in college. I suspect most college students, English majors today even know his name—with the possible exception of theater arts majors. (And some may have heard the music, his songs, or have seen a production of his world famous “The Three Penny Opera”, in collaboration with Kurt Weill, and/or “The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny.”

Poet, playwright, theater director, social critic…his cause was relentless. His voice, heard throughout Germany, Europe, and pockets of America, perhaps.

His poems, not that well known, are rock bottom real…flinty: the common tongue wagging uncomfortable images/ideas to ponder, entering the reader’s psyche, harboring there a long time…Don’t you see? Do something. Be something.norbert blei


When the Regime commanded that books with harmful knowledge
Should be publicly burned and on all sides
Oxen were forced to drag cartloads of books
To the bonfires, a banished
Writer, one of the best, scanning the list of the Burned, was shocked to find that his
Books had been passed over. He rushed to his desk
On wings of wrath, and wrote a letter to those in power ,
Burn me! he wrote with flying pen, burn me! Haven’t my books
Always reported the truth ? And here you are
Treating me like a liar! I command you!
Burn me!


Yes, I know: only the happy man
Is liked. His voice
Is good to hear. His face is handsome

The crippled tree in the yard
Shows that the soil is poor, yet
The passers-by abuse it for being crippled
And rightly so.

The green boats and the dancing sails on the Sound
Go unseen. Of it all
I see only the torn nets of the fishermen.
Why do I only record
That a village woman aged forty walks with a stoop?
The girls’ breasts
Are is warm as ever.

In my poetry a rhyme
Would seem to me almost insolent.

Inside me contend
Delight at the apple tree in blossom
And horror at the house-painter’s speeches.
But only the second
Drives me to my desk.


In the early hours I read in the paper
of epoch-making projects
On the part of pope and sovereigns, bankers and oil barons.
With my other eye I watch
The pot with the water for my tea
The way it clouds and starts to bubble and clears again
And overflowing the pot quenches the fire.

[from Bertolt Brecht, Poems 1913-1956, Routledge, 1987]