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International Socialism, April 1977


Ian Patterson



From International Socialism (1st series), No.97, April 1977, pp.??.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Brecht: Poems 1913-1956
3 vols at £1.95: Eyre Methuen

‘CAPITALISM has the power immediately and continually to turn the poison that’s thrown into its face into a drug, and then enjoy it,’ said Brecht. And as we are part of capitalism our struggle to overthrow it constantly involves the question of transforming ourselves in the process: what we know, how we see, how we think, how we reproduce the past. We need waking up every day. Otherwise we turn the poison into a drug.

The endlessly complex way the interactions of individuals participate in the collective lies of capitalism, and the potential of ordinary people to end exploitation and oppression permeate all these poems. In Brecht’s theatrical work individuals are concrete examples of general problems and the people watching see themselves in a new light by identifying critically with them, recognising them and the commentary on them at the same time. The same theatrical consciousness is at work in the poems. Many of them were written to be performed. His first book was written to be ‘singable’, he said: ‘I set them to music myself ... I was always thinking of actual delivery’ – from the start they had to be useful to people.

Brecht was fond of saying that the truth is concrete, and ‘actual delivery’ and ‘direct and spontaneous speech’ remain important components in his poetry throughout his life. In relation to that concreteness is an openness; and the frequent use he makes of himself in the poems as narrator, participant, adviser or entertainer sets up the tension between the professional and private life in which, said his friend and critic Walter Benjamin, ‘consciousness and deed are formed’ and true humanity arises.

Many of the poems, not only in the first book he wrote, were written for music: his collaboration with the great communist composer Hanns Eisler meant close attention to simplicity and effectiveness. The complexity of his poems is directly political, entailing conflicts and contradictions which are revealed beneath the plain speaking verse, and the unfolding ironies of the author’s production of the poem. So reading A Ballad on Approving the World, for example is a very uncomfortable and sophisticated process. Within the singable ballad framework, the narrator speaks as somebody who is unable to break out of the fascist way of thinking, trapped in its ideologies. That the narrator is in the end revealed to be Brecht himself puts all the work in the hands of the reader. There’s no help from the poet except the ironies the poem sets up. The only correct attitude is in the reader himself, and shows itself in his political actions after reading the poem.

I’m not unjust, but not courageous either:
They pointed out their world to me today
I only saw the bloody pointing finger
And quickly said I liked the world that way ...

And from that moment my proclaimed opinion
Was: better cowardly than in one’s grave.
To keep from falling under their dominion
I keep approving what one can’t approve ...

Since poverty and baseness leave me cold
(he concludes)
My pen falls silent; times are on the move
Yet all that’s dirty in your dirty world
Includes, I know, that fact that I approve.

Brecht the poem’s producer is doing the same thing in poems like this as in his plays or films. Opening out the ‘unsolved but not insoluble/Questions of humanity’ so that his listeners can recognise themselves as participants in them.

Other poems are more reflective, more in the mode of written wisdom Brecht so much admired in the ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tse. They too though are usually both accessible and fluid: or to put it another way, they are quite often ambiguous deliberately, partly because answers cannot be dictated (they have to be discovered in the process of struggle) and partly because their purpose is just to prod us into a bit more thought – ‘learn to learn, and try to learn for what’.

Others again are satirical, bitter elucidations of fascism and oppression. There are poems for children. And so on.

He once said ‘Marx was the only spectator I could ever imagine for my plays’ which I suppose was more of a tribute to the old man than any very serious remark about his public. His poems demand the audience they were written for, the occasions they arose from. They are a record of struggle against capitalism, against fascism, defeatism and betrayal. They are clean and lucid. Language needs washing regularly if it is to function unimpeded, the past always needs to be freshly transformed. So Brecht picked up whatever came to hand and used it or bits of it in his next poem. Kipling, stories, anecdotes, jazz, German classics, Shelley, Luther, Villon ... ‘I gather books are not usually judged by their value as raw material, but that is how I judge them’. After all, as he writes in another context, ‘What’s the point of cities built/Without the people’s wisdom?’

That’s the way to treat these poems, too. As they are published in three volumes, they are far from perfect. Most important, a lot of the translations are very bad. It’s like listening to a radio when someone in the next flat is using a vacuum cleaner: you can dimly imagine something real behind all the meaningless cracklings. Some of the poems are even misleading, losing the intention of the original completely. Some are good, too. It’s a patchy book.

Then the editors have decided to ignore the arrangements of the books Brecht published himself. They’ve regrouped all his poems in chronological order, because they want to make a case for him being a greater poet than a dramatist. Seen through their distorting mirror, the poems now show the ‘pressure of recent German history on the sensitive individual’. ‘He was, we can see now,’ they go on ‘writing the tragedy of our time.’ What crap!

Despite all that, you’ve got to read it. These poems contain the record of a revolutionary socialist’s unswerving determination to produce the truth and wake people up with it. What he wrote almost forty years ago in his polemic with the Stalinist Lukács is at least as true today:

‘The ruling class uses lies oftener than before – and bigger ones. To tell the truth is clearly an even more urgent task.’

Keep taking the poison.

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