‘A Born Contrarian’

Zander and Labisch/ullstein bild/Getty Images
Bertolt Brecht, Berlin, 1927

If this collection of Bertolt Brecht’s poems in English were half its length, it would be great; if a third, spectacular; if a quarter, indispensable. The book it replaces, the 1976 Methuen Poems 1913–1956, edited by Ralph Manheim and John Willett (and mostly translated by Willett and by Michael Hamburger, though there are thirty-five contributors in all), can, at a featly 627 pages, be picked up and carted around and read and held in the mind. This new translation, six hundred pages longer and in a bigger, outsize format (one that resists flipping and browsing), just about can’t. The gigantism perplexes me.

Do we really have such gargantuan appetites for (mostly small) poems? It seems to take an unduly long time in the new collection, translated and edited by Tom Kuhn and David Constantine, before one reaches familiar ground: the ballad of the serene parenticide Jakob Apfelböck, called “Apfelböck or the lily of the field,” is on page 166 (24 in Manheim/Willett); “Remembering Marie A.” on page 220 (35 in Manheim/Willett); “Poor B.B.,” one of the great twentieth-century poems, which Brecht wrote in piquant circumstances at the age of twenty-four on the night train from Berlin—which was in 1922 still resistant to his appeal—to his long-since-outgrown hometown of Augsburg, on page 250 (107 in Manheim/Willett).

Nor is this just a matter of some peculiar familiarity fetish; the first time I encountered a little run of poems I enjoyed and thought were worth reading (which is surely how a big book like this sinks or swims), it was after page 50. The Psalms of 1920 are magically disobliging things, full of celestial surliness: “Our dwelling place was a black hut by the river. Often and grievously the horseflies bit her white body. I read the newspaper seven times, or I said: Your hair is the colour of dirt. Or: You are heartless.” Nor should one suppose the Kuhn/Constantine has simply eaten the whole of Manheim/Willett; there are things in the latter bafflingly not included in the former, great things, too: the seven-page apocalyptic jeer called “Late lamented fame of the giant city of New York,” a poem I often think about and always look for, never more apposite than now; one of the best of the subtle and thought-provoking “theater poems,” called “Speech to Danish working-class actors on the Art of Observation”:

You, actor
Must master the art of observation
Before all other arts.

For what matters is not how you look but
What you have seen and can show us. What’s worth knowing

Is what you know.
People will observe you to see
How well you have observed.

Or a tiny (and very early!) existential rien called “Born Later”:

I admit it: I
Have no hope.
The blind talk of a…

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