Brecht Quatrains for Challenging Times

Bertolt Brecht


I have long been a fan of Bertolt Brecht’s poetry, and now a new translation of his War Primer, written in America during World War II, has just been published. Although the quatrains are paired with World War II photos, it doesn’t take much to apply them to current events, especially to Donald Trump and the Resistance.

Nation reviewer Noah Eisenberg notes that the collection is somewhat surprising given that, just before World War II, Brecht wrote, “A Bad Time for Poetry.” Eisenberg observes that Brecht anticipates Adorno’s famous dictum, “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric,” by writing

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

Yet write he did, sometimes with rhyme.

Here are some poems from War Primer that still ring powerfully. Trump is not Hitler, yet we can relate to the fear expressed in this poem, written as though by the Fuhrer:

Like one who dreams the road ahead is steep,
I know the way Fate has prescribed for us
That narrow way towards a precipice.
Just follow. I can find it in my sleep.

Or how about this one, which shows Hitler, like Trump, turning his back on his populist promises? Neither man drained the swamp, and Trump’s cannon is now aimed at Obamacare, Medicare, Medicaid, consumer protections, and other programs beneficial to the middle class:

Promising Socialism, there he stands.
Listen: a New Age will be proclaimed.
Behind him, see the work of your own hands:
Great cannon, silent. And at you they’re aimed

Here’s one, powerfully understated, for refugees who think that the United States is a safe haven from violence. Isenberg notes that it was written “in response to a photo in Life of a Jewish mother and her child, who had survived a shipwreck while en route to Palestine”:

And many of us drowned just off the beaches.
The long night passed, the sky began to clear.
If they but knew, we said, they’d come and seek us.
That they did know, we still were unaware.

One last one. This quatrain calls out to descendants of activists who have become complacent. It was originally written in response to a picture of young German university students following World War II:

Never forget that men like you got hurt
So you might sit there, not the other lot.
And now don’t hide your head and don’t desert
But learn to learn, and try to learn for what.

Hard-won rights can be reversed. Never forget as you push for social justice.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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