Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Poems by Bertolt Brecht

Of the Friendliness of the World

To this windy world of chill distress
You all came in utter nakedness
Cold you lay and destitute of all
Till a woman wrapped you in a shawl.

No one called you, none bade you approach
And you were not fetched by groom and coach .
Strangers were you in this early land
When a man once took you by the hand.

From this windy world of chill distress
You all part in rot and filthiness (yet),
Almost everyone has loved the world
When on him two clods of earth are hurled.

Counter-song to ‘The Friendliness of the World’

So does that mean we’ve got to rest contented
And say ‘That’s how it is and always must be’
And spurn the brimming glass for what’s been emptied
Because we’ve heard it’s better to go thirsty?

So does that mean we’ve got to sit here shivering
Since uninvited guests are not admitted
And wait while those on top go on considering
What pains and joys we are to be permitted?

Better, we think, would be to rise in anger
And never go without the slightest pleasure
And, warding off those who bring pain and hunger
Fix up the world to live in at our leisure.

This Babylonian Confusion

This Babylonian confusion of words
Results from their being the language
Of men who are going down.
That we no longer understand them
Results from the fact that it is no longer
Of any use to understand them.
What use is it to tell the dead
How one might of lived
Better. Don’t try to persuade
The man with rigor mortis
To perceive the world.

Don’t quarrel
With the man behind whom
The gardeners are already waiting
Be patient rather.

The other day I wanted
To tell you cunningly
The story of a wheat speculator in the city of
Chicago. In the middle of what I was saying
My voice suddenly failed me
For I had
Grown aware all at once what an effort
It would cost me to tell
That story to those not yet born
But who will be born and will live
In ages quite different from ours
And, lucky devils, will simply not be able to grasp
What a wheat speculator is
Of the kind we know.

So I began to explain it to them. And mentally
I heard myself speak for seven years
But I met with
Nothing but a silent shaking of heads from all
My unborn listeners.
Then I knew that I was
Telling them about something
That a man cannot understand.

They said to me: You should have changed
Your houses or else your food
Or yourselves. Tell us, why did you not have
A blueprint, if only
In books perhaps of earlier times –
A blueprint of men, either drawn
Or described, for it seems to us
Your motive was quite base
And also quite easy to change. Almost anyone
Could have seen that it was wrong, inhuman, exceptional.
Was there not some such old and
Simple model you could have gone by in your confusion?

I said: Such models existed
But, you see, they were crisscrossed
Five times over with new marks, illegible
The blueprint altered five times to accord
With our degenerate image, so that
In those reports even our forefathers
Resembled none but ourselves.
At this they lost heart and dismissed me
With the nonchalant regrets
Of happy people.

Still, When the Automobile Manufacturer's Eighth Model

When the manufacturer’s eighth model
Is already reposing on the factory scrapheap (R.I.P.)
Peasant carts from Luther’s day
Stand beneath the mossy roof
Ready to travel.

Still, now the Nineveh is over and done with
Its Ethiopian brothers are surely ready to start.
Still new were wheel and carriage
Built for eternity the wooden shafts.


The Ethiopian stands beneath the mossy roof
But who
Travels in it?

The automobile manufacturer’s eighth model
Reposes on top of the scrap iron
But we
Are traveling in the ninth
Thus we have decided
In ever new vehicles – full of flaws
Instantly destructible
Light, fragile
Innumerable –
Henceforward to travel.

The Gordian Knot

When the man from Macedaemon
Had cut through the knot
With his sword, they called him
Of an evening in Gordium, ‘the slave of
His fame’.

For their knot was
One of the wonders of the world
Masterpiece of a man whose brain
(The most intricate in the world) had been able to leave
No memorial behind except these
Twenty cords, intricately twisted together so that they should
One day be undone by the deftest
Hands in the world – the deftest apart from his
Who had tied the knot. Oh, the man
Whose hand had tied it was not
Without plans to undo it, but alas
The span of his life was only long enough
For one thing, the tying.

A second sufficed
To cut it.

Of him who cut it
Many said this was really
The luckiest stroke of his life
The cheapest, and did the least damage.
The unknown man was under no obligation
To answer with his name
For his work, which was akin
To everything godlike
But the chump who destroyed it
Was obliged as though by a higher command
To proclaim his name and show himself to a continent

If that’s what they said in Gordium, I say
That not everything which is difficult is useful
And an answer less often suffices to rid the world of a question
Than a deed.

I’m Not Saying Anything Against Alexander

Timur, I hear, took the trouble to conquer the earth.
I don’t understand him;
With a bit of hard liquor you can forget the earth.
I’m not saying anything against Alexander
I have seen people
Who are remarkable –
Highly deserving of your admiration
For the fact that they
Were alive at all.
Great men generate too much sweat.
In all this I see just a proof
That they couldn’t stand being on their own
And smoking
And drinking
And the like.
And they must be too mean-spirited
To get contentment from
Sitting by a woman.

Difficulty of Governing

Ministers are always telling the people
How difficult it is to govern. Without the ministers
Corn would grow into the ground, not upward.
Not a lump of coal would leave the mine if
The Chancellor weren’t so clever. Without the Minister of
No girl would ever agree to get pregnant. Without the
Minister of War
There’d never be a war. Indeed, whether the sun would rise
In the morning
Without the Fuhrer’s permission
Is very doubtful, and if it did, it would be
In the wrong place.

It’s just as difficult, so they tell us
To run a factory. Without the owner
The walls would fall in and the machines rust, so they say.
Even if a plough could get made somewhere
It would never reach a field without the
Cunning words the factory owner writes the peasants: who
Could otherwise tell them that ploughs exist? And what
Would become of an estate without the landlord? Surely
They’d be sowing rye where they had set the potatoes.

If governing were easy
There’d be no need for such inspired minds as the Fuhrer’s.
If the worker knew how to run his machine and
The peasant could tell his field from a pastryboard
There’d be no need of factory owner or landlord.
It’s only because they are all so stupid
That a few are needed who are so clever.

Or could it be that
Governing is so difficult only
Because swindling and exploitation take some learning?

The Buddha’s Parable of the Burning House

Gautama the Buddha taught
The doctrine of greed’s wheel to which we are bound, and
That we should shed all craving and thus
Undesiring enter the nothingness that he called Nirvana.
Then one day his pupils asked him:
What is it like, this nothingness, Master? Every one of us
Shed all craving, as you advise, but tell us
Whether this nothingness which then we shall enter
Is perhaps like being at one with all creation
When you lie in the water, your body weightless, at noon
Unthinking almost, lazily lie in the water, or drowse
Hardly knowing now that you straighten the blanket
Going down fast – whether this nothingness, then
Is a happy one of this kind, a pleasant nothingness, or
Whether this nothing of yours is mere nothing, cold, senseless
And void.

Long Buddha silent, then said nonchalantly:
There is no answer to your question.
But in the evening, when they had gone
The Buddha still sat under the bread-fruit tree, and to the
To those who had not asked, addressed this parable:

Lately I saw a house. It was burning. The flame
Licked at its roof. I went up close and observed
That there were people still inside. I opened the door and
Out to them that the roof was ablaze, so exhorting them
To leave at once. But those people
Seemed in no hurry. One of them
When the heat was already scorching his eyebrows
Asked me what it was like outside, whether it wasn’t raining
Whether the wind wasn’t blowing perhaps, whether there
Another house for them, and more of this kind. Without answering
I went out again. These people here, I thought
Need to burn to death before they stop asking questions.

Truly, friends
Unless a man feels the ground so hot underfoot that he’d
Exchange it for any other, sooner than stay, to him
I have nothing to say. Thus Gautama the Buddha.
But we too, no longer concerned with the art of submission
Rather with that of not submitting, and putting forward
Various proposals of an earthly nature, and beseeching men
to shake off
Their human tormentors, we too believe that to those
Who in face of the approaching bomber squadrons of Capital
Go on asking too long
How we propose to do this, and how we envisage that
And what will become of their savings and Sunday trousers
After the revolution
We have nothing much to say.

New Ages

A new age does not begin all of a sudden.
My grandfather was already living in the new age
My grandson will probably still be living in the old one.

The new meat is eaten with the old forks.

It was not the first cars
Nor the tanks
It was not the airplanes over the roofs
Nor the bombers.

From the new transmitters came the old stupidities.
Wisdom was passed on from mouth to mouth.

War Has Been Given A Bad Name

I am told that the best people have begun saying
How, from a moral point of view, the Second World War
Fell below the standard of the First. The Wehrmacht
Allegedly deplores the methods by which the SS effected
The extermination of certain peoples. The Ruhr industrialists
Are said to regret the bloody manhunts
Which filled their mines and factories with slave workers. The
So I heard, condemn industry’s demand for slave workers
Likewise their unfair treatment. Even the bishops
Dissociate themselves from this way of waging war; in short
The feeling
Prevails in every quarter that the Nazis did the Fatherland
A lamentably bad turn, and that war
While in itself natural and necessary, has, thanks to the
Unduly uninhibited and positively inhuman
Way in which it was conducted on this occasion, been
Discredited for some time to come.

On Hearing A Mighty Statesman Has Fallen Ill

If the indispensable man frowns
Two empires quake.

If the indispensable man dies
The world looks around like a mother without milk for her
If the indispensable man were to come back a week after his
In the entire country there wouldn’t be a job for him as a

On The Death of A Criminal

He, I hear, has taken his last trip.
Once he’d cooled they laid him on the floor
Of that ‘little cellar without steps’
Then things were no better than before:
That is, one of them has done the trip
Leaving us to deal with several more.

He, I hear, need not concern us further
That’s the finish of his little game
He’s no longer there to plot our murder
But alas the picture’s still the same.
That is, one need not concern us further.
Leaving several more whom I could name.

Song of The Ruined Innocent Folding Linen

What my mother told me
Cannot be true, I’m sure.
She said: when once your sullied
You’ll never again be pure.
That doesn’t applied to linen
And it doesn’t apply to me.
Just dip it in the river
And its clean instantly.

At eleven I was sinful
As any army bride.
In fact at only fourteen
My flesh I mortified.
The linen was greying already
I dipped it in the stream.
In the basket it lies chastely
Just like a maiden’s dream.

Before my first man knew me
I had already fallen.
I stank to heaven, truly
A scarlet Babylon.
Swirled in a gentle curve
The linen in the river
Feels at the touch of the wave:
I’m growing slowly whiter.

For when my first man embraced me
And I embraced him
I felt the wicked urges fly
From my breast and from my womb.
That’s how it is with linen
And it’s how it is with me
The waters rush past swiftly
And all the dirty cries: see!

But when the others came
That was a dismal spring.
They called me wicked names
And I became a wicked thing.
No woman can restore herself
By storing herself away.
If linen lies long on the shelf
On the shelf it will go grey.

Once more there came another
As another year began.
When everything was other, I saw
I was another woman.
Dip it in the river and shake it!
There’s sun and bleach and air!
Use it and let them take it:
It will be fresh as before!

I know: much more can happen
Till there’s nothing to come at last.
It’s only when it’s never been used
That linen has gone to waste.
And once it is brittle
No river can wash it pure.
It will be rinsed away in tatters.
That day will come for sure.


Emerge from the darkness and go
Before us a while
Friendly one, with the light step
Of total certainty, a terror
To the wielders of terror.

You turn your face away. I know
How much you dreaded death, and yet
Even more you dreaded
Life without dignity.

And you would not let the mighty
Get away with it, nor would you
Compromise with the confusers, or ever
Forget dishonor. And over their atrocities
There grew no grass.

Bertolt Brecht; Poems 1913 – 1956; edited by John Willet and Ralph Manheim with the cooperation of Erich Fried; Theatre Arts Books, Routledge, N.Y. 1976, 1987 revised edition.

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