It is the purpose of this site to remedy the fact that Bertolt Brecht’s poetry is not well known in the English speaking world. These translations will trace the arc of his life as a rising avant-garde dramatist in the 1920's and early ‘30s, an exile who combated the Nazi regime, and as a politically committed but embattled writer during the last phase of his life in the German Democratic Republic.
Throughout his life Brecht wrote verse on an array of subjects and situations much as others might keep a diary. His writings classified as poems number in the thousands. Thus, a further purpose of this small selection is to remind readers of his era, the period between the two cataclysmic wars, WWI and WWII, followed by the dreary slog of the Cold War. During his fifteen year exile, Brecht circumnavigated the world with his wife, children and mistresses, wrote his most important plays, produced anti-fascist material and survived to fight another day. -- The time that he spent in the Los Angeles area might be of special interest to American readers.
Brecht’s final years in the German Democratic Republic were dedicated to relentless work that brought great rewards to the GDR, his theater troupe, and his person, all of which was counterbalanced by unremitting struggle with Communist Party cultural ministers and disappointment with the regime for failures that led to the uprisings of 1953. All of this found expression in his poetry.
Brecht work has spawned an industry of scholars and specialists, who have produced myriad theses and books on all aspects of his plays, drama theories and pronouncements on theater. His poetry has received far less attention, especially in the English-speaking world. Since his death in 1956, his reputation as a poet has gained greatly in Germany, where it seems that many Germans have taken his poetry, slogans, epigrams and short stories into their hearts and adapted his work to their lives. In Germany, he has become not only the leading playwright of the 20th century, but its most admired poet.
Brecht’s personality and character also found expression in his poetry, and it is here that the general untidiness of his life, the questionable behavior and contradictions that scholars have so deftly defined find resolution. Further, his poetry offers a manual on making political art in a time of instability and darkness, one filled with trenchant commentary on the human condition. These difficult times extended to his final days in the GDR where he staged his plays, wrestled with the regime for openness and freedom in the arts, and sang his dark songs.
After a career of teaching German at a community college in California, I returned to Brecht, who had fascinated me since my college years. Originally drawn to him by Lotte Lenya's 1955 album ‘Lotte Lenya Sings Berlin Theater Songs of Kurt Weill,' I haunted the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm in East Berlin while I was at student at the Free University in West Berlin in 1959 - '60'. The actress, Helene Weigel, Brecht's wife, still starred in Mutter Courage, and his 's spirit was still alive although the man was gone. -- Later, as a teacher, I interlaced Brecht's material into my curriculum wherever possible.
I began these translations in 2003 after reading extensively in an edition of Brecht's poetry that I had picked up in Berlin in 1999. Over the course of a decade and more, I added to the number. Many were done in the summer and fall of 2008, as the financial crisis hit home in the U.S. and around the world. -- I was especially challenged by rhymed poems, which I sought to reproduce as well as I was able.
There are words of thanks that I must express: first off, to my good friend of fifty five years, Dr. Ekhard Haack , Emeritus, Freie Universitaet, Berlin for his constant encouragement for the project in general and fine points relating to Brecht's work in particular; secondly, to Dr. Philip Beard, Emeritus, Foreign Language Department, Sonoma State University for his help with some sticky meanings in Brecht's poems and his sound sense in helping to bring through the meanings of the originals; Gisela Juengling of Santa Rosa was most helpful in this regard as well. Will Baty, Librarian at Santa Rosa Junior College's Doyle Library helped me with advice and guidance in general. Then there is the staff at SRJC's library, who found books relating to Brecht for me throughout the western U.S. and gained access to special databases for me; Alicia Virtue was most helpful here.
This effort is dedicated to students of all ages.
Adolph N. Hofmann, Emeritus,
Santa Rosa Junior College,
Santa Rosa, California
June 1, 2014
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