“The Collected Poems of Bertolt Brecht” translated by David Constantine and Tom Kuhn— A Treasure

Brecht, Bertolt. “The Collected Poems of Bertolt Brecht”, translated by David Constantine and Tom Kuhn,  Liveright, 2019.

A Treasure

Amos Lassen

I have always loved Bertolt Brecht’s dramas and that is probably because his plays are filled with his poetry. He has long been regarded as the greatest German playwright of the twentieth century.  Brecht was also a poet and George Steiner has stated that Brecht is “that very rare phenomenon, a great poet, for whom poetry is an almost everyday visitation and drawing of breath.” Brecht was a prolific poet having written more than two thousand poems. However, fewer than half were published in his lifetime, and early translations were heavily censored. Now we have two award-winning translators— David Constantine and Tom Kuhn who have heroically translated more than 1,200 poems in this, the most comprehensive English collection of Brecht’s poetry to date. Written between 1913 and 1956, these poems celebrate Brecht’s “love of life, the desire for better and more of it,” and reflect his technical virtuosity. He was driven by bitter and violent politics, as well as by the untrammeled forces of love and erotic desire.

This is a very big book, coming in at 1286 pages and now thanks to the translators, we can discover Brecht the poet and see that his poems give a sense of “the fertility of his pristine, unsentimental language and the breadth of subject and form”.

 Brecht is a great poet, and this book is evidence to support that claim. He wrote bawdy poems, and poems of great beauty. Brecht wrote poetry of protest as well and he protested many things— war, fascism, prostitution, poverty cruelty, and callousness. He was a
theorist, dramatist, polemicist, and a poet. It is through his poems that we really sense his restless mind. Brecht’s poems “are never just the servant of his politics…they exceed his engagement in the particular and necessary cause.” As a poet he is  universal and he is also an intellectual with a soul that he shares with his readers through his writing.

I have been looking for an English translation of “Hannah Cash” for years and I finally found one here and for that alone, I would have found a way to get a copy of this. I was successful and now every day I spend 30 minutes with Brecht’s poetry.

The translators capture the erotic and the political in the poems as well as the humor which is often tongue-in-cheek. There are bold statements here alongside the direct speech and the willful naivete and there’s “a lyrical dynamism and verbal agility that allows its author to dance and skip his way through the potential pitfalls of political rhetoric.”
Many of the poems here have never been collected in English before and this is the most complete collection of Brecht’s poetry ever assembled in English.

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