In recent numbers of New Left Review we have presented poems by two self-avowed Marxists—Attila József and Franco Fortini. We now present some poems, hitherto untranslated, by a third, Bertolt Brecht. One of the reasons for printing work by these poets is to call attention to the problems posed to poets by the reality of socialism and Marxism. This is not only a problem of the poet and politics in the public sphere, but, in the private sphere, of the poetic and political intelligence in one man’s consciousness. Of course there is a certain partisanship in evidence in the choice of only Marxists rather than poets of the right, such as Pound. The latter are in any case more discussed in the Western world, though not necessarily better served. It is our intention to consider Pound later in this series.
All these writers have been explicitly aware of the connexion in their own work between political and poetic practice and the aesthetic problems raised by this. By the same token it is a great mistake either to try to separate out the political aspect of their work—a temptation on both sides of the barricade—or the aesthetic aspect, as critics have done when they reduce Brecht’s originality to innovations in the literary series alone. On another level it has been a statute of liberal theorists that the only authentic stand for a poet today is one of ‘pre-ideological’ withdrawal or hesitation. In Empson’s phrase, ‘courage means running’: and one extension to this line of reasoning is to find salvation in connotation and magic. This is a point of view which should be discussed in terms of the thought of, say, André Breton who was both the purest exponent of the ‘demonic’ approach and aware of the reality of politics and political choice. The diluted liberal view is neither one thing nor the other.
These poems of Brecht cover roughly the period of the Second World War which he spent in Scandinavia and the United States. The teacher in ‘Is the People Infallible’ can be identified with the Soviet playwright Sergei Tretiakov, who disappeared in the purges at the end of the 1930’s; a good friend of Brecht’s and editor of the first Russian translation of his plays. As far as we know, he has never been rehabilitated. ‘Hollywood Elegies’ date from 1942. Brecht had arrived in California from Vladivostok, in the summer of 1941, and was living at Santa Monica outside Los Angeles. ‘The Transformation of the Gods’ and ‘Once’ are also thought to date from these American years. Only the last of these poems was published in his lifetime. They are reproduced