Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2588
It is important to note that Bertolt Brecht’s creativity as a poet resulted less from any inclination toward introspection than from his desire to communicate with others. Against the prevailing tone of German poetry in the 1920’s, at least as it was represented by Rainer Maria Rilke, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, and Stefan George, Brecht’s poetic voice startled and shocked his readers. “These poems [of Rilke and others] tell ordinary people nothing, sometimes comprehensibly, sometimes incomprehensibly,” he wrote in his youth. One of Brecht’s main objections to this style of poetry was that its sense of artistic order hid rather than disclosed the chaos he saw in modern life. For this reason, Brecht eventually came to see rhyme and rhythm as obstructive and to prefer “Rhymeless Verse with Irregular Rhythms,” as the title of an essay in 1939 reads. As basic to Brecht’s poems as their consideration of the reader is his notion of functionality. He first articulated this concept in 1927 when asked to judge a poetry contest which had brought more than four hundred entries. Brecht read them all and awarded no prize. Instead, he acknowledged an unsubmitted poem from a little-known writer, appreciating its simplicity, its engaging choice of topics, its melodiousness, and its documentary value. The notion that “all great poems have the value of documents” was central to Brecht’s thought. Writing poetry was, for Brecht, no “mere expression,” but a “social function of a wholly contradictory and alterable kind, conditioned by history and in turn conditioning it.”
Brecht wrote his poems in, as he called it, “a kind of Basic German.” His sensitivity for the “gestic” power of language was nurtured by his fondness for Luther’s Bible (the term Brecht uses, Gestus, is difficult to render adequately in English: John Willet identifies it with “gesture” and “gist,” attitude and point). At the root of Brecht’s poetry, indeed all of his work, are the notions of clarity (“The truth is concrete” was Brecht’s favorite maxim from Hegel) and functionality. Form, of which Brecht was a master and not a slave, was a means toward an end, that being enlightenment. In tracing Brecht’s poetic development, one can see how the forms and motifs change against the backdrop of these guiding concepts.
One attribute of the term “gestic” is that of performance. Brecht was always concerned with delivery (it is central to his theory of the epic theater), and his early poetry is characterized by its close links with song. Indeed, most of Brecht’s early poems were written to be accompanied by the guitar. Verse and melody often came about simultaneously, the rhythm of the words combining with the flow of the song. It is not surprising that Brecht’s early poems acknowledge such traditional forms as legends, ballads, and chronicles. He was aware that no poet who considered himself important was composing ballads at that time, and this fact, too, may have intrigued the young iconoclast. What drew Brecht to these older poetic forms was their attention to adventure, to nature, and to the role of the heroic individual. Brecht rejuvenated a tired literary tradition by turning to the works of François Villon and Rudyard Kipling. Brecht’s ballads mark a decisive turning point in the history of that genre.
“Song of the Fort Donald Railroad Gang”
“Song of the Fort Donald Railroad Gang,” written in 1916, exhibits Brecht’s youthful keenness for the frontier spirit. It relates the struggle and demise of a railroad crew laying track in the wilderness of Ohio. The portrayal of nature as rugged and indifferent marks a distinct switch for Brecht from the mediocre war poems he had been writing earlier. A common denominator, however, was the...
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