Thursday, April 24, 2008

Bertolt Brecht - And I Always Thought and I Need No Gravestone


And I always thought: the very simplest words
Must be enough. When I say what things are like
Everyone’s hearts must be torn to shreds.
That you’ll go down if you don’t stand up for yourself---
Surely you see that.


I need no gravestone, but
If you need one for me
I wish the inscription would read:
He made suggestions. We
Have acted on them.
Such an epitaph would
Honor us all.

---Bertolt Brecht

Bertolt Brecht’s Two Poems

Today I include two poems from Bertolt Brecht, who some of you might know for his contributions to theater. These poems are from the same collection of East German writing as Peter Huchel’s poem Roads that I wrote about yesterday. Up to this point I’ve shared a poem a day, but I figured with their length it might be worth packaging these two poems together. They share a direct and honest tone, a reflection seemingly near the end of life, and the belief that simple resolutions might exist. Many people would read these poems and find little poetic about them. Heck, you might have read them and wondered why are these some of Matt’s favorite poems. I’ll tell you why: they are brave. While one admits wrongs and reverses beliefs, the other encapsulates a whole life into two lines. There is undeniable courage in both of those things.

And I Always Thought unravels a held belief for the sake of exploring the good and bad sides of it. The title segues into the first line and Brecht’s ideal that “the very simplest words / must be enough.” Brecht is laying his writing style on the line. Simple words---many writers have extolled the values of using the simple words and not clouding essays, stories, and poems with ostentatious words. We shouldn’t use words for the sake of showing that we know how to use them, we should use words because they are meant to be used in a specific situation. Brecht also believes whole-heartedly in the power of his words: “When I say what things are like / Everyone’s hearts must be torn to shreds.” I’m fascinated by his idealism and the hope he has in his own talents and their ability to profoundly impact others. He becomes a coach in the final two lines, telling us: “That you’ll go down if you don’t stand up for yourself--- / Surely you see that.” It is almost as if all of these lines are the personal credos Brecht has operated under for his entire life; now, he is reexamining them. The ambiguity of the poem’s title and first line is worth considering. And I Always Thought could imply a rethinking of these ideals, while it could also represent a reaffirmation of them. The poem lends itself to either interpretation, but in reading it countless times I think it’s clear that Brecht is not yet ready to give up on his beliefs. After all, he’s willing to record them in a poem and share them with others.

I Need No Gravestone is a frighteningly assured poem. From the very first line, the poet is convinced of his place in the world. He deals in absolutes. He doesn’t need a gravestone, but he’s willing to make a concession and offer to accept one if the world (and we) require one. Where would the poem go without this clever turn---we wouldn’t have a gravestone or inscription to consider. It’s sly, but after admitting he doesn’t need or want a gravestone, the poet then offers explicitly what it should say. This decisiveness and attention shows he’s been thinking about this---a lot. And in this inscription he compresses his life (and his words that he idealized in the first poem) to two lines: “He made suggestions. We / have acted upon them.” For someone who always thought the very simplest words must be enough, I wouldn’t have expected anything else.

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