Translator's Notes

Translator’s Note: “When I’d reported to the couple, thus” by Bertolt Brecht

T.S. Eliot, writing on Tennyson, found in him the three qualities that make a great poet: abundance, variety, and complete technical competence. Brecht is a great poet, one of the three or four best in the whole of German literature (a literature not short of first-rate poetry). He is abundant: the Berlin-Frankfurt edition of his Complete Works contains more than two thousand poems. He is various: in dozens of modes, genres, and forms, from epigram to epic, from sonnets to ballads and marching songs; he is widely eclectic, a thieving magpie of much of world literature — he took from Greece and Rome, China, Japan, Britain, America, his own compatriots, the living and the long dead, across frontiers of space and time. His technical virtuosity in traditional forms and in forms he invented or developed for his own needs, is breathtaking. He works effectively in hexameters, in tight rhyming quatrains, in unrhyming verse in irregular meters, and in numerous other shapes and forms as the poetic occasion demands. He was, moreover, a lyric poet all his writing life. He is known, very properly, for his engagement as a writer in the bitter and violent politics of his age; but he should also be known as a poet driven by Eros. Brecht was always more or less in love; in his total oeuvre love, or let us say Eros, is expressed, discussed, enacted in an astonishing variety of modes, forms, tones, and circumstances.

This loose sonnet, written in the late 1930s, is a riff on Dante (and the story of Paolo and Francesca), complete with echoes of terza rima; as a formal model, Brecht may also have had Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind” in mind. Both poets were favorites. Here he reflects on the politics of male-female relationships in a capitalist and a playfully imagined post-capitalist society.

Originally Published: November 3rd, 2014

Tom Kuhn teaches German at the University of Oxford. His translation, with David Constantine, of Brecht’s Love Poems is out this month from Liveright, W.W. Norton.

Appeared in Poetry Magazine This Appears In