Poems for April 11: Bertolt Brecht’s “A Worker Reads History” & Roque Dalton’s “Like You”

A Worker Reads History by Bertolt Brecht

Who built the seven gates of Thebes?

Bertolt Brecht

The books are filled with names of kings.
Was it the kings who hauled the craggy blocks of stone?
And Babylon, so many times destroyed.
Who built the city up each time? In which of Lima’s houses,
That city glittering with gold, lived those who built it?
In the evening when the Chinese wall was finished
Where did the masons go? Imperial Rome
Is full of arcs of triumph. Who reared them up? Over whom
Did the Caesars triumph? Byzantium lives in song.
Were all her dwellings palaces? And even in Atlantis of the legend
The night the seas rushed in,
The drowning men still bellowed for their slaves.

Young Alexander conquered India.
He alone?
Caesar beat the Gauls.
Was there not even a cook in his army?
Phillip of Spain wept as his fleet
was sunk and destroyed. Were there no other tears?
Frederick the Greek triumphed in the Seven Years War.
Who triumphed with him?

Each page a victory
At whose expense the victory ball?
Every ten years a great man,
Who paid the piper?

So many particulars.
So many questions.

[About Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956):

German poet, playwright, and theatrical reformer, one of the most prominent figures in the 20th-century theatre. Bertolt Brecht was concerned with encouraging audiences to think rather than becoming too involved in the story line and to identify with the characters. In this process he used alienation effects (A Effekts). Brecht developed a form of drama called epic theatre in which ideas or didactic lessons are important.

“In order to produce A Effects the actor has to discard whatever means he has learned of persuading the audience to identify itself with the characters which he plays. Aiming not to put his audience into a trance, he must not go into a trance himself. His muscles must remain loose, for a turn of the head, e.g., with tautened neck muscles, will “magically” lead the spectators’ eyes and even their heads to turn with it, and this can only detract from any speculation or reaction which the gestures may bring about. His way of speaking has to be free from ecclesiastical singsong and from all those cadences which lull the spectator so that the sense gets lost.” (from A Short Organum for the Theatre, 1948)

Bertolt Brecht was born in Augsburg. His father, a Catholic, was the director of a paper company and his mother, a Protestant, was the daughter of a civil servant. Brecht began to write poetry as a boy, and had his first poems published in 1914. After finishing elementary school, he was sent to the Königliches Realgymnasium, where he gained fame as an enfant terrible.

In 1917 Brecht enrolled as a medical student at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, where he sometimes attended also the theatre seminar conducted by Professor Artur Kutscher. Between 1919 and 1921 he wrote theatre criticisms for the left-wing Socialist paper Die Augsburger. After military service as a medical orderly, he returned to his studies, but abandoned them in 1921. During the Bavarian revolutionary turmoil of 1918, Brech wrote his first play, BAAL, which was produced in 1923. Read more here.


Like You by Roque Dalton

translated from Spanish by Jack Hirschman, published in the anthology Poetry Like Bread: Poets of the Political Imagination

Like you I
love love, life, the sweet smell
of things, the sky blue
landscape of January days.

And my blood boils up
and I laugh through eyes
that have known the buds of tears.

I believe the world is beautiful
and that poetry, like bread, is for everyone.

And that my veins don’t end in me
but in the unanimous blood
of those who struggle for life,

Roque Dalton's Clandestine Poems

little things,
landscape and bread,
the poetry of everyone.

[Throughout the 1960’s and the first half of the 1970’s, the muse of revolutionary movements in El Salvador was poet Roque Dalton. Using the pen, while also committed to armed struggle, Dalton captured the spirit of a generation of intellectuals committed to the overthrow of the oligarchy in El Salvador. Inspired by the Cuban revolution in 1959, Dalton was a pre-eminent literary voice of the movement.

Dalton’s influence is described by Curbstone, the publisher of some of his poetry in English translation in this way:

Roque Dalton (1935-1975) was an enormously influential figure in the history of Latin America as a poet, essayist, intellectual and revolutionary. As a poet who brilliantly fused politics and art, his example could be said to have permanently changed the direction of Central American poetry. Author of eighteen volumes of poetry and prose, one of which (Taverna y otros poemas) received a Casa de las Américas prize in 1967, his work combines fierce satirical irony with a humane and exuberant tenderness. His legacy extends beyond his achievements as a poet to his political writings and his work in the establishment of the ERP. . . .read more about Dalton and his work and influence here

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