Archives for category: education

Sewing the seeds for a big season of recalls

In perhaps the most awe-inspiring show of solidarity since Wisconsinites began protesting Governor Scott Walker’s extreme budget measures nearly a month ago, farmers from across the state joined protesters in a tractorcade around the Capitol Square.  It was the start of what would prove to be the largest day yet of protests, despite the Governor signing on Friday his controversial proposal to strip public employees of most union rights.

For the farmers who made it to the capitol, it was not only a chance to show solidarity with the other Wisconsin working families but also an opportunity draw attention to the potential impacts Walker’s  proposals will have on Wisconsin farm families. From the Capital Times:

“This isn’t us versus them, with farmers siding with union employees,” says Scott Schultz, executive director of the Wisconsin Farmers Union. “In rural farm communities, Walker’s budget is hitting home in a number of ways.”

Although unions and collective bargaining have strong roots in the farm industry — the Wisconsin Farmers Union began in the 1930s — Peck says Saturday’s rallies are about more than preserving union rights.

Peck says many of those coming to Madison are upset by the realization that Walker’s agenda is “sacrificing Wisconsin’s quality of life for everyone, not just unions.”

“There are other things going on here. If BadgerCare is wiped out or scaled back, a lot of these people won’t have health care anymore,” Peck says.

Roughly 11,000, or one in seven, farmers and their family members receive health coverage through BadgerCare, according to the Wisconsin Farmers Union.

In additional to sharply curtailed healthcare access, under Governor Walker’s budget proposals rural communities may face a public education crisis.  Governor Walker’s budget cuts hundreds of millions from public education in the state (interestingly, it raises funding for charter and choice school).  But Walker’s budget does not give school districts any tools to increase revenues to offset cuts and instead only allows districts to cut (obviously Walker prefers the cuts to come out of the paychecks of middle-class teachers). But for very rural districts with fewer services and even fewer teachers, it will be hard to find enough to cut without dramatically impacting the quality of education rural students receive.  For a wealthier district, or districts closer to larger cities, it might be possible to consolidate services with other schools to find cuts.  But for rural schools, where students are often already bused for miles to attend a single high school that serves many farm communities, it will also be difficult to find more ways to consolidate without risking rural students’ ability to access comparable services.

Without good school systems, many rural communities may see dwindling populations as those who can afford to move to areas with better services will be far more likely to do so. For the rural students whose parents can not move, it will mean they no longer have access to the same level of education and opportunity as their suburban counterparts. For the hundreds of thousands of Wisconsinites, like myself, who descend from Wisconsin farm families and who share a deep passion for preserving Wisconsin’s family farm culture, Walker’s budget proposals will lead to a devastating and potentially irreversible disintegration of the lifestyle that brought our ancestors across oceans to sew Wisconsin’s rich farmland. Walker’s proposals are a betrayal of our fundamental support of rural living and truly shows that his values and not Wisconsin values.

Below are more images from Saturday’s Tractorcade:

4th Generation Badger with this tractor

One little legislator at a time

An "S" and a "Y" spell solidarity

Hope sustains Wisconsin farmers


In today’s semi-irregular installment of our German News series, Der Spiegel informs us of a new German documentary that explores the lives of three middle-aged German prostitutes. What makes their stories especially remarkable is that all three entered the oldest profession when they were, well, kinda old.

According to Der Spiegel, Silver Girls (German title = Frauenzimmer) takes a unique approach to often paint-by-numbers prostitution story as the three women each have their own perspectives on their sex careers. Paula, at 49,plans to only be a prostitute for a year in order to put away enough money to quit.  Christa, 58, and Karolina, 64, on the other hand find sexual fulfillment within their profession and have no plans of retirement.

Karolina (pictured above) is a professional dominatrix and the documentary follows her and a client who is a foot fetishist.   Later the documentary shows Christa playing with her grandson, receiving a call from a John, and then leaving her grandson to go to work!  Here’s a key quote from the first sentence:

Schuhe kaufen, mit dem Enkel spielen, Männer befriedigen.

In other words:  “Buy shoes, play with the grandson, satisfy men.”

Silver Girls will air on channel ZDF in Germany, no word yet on if there will be any distribution in the United States.  Director: Saara Aila Waasner.

Through random surfing this weekend, I stumbled into a whole blog community related to MFA programs: blogs about getting in, blogs about programs, blogs about the idea of the MFA.  Perhaps the most interesting was Seth Abramson’s blog, which is mostly links to music videos, but he has some fabulous analysis and data on MFA programs that he uses to compile an annual MFA program rankings for Poets & Writers.  Abramson also has some great advise for writers considering MFAs.  I admire him for emphasizing the absolute importance of funding in MFA programs.  The best tip I ever received when I began to apply for schools was from a professor who told me that I should not pay for my MFA–my MFA program should pay me.

Now that I’m a few years out of my MFA program, I thought it might be nice to pass along that favor and some other thoughts I have about MFAs to other aspiring writers.  It should be noted, I am not in academia and have no desire to return.  My profession is currently more along the lines of PR.  That being said, I am very grateful for my MFA and I do think it has helped me in my professional life.  My MFA was funded and I also received a stipend for both years of my program (it was more than enough to live on).

Anyway, here are some tips for those interested:

1.  Do not pay for your MFA

An MFA is not a professional degree and as Seth Abramson and countless other people (including myself) will point out to you, an MFA is unlikely to advance you towards any career.  Leaving an MFA program with any sort of debt will put you in a bad spot financially and will limit your choices of what you can do after you graduate.  If you have a funded MFA, you will have less debt and will, therefore, be able to live on less income.  This can free you up to spend a few years working part-time and writing, or to go back to school for a professional degree, or to travel for a while, or to take a low-paying internship, or to be unemployed while you look for something.  Academic teaching jobs and writing fellowships are extremely competitive and difficult to get and you should not assume that you will have one lined up after you graduate.  You likely won’t.  There are many programs that fund MFAs candidates and you should not support programs that do not support you.

2. Have Goals

There are many different types of MFA programs. Although all MFA programs exist to support your writing, they are each different.  Having a sense of what you want out of the MFA will help ensure that it’s a meaningful experience. For instance, it would be a smart idea to consider programs that help you develop professional skills that might lead to a job you won’t hate.  Although many programs will help you learn to teach, you might also find programs that provide opportunities to edit journals and literary magazines, or feed into literary studies.  Are you interested in book making or print making? Would you like to take some journalism classes?  See if you can find an MFA that might open up doors to actual wage-earning opportunities.  This is a very mercenary way to look at it–but frankly, I’m glad I did, because I can afford to feed myself.  I like that.

3. Like the Atmosphere

If you have a chance, visit some of the campuses you’re considering applying to.  This is especially important if you haven’t had much experience in workshops.  See if you like the way the school approaches writing and if you just like the atmosphere.  I imagine that pretensions probably abound in all MFA programs, but see if the students in the program mesh with you.  Is there a nice variety of students and writing–or is everyone essentially working on writing the same poem the professor wrote ten years ago?  Is there a sense of collegiality between students and faculty?

Beyond the school–do you like the city?  Is the cost of living reasonable for your budget? Does it have enough of the right components to make you happy?

4. Look for Teaching Faculty

Although it can be swell to spend two years worshiping at the altar of your favorite living poet–if that poet can’t teach, you may not learn all that much.  Some teaching techniques just don’t work.  Some MFA professors clearly resent their students or have virtually no commitment to the teaching process.  I had a professor who, it was obvious, generally just glanced over the poems before workshop.  She rarely had notes on the poem before class, but would add them during discussion.  Much of the discussion was wasted on her trying to figure out what a poem was about.  Eventually she would have some reading of the poem and would start talking about technique.  This was often helpful, but would then be rushed because we had to move on to other people.  My other professor was better at discussing techniques, but he’s the one that told us to get off our meds because our writing sucked.  Also he hated when I wrote anything that seemed like it was staged in Wisconsin.  Although I had a very tenuous relationship with my professors–it wasn’t anything compared to what I had heard about on some other campuses…Drunk writers=drama city.

I can go on and on, but the main thing that’s important with MFAs is to make sure you get what you want out of the experience.  An MFA is a great opportunity, but it’s important to be honest about its limitations.  Yes it can help you claw your way up the ladder to teaching jobs (but be sure you actually want to teach if this is a goal you have–I hated teaching). MFAs from good schools can impress certain employers by suggesting you have academic skills and creativity.  You can also use an MFA to build towards a literary PhD or a PhD in creative writing–if you really like academia.  Also, if you’re really lucky, like I was, you’ll meet some great people.  Just go into it with eyes open.

Randall Jarrell was hit by a car. Possibly what I remember most from my MFA classes is keeping track of how poets died: head in oven, car exhaust in the garage, getting drunk and walking off a pier, getting drunk and falling down the  stairs, being run over by a beach vehicle on Fire Island, typhoid, Aids, TB at age 25.  Randall Jarrell was hit by a car.

During my MFA, a professor suggested in a workshop something to the effect that not enough poets commit suicide these days and maybe we are all too medicated to write well. That professor loved Randall Jarrell, who was hit by a car in 1965.  Also Randall Jarrell may have walked into the car on purpose.  It’s a mystery!

Randall Jarrell also served in the air force during WWII, which led to some stirring poems about the war experience, including the Randall Jarrell poem you are most likely to encounter in an English textbook: “Death of the Bell Turret Gunner”:

The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner

From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.

As a former English TA, this is a poem I love to see in an English textbook.  First, it is related to World War 2, so a discussion can start just by asking what a Bell Turret Gunner is, and then a teacher can burn off 10 minutes by drawing a bomber on the chalk board and explaining where a bell turret gunner would be in the plane and what that person would.  FACTS impress students.  Also, if the students are 18-19 years old, it’s helpful to point that 70 years ago they could have been stuffed into a glass womb to shoot  at things while 30,000 feet in the air.

This poem is also dense and short so it can be read out loud in class and the whole class can work together on scanning it line-by-line for meaning first and then later for interesting details and devices.  The ending is a rhyme and a surprising rhyme so students can talk about why they were surprised by the rhyme.  Does it seem appropriate to the content of the final line, I’d ask. Then we can talk about rhyme being used for irony and other purposes.  It’s great.  Also, Jarrell’s use of animal and other non-human language is a theme students can track and use to think about what such language says about the gunner.  And then broaden it out to what the language says about the war.

Finally, it’s not an easy poem.  One can read it over and over again and not really know exactly what Jarrell is getting at, but one could come up with a few different plausible interpretations.

Although “The Death of the Bell Turret Gunner” (DOTBTG) is a great war poem, it really isn’t representative of Jarrell’s work. For that, I give you a favorite of my professor who loved Jarrell:

90 North

At home, in my flannel gown, like a bear to its floe,
I clambered to bed; up the globe’s impossible sides
I sailed all night—till at last, with my black beard,
My furs and my dogs, I stood at the northern pole.

There in the childish night my companions lay frozen,
The stiff furs knocked at my starveling throat,
And I gave my great sigh: the flakes came huddling,
Were they really my end? In the darkness I turned to my rest.

—Here, the flag snaps in the glare and silence
Of the unbroken ice. I stand here,
The dogs bark, my beard is black, and I stare
At the North Pole . . .
And now what? Why, go back.

Turn as I please, my step is to the south.
The world—my world spins on this final point
Of cold and wretchedness: all lines, all winds
End in this whirlpool I at last discover.

And it is meaningless. In the child’s bed
After the night’s voyage, in that warm world
Where people work and suffer for the end
That crowns the pain—in that Cloud-Cuckoo-Land

I reached my North and it had meaning.
Here at the actual pole of my existence,
Where all that I have done is meaningless,
Where I die or live by accident alone—

Where, living or dying, I am still alone;
Here where North, the night, the berg of death
Crowd me out of the ignorant darkness,
I see at last that all the knowledge

I wrung from the darkness—that the darkness flung me—
Is worthless as ignorance: nothing comes from nothing,
The darkness from the darkness. Pain comes from the darkness
And we call it wisdom. It is pain.

Jarrell poems tend to be longer first-person narrative structures and not nearly as tight as DOTBTG.   Although “90 North”  has more space than DOTBTG, the lines still feels so controlled and perfectly broken. The language more colloquial, but words finely chosen for sound and clarity.  The ending still surprises by ending on a short sentence after several longer sentences.  I don’t want to analyze this one to death because much of the joy (and misery) of it comes from Jarrell’s incredibly personal voice,  but if anything else, this is just a beautiful human expression to commiserate with the next time you find yourself roaming the Arctic passages of your mind.

Yesterday Madison participated in the worldwide Park(ing) Day observance, which encourages communities to fill up city parking spots with park spaces. (Parking spaces = park spaces–get it?).  Madison had two entries one downtown (below) and one in a more residential area.

While I was taking a gander at our newest (and shortest-lived downtown park), Madison’s Mayor, Dave Cieslewicz, was chatting with the folks who put the park together.  Mayor Dave is a great supporter of progressive community development and multi-model transportation systems.  (Mayor Dave, I loved the streetcar idea. I have always imagined streetcars going down University Avenue.)  I asked what it would take to get a park like this to be permanent.  The gist of his answer was “a lot”…apparently we have many permitting rules! Mayor Dave is the guy in the button-down shirt:

Mayor Dave, Sunny Day

Then I asked the landscape architects (the guys in the t-shirts) if they could just come by every day to do this during my lunch hour and they said that it was too expensive.  Still it was a neat display and did show an alternative way to use space. For Madison’s interest in smart growth and development it’s also comforting that community events such as these are on the radar of our local officials.

Also we’re getting  a new bike-friendly restaurant to prep for our future Amtrak station/public market/awesomeness.  Although summer died three weeks ago, I love this town.  Now it’s time for our four weeks of leaf Armageddon!

One of great things about the end-of-the-summer sloth-gluttony circuit is when my city helps me facilitate these sins.  This weekend is the Taste of Madison–which is an outdoor food festival probably similar to ones held in other cities.  Here, 75 local food vendors surround the perimeter of the State Capitol and serve up small portions of their food for under $5.

It’s generally hot and crowded and full of drunk people listening to meager live music offerings.  Yesterday was great, however, because it was nice and cool, which makes everything: crowds, greasy food, drunks, bad music all so much better.

Below are some of the favorite foods I sampled yesterday.  Sadly, this is not all I ate.

1.  Pan Fried Corn Patty – Bandung Indonesian Restaurant, Madison

Similar to the State Fair, much of what’s served at the Taste of Madison is greasy or fried or both.  There is a nice mix of local, international places and places that serve mid-range American food.  This corn patty from Bandung was the first thing I tried.  The patty itself was made up of sweet corn kernels, egg and sweet onion.  On top was a savory garlic sauce which has a little bit of kick, but was still very mild.  The patty itself was amazing.  Generally, these things are like mush patties, probably because the restaurants rely on canned corned.  This was nice and firm.  When I pulled apart the patty I could see the firm corn kernels.  The sweetness of the corn and onion was delicious against the more savory garlic sauce.  It wasn’t that greasy and the crisp lettuce on the bottom seemed to help the dish from feeling soggy.

2.  Watermelon Popsicle – Chicago-area Mexican restaurant

I didn’t quite catch the name of the Mexican-food vendor that served me this watermelon popsicle (I will try to catch it today–Blogger Purgatory for me!), but I thank him for introducing me to the joy of Mexican Popsicles.  This tasted like someone had juiced a watermelon added just a little sugar and frozen it in a popsicle mold.  It did not taste artificial at all.  So, so yummy–probably even better on a hot summer day.

2. Beer Battered Deep Fried Cheese Curds – The Old Fashioned, Madison

Over the last 5 years of so, gourmet cheese curds have become something of a Madison-area delicacy–with just about every mid-to-high range “food pub” in Madison serving its own version for upwards of $10 a basket.  Much of this craze likely traces back to the opening of the Old Fashioned.  The Old Fashioned is a “Wisconsin-themed” mid-ranged restaurant right across the street from the State Capitol.  It features an extensive Wisconsin beer menu and better-tasting versions of the greasy specialties featured in the supper clubs spread across the state.  These cheese curds are a great example.  The breading is light and crisp and the beer gives it a nice, deep flavor that compliments the cheese.  The cheese inside is flavorful (my guess is some kind of colby) but not so strong that it’s overbearing on the taste buds after a certain point (as is the case with some of the sharp cheddar cheese curds that appear in other restaurants).  The sauce is a zingy mayo/mustard/light pepper combination and it really compliments the heaviness of the cheese curds.  This is one of those dishes that makes me so, so proud that I’m from Wisconsin.  I actually eat and think to myself: “my people”.

4. Cookie Dough Egg Roll – Bluephies, Madison

Chocolate-chip cookie dough wrapped in a light egg roll shell. Deep fried. The cookie dough becomes moist and gooey and stays hot inside the crisp egg roll shell. Do I really need to explain why this is delicious?

More food coming my way today!

My Labor Day Weekend movie marathon began yesterday with Rashomon, which I had never seen and had begun to feel like I was avoiding.  After all, I had been told over and over how good it is, how it’s not one of the great films of Akira Kurosawa (this was my first Kurosawa film) and a masterpiece of film perspectives and really one of the best films of all time.  And it had been sitting for months on Netflix Instant Queue (with a suggested 4 1/2 stars).   But I finally watched it.  No more boo-hooing me, intellectual elite. And it was a very, very good film.

[Spoilers follow–Ed.] For those of you who aren’t familiar with the film, or just need a refresher, it follows the perspective of four people who were witnessed or were part of one event–the rape of a woman and the subsequent reaction of her husband, the rapist and the woman herself, and ultimately, the husband’s death.  All three people (rapist, woman, husband) provide their own perspective on the event during the court hearing for the husband’s death.  (The husband’s perspective is provided by a medium.)  The fourth and final version of the events comes from a woodcutter (also the film’s central narrator), who we find out towards the film’s end, was also a witness to the rape and murder.  All four perspectives vary widely, with all providing glimpses into how each character would like to be perceived by its audience.

When the film became most interesting to me was the story from the perspective of the woodcutter (the final perspective):

Unlike the other narrations of the event, in this perspective, all the characters act and react in unflattering ways to the events that are taking place.  The men are shaking, exhausted and awkward during their fight.  There’s stumbling and heavy panting and obvious fear.  The woman actually stands up for herself and argues with the men when they both reject her after her rape, but then she cowers in fear during the fight that she directly causes and is ultimately revolted by its result.  When the bandit/rapist actually kills the husband it more out of luck and he appears to do it with self-disgust.  This scene offers moments of realism that take the movie to a different level–we have no clear winner or hero. It’s hard to sympathize with any of the characters, but in their faulty humanity they are at their most sympathetic because they most resemble ourselves.

Overall, it’s a short but dense film.  The imagery of rain, light, vegetation vs. sand all adds meaning to the themes of human selfishness, violence, Japanese culture, personal faith, trust, truth, perspective, gender issues.  I know it’s a well-studied film and with reason.  This is a film that has books worth of potential explication waiting for the eager cinephile.

Although, it was a very satisfying and interesting film, I didn’t find myself as moved as I have been with other films (although an emotional reaction is not always a sign that a movie is actually good), but I think that’s by design.  In general an emotional response comes from watching some personal development within a character with whom we have become emotionally connected.  With Rashomon we can’t really invest ourselves into the characters because they change from perspective to perspective.  We stick most closely to the narrator, and his arc of understanding most closely resembles ours.  But even his reliability and moral integrity is called into question when we find out [spoiler] that he steals from the site of the rape/murder.  It’s hard to want things to happen for the characters, but for a movie about whether people can be trusted, I guess that’s sort of the point.  Perhaps the narrator is ultimately redeemed when, in the end, he offers to take care of an abandoned child.  Perhaps that is our redemption, too.

I should add, that the film is also beautifully shot.  Perhaps the best moment was the  windy wildness of the medium as she tells the dead husband’s story.  It begins around the eight minute mark of this clip:

During this segment, it’s as if we’ve entered a whole new world of spiritual heroism–only to have that world taken apart when, minutes later, the woodcutter/narrator tells his perspective and reveals that everyone’s a bunch of lying, terrified buffoons.

For anyone interested in more yammerings on Akira Kurosawa, I plan more subsequent entries.  The local university is showing several of his films this semester and it’s a good excuse for me to learn more about such an admired director.  Stay tuned.

When I went camping, I took some pictures.  We camped in a state park called Wyalusing, which is one of Wisconsin’s oldest and I would guess probably one of the most popular.  They have group sites there so many local schools will take students there for a few days for nature education (I did this in middle school).  What always made the park so memorable were the amazing views from its bluffs.  And they were even more vast than I remembered:

Meeting of two waters

In the above photo you can see where the Wisconsin River (that’s the run moving  from the front  right of the picture) meets with the Mississippi (if you look closely you see it running in front of the far bluff).   Many historians think this big water convergence might be the root of the word Wisconsin (which could mean the meeting of waters in some of the native languages).   The other bluff in the picture belongs to our good friend. Iowa. They are across the Mississippi.

Incidentally, our bff, Minnesota, returned some islands back to us.  Apparently we lost them a few years ago and assumed they belonged to Minnesota.  This is how islands are like  $5 bills.

Then we met a cave

It looks like the human-eating plant from Little Shop of Horrors.

We explored the surprising wealth of the Dousman family:

Villa Louis

And were followed around by some staff people with keys

Time to close the museum

On the way home we met Dinky in Fennimore


Then these windmills worked hard to turn on lights for us

Don Quixote also met windmills. That's all I know about him.

Yesterday, I resolved to finally throw myself into translating as part my much greater project of improving my German.  The poem selected (which I mentioned in my post yesterday) was a sonnet by Bertolt Brecht: “Entdeckung an einer jungen Frau” (or roughly “Discovery on a young woman”).  Here’s why this project is stupid and will surely be a disaster:

1. My German is so rusty, but it was once really good.  This means that my brain often gives me cues that it “knows” a word or a phrase, but it doesn’t really know why.  So many words seem familiar, but are often merely close to the correct word I want to use.  Idioms/turns-of-phrase are the worst because they aren’t easy to find in a dictionary and often can only be explained in context.

2. This poem is a sonnet (a Petrarchan sonnet), which means it has requirements regarding not only a rhyme scheme, but also the meter and pace of the poem.

3.  I have read some Brecht, but not a whole lot.  So I need to do a little research into his style of writing to make sure I’m making the appropriate decisions in terms of word choice.

4.  I can’t find an English version of this anywhere, so there’s nothing to check my work against.  For instance, even after translating closely, I’m still not sure I know what the last line means.

Today I completed the first step of the process, which is doing a word-by-word translation to see what I’m up against. It looks confusing but is very helpful.  I welcome any suggestions as I muddle through this experiment:


Title: [Discovery/Detection/Spotting]  [on /at]  a young woman

1. Des Morgens nüchterner Abschied, eine Frau

The morning’s [sober/down-to-earth/rational/plain/unemotional/objective]  [farewell/parting/resignation (as in from an employer)/discharge/Goodbye/], a woman

2. Kühl zwischen Tür und Angel, kühl besehn

[cool/calm] [(between door and hinge) I recall learning that this has a figurative meaning  related to being in transition. ], [cool/calm] to look at/look at oneself

3. Da sah ich: eine Strähn in ihrem Haar war grau

[Here/then/so/there] saw I: a [strand/streak] in her hair was gray

4. Ich konnt mich nicht entschließen mehr zu gehn

I could me not [decide/ determine/ resolve] more to go

5. Stumm nahm ich ihre Brust, und als sie fragte

[Silently/dumbly/mutely] took I her breast, and as she  asked

6. Warum ich, Nachtgast, nach Verlauf der Nacht

Why I, Nightguest (will have to look up whether this has some meaning as an idiom), after the course of the night

7. Nicht gehen wolle, denn so war’s gedacht

Not leave want to, when [such war/so was] thought/expected

8. Sah ich sie unumwunden an und sagte

Saw I she frankly on and said

9. Ist’s nur noch eine Nacht, will ich noch bleiben

It is only still [one/a] nicht, want I still to stay

10. Doch nütze deine Zeit, das ist das Schlimme

[But/Afterall/Any way/All the same] [use/be useful] your time, that is the worst

11. Daß du so zwischen Tür und Angel stehst

That you so between door and hinge stand

12. Und laß uns die Gespräche rascher treiben

And let us the [conversation/discussions/dialogues]  [faster/rapider/swifter/hastier] [drive/rush/push/pursue/carry on/have/create/commit/to beat/make rise/to bring]

13. Denn wir vergaßen ganz, daß du vergehst

Then we forget [completely/wholly/entirely/really], that you [to pass/die/fade]

14. Und es verschlug Begierde mir die Stimme

And it [staggered/lost] (?) [Desire/longing/yearning/burning] me the [voice/register/vote]

Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956)  was a poet.  Most people know him as a playwright, but he was a true poet and it slithered its tentacles into his other (more famous) writing.   And yes, poetry is an octopus and its coming for your brain.

If some professor or other clammy-handed intellectual somewhere didn’t sit you down and teach you about Bertolt Brecht, here are some important things to know for your next cocktail party where pale, clammy-handed intellectuals might be in attendance:

1.  Brecht was one of the rare geniuses whose work is so different and creative and influential that it changes an entire art form–he did this for theater.  He experimented with a form of theater called “Epic Theater,” which (and some clammy-handed intellectual somewhere will claim I’m simplifying matters) essentially incorporated unconventional elements to keep the audience intellectually engaged.  Brecht did not want his theater to be a form of escapism.   Actors in his plays, for instance, might have held up signs or had strange songs at inappropriate times. Therefore, the next time you do something in a social setting that is inappropriate and distracting, you can tell people you were having a Brechtian moment and it was for their own good.

2.  Brecht was a Marxist and was questioned by the U.S. House Un-American Activities Committee.  Afterwards he was offered and accepted his own theater in Berlin and lived there after his death.

3.  Some really famous songs come from his works:

From the Three Penny Opera (as performed by Lotte Lenya–there’s no actual video because they didn’t know about YouTube yet.):

The Doors did this one, probably because it’s about going to get whiskey. This is from the Rise and Fall of the City Mahagonny:

It’s easy to recognize only the strangeness of the Brecht operas and miss the actually poetry in his lyrics.  But it’s there, which I would show you if I could get my hands on a libretto. But alas, the tubes have failed me.  Below is a sonnet that floored me in one of my German classes.  It’s in German!


Des Morgens nüchterner Abschied, eine Frau
Kühl zwischen Tür und Angel, kühl besehn
Da sah ich: eine Strähn in ihrem Haar war grau
Ich konnt mich nicht entschließen mehr zu gehn
Stumm nahm ich ihre Brust, und als sie fragte
Warum ich, Nachtgast, nach Verlauf der Nacht
Nicht gehen wolle, denn so war’s gedacht
Sah ich sie unumwunden an und sagte
Ist’s nur noch eine Nacht, will ich noch bleiben
Doch nütze deine Zeit, das ist das Schlimme
Daß du so zwischen Tür und Angel stehst
Und laß uns die Gespräche rascher treiben
Denn wir vergaßen ganz, daß du vergehst
Und es verschlug Begierde mir die Stimme

Basically, the speaker just had a tryst with a woman.  She’s about to leave and is indifferent to him. He notices she has a strand of gray hair and decides he doesn’t want her to leave. There aren’t really great translations out there…or any that I could find, so I’ll try to translate it in parts in multiple posts.  Stay tuned.  It will be fun.