When the regime ordered that books with dangerous teachings
Should be publicly burnt and everywhere
Oxen were forced to draw carts full of books
To the funeral pyre, an old poet, one of the best,
Discovered with fury when he studied the list
Of the burned, that his own books
Had been forgotten. He rushed to his writing table
On wings of anger and wrote a letter to those in power.
Burn me, he wrote with hurrying pen, burn me!
Do not treat me in this fashion. Don’t leave me out. Have I not
Always taught truth in my books? And now
You treat me like a liar! I order you:
Brecht is often underrated as a poet. The fame of his A-effect principle tends to make people think of him in a didactic spirit. Yet this poem of his, “The Burning of the Books,” addressing the perennial surge of the attempted destruction of free intellect, is subtle and ironic. It’s as much a portrait of the writer mentioned in it, as of the censorious makers of the conflagrations. The poem at first blush seems as straightforward as the moral outrage of the “old poet, one of the best.” Yet by the end, one feels he protests perhaps too much. Could it be, his writing is by nature safe, after all? Not controversial or challenging enough? It is as if having copies of his tomes incinerated would represent yet another prize for him to win. And to be left out of any prize category, for him, is an impossible thought. Brecht, a dangerous writer in his own right, was always a master of irony and his real target here is complacent writers.
Many are going on and on at this moment expressing personal outrage about the state of things and otherwise making a show of themselves. This despite the fact that their writing is tame as this old poet’s and even when it makes radical gestures, they reveal themselves too often as ostentatious, empty theater. Whether the topic is the ecology, race, gender, Ukraine, or something else, one finds precious little real reflection likely to do more than get a standing ovation among their coterie of fellow writers—who also don’t want to be left out, and will expect a standing ovation in turn, when their turn comes to express petulant wrath “on wings of anger,” and rush to do a Zoom reading to show their politics are in the right place. Most of them stand little chance of their creations being burned or (in the electronic age) banned, because they’re not as subversive as they’d like to think. Rather, they limit themselves to petit bourgeois temper tantrums, providing neither a cogent gloss on the deeper aspects of the ongoing despoliation of our labor conditions and our souls, nor an aesthetic prick of our collective conscience.
I applaud Brecht for this deserved sucker punch of all of us. Many writers have complained about Amanda Gorman—and deservedly so—yet that particular effigy cannot absolve the collective of its poetic sins. If anything, she is providing a convenient distraction so that we may protest the supposed truth of our own compositions, if only by comparison to her. No—each of us ought to take consciousness of how we prevail, almost cynically, on a theme such as Ukraine, chiefly to make a public display of how our heart is in the right place.
Now all we have to do is get Change.org to send out a mass mailing, with our name in the subject line, asking for a massive petition with hundreds of thousands of signatures, to be relayed to all the Republican-controlled state legislatures, ordering that a prudent selection of our books be physically burned, in the hope of boosting our currently flagging sales on Amazon. Naturally, as part of our brand, our publicist will ensure that a stream of Tweets, Instagram pictures of bonfires (the charring of the cover artistically surrounding the title and author’s name) of our books in flagrante, released at strategic intervals, and Tik Tok videos showing us, like Joan of Arc, staged at the fire’s center wearing a flame-retardant body suit and boots. If you don’t want the discomfort of standing in the fire, simulate one. Here are instructions:
The current burning and banning of books, sadly, is only a relative problem in our functionally illiterate nation, where many citizens brag of not having read a book of any substance since high school, or else their required textbooks in college—which they also didn’t read carefully. Poetry is so neglected that it scarcely inspires contempt or dread. Most of those burning or banning the books have only heard about them, while others merely took a glance to find the offending words or to ascertain that the publication was plausibly about critical race theory because it has a picture of a brown or black person looking angry or sad. What if instead more books could provoke in such a way that its haters, despite themselves, would read cover to cover in a single sitting, the bedside lamp left on into the wee hours, as the text inflamed their heart to the point they couldn’t even wait for a public burning, instead rushing downstairs to hit the button on the gas fireplace, tossing the completed volume inside with satanic glee, and dancing in circles, as in Macbeth, before the steady gas flame as the room began to stink of char.
That’s the effect I want to have on readers! Alas, no one to date has burned any of my books either. I’m going to have to try harder.