Brilliant, imperious, willful, Joseph Brodsky continued to smoke—never mind what the doctors said. Having been under the knife several times, he knew he could die at any minute, and that awareness pervades his later work. Meanwhile, he preferred to live as he always had. There was no great shock, then, when his fatal heart attack was reported not long after the publication of this volume of essays: not surprise but regret that Brodsky’s distinctive voice had been stilled.
Later in the same year, a new collection of poems appeared as well: So Forth (reviewed in this volume). The conjunction raises in sharp relief the question of Brodsky the (American) English writer, for while Brodsky in Russian was a Nobel Prize- winning poet—and while he continued, in America, to promote poetry, poetry, poetry over all else with a messianic fervor—Brodsky in English was a superb essayist but merely an eccentric poet.
Not that there is no connection between the sometimes embarrassingly bad poetry and the essays collected here. Again, the word “willful” comes to mind. Brodsky’s strength of will and his fearless epigrammatic intelligence fairly shine forth in On Grief and Reason, as they did in his earlier collection of essays, Less Than One (1986), but also evident in both collections is a penchant for dubious pronouncements, obiter dicta issued with great self-indulgence. No one could conscientiously read Brodsky’s essays without frequent howls of protest or murmurs of mystification—but what a feast they make.
On Grief and Reason is a splendid miscellany. The earliest piece (though not first in the book), “After a Journey,” a darkly, sometimes crassly comic narrative of a trip to Brazil “in the name of cultural exchange,” dates to 1978, but with the exception of that essay, the pieces in this volume span the period from 1986 to 1995. Included here is Brodsky’s 1987 Nobel Lecture, “Uncommon Visage,” and his brief Nobel acceptance speech. There are other occasional pieces, such as the 1993 “Letter to a President,” first published in The New York Review of Books in response to a lecture by Vaclav Havel, and the 1991 address, “An Immodest Proposal,” delivered at the Library of Congress during Brodsky’s tenure as poet laureate. (The “immodest proposal” was to print fifty million copies of an anthology of American poetry, priced at two dollars a copy.)
Brodsky was an outstanding teacher, as was attested by the lecture on W. H. Auden’s “September 1, 1939” in Less Than One. There is another virtuoso performance in On Grief and Reason: “Wooing the Inanimate,” a lecture on four poems by Thomas Hardy, given to students in Brodsky’s course “Subject Matter in Lyric Poetry” at Mount Holyoke College in 1994 (one envies his lucky students). In addition to Hardy, the volume includes Brodsky’s extended readings of Robert Frost (the title essay) and Rainer Maria Rilke (“Ninety Years Later”). Brodsky’s classical affiliations are evident in essays on Marcus Aurelius and Horace, while his gift for friendship is manifest in the wonderfully affectionate essay that concludes the book, “In Memory of Stephen Spender.”
It would be misleading, though, not to acknowledge that a prevailing sourness runs through this collection, as it does through much of Brodsky’s poetry after his early work. His characteristic pose is that of a man without illusions, immensely cynical and knowing, undercutting sentiment (except when writing about certain friends—as in the case of Spender, noted above, and Auden above all—and when acting as an apostle for poetry).
That tone is very...
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