Joseph Brodsky Brodsky, Joseph (Vol. 4) - Essay

Brodsky, Joseph (Vol. 4)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Brodsky, Joseph 1940–

Brodsky, a Russian poet, was exiled by the Soviet government in 1972 and has since served the University of Michigan as poet-in-residence. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 41-44.)

[It] is clear from the translations that Mr. Brodsky commands many tones of voice, from the lyric ("A Christmas Ballad") to the elegiac ("Verses on the Death of T. S. Eliot") to the comic-grotesque ("Two Hours in an Empty Tank"), and can handle with equal ease a wide variety of rhymes and meters, short lines, long lines, iambics, anapaestics, masculine rhymes and feminine….

Mr. Brodsky is not an easy poet, but even a cursory reading will reveal that, like Van Gogh and Virginia Woolf, he has an extraordinary capacity to envision material objects as sacramental signs, messengers from the unseen….

Unlike the work of some of his contemporaries, Mr. Brodsky's seems to stand outside what might be called the May-akovsky tradition of "public" poetry. It never uses a fortissimo. Indeed, original as he is, I would be inclined to classify Mr. Brodsky as a traditionalist. To begin with, he shows a deep respect and love for the past of his native land….

He is also a traditionalist in the sense that he is interested in what most lyric poets in all ages have been interested in, that is, in personal encounters with nature, human artifacts, persons loved or revered, and in reflections upon the human condition, death, and the meaning of existence.

His poems are apolitical, perhaps defiantly so, which may explain why he has, so far, failed to win official approval, for I can find nothing in them which the sternest censor could call "subversive" or "immoral."…

For Brodsky, as for Rilke and Eliot, poetic language has the same degree of "reality" as the world; words regularly interact with things. In "Isaac and Abraham" (1963) the transformation, in Isaac's dream, of the word kust ("bush") into the word krest ("cross"), which takes place painfully, letter by letter, symbolizes the transformation of a part of nature into the altar on which Isaac is to be sacrificed. Even Isaac's name becomes an anagram of his fate: the Cyrillic letter s (which is shaped like the Latin c) mirrors the form of the victim—a sacrificial lamb with forelegs and hindlegs bound together….

Brodsky assumes, with the Pasternak of "The Poems of Yuri Zhivago," an essential "unity of poetry and life." And he continues, with extraordinary energy, to hurl his poetic speech against the silence that surrounds us all.

W. H. Auden, "The Poems of Joseph Brodsky," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; © 1973 by NYREV, Inc.), April 5, 1973, pp. 10-11.

Among us, by the accident of history and the connivance of a more subtle tyranny—the knowledge that the West celebrates and consumes its celebrities—is the greatest poet of his generation, the Soviet Jewish exile, Joseph Brodsky, whose "Selected Poems" is a revelation of the power of the word living in the cracks of silence….

These—silence and death, creation, birth and beginnings—are the outer limits of Joseph Brodsky's universe. Spinning at the center is the poet: young man, lover, father, exile, Mr. Out-of-step, madman, traveler, celestial wanderer, Jew, Christ-bearer, legatee of a language …, creator of a new language, master of traditional forms and inventor of new ones.

How does one know that Joseph Brodsky is, at 33, a major poet, not simply a major poet to whom majority is accorded as a complementary addendum to the details of heroic biography? Nothing needs to be known about Brodsky other than the poems. Anything else that is known—and already there is too much of that—is irrelevant. I confess that for me the mark of the gift is not alone the congeniality of the vision, that Brodsky is moved by many of the same sources that move me, the Bible, Dante, Goethe, Lev Shestov, Nicholas Berdyaev, Vladimir Soloviev, the progenitive myths and their slightly deranged Russian interpreters, but more than these that he never lets himself off easily….

The poet thinks beyond the poem and writes again. The reader is abandoned to his own reflections. The poet and the audience are abjured by the poem to rethink their existence. If poetry can compel such renewal what it may display as harshness, angularity, sheer complexity and difficulty is justified by the magnitude of the reality incanted.

It is quite true that Joseph Brodsky is a private voice. He has nothing to do with the spectacles and spectaculars which have become the hallmark of the vagabond poets of the Soviet Union, to whom the United States has been so hospitable in recent years. But to apostrophize Brodsky's privacy, to underscore his apparent indifference to ideology is to make a familiar mistake about poems, however accurate an opinion it may be about poets….

Brodsky does not assist his audience to feel righteously martial sentiments, to purge their rage in the face of historical brutality; but his poetry, these poems, are covered with a sense of evil, the diabolic irrationality of human history, contempt for the cynicism and venality of those who claim possession of operational truth.

Against the vectors of antihumanism Brodsky sets a tensed and tough version of justice, justice within nature and creation which must be believed and sustained. And to him, sustaining his sense of strangeness in this world (not alienation), aloneness and isolation (undepressed and without despair), anguish (but not anxiety) is a vision, not yet classically Jewish nor yet dogmatically Christian, which might be described as Christ-bearing or Messianic. Brodsky's liturgical poem "Nunc Dimittis" or his pictorial "Nature Morte" are poems that depict faith, rather than pointing toward it….

"Gorbunov and Gorchakov" … is the equal of any major poem written within reasonable memory. This poem … persuades me that the high argument of our times can be conducted in a poem. This interlocution between two inmates in a madhouse, written throughout in implicit dialogue, is the argument between matter and spirit, social particularity and transcendent claim, aggression and passion, torture and love, manipulation, control, order and the free play of the moral imagination. It is quite simply a poem that evokes all that lives and calls itself man.

Arthur A. Cohen, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1973 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), December 30, 1973, pp. 1-2.

Brodsky's not stirringly quotable in translation, he has to be taken by the loaf—all 168 pages [of Selected Poems]. And read twice, at least.

Time after time his poems begin like set-pieces or exercises. Long middles treading water. Then, surprisingly, the poem lifts. A sudden release of spirit swims up, a satisfying light shines back through the poem. Ahh!

Without fail? Let's say there's a high record of success. The suprise is that poems which often begin conventionally wind up cloudborne and warbling, with the poet insisting on outdoing himself. At least I suspect he's warbling in Russian, since I see that he's cloudborne even in English.

These poems were written between 1962 and 1972. Since Brodsky was born in 1940, he was 22 to 32 years old. Naturally, the later dated poems become more intense, searching, rewarding. But even at 23, his quite long "Elegy for John Donns" shows the same enviable mastery (and surprising lift that shakes us when reading young Stephen Crane's "The Red Badge of Courage." In both cases, the poets observe graphically from after a scene they never witnessed….

His best poems, for me, are Yes-poems to God. Success after success shows a terrific variety of forms. A few poems explore the tone of Beckett-Burroughs, the sound of a mind scratching on silence, but hope returns as if with a grave blasted open. A marvelous strength hardens the poet's eye.

Donald Newlove, in The Village Voice (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice; © 1974 by The Village Voice, Inc.), March 14, 1974, pp. 26-7.