Introduction

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Joseph Brodsky 1940–1996

(Full name Joseph Alexandrovich Brodsky; also transliterated as Iosif, Josif, Yosif, or Josip; also Alexander or Aleksandrovich; also Brodski, Brodskii, or Brodskij)

Russian-born American poet, essayist, and translator.

The following entry provides an overview of Brodsky's career through 1996. For further information on his life and works,...

(The entire section contains 34287 words.)

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Joseph Brodsky 1940–1996

(Full name Joseph Alexandrovich Brodsky; also transliterated as Iosif, Josif, Yosif, or Josip; also Alexander or Aleksandrovich; also Brodski, Brodskii, or Brodskij)

Russian-born American poet, essayist, and translator.

The following entry provides an overview of Brodsky's career through 1996. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 4, 6, 13, 36, and 50.

Often called the best Russian poet of his generation, Brodsky was born and raised in the former Soviet Union and became an American citizen in 1977. He was known for poetry in which he used complex rhythm and meter and extensive word play to address such themes as exile, loss, and death. He also frequently incorporated classical Western mythology and philosophy as well as Judeo-Christiantheology into his works. Brodsky is best known for his poetry collections originally written in Russian, Chast' rechi (1977; A Part of Speech) and Uraniia (1984; To Urania), and his essay collections written in English, Less Than One (1986) and On Grief and Reason (1995). In 1987, Brodsky was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. The Swedish Academy, the bestowing body of the award, cited Brodsky's "all-embracing authorship imbued with clarity of thought and poetic intensity" and described his writing as "rich and intensely vital." Brodsky was also appointed poet laureate of the United States in 1991. During his one-year tenure, he extolled American poetry, calling it "this country's greatest patrimony," and worked to have it published much more widely.

Biographical Information

Brodsky was born in Leningrad to Jewish parents. Disenchanted with formal education, he left school at the age of fifteen to study independently. He taught himself English and Polish, purportedly so he could translate the works of English poet John Donne and Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz. As he developed a reputation among other Russian writers as a young poet with exceptional promise, he garnered the disfavor of Soviet authorities who arrested him in 1964 on charges of "social parasitism" under a controversial law meant to punish citizens who refused gainful employment. Although Brodsky argued that his activities as a poet and translator constituted legitimate work, the judge at the trial reacted scornfully to his defense. "Who has recognized you as a poet? Who has given you a place among the poets?" she demanded of Brodsky, to which he retorted, "No one. And who included me among the ranks of the human race?" Brodsky was sentenced to five years of hard labor on a state farm near the Arctic Circle. Due in part to a petition signed by numerous prominent persons in the Soviet Union, Europe, and North America, including the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova, Brodsky was released after serving less than two years of his sentence. However, he was still regarded as an undesirable element in Soviet society, and in 1972 officials forced him to leave the country despite his protests. Befriended by American poet W. H. Auden, Brodsky settled in the United States, where he worked as an instructor of literature and creative writing at several universities, including the University of Michigan, Queens College, and Mount Holyoke College. Brodsky had open-heart surgery in 1979 and later had two heart bypass operations. He died of a heart attack in New York City on January 28, 1996 and was buried in Venice, Italy.

Major Works

Brodsky's early works are mostly brief, simple lyrics written in free verse, while those written in the late 1960s and beyond exhibit his command of longer, increasingly complex poetic forms. His early poems are also considered more personal than his later works, which treat more universal subject matter. A Part of Speech contains thirty-six poems, many of which originally appeared in Russian in such volumes as Ostanovka v pustyne (1970) and Konets prekrasnoi epokhi (1977). Although many of the poems address Brodsky's life in his homeland and chronicle his feelings of loss and loneliness after leaving Russia, other works in the collection incorporate American themes and describe American landscapes. Less Than One, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1986, contains eighteen essays and focuses on twentieth century poetry in Russian and English. In addition to works on such writers as Russian Fyodor Dostoevsky and West Indian poet Derek Walcott, Less Than One contains two memoirs of Brodsky's childhood in Leningrad. Brodsky's second essay collection, On Grief and Reason, is comprised of twenty-one essays, all but one of which was written after 1986. This collection contains analyses of individual poems by English writer Thomas Hardy, American poet Robert Frost, and German writer Ranier Maria Rilke as well as essays about Roman ruler Marcus Aurelius and Roman poet Horace. Brodsky also published a book-length essay, Watermark, in 1992. Focusing on his experiences in Venice, Italy, where Brodsky spent many of his winters, this work has been described as a metaphorical, witty, and unconventional treatment of the Italian city. At the time of his death, Brodsky was in the process of completing the poetry collection So Forth, which was published later in 1996.

Critical Reception

During his life, Brodsky earned recognition from both critics and his peers as an extraordinarily gifted writer. He was lauded for imbuing classical themes with contemporary significance and for writing in both English and Russian. A few commentators have disputed the opinion that he is among the most influential Russian poets of the second half of the twentieth century, suggesting that sympathy for the oppression Brodsky suffered in the former Soviet Union led some to overrate his talents. Some critics have also faulted his poetry for what they consider its sexism, didacticism, and lack of clarity and emotional intimacy. Nevertheless, Brodsky was widely praised for his commitment to poetry, his vast knowledge of Western poetic traditions, and his mastery of numerous verse forms. Regarding Brodsky's influence on contemporary literature, Seamus Heaney observed that he was "regarded as the figure of the representative poet, sounding prophetic even though he might demur at the notion of the prophetic role, and impressing the academics by the depth of his knowledge of the poetic tradition from classical times up through the Renaissance and in modern European languages, including English." Heaney has also commented on Brodsky's belief that poetry has the power to transform individual consciousness and transcend political and social constraints: "[Brodsky had] total conviction about the trustworthiness of poetry as a force for good—not so much 'for the good of society' as for the health of the individual mind and soul." Brodsky himself emphasized his views on the role of the poet in his Nobel lecture: "The poet … is language's means for existence. I who write these lines will cease to be; so will you who read them. But the language in which they are written and in which you read them will remain, not merely because language is a more lasting thing than man, but because it is more capable of mutation."

Principal Works

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Stikhotvoreniia i poemy (poetry) 1965
Collines et autres poemes (poetry) 1966
Ausgewahlte Gedichte (poetry) 1966
Elegy to John Donne and Other Poems (poetry) 1967
Velka elegie (poetry) 1968
Ostanovka v pustyne (poetry) 1970
Poems by Joseph Brodsky (poetry) 1972
Selected Poems, Joseph Brodsky (poetry) 1973
Modern Russian Poets on Poetry: Blok, Mandeistam, Pasternak, Mayakovsky, Gumilev, Tsvetaeva [editor with Carl Proffer] (nonfiction) 1976
Chast' rechi: Stikhotvoreniia, 1972–1976 [A Part of Speech] (poetry) 1977
Konets prekrasnoi epokhi: Stikhotvoreniia, 1964–1971 (poetry) 1977
V Anglii (poetry) 1977
Verses on the Winter Campaign 1980 (poetry) 1981
Rimskie elegii (poetry) 1982
Novye stansy k Avguste: Stikhi k M. B., 1962–1982 (poetry) 1983
Mramor [Marbles: A Play in Three Acts] (drama) 1984
Uraniia: Novaia kniga stikhov [To Urania: Selected Poems, 1965–1985] (poetry) 1984
Less Than One: Selected Essays (essays) 1986
Watermark (essay) 1992
On Grief and Reason (essays) 1995
So Forth (poetry) 1996

Karen De Witt (essay date 10 December 1991)

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SOURCE: "Poet Laureate on Mission to Supermarket's Masses," in The New York Times, December 10, 1991, p. B15.

[In the following essay, De Witt discusses Brodsky's appointment to U.S. poet laureate, focusing in particular on Brodsky's belief that poetry should be published much more widely.]

Small and balding, wisps of light hair straggling across his scalp, Joseph Brodsky hunkered down on a balcony step outside the poetry office in the attic of the Library of Congress. Absent-mindedly he gazed through his cigarette's smoke and the balcony's balustrade at the Capitol where a group of gay activists were protesting.

"Look," he recently commanded a visitor, standing up and peering south at the horizon. "Too late. There was a plane, the sun shining on it like a rocket."

Mr. Brodsky is the first foreign-born poet laureate of the United States, but if one expected probings into the capital's consciousness or weighty epiphanies on the evanescence of power from him, forget it. Poets, like the rich, are different. They find the motion of light on a jet far more intriguing than political demonstrations.

"I'm not here to keep an eye on the place." said Mr. Brodsky. "But my eyes are open."

And if Mr. Brodsky's past impressions of the city are any indication, any poems that come out of a sojourn in the city will probably be discomforting.

Here, from his poem "Near Alexandria," for example, is the Washington Monument:

     The concrete needle is shooting its
     heroin into cumulous wintry muscle.

Here the Capitol dome:

     as the train creeps knowingly, like
     a snake.
     to the capital's only nipple.

Of course, Mr. Brodsky, the fifth poet laureate of the United States, doesn't have to write one line about the place. Unlike the British laureate, who is appointed for life, the American laureate has a job that lasts one year and carries no expectations that the poet will chronicle national events.

The poet, who receives a stipend, gives a public poetry reading and a public lecture, advises the Library of Congress on its literary program and recommends new poetry for the Library's Archive of Recorded Poetry and Literature. The post can be renewed once.

Yet there is considerable public interest in Mr. Brodsky's tenure. In making the appointment last May, the Librarian of Congress James H. Billington said Mr. Brodsky, who replaced Mark Strand as laureate, would bring to the post the "penetrating observations of the outsider while exploring with increasing versatility his own and poetry's Americaness."

Shortly after his arrival, Mr. Brodsky was being trailed by a television crew from "Nightline." For this Russian, exiled because he wrote poetry, and despite American citizenship and nearly 20 years in this country, might have interesting things to say about the unravelings of the Soviet Union. Here, too, was a laureate who had announced plans to wrest the masses of Americans away from Monday night sports and the cable shopping channels and thrust them into the joys of poetry.

"My idea is simply, is very simple, is that the books of poetry should be published in far greater volume and be distributed in far greater volume, in far more substantial manner," he said. "You can sell in supermarkets very cheaply. In paperbacks. You can sell in drugstores."

When he speaks of poetry for the masses, Mr. Brodsky talks in sudden bursts of sentences, punctuated, rat-a-tat-tat, with "yeahs," "you sees" and asides rolling over one another as if someone has disputed what he said, in this case about the moral consequences of not having poetry available in checkout lines. "This assumption that the blue collar crowd is not supposed to read it," he concludes, "or a farmer in his overalls is not to read poetry, seems to be dangerous, if not tragic."

When he gets warmed up, Mr. Brodsky can be prodded into breaking his pledge not to discuss American politics.

The confrontation between Judge Clarence Thomas and Anita F. Hill before the Senate Judiciary Committee struck him as "two kinds of baloney in the supermarket: neither was a delicacy."

But of the two, he found Judge Thomas' testimony "less appealing."

"His wasn't a terribly imaginative performance: He simply stonewalled," Mr. Brodsky concluded, displaying his poet's sense of human fallibility. "I've done that myself."

Despite the raucousness of American political campaigns, though, Mr. Brodsky said that American democracy was the best political system in the world.

"It has its ills and evils but they appear to be organic in nature, not ideological evils," he said. "And sometimes people chance upon something that works and to my eye, to say the least, this system here works. It doesn't make everyone happy, but there is no blueprint for happiness."

For Mr. Brodsky, writing poetry has brought both joy and tragedy. Born in 1940 in Leningrad, he worked as a laborer, mill worker and merchant seaman while writing poetry. He taught himself English by translating metaphysical poetry word by word. Though his work became popular with underground Soviet literary circles, Soviet authorities considered his work "social parasitism." As a result he was sentenced to hard labor at a work camp in the Arctic near Archangel.

After serving 18 months of a five-year sentence, he was exiled from the Soviet Union in 1972, and moved to the United States, eventually becoming a citizen. One of his earliest supporters was the poet W. H. Auden, who introduced him to a wider audience.

Poet-in-residence at the University of Michigan in 1972–73, Mr. Brodsky was one of the first recipients of a MacArthur Award in 1981. His collection of essays, Less Than One, won the National Book Award for criticism in 1986, and he won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1987. This year, France awarded him membership in the Legion of Honor.

Mr. Brodsky's own poems are formal structures with intricate patterns of stanza, meter and rhyme. He writes in English and Russian. He likes Robert Frost, a poet whose work he considers full of terror. And as poet laureate, Mr. Brodsky can, through the poets he introduces at Library of Congress readings, influence the current canon of poetry by his of stamp of approval.

Mr. Brodsky said he is quite proud to have been appointed poet laureate, and sees the position as "a job in the spirit of public service." The job, he observes, offers more opportunity for promoting poetry than improving his own work.

"As a poet, it doesn't encourage me," he said. "But I'm paid by the government and so for the moment, I'm a government worker as it were. So my concern here is not so much the well-being of poets themselves, my concern is with the well-being of the audience, the size of the audience. This year looks like and next year looks more like reading and chatting than scribbling.

"For a year I can do it," he added. "For me it's in many ways to pay back what I've been given by the country, if you will."

Mr. Brodsky has been described by some as arrogant, but during a luncheon at the Library of Congress he came across as shy and diffident, his tie askew, a button open on his shirt exposing his belly. When asked whether it made a difference whether the poet operates in a democracy or a repressive regime, Mr. Brodsky provides a hard answer for those who would use their circumstances to explain their silences: not at all. Poets make poems wherever they are.

His friend and translator, Anthony Hecht, a former Library of Congress poetry consultant, said that those who think Mr. Brodsky arrogant may be confusing the man with the intellect.

"But like many Europeans who are at all interested in literature, Joseph has a very ample command of what amounts to a Continental tradition of poetry and philosophy so he has easily at his fingertips great traditions in a number of languages," said Dr. Hecht. "So consequently a lot of them think of him as a show-off."

Arrogant or not, Mr. Brodsky is a very private man who will make no comment on his personal life beyond the simple biographical data and listing of writings, appointments and honors in his vita. He has one grown son. And a year ago, he married a young Italian-Russian woman who is finishing a degree at the University of Milan.

Despite three heart attacks, two heart operations, depravation and exile, he said that he does not think he has changed in all his life.

"I remember myself, age five, sitting on a porch overlooking a very muddy road." he said. "The day was rainy. I was wearing rubber boots, yellow, no, not yellow, green, and for all I know I'm still there."

Authony Thwaite (review date 10 May 1992)

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SOURCE: "Picture Postcards from Venice," in Book World—The Washington Post, Vol. XXII, No. 19, May 10, 1992, p. 7.

[In the following review of Watermark, Thwaite discusses Brodsky's descriptions of Venice.]

Over the years, Venice hasn't lacked its literary memorialists and scene-setters, some of them almost as familiar as Canaletto's paintings. From Ruskin to Mary McCarthy, from Byron to Ian McEwan, from both Brownings to Thomas Mann and beyond, the city has been described, analyzed, apostrophized, employed as backdrop, symbol, analogue and template. It has probably inspired more postcard-from poems than any other city in the world. Indeed, Mary McCarthy called it "a folding picture-postcard of itself."

Joseph Brodsky has already used it in his two sets of "Venetian Stanzas" (1962):

     I am writing these lines sitting outdoors, in winter,
     on a white iron chair, in my shirtsleeves, a little drunk;
     the lips move slowly enough to hinder the vowels of the mother tongue,
     and the coffee grows cold. And the blinding lagoon is lapping
     at the shore as the dim human pupil's bright penalty
     for its wish to arrest a landscape quite happy here without me.
                  —"Venetian Stanzas II," stanza VIII

This winter setting is made plain in Watermark, a brief but also extended bravura performance in prose: Winter is the season when Brodsky likes to visit, and stay in, Venice, reminding him as it does of his own native St. Petersburg. Meditating on and playing with his memories, Brodsky tells one nothing substantial about his life there, or even his reactions to it. It's an exercise in style, full of the "curlicue, sirocco-perused scribblings" of the canals' surface, busy with twirls, diversions and arabesques.

He is taken, for example, to visit a vast and almost totally unfurnished palazzo, owned by the last of a long line of admirals, "no navy man; he was a bit of a playwright, and a bit of a painter," who guides Brodsky through its occluded emptiness; "It felt like an underwater journey—we were like a school of fish passing through a sunken galleon loaded with treasure, but not opening our mouths, since water would rush in." The book has many such playful whimsies, teasing bits of atmospherics in which human beings play only a small part. It is a collection of whatever fancies pass through Brodsky's own largely unpeopled imagination.

Towards the end, Brodsky asserts that "should dreams ever be designated a genre, their main stylistic device would doubtless be the non-sequitur. That at least could be a justification for what has transpired thus far in these pages." Each of Watermark's 48 short sections is a capricious flight into disconnected connections, personal impersonalities ("It is a virtue, I came to believe long ago, not to make a meal of one's emotional life"), adding up to a fragmented kaleidoscope that, shaken, reflects Brodsky's own insouciant, untethered later life as much as it does the evanescence of Venice—though the fragments sometimes hint at his earlier trials.

Only once, describing a visit with Susan Sontag to Ezra Pound's longtime companion Olga Rudge, who unstoppably plays a familiar tune, "her master's voice," does Brodsky allow any acid to leak into his watery reflections. "I think I'd never met a Fascist—young or old; I'd dealt with a considerable number of old Communists, and that's what it felt like in the house of Olga Rudge, with that bust of Ezra sitting on the floor." It's a sharp moment, deeply etched, and it throws into relief the delicate marine and submarine ripples that surround it.

Brodsky's solutions to the problems of Venice (the pollution, the sagging Atlantis) are as whimsical as the rest. Among other things, he suggests "one could try dumping blocks of ice into the canals or, failing that, routinely void the natives' freezers of ice cubes, since whiskey is not very much in vogue here, not even in winter." It's a characteristically frivolous aside in a book which is wintry only in its setting, never in its moods.

David Streitfield (essay date 31 May 1992)

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SOURCE: "Poet Laureate Lambastes Library," in Book World—The Washington Post, Vol. XXII, No. 22, May 31, 1992, p. 15.

[In the essay below, Streitfield discusses Brodsky's term as U.S. poet laureate, focusing in particular on the poet's disgruntlement with the lack of support for the position.]

Joseph Brodsky's term as poet laureate, which officially concluded with a reading of his work to an overflow crowd of several hundred at the Library of Congress May 14, was stormier and more colorful than those of his four predecessors put together, and not coincidentally probably did more to boost the profile of this obscure post.

It wasn't raised nearly enough to satisfy Brodsky, however. In his favorite Capitol Hill cafe the morning after his final appearance, the poet waffled about whether he regretted taking the job, but made his feelings clear: "I could have happily lived without it. The job was ill-paid, ill-defined and ultimately ill-executed … I'm glad it's behind me."

In spite of the attention he has drawn to poetry since September, Brodsky had hoped and expected to do much more, and blames the library and its bureaucracy for his failure. "I experienced more hindrance than support," he said. "The library's chief interest is in sustaining things the way they are," and his tiny staff was "fairly inept."

His pet project, an anthology of American verse that would be as plentiful and as widely available as a telephone directory, isn't moving as fast as he wished; a plan for a major, freewheeling conference here on the state of American poetry at the end of the century is, at best, delayed.

The office of poet laureate, created by Congress in 1985 but not given much of a mandate, is, Brodsky said, "nothing but a feather in the library's cap—or rather, given the cloudiness of its mental operations, in its turban. (A turban looks like a cloud, yeah?) It should be a bully pulpit from which to address the entire nation."

At about this point, the Russian exile will be criticized for being at best unrealistic, at worst naive. American-born poets, no matter how serious about their work, tend to be resigned to spending their lives without ever running into anyone out in the real world who can quote the title of a poem, much less a line or two. Yet Mark Strand, the previous laureate, echoed many of Brodsky's complaints in a phone interview from his home in Salt Lake City.

"If the position were taken more seriously, and there was a greater commitment to poetry, perhaps there would be more people at poetry readings," Strand said. "The whole poetry program and the laureateship has to be rethought. It's a tremendous mess."

Strand also said, somewhat contradictorily, that "it's not the library's fault. It's an institution, and like all institutions it works slowly." At readings he organized during his stint here, 30 to 50 people came. "That's disgraceful." Brodsky averaged more, but then he chose better-known poets.

Even though Strand's expectations weren't enormous, he was disappointed. "In Salt Lake City, you'd expect most people to be reading. The Book of Mormon, which in fact is what most people do read. In Washington, with a highly educated professional population, you'd expect a greater literacy or greater interest in literature. But there's this great silence, and no sign that they ever read anything."

He traces it all the way to the top. "Here's a president whose supposed to be the education president, and I have not heard tell of one book he's supposed to have read while in office. Wouldn't it be wonderful if Bush could say, 'Boy, I really liked that last novel of Updike's'?"

Among Strand's off-the-cuff recommendations for improving things: "They have to say poetry is important, they have to do twice as much advertising, they have to take it off the ugly brown paper they do the announcements on and have to revise the mailing list. They have to say, 'Let's do something.' Start a poetry bookstore in the library. Take out a big ad in the paper and let people know what the schedule is through the year, so people can put it on the refrigerator. Do something that's better and different."

To these comments, Prosser Gifford, the library's director of scholarly programs, responds that the poetry position is indeed underfunded. "We certainly do have a commitment to poetry and literature but we could do more if we had more funds, and we'll soon develop a procedure for doing so."

To his knowledge, Gifford said, there haven't been any major new gifts since the original establishment of the poetry endowment in 1954. As for other complaints by Brodsky, he said a bit cryptically: "Each poet laureate is his or her own personality."

Brodsky certainly has a flamboyant one. Anyone who's been sentenced to five years at hard labor simply for declaring himself a poet—as Brodsky was in the Soviet Union in 1964—might naturally tend to have feelings about the form that are larger than life.

His last library reading was a remarkable performance simply as theater: The poet insisting on beginning with two works of Robert Frost, then moving onto his own work, alternating in Russian and English, doing much of it from memory. His favorite poem written here, he said, was also the shortest:

     I sit at my desk
     My life's grotesque.

It was, in truth, often difficult to make out the roughly accented words, but no one seemed to feel that really mattered: This was more akin to a musical performance. Through much of it Brodsky's final pre-performance cigarette, dumped hastily into a plant on the podium, continued to billow forth. For a smoker so devout that he should be doing advertisements for Marlboro, it was particularly appropriate.

The poet's trouble at the library was compounded by the fact that he is not what one would call a natural administrator. His staff would tell callers they never knew when or if he'd show up. Inviting a poet to come and read was often a last-minute decision. Brodsky said it was "psychologically impossible" to do things any other way. In his office in the library's dusty, cluttered attic, I once saw the start of a letter that could be his slogan: I apologize for not responding promptly … There is, in short, probably enough blame to go around.

When Brodsky was announced as laureate last year, there was some grumbling over the fact that he wasn't American-born. Yet he quickly won most over with his ardent partisanship of the native verse. And he is increasingly an American poet: He continues to write in Russian, but now translates himself. His passion for English is one of the more dramatic things about him, although his words often seem to come out of a private time warp. "He still believes he's the cat's pajamas," he says of one exile. Or to a friend on the phone: "Call me Monday morning when the rooster sings."

American poetry is even better, Brodsky is fond of saying, than the country's two most famous cultural creations: jazz and cinema. An American citizen for 15 years, this guy's been in love with our verse since he taught himself the language three decades ago, and he doesn't see why everyone else shouldn't feel the same way. Just give them a chance.

Merely as a statement of ambition, this is wildly different from Brodsky's four predecessors. Robert Penn Warren, Richard Wilbur and Howard Nemerov, for various reasons including age and health, didn't move to Washington for their stints. Strand did but could only do so because he had a MacArthur fellowship to supplement the $35,000 the library pays.

Brodsky—even commuting from New York two or three days a week—assumed a much higher profile than any of them, "You want to be self-effacing in poetry," he said during a lecture at the library last year, "you might as well take the next step and shut up."

Before there was a poet laureate, the library had a consultant in poetry who performed some of the same roles. As the Library of Congress is still at the service of the legislators it was originally set up to serve, so too was the consultant (as is the laureate).

"Nobody ever consulted me on anything," Brodsky remembered. Then he brightened: One member of Congress actually did call, Sen. Larry Pressler (R-S.D.). "He said he would like to upgrade his sense of American poetry." The other 534 members were presumably busy confirming Mark Strand's vision of Washington as a place where the elite are uncultured. Brodsky's own verdict on the city: "Lively, but on the whole it wasn't called Ground Zero for nothing."

Yet there were a few encouraging signs of movement. A minor one that could stand for the whole: Two mid-level executives of the Pathmark supermarket chain, responding to the poet's plea, sent him a letter saying: "If you want an 'in' to getting poetry to the supermarket checkout line (Think you can beat 'Baby born with map of solar system on his back'?), we'd be willing to do everything within our limited authority. Just for the hell of it."

Poetry isn't in supermarkets, or drugstores. Almost everywhere, the status quo is that verse goes unrecognized. Poets, too. The guy behind the counter of the cafe the morning Brodsky was being interviewed, apparently with no idea who he was even after his many visits there, motioned for him to put out his cigarette. "Hey, this is a cafe!" the poet yelled back. And defiantly continued to smoke.

Tony Whedon (essay date Winter 1993)

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SOURCE: "A Ramble on Joseph Brodsky," in Salmagundi, No. 97, Winter, 1993, pp. 152-68.

[In the essay below, Whedon contrasts Brodsky's poetry and essays, finding his verse obscure and emotionally distant in comparison to his essays, in which he finds "a sensitivity and introspection, a humaneness."]

I stop at a little diner outside the college where I teach and watch Joseph Brodsky lunch on a sausage sandwich and a beer. The Russian poet is convivial, and grows suddenly animated when we chat about C. P. Cavafy, the subject of Brodsky's essay, "The Pendulum's Swing." He complains of the poor English and French translations of the Greek poet. Brodsky is at work on a Russian translation of Cavafy who, like Brodsky, was most at home in an alien culture (Cavafy lived in Alexandria, Egypt all his life, writing poems that celebrate as much as they mourn his permanent exile). Like Brodsky, Cavafy was as fluent in English as he was in his mother tongue; but despite his beautifully written English, Brodsky's pronunciation is somewhat indistinct, and I have trouble following what he is saying. He appears to me headstrong, eccentric. I feel an impatience in him, a disturbing lack of focus, and I wonder about his odd, even old-fashioned stuffiness.

Brodsky quit school at the age of sixteen and seems to carry with him a sense that he isn't fully educated; he is—in the most complete sense—an auto-didact. In my class at Johnson State College that afternoon, a woman student in her mid-thirties announces proudly that she, too, is a high school drop out, to which the Russian poet responds, rather unkindly I think, "And look where it's gotten you." He distributes to my class photocopies of three Hardy poems and proceeds with a brilliant analysis of Hardy's irascible style, his gloomy world view, surprising everyone by declaring that poetry is a masculine art, that it should be written with a kind of male vigour. The students are fascinated by Brodsky, the traditionalist. He tells us that at Mount Holyoke College, where he teaches each spring, he expects students to learn by rote thousands of lines from the classics and the great moderns in the same way that students came to understand literature a hundred years ago. He punctuates his talk with brief questions to the students, and rapidly answers them himself. When the subject of his own work comes up, Brodsky is clearly uncomfortable. He has come to talk about literature, not to speak about his life's work, his past. And for this reason, we're not impatient to ask Brodsky about himself. Again—reluctantly—he admits he is probably the greatest living Russian poet—which to his mind isn't very great. What about Wallace Stevens and John Ashbery? He hesitates, calls Ashbery talented, but misguided; Stevens has a few good poems, a few good poems….

The hour-long class comes to an end, but Brodsky doesn't want to stop, he has other matters to discuss and rides along on gusts of his own volubility. He has angered and mystified my students by playing the role of genius, by revealing his disdain for them. But—in spite of this—he is redeemed for us by his love of poetry, his unremitting honesty. Later, at the college reception, he is irritated that his reading will follow a brief reception and dinner; he'd rather read and carry on partying—European fashion—late into the night. Once he plows into his reading—after a dinner where he's quizzed by students on perestroika and the Black Mountain poets—he can't be stopped. He alternates at the podium with his translator, Jane Miller, who gives the poems a quiet, spooky ring that contrasts with Brodsky's loud declamatory Russian style; he doesn't read his poems so much as fire them off in a language that is at times explosive, at times soporific; he smokes when Miller takes the podium, hardly acknowledging the crowd, storing energy for his next outburst. Finally, after two hours of Brodsky, I bring the reading to a close—to which the Russian poet raises his hands in the gesture of a child tugged away from a cherished amusement.

On my ride home that night I find it difficult to reconcile Brodsky the public speaker and poet with Brodsky the essayist. His essays have a sensitivity and introspection, a humaneness, that I find absent from the poetry. But both poetry and essays have a gallows humor, an abiding cynicism and hardened irony that few—save Steven Dobyns and C. K. Williams, both of whom are as prosey as Brodsky is poetic—share with him. Having first come to Brodsky through his essays, I'd been prepared for a poetry with a softer edge, whose historical sense could be less oblique and allusive than what I found. Brodsky is obsessed by history; one might say that much of his recent volume, To Urania, concerns itself with the various speakers' attempts to escape or circumvent history. As a result of this ambivalence toward his subject, much of Brodsky's work struggles to attain a desperate clarity in spite of the turbulence of history. There are several voices in the collection, all of which, to one degree or another, reflect the cynically disengaged viewpoint of the emigre with time on his hands, the expatriate poet who's been permanently marked by politics. All of these poems are partially reflective of their translators' talents and biases; but I am happiest with Brodsky's own translations of his work, which seem more artfully rhymed, less hammered out, than translations by others.

Although Brodsky is a poet of the concrete, he's at his best when he also plays with abstraction. As much as he professes to dislike the willful obscurity of John Ashbery, there's an Ashberian tone to the last section of his "Polonaise: A Variation" which attempts an off-handed quirkiness, especially in its last stanza, where the blurring of pronouns and the use of abstractions provide a welcome relief from the relentless piling up of details in the poem's first section.

                  "Polonaise: A Variation"
 
     To Z. K.
                              I
     Autumn in your hemisphere whoops cranes and owls.
     A lean nation's frontier slips off like a loosened harness.
     And though windows aren't sealed yet, your camisole's
     cleavage adds to the shadows the parlor harvests.
     As the lamp flares up, one may well denounce one's own curves as jarring the jigsaw puzzle of the rooms whose air savors every ounce perked by Frederyk's keyboard-bedeviled nozzle.
     In the full moon, the stubble gets lavished with nobody's silver by sloughy waters.
     Roll on your side, and the dreams will blitz out of the wall like those fabled warriors heading east, through your yard, to dislodge the siege
     of tall hemp. Still, their hauberks won't hide their tatters.
     Yet, since they look alike, you, by getting hitched only once, let an army across your mattress.
                              II
     Reddish tiles of the homestead, and the yellow shade
     of its stuccoed dwellings, beset with shingles,
     Either cartwheels are carving an oval shape
     or the mare's hoof, hitting the cow-moon, shimmies,
     and slumped haystacks flash by. Alders, nothing-clad,
     in their basket carry away the river.
     And the leaden plow in the furrowed clouds
     bodes no good to gray winter crops racked with fever.
     To your woolen stockings and linen hem
     burdocks cling like nobody's child that loses
     in the end its grip. And space is stitched firm
     with the threadbare rain, and Copernicus turns out useless.
     Still the iris gleams, and the milky tint,
     with those scattered birthmarks, your dress effaces.
     Long a silhouette to yourself, you won't
     fall into anyone's fond embraces.
                              III
     I admit one's love should be greater, more
     pure. That one could, like the son of Cronus,
     size up the darkness, perfect its lore,
     and drop, unnoticed, within your contours.
     That one could reconstruct, pore by pore, your true
     looks, with idle atoms and mental power;
     or just peer at the mirror and state that you
     are me: for whom do we love but ourselves? Yet chalk one up for Fate: your watch
     may be running behind, for in our future
     already that bomb has exploded which
     leaves intact only the furniture.
     Does it really matter who's run away from whom?
     Neither time nor space is matchmaking for us
     who took full advantage of sampling some
     of those ages to come, and whatever follows.

It's clear that in other poems—especially in To Urania—Brodsky chooses through veiled allegory to distance himself from the troubling specifics of his time. And yet in his best moments and without the least mention of the political events in Poland in 1980–1981 that prompted "Polonaise," we feel the Russian poet's anguish at them. The expanding of man's consciousness through the theories of Polish astronomer Copernicus—who through his radical opposition to the Ptolemaic medieval cosmology dethroned man as the Lord of Creation—"turns out useless": so Brodsky says that Cronus, who like Copernicus dethroned his father as ruler of the world, was in turn dethroned by Zeus; he is also depicted in Roman mythology, in the form of Saturn, as a devourer of his own children. Zeus, the central authority and administrative intelligence that holds states together, becomes for Brodsky a symbol of the Copernican revolution, all revolutions, in fact, that lead to the final scientific revolution epitomized for the poem's speaker in "that bomb [which] has exploded [and] leaves / intact only the furniture …"

Brodsky's very recognizable language, characterized by syntactical inversions, enjambments, and a kind of heightened rhetoric, works best for him in the lines in the last stanza that are lightened by a thematic playfulness coupled with a surprising shift in diction and tone. His "Polonaise" also has in common with Chopin's composition a sad jauntiness, a bittersweet tone that mourns the land's lost fecundity—"and the leaden plow in the furrowed clouds / bodes no good to gray winter crops racked with fever …"—just as it laments the continual invasions that have wracked Poland's history: "… dreams will blitz out the wall like those fabled warriors heading east, through your yard, to dislodge the siege of tall hemp …"

Though Brodsky is writing about Poland here, he shares with Chopin—writing in Mallorca about his homeland, like Brodsky writing so often with a barely controlled irony about the USSR—a deeply alienated sensibility. Brodsky's empathy reaches out to embrace not only Poland's present, but, as the last stanza implies, the future. The rather puzzling lines midway down the last stanza underscore the underplayed historical parallel suggested throughout the poem—"… just peer at the mirror and state that you / are me: for whom do we love but our- / selves?…"—while they reinforce the sense of narcissism that prevents people from seeing themselves as they are. In the end, Brodsky appears to say, we're left only with our own reflections.

If the last stanza of "Polonaise" moves us, it's partly because of the way he's prepared us texturally and thematically in the previous two. I'm struck, especially, by the lines midway down the second stanza,

    To your woolen stockings and linen hem
    burdocks cling like nobody's child that loses
    in the end its grip….

lines that carry a sadness, a resignation that leads to the hopeless cry of Brodsky's final lines:

      Does it really matter who's running from whom?
      Neither time nor space is matchmaking for us
      who took full advantage of sampling some
      of those ages to come, and whatever follows.

Brodsky's poems are as different from one-another—the nature poems, historical poems, comic poems, lyrics and narratives—as they are different from the essays. I'm torn between liking the wrought texture of his poems, and feeling put off by his calculated obliquities, his almost deliberate obscurity. Oddly, it's poems like "Polonaise" and "To Urania"—discussed later in this essay—that I'm most enthusiastic about. In these, a strong voice—a voice of control, of wit and intelligence—both distances his material and clarifies it for us. When—stylistically and thematically—Brodsky assumes a hieratic cloak, when the self is most completely dissolved into a universal other, his work—not unlike that of Yeats in his last years—asserts its power. More often than not, though, Brodsky uses his hieratic voice to distance material which deserves a more intimate tone, a warmer, more confiding voice.

In my European novel class next day my students want only to talk about Brodsky. They're puzzled and put off by him, impressed by his analysis of the Hardy poems, a little dismayed by Brodsky's poetry, so rich and dense, allusive and awkwardly alliterative, that an oral presentation can't do it justice. We remark on Brodsky's comment in his prize-winning essay "Less Than One" that the past is of little inspiration to him, and observe there's a hidden self in his poems, that their elaborate structures and textures belie an enormous ego at work. I'm glad he came and proud of my students' honest, unsentimental, tolerant response to him. Though they're irritated by his lecturing and posturing they're fascinated—as anyone would be—by this glimpse into the literary world, and sympathize with Brodsky's rebelliousness—a rebelliousness that looks to the past for its inspiration. In class we discuss Brodsky's gorgeous "Cape Cod" poem, translated by the finest of contemporary formalists, Anthony Hecht. The students are fascinated by the poem's hexametrics, its rich allusive style. Brodsky had told us Hecht lengthened "Cape Cod" by some seventy lines, and we wonder how much it is faithful to the original version.

..…

In his essay on Cavafy Brodsky notes that Cavafy benefits from translation, that the Greek poet's vision is intensified—paradoxically—by the distance afforded us through the process of translation. Included in Brodsky's new selection of poems are several versions of collaborative efforts between poet and translator. Brodsky's reverential admiration of Cavafy puzzles me, since Brodsky's prosody is as overtly "male" as Cavafy's voice is limpidly "female." I more easily understand Brodsky's affinity for Thomas Hardy's gnarled syntax than I can make sense of the enthusiasm Brodsky feels for Cavafy's long open lines. In any case, what principally attracts Brodsky to Cavafy and Hardy is the fact that both inhabit exclusively male worlds, that there is a willful exclusion of any "significant other" from Hardy and Cavafy's poetic consciousnesses (even in Cavafy's love poems, the lovers are most often unnamed casual partners). Brodsky seems drawn to poets who have shorn up their defenses against the world, whose strategies—be they the pliant syntactical strategies of Cavafy, the sure-footed iambics of Frost, or the explosive spondaics of Hardy—permit few vulnerabilities to enter the poetry. In subject matter, Brodsky is equally fortified against the intrusion of the feminine. There's almost no sense of personal memory in Brodsky's work: The past is remembered as an historical event, rather than something that's happened to him, a process which represents to me a psychic distancing occurring in much of his nature writing, especially in poems like "Eclogue IV: Winter" and "The Hawk's Cry in Autumn," both of which lack the intimate personal contact characteristic of American nature poetry. Indeed, much of Brodsky's poetry finds as its subject a world that's nominally American, though the consciousness addressing it is late Nineteenth Century European in its use of personification and apostrophe, its naive approach to nature.

In the "Hawk's Cry in Autumn" the speaker makes a romantic identification with a hawk gliding high above the Connecticut Valley:

    … casting a downward gaze
    he sees the horizon growing dim,
    he sees, as it were, the features
    of the first thirteen colonies whose
 
    chimneys all puff out smoke. Yet it's their total
    within his sight
    that tells the bird of his elevation,
    of what altitude he's reached this trip.
    What am I doing at such a height?

An ambivalence about point of view in this poem, a not entirely willing suspension of disbelief, distances the hawk from us; the verbs—"he sees," "he senses"—appropriatethe hawk's vision, anthropomorphizeit; and by asking the question "What am I doing at such a height?" the speaker signals he's inside the hawk's consciousness. But we aren't persuaded of Brodsky's act of poetic faith because of the intercession, throughout, of abstract language, such as, "… it's their total within his sight / that tells the bird of his elevation," two lifeless lines that contrast with a lovely sonority in later stanzas where the hawk cannot descend and is forced by air currents higher than it wants to go:

     He! Whose innards are still so warm!
     Still higher! Into some blasted ionosphere!
     That astronomically objective hell
     of birds that lack oxygen, and where the milling stars
     play millet served from a plate or a crescent.

Brodsky undercuts his pain/pleasure vision—his ironic Icarus vision—by attempting, as he does in so many poems, to explain, to rationalize. This dullness, this dearth of imagination—for what else could it be?—has to do with an excessive verbal busy-ness:

     What, for the bipeds, has always meant
     height, for the feathered is the reverse.
     Not with his puny brain, but with shriveled air sacs
     he guesses the truth of it: it's the end.
 
     And at this point he screams. From the hooklike beak
     there tears free from him and flies ad luminem
     the sound Erinyes make to rend
     souls; a mechanical, intolerable shriek,
     the shriek of steel that devours aluminum;
     "mechanical," for it's meant
 
     for nobody, no living ears;
     not for man's, not yelping foxes',
     not squirrels' hurrying to the ground
     from branches; not for tiny field mice whose tears
     can't be avenged this way, which forces
     them into their burrows. And only hounds
 
     lift their muzzles (….)

The first stanza might have been omitted here: it extrapolates the obvious, that the hawk inhabits an inverted world where up is hell and down a kind of heaven. Rather than underscore the hawk's pain, the poet imposes on us a strained interpretation of the way a hawk might feel from a human point of view. His animal catalogue in the next two stanzas is Disney-like in its sentimentality, in its anthropomorphizing of the "tiny mice whose tears / can't be avenged …" As the poem proceeds, I'm increasingly aware of the flimsiness, the underlying moral thinness of the vision, and I suspect—from his poems' complex surfaces—Brodsky also understands that beneath his dense language there's an unredeemed superficiality.

In his "Eclogue IV: In Winter," Brodsky pursues the obvious with the same persistence; but, translated by the author with a more surefooted feel to it, the poem achieves a consistency missing from the previous one. Brodsky uses classical conventions, adapts them to his Baltic sensibility; the title of the poem signals he's addressing his subject from a noble Virgillian distance. In many respects "In Winter" reminds me of Auden's great "In Praise of Limestone," though Auden handles his subject with more grace and humor than I find anywhere in Brodsky. Both poems attempt to show how human characteristics can be causally linked to geography; but Auden's approach is exploratory, carries with it a sense of whimsicality: there's a stronger counterpoint in Auden's poem of the human against the natural world than in Brodsky's forced and sometimes strident eclogue. The fault, as in "The Hawk's Cry in Autumn," lies in Brodsky's programmatic approach, his attempt to make winter—an abstraction representing the extremes of human experience—a precise correlative for a state of mind. Brodsky's heavy-handed prosody in this poem resembles that of the Eighteenth Century eclogue—with its hills, dales, shepherds and shepherdesses—though it has none of the wit of its most winning pastoralists.

     Cold values space. Baring no rattling sabers,
     it takes hill and dale, townships and hamlets
     (the populace cedes without trying
     tricks), mostly cities whose great ensembles,
     whose arches and colonnades, in hundreds,
     stand like prophets of cold's white triumph.

At best Brodsky achieves a charming synesthesia in this poem—"Cold is gliding / from the sky on parachute …"—but his knack for metaphor, more often than not, is undercut by forced attempts at punning and wordplay:

     … Each and every column
     looks like a fifth, desires an overthrow.

In successive lines, Brodsky nervously, compulsively, thrashes about for closure.

One would expect he'd fare better when addressing a more civilized, more genteel subject, like Venice. However, "Venetian Stanzas" I and II suffer more from Brodsky's gassiness than do his eclogues. His Venetian poems meditate on the opulence of the Adriatic city without providing a narrative focus to drive the poems on. I try hard to find some undertow in the poems' subtexts, some emotional raison d'etre; but as in so much of his work, what I see is what I get. Brodsky hasn't let his guard down, and there is little to discover beneath their wrought surfaces. Both poems suffer terribly from an imitative fallacy: in attempting to communicate the stifling richness of Venice, the Russian poet bores us with his own excess. "Venetian Stanzas" have a pizza parlour prettiness—his art suffers from a surfeit of technique that jumbles perspective, calls attention to itself. The poems seem pale imitations of Anthony Hecht's "Venetian Vespers," a masterful sixty-page memory narrative on the decay of modern Venice, a poem which Brodsky surely pays homage to here. But unlike Hecht, Brodsky provides no synthesizing consciousness, no sense of who the narrator is until he announces himself at the close of "Venetian Stanzas II," in lines that are the clearest, most straightforward in a poem otherwise muscle-bound by its own language:

     I am writing these lines sitting outdoors, in winter,
     on a white iron chair, in my shirtsleeves, a little drunk;
     the lips move slowly enough to hinder
     the vowels of the mother tongue,
     and the coffee grows cold and the blinding lagoon is lapping
     at the shore as the dim human pupil's bright penalty
     for its wish to arrest a landscape quite happy
     here without me.

I can only speculate on how "Venetian Stanzas" might have evolved had he chosen this last stanza as his first and located the narrator in a more central position in the poem. Lacking narrative focus and a coherent point of view, the poems feel like overtures to unwritten stanzas—they're tourists' views of Venice, and quite conventional views at that. As in much of the poet's work, his eye for landscape is overwhelmed by an obsession for extended metaphor:

     A curly-maned cloud pack rushes to catch and strangle
     the radiant thief with its blazing hair—
     a nor-easter is coming. The town is a crystal jumble
     replete with smashed chinaware.

Brodsky is rarely content with things as they are; instead, he personifies, endows the inanimate with human intent. The following catalogue might have had a life of its own, but falls victim to Brodsky's obsession with metaphoric control over his material:

     Motorboats, rowboats, gondolas, dinghies,
     barges—
     like odd scattered shoes, unmatched, God-size—
     zealously trample pilasters, sharp spires, bridges'
     arcs, the look in one's eyes.

Brodsky's statement that poetry is a masculine art is illustrated quite well in any of the passages I've quoted here—assuming that Brodsky means by "masculine" an art that strives for control, for a kind of verbal dominance, strives to present and define the world hierarchically through generalization rather than through concrete description: though Brodsky seems to relish descriptive writing, it's hard to find a passage whose particulars are convincing. The masculine control the poet tries for is also evident in the way he presents the past—or, more correctly, the way he consciously excludes from his poetry, except through veiled allusions, any sense of a personal past. Hence, the notable lack in almost all his poems of an observer-narrator; even in his dedicatory poems, there is little sense of dialogue with the person to whom the poem is addressed. And when the narrator makes contact with someone, as in his relatively early (1974) "Lithuanian Nocturne," dedicated to Thomas Venclova, the language is torqued to the point at which meaning collapses, implodes through the weight of language, as the opening stanza to the poem illustrates:

       Having roughed up the waters,
     wind explodes like loud curses from fist-ravaged lips
       in the cold superpower's
       innards, squeezing trite wobbles
     of the do-re-mi from sooted trumpets that lisp.
       Non-princesses and porous
       nonfrogs hug the terrain,
     and a star shines its mite clouds that don't bother to tamper
       with. A semblance of face
       blots the dark windowpane
       like the slap of a downpour.

..…

In a number of essays Brodsky tells us that his past is of no interest to him, that he's fortified himself with language to protect himself from the suffering he's experienced as a displaced person. He expresses no remorse or nostalgia at leaving his homeland, considers himself not so much an exile from the USSR as an immigrant to the US. In this sense, he resembles his mentor, W. H. Auden. Auden's assumption of US citizenship, his aesthetic that combines a dry classicism with a pessimistic modernism, and, more importantly, Auden's impersonal mask that serves to distance the narrator's presence in much of his poetry, are models for Brodsky's own life and work. Clearly for Brodsky the past represents a threat not only to his shakey sense of well being, but to the foundations of his poetry. There are no direct attempts in his work to recall his two years at hard labor in a Siberian work camp, or his painful childhood in Leningrad. On the one hand, his refuge in language is a kind of salvation, filling a void that otherwise might have been occupied by memory. On the other, Brodsky's Herculean attempt to construct a Babylonian tower of words represents the last refuge of the poet who's equally ill-at-ease in his new home and his motherland. This rootlessness results in a cultural anomie that finds expression in a deep cynicism, the likes of which has been expressed by many exiles. Like most of these writers, Brodsky embraces an innately conservative politics; and like Nabokov and Conrad, Brodsky spins around himself a baroque language that shields both writer and reader from naked apprehension of the past.

Brodsky's attitude toward the past is best illustrated in the title poem to his recent volume:

       "To Urania"
 
     Everything has its limits, including sorrow.
     A windowpane stalls a stare. Nor does a grill abandon
     a leaf. One may rattle the keys, gurgle down a swallow.
     Loneliness cubes a man at random.
     A camel sniffs at the rail with a resentful nostril;
     a perspective cuts emptiness deep and even.
     And what is space any way if not the
     body's absence at every given
     point? That's why Urania's older than sister Cliol
     In daylight or with the soot-rich lantern
     you see the globe's pate free of any bio,
     you see she hides nothing, unlike the latter.
     There they are, blueberry-laden forests,
     rivers where the folk with barc hands catch sturgeon
     or the town in whose soggy phone books
     you are starring no longer; farther eastward surge on
     brown mountain ranges; wild mares carousing
     in tall sedge; the cheekbones get yellower
     as they turn numerous. And still farther east, steam dreadnoughts or cruisers,
     and the expanse grows blue like lace underwear.

Here the contrasts between the pure spirit of poetry and that of narrative art are expressed in a manner uncharacteristic of most of Brodsky's work, which depends on a form of exposition. "To Urania" is a lyric statement that pits Clio, the muse of historical narrative, against Urania, the muse of astronomy in Greek mythology, usually represented pointing at a celestial globe with a staff. Milton, in "Paradise Lost," makes her the spirit of the loftiest poetry and calls her "the heavenly must" (the name means "heavenly one," "spirit of wisdom"). Clio is represented in this poem as a negative force, one which locks the speaker into his sorrow, prevents him from the divine flights of imagination associated with Urania, a more spiritual force. Contrasting Urania with Clio, the speaker says, "You see the globe's pate free from any bio, / you see she hides nothing, unlike the latter."

Clio, for Brodsky, clouds, obscures the poet's pure vision. Implicitly she also represents the darker forces of history, those "dreadnoughts / or cruisers" in the poem's final lines which the speaker confronts after his flight across the continent past "blueberry-laden forests" and "wild mares carousing in tall sedge." Brodsky has reached the antipodes of his geographical and poetic worlds at the close of his poem, bringing it full circle as he completes the piece with a return to his first few lines that begin: "Everything has its limits, including sorrow…."

Very few of Brodsky's poems develop a thesis as economically, as succinctly, as does "To Urania." Present here are his concerns about the limits imposed on the imagination by the state, and the accompanying depression that's a result of man's living in history. The poem suggests that even though with Urania's help we're provided a provisional freedom, after the voyage out, after we've contemplated nature and man from Urania's heavenly vista, we're obliged to return to Clio's historical-political perspective, which cuts "deep and even." Clio, the muse of historical poetry, the ally of the past, represents for Brodsky a painful limitation, an inevitability. But without her, his flights of imagination—so often identified in Brodsky's other work with a directionless thatch of language—seem to lack definition, focus. Although the poem is controlled by thematic opposites, it's also surprisingly open in its execution. I'm struck by the enjambments in "To Urania":

    And what is space anyway if not the
    body's absence at any given
    point….

The lines combine a startling conceptual openness with two unexpected line-breaks that strongly emphasize the speaker's alienated singularity. The final lines of the poem,

     … farther eastward surge on
     brown mountain ranges; wild mares carousing
     in tall sedge….

use feminine endings—unlike those masculine end-stopped lines he's so fond of—and provide a needed hesitation, a downshifting, that anticipates the abrupt smack-in-the face closure of the poem.

It's appropriate that Brodsky chose "To Urania" as the title piece to his volume, as it not only helps to explain his poetics, but clarifies his unwillingness to face the past. The knotted spondaic strophes, the unabated lash of allusion and veiled reference are curtailed in "To Urania," and the poem achieves a purity of form as it executes its dialectic, propelled forward toward its illusion-shattering ending. One paradox of the poem, however, is that Clio—whom the speaker scorns—provides a kind of detailed clarity lacking in the cosmic view. Equally paradoxical is the fact that Brodsky benefits from economy in a poem that, in itself, only briefly contemplates the possibility of limitlessness, of Urania's cosmic perspective. For Brodsky, memory—embodied in mythic form by Clio, the muse of history—is a painful weight, as we have seen. He embraces the rhetorical devices of classicism, believes intensely in traditional forms while he's opposed in his work to a personal reading of the past, as it limits the poet's perspective. Though "To Urania" is a surprisingly open poem, most of the other work in the volume has a peculiar density; one can't help feel the poet compelled to fill up spaces with qualifiers that don't quite qualify, with language that seems almost Victorian in its ornateness. But Brodsky can't escape history. While he is a weary fin de sieclist in his emotional indirection, like the speaker of "To Urania," he is intent on leap-frogging into the poetic cosmos, on escaping the confines of current literary tradition and of the past. And like the current crop of American formalists—not the generation of which Hecht, Wilbur and Merrill are a part—Brodsky's obsession with form more often than not feels obfuscatory, marks off an attempt to dress up emotionally shallow material. His rejection of experimentalism in Russian poetry—oddly, he's enthusiastic about Soviet modernist fiction—is in keeping with his attitude toward western modernism: both traditions are too fragmented, too open, too emotionally unguarded for him. The flip side of Brodsky's poetic pugnacity, his tough-guy stance toward free-verse mushiness—as we have seen in my examination of "A Hawk's Cry in Winter"—is cloying sentimentalism. This too is another aspect of Brodsky's unwillingness to face the challenge of inventing new forms, of finding fresh ways to express direct feeling, and of coming to terms with a past that, if confronted with a degree of personal vulnerability, would create poetry more worthy of Brodsky's gifts and ambitions.

Malcolm Bowie (review date 30 April 1993)

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SOURCE: "In the Mobile Labyrinth," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4700, April 30, 1993, pp. 12-13.

[In the following excerpt from a comparative review of Brodsky's Watermark, Tony Tanner's Venice Desired, and Christopher Prendergast's Paris and the Nineteenth Century, Bowie praises Brodsky's unconventional depiction of Venice.]

[Joseph Brodsky's Watermark] …, which is not only an autobiographical essay but at moments a novella and a collection of epigrams, is cast as an irreverent riposte to the Venetian outpourings of the writers studied by Tony Tanner [in his Venice Desired]. How sumptuous and over-ripe Brodsky's spare notations make them all seem in their anxious quests for meaning. Even their negative epiphanies are impossibly fulsome when set against the street-corner incidents or failures of incident by which the nomadic poet measures out his Venetian winters. Speaking of his first arrival in Venice, he dissociates himself from the swollen ambitions of his predecessors: "If that night portended anything at all, it was that I'd never possess this city; but then I never had any such aspiration". Where others speak of honeymoons, or of the marriage between Venice and the sea, Brodsky thinks of Venice as a wonderful place in which to get divorced. When others mention Browning, they have in mind the author of Sordello and "A Toccata of Galuppi's", but Brodsky dreams of the firearm with which a lost poet might end it all.

Yet the overall manoeuvre of this witty and graceful book is to establish a superior international community of poets, beyond the reach of the familiar Venice lobbyists. Venice has to be de-Ruskinized and un-Prousted if it is to make a new kind of sense to the professional writer. This does not involve ignoring or seeking to discredit the optical delights of the place, but it does mean being cautious about its insistent summons to representation. "Depict, depict!" the city cries to the artist and the camera-bearing tourist alike, but Brodsky pauses and with no trace of petulance asks "Why should I, yet?" Beyond the dissolving outlines and melting vistas of the city perhaps a tougher vision of hope and futurity is to be found, one that brings the wandering poet back from his solitude into the company of Dante, Akhmatova and the Montale of "The Eel".

It is in his handling of the Venetian waters themselves that Brodsky brings off his boldest reversal of the commonplace view. Art is one method among others, he says, by which the human organism compensates for its lack of retentiveness, and it is perhaps in this supremely watery and dissipated place that the artist can best join forces with a still greater work of retention: "if we are indeed partly synonymous with water, which is fully synonymous with time, then one's sentiment towards this place improves the future, contributes to that Adriatic or Atlantic of time which stores our reflections for when we are long gone". And at the very end: "By rubbing water, this city improves time's looks, beautifies the future". The finest tribute we pay to Venice lies in the tears we shed there, and only after that, and only if we happen to be writers, is it appropriate to shed sentences too.

Brodsky cheats with his Venice, of course, and manages to have it both ways: he drains the city of its conventional meanings, makes good jokes at its expense, pretends that it's just anywhere at all, yet uses it as a talisman and constantly calls upon its reserves of expressive energy. But this short book is a delight from start to finish, and in its moments of lagoonside anomie and depletion adds something quite new to the literary mythology of the city.

David Patterson (essay date Summer 1993)

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SOURCE: "From Exile to Affirmation: The Poetry of Joseph Brodsky," in Studies in Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 17, No. 2, Summer, 1993, pp. 365-83.

[In the following essay, Patterson examines the theme of exile in Brodsky's works, stating that "Brodsky regards his exile not as a political condition but as an existential condition, one that is characteristic of his condition as a human being."]

Joseph Brodsky is a poet whose concern with language is a concern for the sacred. In an interview with Nataliya Gorbanevskaya he says, "If I were to begin to create some form of theology, I think it would be a theology of language. In this sense, the word is really something sacred for me." The sacred, however, manifests itself only as something lost. The poet engages in his effort to join word and meaning not in the midst of the sacred but in a movement toward the sacred. The poet in exile thus becomes the poet of exile by undertaking this movement of return. He is the one who, in his homelessness, announces the homelessness of the human condition as it is defined by its distance from the sacred.

One understands, then, why [Valentina Polukhina asserts in her Joseph Brodsky: A Poet for Our Times, 1989] that "poetry itself is its own kind of alienation, for it is the exteriorization of one's own 'I,' the objectification of the poet's emotions and thoughts. In this sense any work of art, once finished, is alienated from the creator." Operating in a state of exile, the poet of exile finds that the completion of the poem precedes the condition it addresses. Thus the poet of exile is continually struggling in a time that is too late and a place that is elsewhere. "Perhaps exile is the natural condition of the poet," Brodsky comments in an interview with Giovanni Buttafava. "I feel a kind of great privilege in the coincidence of my existential condition and my occupation." One will notice that Brodsky regards his exile not as a political condition but as an existential condition, one that is characteristic of his condition as a human being; it is a general condition that invades anything he writes in the capacity of poet, regardless of the particular theme addressed in a given poem. Further, the occupation he undertakes is not simply a livelihood but a means by which he may occupy or endure the condition of exile and thus establish a place for himself within that condition. Yet Brodsky's occupation with his existential condition is not so much an occupation or even a preoccupation as it is a post-occupation. Again, the I becomes visible to itself in its exteriorization, in its self-alienation; the man becomes a poet after the fact. What George Kline says of Brodsky [in Brodsky's Poetics and Aesthetics, 1990] is true. "Few poets have expressed the sense of loss, separation, and estrangement more powerfully than Brodsky." And since what we find in Brodsky is indeed an expression of separation, the separation is sensed precisely in its expression; that is, the expression is itself a separation. It is the separation of word from meaning, of the I from the self, of the exile from his home. Meaning lies in the word yet to be uttered. And home is the place to which we have yet to return.

Much of his poetry, as Efim Etkind points out [in Protsess Iosefa Brodskogo, 1988], deals with a humanity "wandering about the planet without any goal or meaning, realizing that nothing changes anywhere and that all the notions of an earthly paradise are merely illusions." It must be noted that the primary threat to the poet in his own humanity—the chief danger of exile—lies not in illusion but in the indifference that may arise in the collision with changelessness. For here arises the temptation to slip into the deadly sleep of "it's all the same" and thus be swallowed up by the law of identity that [Pavel Florensky describes in Stolp i utverzhdenieistiny, 1970] as "the spirit of death, emptiness, and nothingness." In the process of undoing the illusion the poet not only posits a difference between reality and illusion or truth and lie; through the utterance of the poem he also transforms that difference into a non-indifference. This transformation makes a poetry of exile into a poetry of return. One example that may demonstrate this point can be found in just a few lines from Brodsky's "Kolybel'naya treskovogo mysa" ("Lullaby of Cape Cod"):

    In genuine tragedy
    it's not the fine hero that finally dies, it seems,
    but, from constant wear and tear, night after night,
    the old stage set itself, giving way at the seams.
                                      [A Part of Speech]

Here we see that the undoing of an illusion is the collapse of a ground: the wandering that distinguishes the state of exile is a condition of groundlessness, a distance from the ground or the soil itself. To be sure, the Russian word "bespochvennost" 'groundlessness,' literally means without "pochva" 'being without the soil.' That the breakdown of the illusion implies a need for return is more clearly seen in the original Russian verse. There the word translated as "stage" is "kulisa," which may be used in the singular to mean a flat scenery that projects out from the side. Once the scenery is exposed as flat, the homeland loses its dimensions of depth, a loss that parallels the word gone flat, drained of its meaning and its sanctity.

When the word shows itself as something drained of meaning, it posits a future—and a silence—in which the poet seeks to restore its meaning. Through the word that he holds sacred Brodsky becomes the messenger of the word forever yet to be uttered, the bearer of the silence of the yet-to-be. "The radiations of the future," Andre Neher observes in The Exile of the Word, "are totally silent. Indeed, of the three dimensions of time—present, past, and future—the future alone is completely identified with silence, in its plenitude but also in its remarkable ambivalence." As the messenger of silence the poet bears the memory of the future. In this condition of exile Brodsky affirms the dearness of a home that is forever elsewhere. Thus, as we shall see, the sacred, the silent, and the elsewhere are the terms that shape the notion of exile in Brodsky's poetry. Let us turn now to that poetry in an effort to hear the voice that issues from the core of this rupture—and perhaps to hear the cry of our own souls.

One task of the poet in his endeavor to make felt the dearness of what is lost is to make visible the sanctity of what is unseen. This ability is just what distinguishes Brodsky as a poet. W. H. Auden expresses it in his introduction to Brodsky's Selected Poems by noting the poet's unusual "capacity to envision material objects as sacramental signs, messengers from the unseen." This envisioning, of course, is a mode of hearing. Through the said we behold the unseen; through the seen we hear the unheard. A good illustration of Auden's statement appears in an untitled verse from the Selected Poems:

    In villages God does not live only
    in icon corners, as the scoffers claim,
    but plainly, everywhere. He sanctifies
    each roof and pan, divides each double door.
    In villages God acts abundantly—
    cooks lentils in iron pots on Saturdays,
    dances a lazy jig in flickering flames,
    and winks at me, witness to all of this.

Where God sanctifies, man dwells. The sacramental sign is the site of human dwelling, where each fixture has its place—roof, pan, and door—and each action has its time: on Saturdays. The illusion here unveiled as a lie is the illusion of the scoffers, who are deaf and blind to the sign and therefore to the holiness of the preparation of "lentils in iron pots." Like the word itself—like the word pots—such pots are the vessels of the sacred, preparing, as they do, the foodstuff that joins creature to creation and thus to the Creator. The dance underscores the harmony in this joining of word and thing, of the human and the divine. And the truth of this harmony, the truth as harmony, issues from the light of the flickering flame, calling to mind the light brought forth upon the first utterance of the Creator in His act of creation. Calling forth a world, the poet himself imitates the Creator in his response to creation. He looks on, and God looks back, ever so subtly, with a wink from between the lines, and thus transforms the man into a witness. A witness to what? To the dwelling in villages that occurs upon the hidden but abundant action of God.

From outside the poet looks on to become a link between the villagers and those of us who, like himself, live on the outside. The villagers dwell in the village, while his consciousness, or the inscription of that consciousness, places the poet before the village. And as he who thus reads the sacramental signs makes us into readers of the signs, he takes us with him into the realm of exile, making strange the familiar. Consider, for instance, the closing lines to an untitled poem from A Part of Speech:

     A morning milkman, seeing the milk that's soured,
     will be the first to guess that you have died here.
     Here you can live, ignoring calendars,
     gulp Bromo, never leave the house; just settle
     and stare at your reflection in the glass,
     as streetlamps stare at theirs in shrinking puddles.

Here the milkman is made into a reader of signs, and death is presented as that form of living which is void of dwelling. Never leaving the house, the man is never at home; staring only at his reflection, he never sees himself. In these lines we have an inversion of the sign made visible in the lentils and iron pots above. Here the sacred is revealed under the inverted sign of sickness, made present by its absence: the milk sours as the man guzzles Bromo, medicating himself to death. The light that would illuminate the road into a community, through which the man may seek a return home, is swallowed up in a shrinking puddle that sullies the path. Once again, however, there is an "and yet" underlying the poem: the reflection of the light that catches the poet's eye rises upward, and in this rising upward the sanctity of the word manifests itself. The reflection is in the puddle, but the light comes from above. Poetry, says Brodsky in Less Than One, "is language negating its own mass and the laws of gravity; it is language's striving upward—or sideways—to that beginning where the Word was." That beginning is where the poem both begins and seeks its end. What is it that negates the laws of gravity and the mass of language, levitating even iron pots? It is the sacramental sign.

Brodsky illustrates this point very effectively in the last few lines of his "Ekloga 4-aya: Zimnyaya" ("Eclogue IV: Winter"), where we read:

     That's the birth of an eclogue. Instead of the
     shepherd's signal,
     a lamp's flaring up. Cyrillic, while running witless
     on the pad as though to escape the captor,
     knows more of the future than the famous sybil:
     of how to darken against the whiteness,
     as long as the whiteness lasts.
                                            (To Urania)

In this poem the sacramental sign that flares up is not simply the iron pot or the streetlamp but is the poem itself, made of the imposition of black on white, as if the flame that burned were a dark one. Nonetheless, it is the dark letter carved into the wilderness of white that makes the wilderness visible, transforming it from an expanse of emptiness into a page. The pastoral presence is eclipsed by the Cyrillic scrawl that signifies an absence; it is as if the very letters of which the word is made get in the way of its contact with meaning. The word thus struggles to escape the letters that confine it, struggles, in a sense, to escape itself in the poet's effort to capture it. The scrawl takes on the significance of sacramental sign, however, not so much in its making visible a lack or an absence as in its opening up the yet-to-be: it knows more of the future—that is, it bears a deeper memory of the future, of the afterward—than the sybil. Like the Word that was in the beginning, the end of the poem about to be written precedes it. Here one may recall Brodsky's statement in Less Than One that "words, even their letters—vowels especially—are almost palpable vessels of time." The capacity of the word to contain this time is its capacity to convey meaning. Meaning, then, happens in transit, eternally on the way to a place where it has yet to be fulfilled. The poet in exile, however, has no star to guide him as his word carries him along this path. The flaring up of the poem takes the place of a star, as we see upon an examination of the Russian version of these lines. There the lamp replaces not the shepherd's signal but the "svetilo," which means 'light' or 'star'; taking the place of this light, the poem takes on the sacred. What the Cyrillic knows, moreover, it knows through a "greshnym delom" or through a 'sinful affair,' because it usurps the signal or sign that is forever yet to be revealed. The prospect of redemption arises from the realization of this usurpation; the light is perceived as a presence displaced; and the return homeward that always comes after happens from within a condition of exile.

What is perhaps most striking about these lines from Brodsky's "Eclogue IV: Winter" is that the Cyrillic stuff of writing has a certain life of its own. The word is sacred for Brodsky because it is alive; it speaks and is not merely a tool used by the speaker. Brodsky makes this explicit in Less Than One, where he declares, "Writing is literally an existential process; it uses thinking for its own ends, it consumers notions, themes, and the like, not vice versa. What dictates a poem is the language, and this is the voice of the language, which we know under the nickname of Muse or Inspiration." It is the voice of language that sanctifies the sign, not the other way around, and in its sanctification the sign signifies the living presence of another—the Muse or the Spirit—who casts the poet at a distance from himself. Announcing his distance, the voice of the other in the midst of language proclaims the poet's distance from a world in which he might dwell. Thus in "Venetsianskie strofy 2" ("Venetian Stanzas II") the exiled poet writes:

     I am writing these lines sitting outdoors, in winter,
     on a white iron chair, in my shirtsleeves, a little drunk;
     the lips move slowly enough to hinder
     the vowels of the mother tongue,
     and the coffee grows cold. And the blinding lagoon is lapping
     at the shore as the dim human pupil's bright penalty
     for its wish to arrest a landscape quite happy
     here without me.
                                            (To Urania)

The poet's distance from himself, from the sacred, and from a dwelling place is proclaimed in images of disjuncture: shirtsleeves in winter, cold coffee, a landscape there without him. The time is out of joint and the man is out of place, drunk enough so that the vowels that might be the vessels of time, and therefore of the sacred, elude him. Like the eye that would arrest the landscape, the word would capture meaning, but the verb is no sooner off the tongue and onto the page than the man has slipped behind.

While Brodsky may have the ability to perceive the sacramental sign, the sacred itself necessarily escapes him. The poet in exile, the poet of exile, is forever adrift. Commenting on the poet in the Phaedrus, Plato asserts that there is a "form of possession or madness of which the Muses are the source." In this case the poet has much in common with the madman, especially as Michel Foucault describes him when he writes, "Confined to the ship, from which there is no escape, the madman is delivered to the river with its thousand arms, the sea with its thousand roads, to that great uncertainty external to everything. He is a prisoner in the midst of what is the freest, the openest of routes: bound fast at the infinite crossroads. He is the Passenger par excellence: that is, the prisoner of the passage." What Foucault articulates Brodsky illustrates in these lines from "Lullaby of Cape Cod":

       Preserve these words. The paradise men seek
       is a dead end, a worn-out, battered cape
       bent into crooked shape,
       a cone, a finial cap, a steel ship's bow
       from which the lookout never shouts, "Land ho!"
                                       [A Part of Speech]

The poet sketches the signifier, but the signified remains beyond the horizon of his vision; the homeland, like the word beneath the word, remains forever hidden in silence. Hence it is sacred. In the Russian text the term rendered as "Land ho" is the single word "Zemlya," which means "earth," as well as "land." As the Passenger par excellence, the poet is continually in search of this center, or this origin and organ of life, of the mother and the mystery: the earth. That is what the signifiers of exile struggle to signify. And that is what abides in the silence of the "other" language, the silence of all tongues, to which the poet strives to give voice and which gives it voice to the poet. The bearer of the sacramental sign thus bears something more than the sign can bear: he is the messenger of silence.

We have seen that the sacramental sign signifies not only the sacred but a distance from the sacred, and that the sign positions the sacred beyond the horizon of the yet-to-be. This beyond is the realm of silence, where the voice of language no longer speaks—or rather speaks in the mode of silence, in the mode of non-speaking: in the mode of death, for death is the one certainty situated in the yet-to-be. Death defines and delineates the realm of exile. In his article "Variations on the Theme of Exile" George Kline comments on Brodsky's poetry, saying, "The increasing deafness of the old is a rehearsal for the non-speaking which is death, the silence which is eternity." If words are the vessels of time, then silence is, indeed, the vessel of eternity, the path to which leads through death. Brodsky, of course, is aware of this element not only in his own poetry but in any art that might bespeak this non-speaking. "Art," he asserts, "'imitates' death rather than life; i. e. it imitates that realm of which life supplies no notion: realizing its own brevity, art tries to domesticate the longest possible version of time." That realm of which a life steeped in language supplies no notion is the realm of silence; imitating death, the poet becomes the messenger of silence.

"Death as a theme," Brodsky notes, "always produces a self-portrait." In the condition of exile, moreover, the portrait of the self is sketched along the lines of separation from the other; home is made not only of familiar places but of familiar faces. The separation from those human relations determines a certain relation of the poet to his poetry. The messenger of silence is the messenger of separation and thus of infinite longing for the other, for silence is the stuff of which separation and exile are made. A poem about the end of love, for example, may have its links to a deeper existential concern, especially when it appears not only in the context of two lovers but in the context of exile, which Brodsky himself, again, identifies as the "natural condition of the poet." As a lover he separates; as a poet he writes of the separation that has deeper implications. Consider, for instance, a poem titled "Stanzas" from Brodsky's Selected Poems:

       Let our farewells be silent.
       Turn the phonograph down.
       Separations in this world
       hint at partings beyond.
       It's not just in this lifetime
       that we must sleep apart.
       Death won't bring us together
       or wipe out our love's hurt.
                              .....
       As our union was perfect,
       so our break is complete.
       Neither panning nor zooming
       can postpone the fade-out.
       There's no point in our claiming
       that our fusion's still real.
       But a talented fragment
       can pretend to be whole.
 
       Swoon, then, to o'erflowing,
       drain yourself till you're dry.
       We two halves share the volume,
       but not the strength, of the wine.
       But my world will not end if
       in future we share
       only those jagged edges
       where we've broken apart.
 
       No man stands as a stranger.
       But the threshold of shame
       is defined by our feelings
       at the "Never again."
       Thus, we mourn, yet we bury,
       and resume our concerns,
       cutting death at its center
       like two clear synonyms.
                              .....
       Let our farewells be silent.

The parting from the other is a tearing away of the self from its soul and a rending of meaning from the word, and the messenger here conveys what he has retrieved from the bleeding silence of that gaping wound. Separation hints at a parting beyond because the volume constituted by self and other contains a world, a time yet to come, and therefore a home. The separation is silent because it is a form of death, and, as Brodsky says, this death culminates in a portrait of the self left to the frayed edges of itself. The poet of exile moves along this jagged edge that traces the silhouette of death. The difficulty confronting him is to fetch the word from that grave without tumbling into it.

The struggle of life with death, of exile with homeland, is a struggle of the word with silence. One poem in which this struggle unfolds most explicitly and most thoroughly is "Gorbunov and Gorchakov," which is an extended dialogue between two patients in a psychiatric hospital outside of Leningrad. In this poem the messenger of silence joins his voice to the voice of the madman to make silence itself speak. Listen:

     "And nothing can be more impenetrable
     than veils of words that have devoured their things;
     nothing is more tormenting than men's language."
     "But if we view things more objectively
     it may be that we'll come to the conclusion
     that words are also things. And thus we're saved!"
     "But that is the beginning of vast silence.
     And silence is the future of all days
     that roll toward speech; yes, silence is the presence
     of farewells in our greetings as we touch.
     Indeed, the future of our words is silence—
     those words which have devoured the stuff of things
     with hungry vowels, for things abhor sharp corners.
     Silence: a wave that cloaks eternity.
     Silence: the future fate of all our loving—
     a space, not a dead barrier, but space
     that robs the false voice in the blood-stream throbbing
     of every echoed answer to its love.
     And silence is the present fate of those who
     have lived before us; it's a matchmaker
     that manages to bring all men together
     into the speaking presence of today.
     Life is but talk hurled in the face of silence."
                                       [Selected Poems]

It bears repeating: silence is not a barrier but a space, the place of exile, the poet's point of departure and return. And in silence we are gathered together with him, confronted with our own exile. Just as the theme of death ends in a self-portrait, the pursuit of silence leads to a collision with the self. And yet, once again, the thing that posits the separation also implies a union: silence is a matchmaker that brings us together in a speaking presence, and the poetic word enables us to hear it. Like the death that accentuates life, silence calls forth the spoken part of the human being, as part of speech, that vibrates on the breath of life. Human presence is a speaking presence that harbors a non-speaking.

"The absence of response," says Brodsky, "has done in many a poet, and in so many ways, the net result of which is that infamous equilibrium—or tautology—between cause and effect: silence." The silence that threatens the poet is not the silence that gathers human being unto human being but the blank silence born of the collapse of difference into indifference. The one who is faced with the translation of silence into utterance is faced with the transformation of this emptiness into eloquence. Recall in this connection Brodsky's lines in "Pen'e bez muzyki" ("A Song to No Music"):

     the embrace's stifling blindness
     was in itself a pledge of an
     invisibility that binds us
     in separations: hid within
     each other, we dodged space …
                                  [A Part of Speech]

Once again the lover separates from the beloved, but the poet pursues deeper implications of the separation. Seeking the word hidden beneath the word, the silence beneath the vocable, the poet seeks the other within the self, the one who is drawn into the self in the act of embrace. This movement, this response of non-indifference, creates the proximity that might, if only for a moment, dodge space and span the distance that constitutes exile. The point is perhaps better made in the Russian line, "my skryvalis' ot prostranstva" or 'we were hiding from space,' suggesting a hiddenness in a place beneath the word or beyond the word where meaning happens—silently. In that place beyond space the silence of emptiness is transformed into the silence of eloquence. From the place beyond space the messenger of silence bears his message of embrace.

And yet, in his exile, the poet is invariably thrown back to the message of what has been lost to exile, of what is felt only as pain. One passage in which the pain of isolation is most strongly felt appears in the last two lines of "I Sit by the Window":

    I sit in the dark. And it would be hard to figure out
    which is worse: the dark inside, or the darkness out.
                                      [A Part of Speech]

For "dark" and "darkness" we may read "silence." This is the darkness that the flaring up of the lamp of poetry endeavors to illuminate; this is the silence, the non-speaking, that drives the poet to speak or die, or to die in the speaking. What is left of the messenger's message? Brodsky tells us in "Chast' rechi" ("A Part of Speech"):

     … and when "the future" is uttered, swarms of mice
     rush out of the Russian language and gnaw a piece
     of ripened memory which is twice
     as hole-ridden as real cheese.
                              .....
     What gets left of a man amounts
     to a part. To his spoken part. To a part of speech.
                                      [A Part of Speech]

In the Russian text the penultimate line contains an important word left out of the English translation. It is a dative of the second-person pronoun vam: what is left of a man for you is a part of speech, that part which remains of the soul that the poet offers to you, his reader. And it is not his spoken part, exactly, but "chast' rechi voobshche" 'a part of speech in general,' of speech as such. The messenger of silence is one who, in the end, cannot deliver his message. Brodsky reiterates this lament, this message, in "Dekabr' vo Florentsii" ("December in Florence"), where he writes:

    A man gets reduced to pen's rustle on paper, to
    wedges, ringlets of letters, and also, due
    to the slippery surface, to commas and full stops.
                                      [A Part of Speech]

Hence we see the poet addressing in his poetry the very thing that threatens it. The message is that the word is inadequate to the message, that the You who is addressed must find some way not to stop at the full stop, some way to dodge space and step through the ringlets of letters that occlude the word.

These, then, are the signposts of exile: wedges and ringlets of letters, commas and periods of punctuation. But, just as the word that comprises a poem bespeaks the silence from which it is born, so do the signposts pointing in one direction posit another. Brodsky etched such a sign for himself on 4 June 1977, the fifth anniversary of his exile from his homeland, when he wrote:

    I don't know anymore what earth will nurse my carcass.
    Scratch on, my pen: let's mark the white the way it marks us.
                                           (To Urania)

The poet is marked by the white in his marking of it; the sign he imposes on the emptiness is imposed on him, making him into who he is: a poet. Recall in this connection the lines from his "Litovskii noktyurn" ("Lithuanian Nocturne"):

     … nobody stands to inhabit
     air! It is our "homeward!" That town
     which all syllables long
     to return to….
                             .....
     That is why it is pure!
     In this world, there is nothing that bleaches
     paper better (except
     for one's dying) than air.
     And the whiter, the emptier, which is
     homelike. Muse, may I set
     out homeward?
                                           (To Urania)

The very thing that the poet would convey on his page places it under erasure, "bleaches" it back into silence. Here we see that the shore from which the messenger sets out is precisely the place he seeks: it is a certain elsewhere hidden in the emptiness of the air, for even the emptiness has its secret side. It is home. Looking at the Russian text, we notice that in both of these stanzas the word "Domoi" 'homeward,' is immediately followed by the word "vosvoyasi," which is translated as 'town' but means 'home' or 'go home.' Home takes on its sense through the movement toward it, and yet it recedes as it is approached, 'bleached' into a distant elsewhere. It should also be noted that the word rendered as "emptier" is "beschelovechnei," which in usage means "more ruthless" but literally means "without human beings": the emptiness is the signifier of exile, while home is where humaneness and humanity dwell.

The exile's absence from home, then, must come to signify and thus affirm the presence of a home in a place that is eternally elsewhere, forever under erasure. Brodsky himself makes this point when he writes, "Absence, in the final analysis, is a crude version of detachment: psychologically it is synonymous with presence in some other place and, in this way, expands the notion of being. In turn, the more significant the absent object, the more signs there are of its existence." Let us consider more closely now the significance of the absent home and the poet's affirmation of the elsewhere that harbors it.

Polukhina points out that "as the material means and goal of poetry, the word becomes the bearer of the spiritual content of human life," and, in the words of Jacques Lacan, "the spirit is always somewhere else." Why? Because the material means of capturing the spiritual invariably ends by displacing it. For the material traces the spatial, and the spatial is the opposite of the spiritual. Where dwelling happens, space is transformed into spirit. That is why, in the human realm, it is the body that brings the spirit to bear: a spiritual dimension of life can be an issue only for a creature of flesh and blood, only for one who eats. The absence of the body that Brodsky proclaims in K Uranii (To Urania), then, is a spiritual absence; that is, the poem uses a material means to declare that the spirit is elsewhere, particularly where we read:

    And what is space anyway if not the
    body's absence at every given
    point? That's why Urania's older than sister Clio!

Urania is the Muse of the heavens and the contemplation of the heavens, while Clio is the Muse of history. Urania is older because it is the longing for the heavens that gives rise to history. History is the tale of the human effort to reach the heavens in the vain construction of one Tower of Babel after another. The heavens comprise the realm of the Great Elsewhere than reveals to us where we are not.

In a poem titled "Meksikanskii romansero" ("Mexican Romancero"), Brodsky affirms the elsewhere of home by way of this "nowhere" when he writes:

     Something inside of me went slightly
     wrong, so to speak—off course.
     Muttering "God Almighty,"
     I hear my own voice.
 
     Thus you dirty the pages
     to stop an instant that's fair,
     automatically gazing
     at yourself from nowhere.
                     [A Part of Speech]

While the English phrases "slightly wrong" and "off course" imply a loss of direction, the corresponding Russian words in the original are much stronger. They are "sorvalos'" and "raskololos'," meaning 'torn apart' and 'broken to pieces.' The soul has not just gone off course; it has lost the wholeness of what it is. It has lost itself and therefore is broken off from the divine: in the outcry of "God Almighty" that would make heard the voice of God the man hears only his own voice. And there is no deeper, more dreadful isolation. To be nowhere is to hear only your own voice; that is what defines the condition of exile. And yet the self upon whom the man gazes from nowhere is … elsewhere. Although the soul has lost its home, something of the home remains in the soul, "radi melkogo chuda" 'for the sake of a small miracle,' as the Russian line reads; in the English text it is rendered by the much weaker "to stop an instant that's fair." The invocation of the small miracle entails an affirmation of the elsewhere from which the miracle stems; it amounts to the declaration that even though I am nowhere, there is a place of presence somewhere, a place where God dwells in lentils and iron pots in a land that a man can regard as native.

For the poet, however, that place remains elsewhere as long as he is a poet. Exile is his essential condition, as Brodsky has said, because there is always a distance between word and place; the exile of the man is an exile of the word. As a poet, all he has is the native tongue that strands him in a strange place from which he affirms the elsewhere. Recall, for example, the lines from Brodsky's "1972," the year in which he was sent into exile:

     Listen, my boon and brethren and my enemies!
     What I've done, I've done not for fame or memories
     in this era of radio waves and cinemas,
     but for the sake of my native tongue and letters.
     For which sort of devotion, of a zealous bent
     ("Heal thyself, doctor," as the saying went),
     denied a chalice at the feast of the fatherland,
     now I stand in a strange place. The name hardly matters.
                                      [A Part of Speech]

In this poem it is not so much the fatherland as the feast that designates the elsewhere. To be at home, on one's native and natal soil, is to sit at the table and consume the bread born from that soil, the bread that joins the man to the native land. The poet in exile and of exile is hungry. Hunger makes the place strange. It is a hunger that derives not only from what might be received but from what might be offered to the other. The distance from home is a distance from the other, from one's brother. Reaching for the chalice forever out of reach, the poet extends a hand to his fellow human being, seeking that proximity to the human reality that is the opposite of irreality. For the bread we break and share at the feast of the fatherland joins us not only with the native soil but with our brethren, those with whom we share our native tongue and for whom we answer.

Again, the affirmation of the elsewhere lies not just in the articulation of emptiness but in the stretching forth of the hand. The hand that descends to the page to grope for the word reaches up for the elsewhere and for the other. Consider how these images work in "Iork" ("York") a poem written in memory of W. H. Auden:

    The emptiness, swallowing sunlight—something in common with
    the hawthorn—grows steadily more palpable
    in the outstretched hand's direction, and
    the world merges into a long street where others live.
                                   [A Part of Speech]

Once again we see that the distance from home lies in the distance from others; home is constituted by a human community. The emptiness described in these lines is the emptiness of the outside, of exteriority, of being left to a place that has no proximity to the human other. To be sure, the word translated as "emptiness," pustota, is a cognate of pustynie, which means "wilderness." The wilderness is that place which is external to the human community where others live. The affirmation of the elsewhere, then, is the affirmation of an interior, the kind Levinas refers to when he says, "Isn't … the alienation of man primarily the fact of having no home? Not to have a place of one's own, not to have an interior, is not truly to communicate with another, and thus to be a stranger to oneself and to the other." And: "There is no salvation except in the reentry into oneself. One must have an interiority where one can seek refuge…. And even if 'at home'—in the refuge or in the interiority—there is 'terror,' it is better to have a country, a home, or an 'inwardness' with terror than to be outside." This is the interior that the poet seeks through his affirmation; it lies not in the isolation within oneself, where all a person hears is his own voice, but leads through the other. Interiority is to be found in the space between self and other.

Brodsky provides us with a poem about the poetry's affirmation of an interior elsewhere, once again, in his "Lullaby of Cape Cod." In connection with the matter at hand we note particularly those lines where he writes:

      Preserve these words against a time of cold,
      a day of fear: man survives like a fish,
      stranded, beached, but intent
      on adapting itself to some deep, cellular wish,
      wriggling toward bushes, forming hinged legstruts, then
      to depart (leaving a track like the scrawl of a pen)
      for the interior, the heart of the continent.
                                      [A Part of Speech]

Here we acquire a better sense of the terror of the interior. In order to initiate a movement of return toward the elsewhere, toward this other place, the man himself must become other than who he is. This process of becoming, of course, links the elsewhere to the yet-to-be that was discussed above. And the two are linked by silence. As Brodsky puts it in his "Strofy" ("Strophes"):

     You won't receive an answer
     if "Where to?" swells your voice.
                                      [A Part of Speech]

If there is an answer or, better, a response to this question, it is "elsewhere." Since the approach toward, and affirmation of, the elsewhere entails taking on a new being, the terror that lurks in the interior is the terror of non-being, of the loss of what I am in order to become other and thus to become my own answer to the question of "Where to?" And in order to sustain that process of becoming, I must overcome the fear of no longer being who I am. The elsewhere is not only where but what I am yet to be.

Brodsky demonstrates his insight into this aspect of the condition of exile in the closing lines of "Na vystavke Karla Veilinka" ("At Karl Weilink's Exhibition") where we read,

      This, then, is "mastery": ability
      to not take fright at the procedure of
      nonbeing—as another form of one's
      own absence, having drawn it straight from life.
                                            (To Urania)

From the depths of these lines the abyss into which the man gazes peers back into the man. For here he discovers that not only is he in exile, but he is exile: not only is his home elsewhere, but he is himself elsewhere, clutching at mere traces of himself along the jagged edges of his art. The poet struggles to regain his soul by offering it up to the other, both human and divine, through his song, but the song ends by eclipsing the offering. Thus the poet no sooner speaks than he is thrown back to that position of absence from which he must once again listen for the voice that comes both from within and from beyond. In this eternal repetition, this repeated affirmation of the elsewhere, we catch a glimpse of the infinite at work in poetry. In Less Than One Brodsky explains: "Love is essentially an attitude maintained by the infinite toward the finite. The reversal constitutes either faith or poetry." A poem, like the home that the exile seeks, is a finite vessel of the infinite; home, like a poem, is the place where iron pots can contain the Infinite One. And love opens up the path to the elsewhere that is home, where the life of the soul unfolds in the affirming embrace of the other.

Perhaps now we may have a better sense of that life which silently abides in the sanctity of the elsewhere. The sacramental signs that go into the making of Brodsky's poetry silently convey a message that is otherwise left to mere silence. And even if the message tells us that we have no answers to the question of "Where to?" it nonetheless affirms the urgency of the question and of what is at stake in it. "When it comes down to it," Brodsky raises the question for himself, "where am I from?" This is the question that points to a place where he has yet to arrive. It is the question for which the poet expresses his defiant gratitude in a poem written on his fortieth birthday titled "May 24, 1980":

      I've admitted the sentries' third eye into my wet and foul
      dreams. Munched the bread of exile: it's stale and warty.
      Granted my lungs all sounds except the howl;
      switched to a whisper. Now I am forty.
      What should I say about life? That it's long and abhors transparence.
      Broken eggs make me grieve; the omelette, though, makes me
      vomit.
      Yet until brown clay has been crammed down my larynx,
      only gratitude will be gushing from it.
                                              (To Urania)

This, then, is mastery: to give thanks for the thing that wounds the soul. For the soul is animated and known by its wounds, by the questions that emerge, like life, from broken eggs, and not by answers which, in this poem, are omelettes. The soul is punctuated not by full stops but by question marks and speaks through the howl it holds back. Thus it transforms the howl into words and silences that breathe words like a whisper. Here we see poetry's link to faith and gratitude's link to poetry: I shall sing my song even—or especially—when, by every right, it should not be there. I shall affirm the sanctity of the silent elsewhere even from within the confines of this noisy, alien nowhere.

Jacob Weisberg (review date Spring 1994)

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SOURCE: "Brodsky's Venice," in Partisan Review, Vol. LXI, No. 2, Spring, 1994, pp. 325-27.

[In the positive review of Watermark below, Weisburg discusses Brodsky's metaphorical treatment of Venice.]

Since the publication of his 1986 collection Less Than One, Joseph Brodsky has continued to develop his mastery of an idiosyncratic form that defies literary genre. Brodsky's prose pieces superficially resemble familiar or critical essays, but they lack the clarity and analytic pointedness one expects from those forms. Willfully opaque and meandering, they often leave more music and texture than the sense of an argument understood. Their structures invisible, Brodsky's nonfiction writings veer often into aphorism and apostrophe, as they mine autobiographical and philosophical veins tenuously related to the topic at hand.

So it is with Watermark, a slim volume whose intent seems not so much to propound a thesis as to complicate and deepen an intellectual relationship, creating dazzling plays of metaphor and paradox in the process. Brodsky's is a murky, beautiful, frustrating work, which draws the reader closer to his subject without attempting definitive judgements, or really any judgement about it at all. Simultaneously absorbing and elusive, it is a literary hybrid that may be best appreciated if thought of as a kind of thematic prose-poem, or a dramatic monologue, rather than an essay.

Venice, as Mary McCarthy commented, is a phenomenon about which "the rationalist mind has always had its doubts." Her own novella-lengthessay on the subject, Venice Observed, however, constitutes an effort to see what the rationalist mind can do with the city after all. Brodsky, on the other hand, goes with the flow of the place. There is little to say about Venice as urban curiosity that has not been said already, and he is not interested in matching art-historical or architectural wits with Ruskin and Bernard Berenson (though he does steal a line from Prince Charles, blaming modern architects for doing "more harm to the European skyline than any Luftwaffe"). Rather, Brodsky uses the city as departure points for a series of watery meanderings. "If I get sidetracked," he writes, "it is because getting sidetracked is literally a matter of course here and echoes water."

Those anticipating a kind of exalted travel book, the kind a Nobel laureate might toss as a bouquet to his fans, will be disappointed. Brodsky fails to even note most of those sights beloved of tourists and neglects as well the city's politics, economics, cultural life, even its currently consuming questions of conservation. Nor does he make an effort to capture its indigenous social milieu, which is largely closed-off to short-term visitors. McCarthy made much of the materialism and matter-of-factness of the Venetians. But Brodsky's only discussion of the city's habitants is his brief aside that "no tribe likes strangers, and Venetians are very tribal."

The sole Venetian characters in his book appear almost as ghosts. The first is a minor aristocrat, "the umpteenth," who throws a party crashed by the author in a mildewed palazzo. Brodsky's discursus on the gala neglects the guests for the putti, and it wanders off into a meditation on time and space. The only other local in his account is not a native Venetian at all, but an American, Olga Rudge, Ezra Pound's widow, whose flat Brodsky visits with his friend Susan Sontag. Rudge feeds him tea and "garbage" and reminds him of the old CP members he dealt with as a young dissident in the Soviet Union. But she too is an anachronism, less meaningful to Brodsky than the lifeless stones—which bring him closer to the ethereal realm he seeks.

What, we might ask, draws him to the city? Brodsky credits his visits to "visual reasons." He calls Venice "the city of the eye," and again a place where the body "starts to regard itself as merely the eye's carrier." But physical beauty, though often noted, seems a happenstance, rather than that which the poet seeks in his sojourns. Brodsky is purposeful in limiting his visits to winter, during which the days are short and the clouds hang low. This is not just a strategy for avoiding German tourists. It is during this "abstract season," as he calls it, when things are paradoxically at their most real. Venice, where Brodsky has been traveling each winter for almost twenty years, becomes a way for this self-described "cardiac cripple" to transcend the confines of the body. Venice in winter is for him a head-clearing experience, a catalyst for deeper thoughts.

Brodsky's most pungent descriptions are often metaphorical inversions: concrete things articulated through comparison to incorporeal ones. Arriving for the first time, he writes: "The boat's slow progress through the night was like the passage of a coherent thought through the subconscious." Opening a window on Sunday, his room is flooded with a "pearl-laden haze, which is part damp oxygen, part coffee and prayers." Through the book, Venice itself appears as a dream or a reflection rather than a solid presence. And the author is a dreamer within a dream. Venice is a city to which for years he has been returning "or recurring in it, with the frequency of a bad dream." This conceit helps explain the book's apparent lack of direction. If dreams were a genre, Brodsky cracks, "their main stylistic device would doubtless be the non sequitur."

Thus the author seems as much a connoisseur of the idea of Venice as of the city itself. He describes the place almost as if it were one of Italo Calvino's magical, invisible cities. The only thing better for his purposes than a city built on water would be a city built on air, as he paraphrases Hazlitt. The Venice he loves is both the real city and the unreal one that lends itself to transcendent thoughts. The deepest theme of his essay is the passage from the real to the unreal, from the physical to the metaphysical.

Brodsky's distinctive, unidiomatic English, which reveals and conceals at the same time, is particularly appropriate to his task. Unlike Nabokov, whose adoptive language aimed to dazzle with its fluent precision, Brodsky's remains contentedly foggy. When a term sticks in his head, he repeats it more times than conventional style allows, and he relies heavily on figures of speech—"not to say," "not to mention," "better yet"—to connect his peregrinations. At the same time, he is wonderfully inventive, devising collective nouns like "a parthenon of candles" or the "kremlin of drinks" he imagines upon a table. This vernacular, too, reflects his theme; his meanings shimmer just beneath the cloudy surface of his writing.

It is in this context that Brodsky's title begins to make sense. At one level, his is a book about the actual Venice, a city which is marked by water, both historically and aesthetically. But at another level, Brodsky is writing about the watermark familiar to stamp collectors, a translucent image imbedded in paper, which becomes visible to the naked eye only when it is held up to the light or wetted. Venice for him is such an emblem; it is a physical dimension containing a metaphysical essence; a place where what goes unseen becomes visible, upon immersion in the author's own depths.

Robert D. McFadden (obituary date 29 January 1996)

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SOURCE: "Joseph Brodsky, Exiled Poet Who Won Nobel, Dies at 55," in The New York Times, January 29, 1996, pp. A1, B5.

[In the obituary below, McFadden provides an overview of Brodsky's life and career.]

Joseph Brodsky, the persecuted Russian poet who settled in the United States in the early 1970's, won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1987 and became his adopted country's poet laureate, died yesterday at his apartment in Brooklyn Heights. He was 55.

The cause was believed to be a heart attack, said Roger Straus, Mr. Brodsky's friend and publisher. Mr. Brodsky had open-heart surgery in 1979 and later had two bypass operations, and had been in frail health for many years.

The poetry of Joseph Brodsky, with its haunting images of wandering and loss and the human search for freedom, was not political, and certainly not the work of an anarchist or even of an active dissident. If anything, his was a dissent of the spirit, protesting the drabness of life in the Soviet Union and its pervasive materialist dogmas.

But in a land of poets where poetry and other literature was officially subservient to the state, where verses were marshaled like so many laborers to the quarries of Socialist Realism, it was perhaps inevitable that Mr. Brodsky's work—unpublished except in underground forums, but increasingly popular—should have run afoul of the literary police.

He was first denounced in 1963 by a Leningrad newspaper, which called his poetry "pornographic and anti-Soviet." He was interrogated, his papers were seized, and he was twice put in a mental institution. Finally he was arrested and brought to trial.

Unable to fault him on his poetry's content, the authorities indicted him in 1984 on a charge of "parasitism." They called him "a pseudo-poet in velveteen trousers" who failed to fulfill his "constitutional duty to work honestly for the good of the motherland."

The trial was held in secret, though a transcript was smuggled out and became a cause célèbre in the West, which was suddenly aware of a new symbol of artistic dissent in a totalitarian society. Mr. Brodsky was found guilty and sentenced to five years in an Arctic labor camp.

But amid protests from writers at home and abroad, the Soviet authorities commuted his sentence after 18 months, and he returned to his native Leningrad. Over the next seven years he continued to write, with many of his works translated into German, French and English and published abroad, and his stature and popularity continued to grow, particularly in the West.

But he was increasingly harassed for being Jewish as well as for his poetry. He was denied permission to travel abroad to writers' conferences. Finally, in 1972, he was issued a visa, taken to the airport and expelled. He left his parents behind.

With the help of W. H. Auden, who befriended him, he settled in Ann Arbor, Mich., where he became a poet-in-residence at the University of Michigan. He later moved to New York, teaching at Queens College, Mount Holyoke College and other schools. He traveled widely, though never back to his homeland, even after the collapse of the Soviet Government. He became a United States citizen in 1977.

Meanwhile, his poems, plays, essays and criticisms appeared in many forums, including The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books and other magazines. They were anthologized in books in a growing canon that garnered the 1981 MacArthur Award, the 1986 National Book Critics Circle Award, an honorary doctorate of literature from Oxford University and, in 1987, the Nobel Prize in Literature.

The Swedish Academy, which awards the prestigious prize, said he had been honored for the body of his work and "for all-embracing authorship, imbued with clarity of thought and poetic intensity." It also called his writing "rich and intensely vital," characterized by "great breadth in time and space."

In 1991, the United States added to his honors, naming him poet laureate. The rumpled, chain-smoking Mr. Brodsky had for 15 years been the Andrew Mellon Professor of Literature at Mount Holyoke College, in South Hadley, Mass., and had been scheduled to return there today to begin the spring semester.

Joseph Ellis, a former faculty dean who brought Mr. Brodsky to the college in the early 1980s, recalled yesterday how his friend often was seen speeding around the campus in an old Mercedes. He would interrupt conversations with students and colleagues to jot down notes on bits of paper he carried in his pocket. "He thought out loud in front of his students in a way that was inspirational," Mr. Ellis said.

Mr. Brodsky, who wrote in English as well as in Russian, though his poems were composed in Russian and self-translated, was a disciple of the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova, whom he called "the keening muse." He was also strongly influenced by the English poet John Donne, as well as Mr. Auden, who died in 1973. One volume of Mr. Brodsky's poetry, Elegy to John Donne and Other Poems, was published in London in 1967. His Selected Poems had a foreword by Mr. Auden.

But Mr. Brodsky was best known for three books published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux: a volume of poetry called A Part of Speech (1977); a book of essays, Less Than One (1986), which won the National Book Critics Circle Award, and a book of poems, To Urania (1988). Other recent works include a play in three acts called Marbles (1989) and a book of prose, Watermark (1992).

Mr. Straus remembered Mr. Brodsky as "very warm, very caring, very willing to give his friendship," especially to young writers and other exiles, some of whom he championed selflessly.

Robert Silvers, co-editor of The New York Review of Books, also spoke in glowing terms of Mr. Brodsky and his work. "It was astonishing that a Russian poet should have emerged as also one of the most powerful writers in the English language in just these years of exile," he said.

In Russia, Yevgeny Kiselyov, host of the weekly news program Itogi, told the nation's television viewers: "He was the only Russian poet who enjoyed the right to be called 'great' in his lifetime."

It was also reported in Moscow that Gleb Uspensky, a senior editor and co-publisher of the Russian publishing house Vagrius, had met Mr. Brodsky in New York last fall and asked him to return to Russia for a tour as part of a deal to republish some of his works in Russian. Mr. Uspensky was quoted as saying that Mr. Brodsky seemed interested, but was torn by the prospect and did not agree.

Joseph Aleksandrovich Brodsky—whose first name is sometimes given as Josip or Iosif—was born in Leningrad on May 24, 1940, to Joseph Aleksandrovich Brodsky, a commercial photographer, whose status as a Jew kept him often out of work, and Maria M. Volpert Brodsky, who was linguistically gifted and often supported the family.

The redheaded boy spent his early years living in a communal apartment shared with other families. His parents gave him a Russified, assimilated upbringing, and he himself made little of his religious lineage, but as he later recalled, his teachers were anti-Semitic and treated him negatively.

However, he was something of a spiritual dissenter, even as a boy. "I began to despise Lenin, even when I was in the first grade, not so much because of his political philosophy or practice … but because of his omnipresent images," he recalled.

He quit school at the age of 15 and began working in what proved to be a series of jobs, including laborer, metal worker and hospital morgue attendant. Literature provided an alternative to the drabness of his life. He learned Polish so he could translate the works of Polish poets like Czeslaw Milosz, and English so he could translate Donne.

Beginning in 1955, he began to write poems, many of which appeared on mimeographed sheets, known as samizdat, and were circulated among friends. Others were published by a fringe group of young writers and artists in the underground journal Sintaksis.

He began joining street-corner recitations, rendering his poems in a voice that was soft yet dramatic, reflecting the weariness and vibrancy in his verses. "He recited as if in a trance," one friend recalled. "His verbal and musical intensity had a magical effect." As his popularity began to grow, he also made enemies among older, more entrenched Leningrad writers.

In 1963, after a Leningrad newspaper denounced the 23-year-old poet as "a drone" and "a literary parasite," harassments began in a pattern that seemed to confirm that they had official backing. These led to a trial that began in February 1964. A transcript sent to the West contained this colloquy:

Judge: What is your profession?

Brodsky: Translator and poet.

Judge: Who has recognized you as a poet? Who has enrolled you in the ranks of poets?

Brodsky: No one. Who enrolled me in the ranks of the human race?

Found guilty and given a sentence of five years, Mr. Brodsky was sent to a labor camp near Arkhangelsk where he chopped wood, hauled manure and crushed rocks for 18 months. At night, in his bunk, he read an anthology of English and American poetry.

After his release and return to Leningrad, the harassment resumed, but so did his work, and some of it began appearing in the West. Verses and Poems was published by the Inter-Language Literary Associates in Washington in 1965. Elegy to John Donne and Other Poems was published in London in 1967 by Longmans Green, and A Stop In the Desert was issued in 1970 by Chekhov Publishing in New York.

Despite his growing stature, however, he was denied permission to attend writers' conferences abroad. In 1971, he received two invitations to immigrate to Israel. In May 1972, he was summoned to the Ministry of the Interior and asked why he had not accepted. He said he had no wish to leave his country.

Within 10 days, authorities invaded his apartment, seized his papers, took him to the airport and put him on a plane for Vienna. In Austria, he met Mr. Auden, who arranged for his transit to the United States. After a year at Michigan as poet-in-residence, he taught at Queens College (1973–74), returned to the University of Michigan (1974–80) and then accepted a chair at Mount Holyoke.

Mr. Straus recalled that he was with Mr. Brodsky in London when they learned about the Nobel Prize. "He was overjoyed," Mr. Straus recalled. "It was fairly amazing that Joseph should win at that young age." But publicly, Mr. Brodsky made light of it. "A big step for me, a small step for mankind," he joked.

In naming him United States poet laureate in 1991, James Billington, the Librarian of Congress, said Mr. Brodsky "has the open-ended interest of American life that immigrants have. This is a reminder that so much of American creativity is from people not born in America."

Mr. Brodsky is survived by his wife, Maria, and his daughter, Anna, who were with him when he died.

Martin Well (obituary date 29 January 1996)

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SOURCE: "Nobel-Winning Poet Joseph Brodsky, 55, Dies," in Washington Post, January 29, 1996, p. B4.

[Below, Well discusses Brodsky's life, particularly his experiences in the former Soviet Union.]

Joseph Brodsky, 55, a poet exiled from the Soviet Union who went on to win the Nobel Prize for literature and become poet laureate of the United States, died Jan. 28 at his home in New York City.

Mr. Brodsky's longtime publisher, Roger Straus Jr., said the world-renowned poet, who had suffered for years from severe heart problems, had died of a heart attack at his apartment in Brooklyn Heights.

As much as any of his contemporaries, Mr. Brodsky seemed to typify the romantic image of the artist struggling against nature and human institutions on behalf of his poetic vision.

He grew up in a communal apartment in Leningrad. He dropped out of school at age 15, and he became one of the underground poets whose work was copied and passed from hand to hand. Brought into a Soviet Court, he defied his judge in a now-celebrated exchange and was sentenced to crush rocks near the Arctic Circle.

Exiled from the Soviet Union years later, he came to the United States and in 1977 became a U.S. citizen. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1987 and was named to serve at the Library of Congress as poet laureate in 1991. The first foreign-born person to win the post, he used it to plead for American poetry and for the place of poetry in the United States.

Meanwhile, he continued to teach at Mount Holyoke College, in Massachusetts, and to write the poems that critics hailed as brilliant, individualistic and filled with complex imagery and intellectual intensity. The works were demonstrations of a technical genius that transmuted mere words into haunting music.

For years he wrote mainly in Russian, often translating afterward into English. Known for mastery of rhythm and meter, his poems frequently spoke of exile and loss. A fellow poet called his lifework "no less than an attempt to fortify the place of man in a threatening world."

Although he was ill—he had suffered three previous heart attacks, undergone two heart-bypass operations and been advised to have another—he kept writing.

He was writing "right up to the end," Straus said. On Thursday, he was in the publisher's New York office, "correcting the last few poems" for a book that is to appear shortly, Straus said.

He was "a great man and a magnificent poet," said Anthony Hecht, who was a predecessor to Mr. Brodsky as poet laureate. "All his friends have been concerned for his health for a very long time."

Joseph Alexandrovich Brodsky was born May 24, 1940, in Leningrad, the only son of a commercial photographer who served in the Soviet Navy. His mother was described as linguistically gifted. Although he was given what a friend described as an assimilated upbringing, the family suffered harassment because they were Jewish.

Mr. Brodsky showed an independent streak early on. He once recalled taking a dislike to Lenin, not so much because of the Soviet leader's policies but because his picture was inescapable in Soviet schools.

In Less Than One, a 1984 memoir, which won a National Book Critics Circle award, Mr. Brodsky told of why he walked away from school. He said it stemmed from a "gut reaction" in that he "simply couldn't stand certain faces in my class … mostly of teachers."

Afterward, he held many manual labor jobs. But at the same time, he learned Polish to translate Czeslaw Milosz and other poets, and English to translate John Donne. He made a living briefly as a translator. He began writing poems in his mid-teens, soon winning a reputation among the underground poets who read on street corners and whose typewritten verses were quietly passed among admirers.

As his poems gained attention, he was viewed warily in establishment cultural circles. A Leningrad newspaper denounced him in 1963 for "anti-Soviet" work, and he was subjected to harassment that included being put in a mental institution twice.

The climactic moment came in early 1964, when he was brought to court on charges of being a social parasite.

Asked about his job, he told the judge that he was a poet. When asked whether he had a permanent job, he said, "I thought this was a permanent job."

"Who said that you were a poet?" the judge demanded. "Who included you among the ranks of poets?" "No one," Brodsky replied. "And who included me among the ranks of the human race?"

The sentence was five years at hard labor for shirking the duties of a Soviet citizen.

In the camp at Archangel, Mr. Brodsky had a copy of Louis Untermeyer's anthology of British and American verse. As an exercise, he would read the first and last lines of the poems and "try to imagine what would come between."

Meanwhile, a journalist had made a transcript of his hearing and his insouciant defiance became widely known in the West. Other Soviet poets protested his sentence. Released from the labor camp after 18 months, he was allowed to return to Leningrad.

At the same time, some of his works, translated into English, German and French, were appearing in the West, winning favorable attention. But at home, the harassment continued; he was called to a government office in 1972 and asked why he had not accepted invitations to emigrate to Israel. He said he did not wish to emigrate, but it was made clear that he had to go.

In a few days, he was issued a visa and summoned to an airport. After the poems he was carrying were seized, he was put on board a flight to Vienna. Shortly afterward he came to the country where he said life was "terribly good to me" and became a poet-in-residence at the University of Michigan. He continued to write and publish works that led to the award of the Nobel Prize. The Swedish Academy cited him for his "all-embracing authorship, imbued with clarity of thought and poetic intensity."

"I'm the happiest combination you can think of," he said when he learned of the award. "I'm a Russian poet, an English essayist and citizen of the United States."

Mr. Brodsky traveled widely, but never returned to Russia, his publisher said last night.

Hecht said Mr. Brodsky had a son in Russia. Survivors include his wife, Maria, and their daughter, Anna.

J. M. Coetzee (review date 1 February 1996)

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SOURCE: "Speaking for Language," in The New York Review of Books, Vol. XLIII, No. 2, February 1, 1996, pp. 28-31.

[Coeizee is a South African writer. In the mixed review of the essay collection On Grief and Reason below, he examines Brodsky's views on poetry and discusses the poet's relationship to Russian literature.]

In 1986 Joseph Brodsky published Less than One, a book of essays. Some of the essays were translated from the Russian; others he wrote directly in English, showing that his command of the language was growing to be near-native.

In two cases, writing in English had a symbolic importance to Brodsky: in a heartfelt homage to W. H. Auden, who greatly helped him after he was forced to leave Russia in 1972, and whom he regards as the greatest poet in English of the century; and in a memoir of his parents, whom he had to leave behind in Leningrad, and who, despite repeated petitions to the authorities, were never granted permission to visit him. He chose English, he says, to honor, them in a language of freedom.

Less than One is a powerful book in its own right, worthy to stand beside Brodsky's principal collections of verse: A Part of Speech (1980) and To Urania (1988). It includes magisterial essays on Osip Mandelstam, Anna Akhmatova, and Marina Tsvetaeva, the poets of the generation before Brodsky to whom he feels closest, as well as two brief masterpieces of autobiographical recreation: the memoir of his parents, and the title essay, on growing up amid the stupefying boredom of Leningrad in the 1950s. There are also travel essays: a trip to Istanbul, for instance, gives rise to thoughts on the Second and Third Romes, Constantinople/Byzantium, and Moscow, and hence on the meaning of the West to Westernizing Russians like himself. Finally, there are two virtuoso literary-critical essays in which he explicates ("unpacks") individual poems that are particularly dear to him.

Now, nine years later, we have On Grief and Reason, which collects twenty-one essays, all but one written since 1986. Of these, some are without question on a par with the best of the earlier work. In "Spoils of War," for instance—an essay classical in form, light in touch—Brodsky continues the amusing and sometimes poignant story of his youth, using those traces of the West—corned-beef cans and shortwave radios as well as movies and jazz—that found their way through the Iron Curtain to explore the meaning of the West to Russians. Given the imaginative intensity with which they pored over these artifacts, Brodsky suggests, Russians of his generation were "the real Westerners, perhaps the only ones."

In his autobiographical journey, Brodsky has yet to arrive at the 1960s, the time of his notorious trial on charges of social parasitism and his sentencing to corrective labor in the Russian Far North. Perhaps he never will: a refusal to exhibit his wounds has always been one of his more admirable traits ("At all costs try to avoid granting yourself the status of the victim," he advises an audience of students).

Other essays also continue where Less than One left off. The dialogue with Auden begun in "To Please a Shadow" is carried on in "Letter to Horace," while the long analytical essays on Thomas Hardy and Robert Frost can stand beside the earlier readings of poems by Tsvetaeva and Auden.

Nevertheless, as a whole On Grief and Reason is not as strong as Less than One. Only two of the essays—"Homage to Marcus Aurelius" (1994) and "Letter to Horace" (1995)—mark a clear advance in Brodsky's thought, and a deepening of it. Several are little more than occasional: a jaundiced memoir of a writers' conference ("After a Journey"), for instance, and the texts of a couple of commencement addresses. More tellingly, what in earlier essays had seemed no more than passing quirks now reveal themselves as settled elements of a systematic Brodskian philosophy of language.

The system can best be illustrated from the essay on Thomas Hardy. Brodsky regards Hardy as a neglected major poet, "seldom taught, less read," particularly in America, where he is cast out by fashion-minded critics into the limbo of "premodernism."

It is certainly true that modern criticism has had little of interest to say about Hardy. Nevertheless, despite what Brodsky says, ordinary readers and (particularly) poets have never deserted him. John Crowe Ransom edited a selection of Hardy's verse in 1960. Hardy dominates Philip Larkin's widely read Oxford Book of Twentieth-Century English Verse (1973), with twenty-seven pages as opposed to nineteen for Yeats, sixteen for Auden, a mere nine for Eliot. Nor did the Modernist avant-garde dismiss Hardy en bloc. Ezra Pound, for instance, tirelessly recommended him to younger poets. "Nobody has taught me anything about writing since Thomas Hardy died," he remarked in 1934.

Brodsky chooses to present Hardy as a neglected poet as part of an attack on the French-influenced modernism of the Pound-Eliot school, and on all the revolutionary -isms of the first decades of the century, which, to his mind, pointed literature in the wrong direction. He wishes to reclaim leading positions in Anglo-American letters for Hardy and Frost, and in general for those poets who built upon, rather than broke with, traditional poetics. Thus he rejects the influential anti-naturalist poetics of the Russian critic Viktor Shklovsky, which are based on unabashed artificiality, on the foregrounding of the poetic device. "This is where modernism goofed," he says. Genuinely modern aesthetics—the aesthetics of Hardy, Frost, and, later, Auden—uses traditional forms because form, as camouflage, allows the writer "to land a better punch when and where it's least expected."

Everyday, common sense language of this kind is prominent in the literary essays in On Grief and Reason, which appear to have had their origin as lectures to classes of undergraduates. Brodsky's readiness to meet his audience on their own ground produces some unfortunate effects, including bathetic inflation (some lines by Rilke become "the greatest sequence of three similes in the entire history of poetry"). It is not clear that Brodsky appreciates the social significance of slang, much of which is created by powerless groups, particularly the young, to exclude outsiders. Precisely because it marks a boundary, politeness suggests that outsiders not trespass.

Strong poets have always created their own lineage and, in the process, rewritten the history of poetry. Brodsky is no exception. What he finds in Hardy is, to a degree, what he wants readers to find in himself; his reading of Hardy is most convincing when in veiled fashion it describes his own practices or ambitions. He writes, for example, that the germ of Hardy's famous poem "The Convergence of the Twain" (on the sinking of the Titanic) probably lay in the word "maiden" (as in the phrase "maiden voyage"), which then generated the central conceit of the poem, ship and iceberg as fated lovers. The suggestion, dropped almost in passing, seems to me a stroke of genius. But beyond that it gives an insight into Brodsky's own creative habits.

Behind Hardy's "The Convergence of the Twain" Brodsky also points to the presence of the Schopenhauer of The World as Will and Idea: ship and iceberg collide at the behest of a blind metaphysical force devoid of any ultimate purpose, a force that Brodsky calls "the phenomenal world's inner essence." In itself this suggestion is not novel: whether or not Hardy had Schopenhauer in mind, Schopenhauer's brand of pessimistic determinism was clearly congenial to him. But Brodsky goes further. He recommends to his audience that they read Schopenhauer, "not so much for Mr. Hardy's sake as for your own." Schopenhauer's Will is thus attractive not only to Brodsky's Hardy but to Brodsky himself.

In fact, through his reading of five Hardy poems, Brodsky intends to reveal Hardy as a vehicle for a Schopenhauerian Will acting through language, more like a scribe used by language than an autonomous user of it. In certain lines of "The Darkling Thrush," "language flows into the human domain from the realm of nonhuman truths and dependencies [and] is ultimately the voice of inanimate matter." While this may not have been what Hardy intended, "it was what this line was after in Thomas Hardy, and he responded." Thus what we take to be creativity may be "nothing more (or less) than matter's attempts to articulate itself."

What is here called the voice of inanimate matter more often becomes, in Brodsky's essays, the voice of language, the voice of poetry, or the voice of a specific meter. Brodsky is resolutely anti-Freudian in the sense that he is not interested in the notion of a personal unconscious. Thus to him the language that speaks through poets has a truly metaphysical status. And since it sometimes spoke through Hardy, Brodsky makes clear, it is capable of speaking through every real poet, including himself. In a disconcerting way, Brodsky here finds himself not at all far from the kind of reductive cultural critique that claims that speakers are little more than the mouthpieces of dominant discourses or ideologies. The difference is that, while the latter critique is based within history, Brodsky's idea is that language—the time-marked and time-marking language of poetry—is a metaphysical force operating through and within time but outside history. "Prosody … is simply a repository of time within language," he wrote in Less than One. "Language is older than state and … prosody always survives history." Brodsky is unequivocal in taking away control of the history and development of poetry from the poets themselves and handing it to a metaphysical language—language as will and idea. In Hardy's poetry, for instance, having acutely pointed to a certain absence of a detectable speaking voice, to an "audial neutrality," he suggests that this apparently negative attribute would turn out to have great importance to twentieth-centurypoetry—would, indeed, make Hardy "prophetic" of Auden. But, Brodsky maintains, it was not so much the case that Auden or any other of Hardy's successors imitated him as that Hardy's voicelessness became "what the future [of English poetry] liked."

As an assertion about Hardy or Auden or poetry in general this may be unverifiable and to that extent meaningless. In relation to Brodsky's own poetic practice, however, it has an interest of its own. Yet for an idea so fundamental to his philosophy of poetry, it is oddly absent from his own poetry. In only one or two poems, and there only fleetingly, does Brodsky directly take as a theme the experience of being spoken through by language (of course he may claim that all his poems embody the experience). One explanation may be that the experience is more appropriately treated at a respectful remove in discursive prose. A more interesting explanation is that the metapoetical theme of poetry reflecting on the conditions of its own existence is absent from his own work precisely because to attempt in his own poems to understand and thus master the force behind him would strike Brodsky as not only impious but futile as well.

But even within the discourse of vatic poetry there remains something odd, even eccentric, in the elevation of prosody in particular to metaphysical status. "Verse meters in themselves are kinds of spiritual magnitudes for which nothing can be substituted," writes Brodsky. They are "a means of restructuring time." What precisely does it mean to restructure time? Brodsky never explains fully, or fully enough. He comes closest in the essay on Mandelstam in Less than One, where the time that utters itself through Mandelstam confronts the "mute space" of Stalin; but even there the core of the notion remains mysterious and perhaps even mystical. Nevertheless, when Brodsky says, in On Grief and Reason, that "language … uses a human being, not the other way around," he would seem to have the meters of poetry above all in mind; and when—particularly in his lectures to students—he pleads for the educative and even redemptive function of poetry ("love is a metaphysical affair whose goal is either accomplishing or liberating one's soul,… [and] that is and always has been the core of lyric poetry"), it is submission to the rhythms of poetry he is alluding to.

If I am right, then Brodsky's position is not far from that of the educators of ancient Athens, who prescribed for (male) students a tripartite curriculum of music (intended to make the soul rhythmical and harmonious), poetry, and gymnastics. Plato collapsed these three parts into two, music absorbing poetry and becoming the principal mental and spiritual discipline. The powers Brodsky claims for poetry would seem to belong even more more strongly to music. For instance, time is the medium of music more clearly than it is the medium of poetry (we read poetry on the printed page as fast as we like—faster than we should—whereas we listen to music in its own time). Music structures the time in which it is performed, lending it purposive form, more clearly than poetry does. Why then does Brodsky not make his case for poetry along Plato's lines, as a species of music?

The answer is of course that, while the technical language of prosody may derive from the technical language of music, poetry is not a species of music. Specifically, it works through words, not sounds, and words have meaning: whereas the semantic dimension of music is at most connotational and therefore secondary.

Since antique times we have had a well-developed account, borrowed from music, of the phonics of poetry. We have also elaborated a host of theories of the semantics of poetry. What we lack is any widely accepted theory that marries the two. The last critics in America who believed they had such a theory were the New Critics; their rather arid style of reading ran out in the sands in the early 1960s. Since then, poetry, and lyric poetry in particular, has become an embarrassment to the critical profession, or at least to the academic arm of that profession, in which poetry tends to be read as prose with ragged right margins rather than as an art in its own right.

In "An Immodest Proposal" (1991), a plea for a federally subsidized program to distribute millions of inexpensive paperback anthologies of American poetry, Brodsky suggests that such lines as Frost's "No memory of having starred / Atones for later disregard / Or keeps the end from being hard" ought to enter the bloodstream of every citizen, not just because they constitute a lapidary memento mori, and not just because they exemplify language at its purest and most powerful, but because, in absorbing them and making them our own, we work toward an evolutionary goal: "The purpose of evolution, believe it or not, is beauty."

Perhaps. But what if we experiment? What if we rewrite Frost's lines thus: "Memories of having starred / Atone for later disregard / And keep the end from being hard"? At a purely metrical level the revision is not, to my ear, inferior to Frost's original. However, its meaning is opposite. Would these lines, in Brodsky's eyes, qualify to enter the bloodstream of the nation? The answer is no—the lines are false. But to show how and why they are false entails a poetics with an historical dimension, capable of explaining why it is that Frost's original, coming into being at the moment in history when it does, carves out for itself a place in time ("restructures time"), while the alternative, the parody, cannot. Such a poetics would have to treat prosody and semantics in a unified and an historical way. For a teacher (and Brodsky clearly thinks of himself as a teacher) to assert that the genuine poem restructures time means little until he can show why the fake does not.

In sum, there are two sides to Brodsky's critical poetics. On the one hand there is a metaphysical superstructure in which the language-as-Muse speaks through the medium of the poet and thereby accomplishes world-historical (evolutionary) goals of its own. On the other there is a body of insights into and intuitions about how certain poems in English, Russian, and (to a lesser extent) German actually work. The poems Brodsky chooses are clearly poems he loves; his comments on them are always intelligent, often penetrating, sometimes dazzling. I doubt that Mandelstam (in the essay in Less than One) or Hardy (in this collection) have ever had a more sympathetic, more attentive, more cocreative reader. Fortunately the metaphysical superstructure of his system can be detached and laid aside, leaving us with a set of critical readings which in their ambitiousness and their fineness of detail put contemporary academic criticism of poetry to shame.

Can academic critics take a lesson from Brodsky? I fear they will not. To work at his level, one has to live with and by the great poets of the past, and perhaps be visited by the Muse as well.

Can Brodsky learn a lesson from the academy? Yes: not to publish your lecture notes verbatim, unrevised and uncondensed, quips and asides included. The lectures on Frost (forty-four pages), Hardy (sixty-four pages), and Rilke (fifty-two pages) could with advantage have been cut by ten to fifteen pages each.

Though On Grief and Reason intermittently alludes to, and sometimes directly addresses, Brodsky's own status as an exile and immigrant, it does not, except in an odd and inconclusive exercise about the spy Kim Philby, address politics pure and simple. At the risk of oversimplifying, one can say that Brodsky despairs of politics and looks to literature for redemption.

Thus, in an open letter to Václav Havel, Brodsky suggests that Havel drop the pretense that communism in Central Europe was imposed from abroad and acknowledge that it was the result of "an extraordinary anthropological backslide," whose basis was no more and no less than original sin. The President, he writes, would be well advised to accept the premise that man is inherently evil; the reeducation of the Czech public might begin with doses of Proust, Kafka, Faulkner, and Camus in the daily papers. In Less than One Brodsky criticized Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn on the same grounds: for refusing to accept what his senses plainly tell him, that humankind is "radically bad."

In his Nobel Prize lecture Brodsky sketches out an aesthetic credo on the basis of which an ethical public life might be built. Aesthetics, he says, is the mother of ethics, in the sense that making fine aesthetic discriminations teaches one to make fine ethical discriminations. Good art is thus on the side of the good. Evil, on the other hand, "especially political evil, is always a bad stylist." (At moments like this Brodsky finds himself closer to his illustrious Russo-American precursor, the patrician Vladimir Nabokov, than he might wish to be.)

Entering into dialogue with great literature, Brodsky continues, fosters in the reading subject "a sense of his uniqueness, of individuality, of separateness—thus turning him from a social animal into an autonomous 'I.'" In Less than One Brodsky commended Russian poetry for setting "an example of moral purity and firmness," not least by preserving classical literary forms. Now he rejects the nihilism of postmodernism, "the poetics of ruins and debris, of minimalism, of choked breath," holding up instead the example of those Eastern European poets of his generation—he does not name them—who, in the wake of the Holocaust and the Gulag, took it as their task to reconstruct a common world culture, and hence to rebuild human dignity.

It is not Brodsky's manner to attack, discuss, or even mention the names of his philosophical opponents. Thus one can only guess how he would respond to arguments that artworks (or "texts") construct communities of readers as much as they construct individuals, that an emphasis such as his on a highly individualistic relation between reader and text is historically and culturally bounded, and that what he (following Mandelstam) calls "world culture" is merely the high culture of Western Europe in a particular phase of its history. There can be no doubt, however, that he would reject them.

The prestige enjoyed by the poet in Russia since Pushkin, the example of the great poets in keeping the flame of individual integrity alive during Stalin's dark night, as well as deeply embedded Russian traditions of reading and memorizing poetry, the availability of cheap editions of the classics, and the near-sacred status of forbidden texts in the samizdat era—these and other factors have contributed to the existence in Russia of a large, committed, and informed public for poetry. The bias of literary studies there toward linguistic analysis—in part a continuation of the Formalist advances of the 1920s, in part a self-protective reaction to the ban, after 1934, on literary criticism not in line with socialist-realist dogma—has further fostered a critical discourse hard to match in the West in its level of technical sophistication.

Comments on Brodsky by his Russian contemporaries—fellow poets, disciples, rivals—collected by the poet and critic Valentina Polukhina prove that, despite nearly a quarter of a century abroad, Brodsky is still read and judged in Russia as a Russian poet.

His greatest achievement, says the poet Olga Sedakova, is to have "placed a full stop at the end of [the Soviet] literary epoch." He has done so by bringing back to Russian letters a quality crushed, in the name of optimism, by the Soviet culture industry: a tragic perception of life. Furthermore, he has fertilized Russian poetry by importing new forms from England and America. For this he deserves to stand beside Pushkin. Elena Shvarts, Brodsky's younger contemporary and perhaps his main rival, concurs: he has brought "a completely new musicality and even a new form of thought" to Russian poetry. (Shvarts is not so kind to Brodsky the essayist, whom she calls "a brilliant sophist.")

The Russians are particularly illuminating on technical features of Brodsky's verse. To Yevgeny Rein, Brodsky has found metrical means to embody "the way time flows past and away from you." This "merging of [the] poetry with the movement of time," he says, is "metaphysically" Brodsky's greatest achievement. To the Lithuanian poet Tomas Venclova, Brodsky's "giant linguistic and cultural reach, his syntax, his thoughts that transcend the limits of the stanza," make his poetry "a spiritual exercise [which] extends the reach of [the reader's] soul."

There is thus no doubt that Brodsky is a powerful presence in Russian literature. Receptive as his fellow writers are to his innovations, however, all except Rein seem skeptical about the metaphysics behind them, a metaphysics that makes the poet the voice of a Language understood as having an independent reality. Lev Loseff dismisses this "idolization" of language out of hand, attributing it to Brodsky's lack of formal education in linguistics.

Brodsky is not a well-loved poet, as (say) Pasternak was well loved. Russians look in vain to him, says Venclova, for "'warmth,'… all-forgivingness, tearfulness, tenderheartedness, or cheeriness." "He does not believe in man's inherent goodness; nor does he see nature as … made in the image of God." The poet Viktor Krivulin expresses doubts about the very un-Russian irony that has by now become habitual to Brodsky. Brodsky cultivatesirony, suggests Krivulin, to protect himself from ideas or situations that may make him uncomfortable: "A fear of openness, possibly a desire not to be open … has grown deeper so that every poetic statement already exists inherently as an object for analysis and the following statement springs from that analysis."

Roy Fisher, one of Brodsky's best English commentators, points to something analogous in the texture of Brodsky's self-translations from Russian, which he criticizes as "busy" in a musical sense, with "lots of little notes and pauses." "Something is running about in the way of the poetry."

This "busyness," together with a continual ironic backtracking, has become a feature of Brodsky's prose as much as of his verse, and is likely to irritate readers of On Grief and Reason. Brodsky's logic has acquired a jagged quality: trains of thought have no time to develop before being halted, questioned, cast in doubt, subjected to qualifications that are in turn, with mannered irony, interrogated and qualified. There is a continual shuttling back and forth between colloquial and formal diction, and when a bon mot is on the horizon, Brodsky can be trusted to scamper after it. In his fascination with the echo-chamber of the English language, he is again not unlike Nabokov, though Nabokov's linguistic imagination was more disciplined (but also, perhaps, more trammeled).

The problem of consistency of tone becomes particularly marked in essays that have their origin in public addresses, where, as if in an effort to suppress the habitual sideways movement of his thought, Brodsky goes in for large generalizations and hollow lecture-hall prose. (Specimen: "Since the general purpose of every society is the safety of all its members, it must first postulate the total arbitrariness of history, and the limited value of any recorded negative experience.")

Brodsky's difficulties here may in part be temperamental—public occasions clearly do not fire his imagination—but, as the American critic David Bethea has observed, they are also linguistic. Brodsky, says Bethea, has yet to command the "quasi-civic" level of American discourse, as he has yet to entirely command the nuances of ironic humor, the very last level of English, in Bethea's view, to be mastered by foreigners.

An alternative approach to Brodsky's problem with tone is to ask whether his imagined interlocutors are always adequate to him. In his lectures and addresses there seems to be an element of speaking down that leads him not only to simplify his material but also to wisecrack and generally to flatten his emotional and intellectual range; whereas, once he is alone with a subject equal to him, this uneasiness of tone vanishes.

We see Brodsky truly rising to his subject in the two Roman essays in On Grief and Reason. In its emotional reach, the essay on Marcus Aurelius is one of Brodsky's most ambitious, as though the nobility of his subject frees him to explore a certain melancholy grandeur. Like Zbigniew Herbert, with whose stoic pessimism in public affairs he has more than a little in common, Brodsky looks to Marcus as the one Roman ruler with whom some kind of communion across the ages is possible. "You were just one of the best men that ever lived, and you were obsessed with your duty because you were obsessed with virtue," he writes movingly. We ought always to choose rulers who, like Marcus, have "a detectable melancholic streak," he adds wistfully.

The finest essay in the collection is similarly elegiac. It takes the form of a letter from Brodsky the Russian or (in Roman terms) Hyperborean to Horace in the underworld. To Brodsky, Horace is, if not his favorite Roman poet (Ovid holds that place), then at least the great poet of "melancholic equipoise." Brodsky plays with the conceit that Horace has just completed a spell on earth in the guise of Auden, and that Horace, Auden, and Brodsky himself are thus the same poetic temperament, if not the same person, reborn in successive Pythagorean metamorphoses. His prose attains new and complex, bittersweet tones as he meditates on the death of the poet, on the extinction of the man himself and his survival in the echo of the poetic meters he has served.

Tatyana Tolstaya (essay date 29 February 1996)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2376

SOURCE: "On Joseph Brodsky (1940–1996)," in The New York Review of Books, Vol. XLIII, No. 4, February 29, 1996, pp. 7, 53.

[Tolstaya is a Russian writer. In the following tribule, she discusses Brodsky's impact on Russian writers and literature, stating "Russian literature … has lost the greatest poet of the second half of the twentieth century."]

When the last things are taken out of a house, a strange, resonant echo settles in, your voice bounces off the walls and returns to you. There's the din of loneliness, a draft of emptiness, a loss of orientation and a nauseating sense of freedom: everything's allowed and nothing matters, there's no response other than the weakly rhymed tap of your own footsteps. This is how Russian literature feels now: just four years short of millennium's end, it has lost the greatest poet of the second half of the twentieth century, and can expect no other. Joseph Brodsky has left us, and our house is empty. He left Russia itself over two decades ago, became an American citizen, loved America, wrote essays and poems in English. But Russia is a tenacious country: try as you may to break free, she will hold you to the last.

In Russia, when a person dies, the custom is to drape the mirrors in the house with black muslin—an old custom, whose meaning has been forgotten or distorted. As a child I heard that this was done so that the deceased, who is said to wander his house for nine days saying his farewells to friends and family, won't be frightened when he can't find his reflection in the mirror. During his unjustly short but endlessly rich life Joseph was reflected in so many people, destinies, books, and cities that during these sad days, when he walks unseen among us, one wants to drape mourning veils over all the mirrors he loved: the great rivers washing the shores of Manhattan, the Bosporus, the canals of Amsterdam, the waters of Venice, which he sang, the arterial net of Petersburg (a hundred islands—how many rivers?), the city of his birth, beloved and cruel, the prototype of all future cities.

There, still a boy, he was judged for being a poet, and by definition a loafer. It seems that he was the only writer in Russia to whom they applied that recently invented, barbaric law—which punished for the lack of desire to make money. Of course, that was not the point—with their animal instinct they already sensed full well just who stood before them. They dismissed all the documents recording the kopecks Joseph received for translating poetry.

"Who appointed you a poet?" they screamed at him.

"I thought…. I thought it was God."

All right then. Prison, exile.

      Neither country nor churchyard will I choose
      I'll come to Vasilevsky Island to die,

he promised in a youthful poem.

     In the dark I won't find your deep blue facade
     I'll fall on the asphalt between the crossed lines.

I think that the reason he didn't want to return to Russia even for a day was so that this incautious prophecy would not come to be. A student of—among others—Akhmatova and Tsvetaeva, he knew their poetic superstitiousness, knew the conversation they had during their one and only meeting. "How could you write that…. Don't you know that a poet's words always come true?" one of them reproached. "And how could you write that …?" the other was amazed. And what they foretold did indeed come to pass.

I met him in 1988 during a short trip to the United States, and when I got back to Moscow I was immediately invited to an evening devoted to Brodsky. An old friend read his poetry, then there was a performance of some music that was dedicated to him. It was almost impossible to get close to the concert hall, passersby were grabbed and begged to sell "just one extra ticket." The hall was guarded by mounted police—you might have thought that a rock concert was in the offing. To my utter horror I suddenly realized that they were counting on me: I was the first person they knew who had seen the poet after so many years of exile. What could I say? What can you say about a man with whom you've spent a mere two hours? I resisted, but they pushed me on stage. I felt like a complete idiot. Yes, I saw Brodsky. Yes, alive. He's sick. He smokes. We drank coffee. There was no sugar in the house. (The audience grew agitated: Are the Americans neglecting our poet? Why didn't he have any sugar?) Well, what else? Well, Baryshnikov dropped by, brought some firewood, they lit a fire. (More agitation in the hall: Is our poet freezing to death over there?) What floor does he live on? What does he eat? What is he writing? Does he write by hand or use a typewriter? What books does he have? Does he know that we love him? Will he come? Will he come? Will he come?

"Joseph, will you come to Russia?"

"Probably. I don't know. Maybe. Not this year. I should go. I won't go. No one needs me there."

"Don't be coy! They won't leave you alone. They'll carry you through the streets—airplane and all. There'll be such a crowd they'll break through customs at Sheremetevo airport and carry you to Moscow in their arms. Or to Petersburg. On a white horse, if you like."

"That's precisely why I don't want to. And I don't need anyone there."

"It's not true! What about all those little old ladies of the intelligentsia, your readers, all the librarians, museum staff, pensioners, communal apartment dwellers who are afraid to go out into the communal kitchen with their chipped teakettle? The ones who stand in the back rows at philharmonic concerts, next to the columns, where the tickets are cheaper? Don't you want to let them get a look at you from afar, your real readers? Why are you punishing them?"

It was an unfair blow. Tactless and unfair. He either joked his way out of it: "I'd rather go see my favorite Dutch." "I love Italians, I'll go to Italy." "The Poles are wonderful. They've invited me." Or would grow angry: "They wouldn't let me go to my father's funeral! My mother died without me—I asked—and they refused!"

Did he want to go home? I think that at the beginning, at least, he wanted to very much, but he couldn't. He was afraid of the past, of memories, reminders, unearthed graves, was afraid of his weakness, afraid of destroying what he had done with his past in his poetry, afraid of looking back at the past—like Orpheus looked back at Eurydice—and losing it forever. He couldn't fail to understand that his true reader was there, he knew that he was a Russian poet, although he convinced himself—and himself alone—that he was an English-language poet. He has a poem about a hawk ("A Hawk's Cry in Autumn") in the hills of Massachusetts who flies so high that the rush of rising air won't let him descend back to earth, and the hawk perishes there, at those heights, where there are neither birds nor people, nor any air to breathe.

So could he have returned? Why did I and others bother him with all these questions about returning? We wanted him to feel, to know how much he was loved—we ourselves loved him so much! And I still don't know whether he wanted all this convincing or whether it troubled his troubled heart. "Joseph, you are invited to speak at the college. February or September?" "February, of course. September—I should live so long." And, tearing yet another filter off yet another cigarette, he'd tell another grisly joke. "The husband says to his wife. 'The doctor told me that this is the end. I won't live till morning. Let's drink champagne and make love one last time.' His wife replies: 'That's all very well and fine for you—you don't have to get up in the morning!'"

Did we have to treat him like a "sick person"—talk about the weather and walk on tiptoe? When he came to speak at Skidmore, he arrived exhausted from the three-hour drive, white as a sheet—in a kind of condition that makes you want to call 911. But he drank a glass of wine, smoked half a pack of cigarettes, made brilliant conversation, read his poems, and then more poems, poems, poems—smoked and recited by heart both his own and others' poems, smoked some more, and read some more. By that time, his audience had grown pale from his un-American smoke, and he was in top form—his cheeks grew rosy, his eyes sparkled, and he read on and on. And when by all counts he should have gone to bed with a nitroglycerin tablet under his tongue, he wanted to talk and went off to the hospitable hosts, the publishers of Salmagundi, Bob and Peggy Boyers. And he talked, and drank and smoked and laughed, and at midnight when his hosts had paled and my husband and I drove him back to the guest house, his energy surged as ours waned. "What charming people, but I think we exhausted them. So now we can really talk!" "Really," i. e., the Russian way. And we sat up till three in the morning in the empty living room of the guest house, talking about everything—because Joseph was interested in everything. We rummaged in the drawers in search of a corkscrew for another bottle of red wine, filling the quiet American lodging with clouds of forbidden smoke; we combed the kitchen in search of left-over food from the reception ("We should have hidden the lo mein…. And there was some delicious chicken left … we should have stolen it.") When we finally said goodbye my husband and I were barely alive and Joseph was still going strong.

He had an extraordinary tenderness for all his Petersburg friends, generously extolling their virtues, some of which they did not possess. When it came to human loyalty, you couldn't trust his assessments—everyone was a genius, a Mozart, one of the best poets of the twentieth century. Quite in keeping with the Russian tradition, for him a human bond was higher than justice, and love higher than truth. Young writers and poets from Russia inundated him with their manuscripts—whenever I would leave Moscow for the US my poetic acquaintances would bring their collections and stick them in my suitcase: "It isn't very heavy. The main thing is, show it to Brodsky. Just ask him to read it. I don't need anything else—just let him read it!" And he read and remembered, and told people that the poems were good and gave interviews praising the fortunate, and they kept sending their publications. And their heads turned, some said things like: "Really, there are two genuine poets in Russia: Brodsky and myself." He created the false impression of a kind of old patriarch—but if only a certain young writer whom I won't name could have heard how Brodsky groaned and moaned after obediently reading a story whose plot was built around delight in moral sordidness. "Well, all right, I realize that after this one can continue writing. But how can he go on living?"

He didn't go to Russia. But Russia came to him. Everyone came to convince themselves that he really and truly existed, that he was alive and writing—this strange Russian poet who did not want to set foot on Russian soil. He was published in Russian in newspapers, magazines, single volumes, multiple volumes, he was quoted, referred to, studied, and published as he wished and as he didn't, he was picked apart, used, and turned into a myth. Once a poll was held on a Moscow street: "What are your hopes for the future in connection with the parliamentary elections?" A carpenter answered: "I could care less about the parliament and politics. I just want to live a private life, like Brodsky."

He wanted to live, and not to die—neither on Vasilevsky Island, nor on the island of Manhattan. He was happy, he had a family he loved, poetry, friends, readers, students. He wanted to run away from his doctors to Mount Holyoke, where he taught—then, he thought, they couldn't catch him. He wanted to elude his own prophecy: "I will fall on the asphalt between the crossed lines." He fell on the floor of his study on another island, under the crossed Russian-American lines of an emigré's double fate.

      And two girls—sisters from unlived years
      running out on the island, wave to the boy.

And indeed he left two girls behind—his wife and daughter.

"Do you know, Joseph, if you don't want to come back with a lot of fanfare, no white horses and excited crowds, why don't you just go to Petersburg incognito?" "Incognito?" Suddenly he wasn't angry and didn't joke, but listened very attentively.

Yes, you know, paste on a mustache or something. Just don't tell anyone—not a soul. You'll go, get on a trolley, ride down Nevsky Prospect, walk along the streets—free and unrecognized. There's a crowd, everyone's always pushing and jostling. You'll buy some ice cream. Who'll recognize you? If you feel like it you'll call your friends from a phone booth—you can say you're calling from America, or if you like you can just knock on a friend's door: "Here I am. Just dropped by. I missed you."

Here I was, talking, joking, and suddenly I noticed that he wasn't laughing—there was a sort of childlike expression of helplessness on his face, a strange sort of dreaminess. His eyes seemed to be looking through objects, through the edges of things—on to the other side of time. He sat quietly, and I felt awkward, as if I were barging in where I wasn't invited. To dispel the feeling, I said in a pathetically hearty voice: "It's a wonderful idea, isn't it?"

He looked through me and murmured: "Wonderful … Wonderful …"

Jessica Greenbaum (review date 12 February 1996)

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SOURCE: "Name-Dropping the Ancients," in Nation, New York, Vol. 262, No. 6, February 12, 1996, pp. 32-4.

[In the following review of On Grief and Reason, Greenbaum faults what she considers Brodsky's obscurity, sexism, and didacticism in the volume.]

It starts innocently enough. Perusing a book of poems or essays by Joseph Brodsky you think, "A Nobel Prize winner. He must be something." Soon on, the author mentions his friendship with Anna Akhmatova. "He must be really something," you correct yourself. Throughout the next pages Brodsky confirms this, letting on—through a lyricized avalanche of name-dropping—that he is intimate with every literary tradition since Genesis. You want to follow such intelligence to its zenith! But, oddly, you feel stranded by the work. Every now and then—sweating, bushwhacking your way through thickets of allusion-laden, sexist, self-indulgent, self-congratulatoryprose—you wonder why a celebrated man of letters like Joseph Brodsky is largely unreadable.

On Grief and Reason, Brodsky's new collection of essays, is clearly the work of a ravenous, driven, history-drenchedmind. Unlike the essays of Eavan Boland …, William Hazlitt, Philip Lopate or James Baldwin, his do not wander an expanding path, courteously leading the reader into widening revelations. Rather, Brodsky buckles you in with his credentials, then takes you on a joy ride into his own thickly rhetorical, associative, lint-collecting consciousness, dropping you in unmarked wilderness much of the time. This may appeal to adventurous readers. Depending on your temperament and on your ability to stomach an imperious posturing that never flags, you can isolate prize moments from the trip.

The first essay, "Spoils of War," starts: "In the beginning, there was canned corn beef." Brodsky's bible then re-creates, with wry impressionism, the world that the war created. This passage describes the era's Philips radio:

Through six symmetrical holes in its back, in the subdued glow and flicker of the radio tubes, in the maze of contacts, resistors, and cathodes, as incomprehensible as the languages they were generating, I thought I saw Europe. Inside, it always looked like a city at night, with scattered neon lights. And when at the age of thirty-two I indeed landed in Vienna, I immediately felt that, to a certain extent, I knew the place. To say the least, falling asleep my first nights in Vienna felt distinctly like being switched off by some invisible hand far away, in Russia.

The metaphor's an ace—vibrant while cross-indexing the subconscious and the outer world. Brodsky, a simultaneous translator of language and language's relationship to experience, enjoys these nuggets. In his essay about the inveterate traveler, "A Place as Good as Any," he describes the singularly detached observations of the tourist: "Linger by well-lit shop windows, especially those selling watches…. It's not that you need a new watch; it's just a nice way of killing time." The observations seem haunted by the blank space around the traveler, and end: "Admire the clean-swept pavement and perfect infinity of avenues: you always had a soft spot for geometry, which, as you know, means 'no people.'" It is a free translation, complete with poetic shadow.

Brodsky's infatuation with the experience and texture of English—he seems to drape his thoughts in huge bolts of it—is partially described in his essay titled "The Condition We Call Exile": "In a manner of speaking we all work for a dictionary," he says; "Because literature is a dictionary, a compendium of meanings for this or that human lot, for this or that experience. It is a dictionary of the language in which life speaks to man. Its function is to save the next man, a new arrival, from falling into an old trap."

Sometimes the actual information is the only engaging portion of an essay. In "Homage to Marcus Aurelius" (On Grief and Reason often addresses the ancients), Brodsky does a fun riff on good old equestrian statuary—what it insinuated and how superior it remains to anything modern day sculptors could imply with bronzed autos. After noting that one of the few visible equestrians of our day is Prince Philip, whose given name "is of Greek origin and means philo-hippoi: lover of horses," he writes:

Actually, there is a whole etiquette of equestrian statuary, as when a horse, for instance, rears up under the rider, it means that the latter died in battle. If all four hooves rest on the pediment, that suggests he died in his four-poster. If one leg is lifted high up in the air, then the implication is that he died of battle-related wounds; if not so high up, that he lived long enough, trotting, as it were, through his existence. You can't do that with a car.

Unfortunately, little else in the piece reads nearly as pointedly or engagingly. The long essay ends with choice passages from Aurelius's Meditations, including one especially suited to Brodsky: "Men have come into the world for the sake of one another. Either instruct them, then, or bear with them."

Not only does the author thrive on "instructing men," he thrives on instructing men. Brodsky's overt sexism, especially annoying when partnering his moral posture, breeds in his grammar and swarms the book like kudzu. The poet is male, the muse female; the artist is male, the model female, blah blah. The reader, too, is presumed male. Female companions are his "young lady," his "charge" or his "distraction," and the tone is dispassionately patronizing. Although the book conjures enough literary players to fill a stadium, Brodsky mentions—fleetingly—only three women: Akhmatova and (our sluggers!) Elizabeth Bishop and Marianne Moore.

Brodsky likes creating information, too. Pronouncements punctuate the essays: "The most definitive feature of antiquity is our absence"; "A poet is always a conceptualist rather than a colorist"; "Of course a writer always takes himself posthumously"; "On the whole, every new aesthetic reality makes man's ethical reality more precise. For aesthetics is the mother of ethics"; "Evil, especially political evil, is always a bad stylist"; "Mimicry is the defense of individuality, not its surrender." You have to assume some are just for the heck of it, like, "A nervous person should not, and in fact cannot, keep a diary." (Exit Cheever.) Some of the proclamations ring true—like the passages about ethics and aesthetics (which Keats said differently). But most sound like pedantry or the arbitrary entitlements of The Big Thinker—the academically convoluted statement about mimicry defending individuality, for example, which doesn't seem to square with his rule about aesthetics. (Consider Nazis.)

I found the most provocative statements in "Uncommon Visage," Brodsky's Nobel Lecture. "If art teaches anything—to the artist, in the first place—it is the privateness of the human condition," Brodsky writes. He then places this relationship in the context of the state:

Language and, presumably, literature are things that are more ancient and inevitable, more durable than any form of social organization. The revulsion, irony, or indifference often expressed by literature toward the state is essentially the reaction of the permanent—better yet, the infinite—againstthe temporary, against the finite. To say the least, as long as the state permits itself to interfere with the affairs of literature, literature has the right to interfere with affairs of the state.

This eloquent thesis reflects some of the collection's general concerns. Brodsky considers books to be "an anthropological development, similar essentially to the invention of the wheel … a means of transportation through the space of experience, at the speed of a turning page." Poetry distinguishes itself from other literature, he says, by using all three modes of cognition—analytical, intuitive and prophetic—at once. Wit relieves the work sometimes. Finding the thread between dictators who committed genocide despite their literacy, he writes that what Lenin, Stalin, Hitler and Mao Zedong had in common "was that their hit list was longer than their reading list."

Brodsky's other major concern is, of course, poetry, poets and poems. The book contains painstaking treatises on Frost, Rilke, Hardy and Horace, as well as a personal remembrance of Stephen Spender, who died in July 1995. The essays on the four older poets are all deeply felt, scholarly examinations—but their development is intractable. Even the devoted will have to return with microscope and tweezers. It shouldn't be the sign of intelligence to make one do so.

Brodsky's comparison of Hardy's "The Darkling Thrush" to Frost's "Come In" may shed some light on why this happens. Brodsky notes that both poems use the same bird as an extension of the poet's psyche. While Hardy waits until the sixteenth line to introduce his thrush, Frost "gets down to business in the second line." Brodsky remarks: "On the whole, this is indicative of the difference between the Americans and the British—I mean in poetry. Because of a greater cultural heritage, a greater set of references, it usually takes much longer for a Briton to set a poem in motion."

A fascinating premise (although British sonnets work pretty fast), but more true of the author himself, who seems to want to inhale all origins for a given thought, then exhale them into the essay.

Is it impossible, linguistically, to convey kaleidoscopic thinking clearly, or does Brodsky's unedited rhetoric just get in the way? Consider this passage, for example, from "Collector's Item," a baggy forty-six-page essay whose raison d'être I have yet to discern: "All of this leaves our author at the close of the twentieth century with a very bad taste in his mouth. That, of course, is to be expected in a mouth that is in its fifties. But let's stop being cute with each other, dear reader."

Dear reader yourself! Brodsky's language often bespeaks his indulgence. He admits to vagary or mixed metaphors without bothering to quit them. Instead he says, "I understand that I am out of my depth here. All I am trying to say is that…. "; or "I am mixing metaphors here, but perhaps I can justify this…. "He writes, "One shouldn't bother with such subtleties," then continues to do so.

Perhaps Brodsky should pay even more attention to himself than he does. In "How to Read a Book," he states, "The more one reads poetry, the less tolerant one becomes of any sort of verbosity…. Good style in prose is always hostage to the precision, speed, and laconic intensity of poetic diction." Yes.

Michael Harris (review date 19 February 1996)

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SOURCE: "When Society Chooses to Ignore Poetry," in Los Angeles Times, February 19, 1996, p. E3.

[In the following positive review of On Grief and Reason, Harris discusses Brodsky's views on poetry.]

An enigma strikes anyone who has read Russian literature and pondered Russia's history: How could the same country give birth to so many people of outstanding humanity—and, at the same time, as if to a wholly different species, so many murderous goons?

In these 21 essays [in On Grief and Reason], Joseph Brodsky, the Nobel Prize-winning poet who was expelled from the Soviet Union in 1972 and lived in the United States until his death on Jan. 28, not only proves himself, unsurprisingly, to be one of the good guys but comes up, quite unexpectedly, with an answer.

Poetry.

Haven't the Russians always taken poetry more seriously than anyone else? Yes and no, Brodsky says. The "celebrated Russian intelligentsia" of the 19th and early 20th centuries did, but not the mass of the nation. "Reduced … to a crude formula, the Russian tragedy is precisely the tragedy of a society in which literature turned out to be the prerogative of the minority."

The goons, in other words, never got the message. And in that sense—in failing to absorb what literature, the most highly evolved form of human speech, could have taught them—they really were a different, and inferior, species.

What about us—the democratic West? The Cold War enabled us to "externalize evil" by identifying it with communism, Brodsky warns. We forgot that "man isn't that good," that we, too, are capable of evil—as America's poets, a numerous, productive and talented tribe, a "natural resource of endurance," have been reminding us all along, if only we would listen.

Brodsky ranges widely in these essays, in a supple, pungent, idiomatic English that puts most native speakers of the language to shame. He explicates and appreciates other poets—Robert Frost, Thomas Hardy, Rainer Maria Rilke, W. H. Auden, Stephen Spender; he addresses a graduating class at the University of Michigan and (in an open letter), Czech President Vaclav Havel, a fellow writer; he discusses the Stoic Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, superspy Kim Philby and the shifting terrain of exile. He is serious and funny, blunt and indirect by turns.

He keeps coming back, though, to the idea that "aesthetics precedes ethics," that literature, in the words of his 1987 Nobel acceptance speech, is "moral insurance," and that we all need it desperately, lest we be goons too.

Is this true? Right now, it almost doesn't matter; it's so exhilarating just to hear such a blithe and fearless assertion at a time when poetry is considered, at best, a frill in educating the work force of the 21st century to "compete."

Brodsky sees a different kind of competition:

"The old adage about the poet's role in, or his duty to, his society puts the entire issue upside down," he insists.

By writing … in the language of his society, a poet takes a large step toward it. It is society's job to meet him halfway, that is, to open his book and read it….

By failing to read or listen to poets, a society dooms itself to inferior modes of articulation—of the politician, or the salesman, or the charlatan—in short, to its own. It forfeits … its own evolutionary potential….

The charge frequently leveled against poetry—that it is difficult, obscure, hermetic and whatnot—indicates not the state of poetry but, frankly, the rung of the evolutionary ladder on which society is stuck.

Seamus Heaney (essay date 3 March 1996)

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SOURCE: "The Singer of Tales: On Joseph Brodsky," in The New York Times Book Review, March 3, 1996, p. 31.

[Heaney is an Irish poet who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1995. In the tribute below, he fondly remembers Brodsky's passion for language and poetry.]

Those who knew Joseph Brodsky were well aware that his heart disease was serious and that it would probably be the death of him, but because he always existed in his friends' minds not just as a person but as some kind of principle of indestructibility, it was difficult for them to admit that he was in danger. The intensity and boldness of his genius plus the sheer exhilaration of being in his company kept you from thinking about the threat to his health; he had such valor and style, and lived at such a deliberate distance from self-pity and personal complaint, you were inclined to forget that he was as mortal as the next one. So his death in January at the age of 55 was all the more shocking and distressing. Having to speak of him in the past tense feels like an affront to grammar itself.

There was a wonderfully undoubting quality about Joseph, an intellectual readiness that was almost feral. Conversation attained immediate vertical takeoff and no deceleration was possible. Which is to say that he exemplified in life the very thing that he most cherished in poetry—the capacity of language to go farther and faster than expected and thereby provide an escape from the limitations and the preoccupations of the self. Verbally, he had a lower boredom threshold than anyone I have ever known, forever punning, rhyming, veering off and homing in, unexpectedly raising the stakes or switching tracks. Words were a kind of high octane for him, and he loved to be propelled by them wherever they took him. He also loved to put a spin on the words of others, whether by inspired misquotation or extravagant retort. Once, for example, when he was in Dublin and complaining about one of our rare heat waves, I suggested jokingly that he should take off for Iceland, and he replied in a flash, with a typical elevation and roguery, "But I could not tolerate the absence of meaning."

His own absence will be even harder to tolerate. From the moment I met him in 1972, when he was passing through London on the second leg of his journey from dissidence in Russia to exile in the United States, he was a verifying presence. His mixture of brilliance and sweetness, of the highest standards and the most refreshing common sense, never failed to be both fortifying and endearing. Every encounter with him constituted a renewal of belief in the possibilities of poetry. There was something magnificent in his bewilderment at the sheer ignorance of the demands of the art evident in the work of many poets with big reputations, just as there was something bracing about what he called "doing the laundry list" with him, which meant going over the names of contemporaries, young and old, each of us sticking up for the ones he regarded most. It was like meeting a secret sharer.

But that was a personal bonus, and in the end it is less important than what might be called his impersonal importance. This had to do with Joseph Brodsky's total conviction about the trustworthiness of poetry as a force for good—not so much "for the good of society" as for the health of the individual mind and soul. He was resolutely against any idea that put the social cart before the personal horse, anything that clad original response in a common uniform. "Herd" for Joseph would have been the opposite of "heard," but that did not lessen his passion to reinstate poetry as an integral part of the common culture of the United States.

Not that he wished to use the sports stadiums for poetry readings. If anyone happened to bring up the huge audiences that attended such events in the Soviet Union, there would be an immediate comeback: "Think of the garbage they have to listen to." In other words, Brodsky decried the yoking together of politics and poetry ("The only thing they have in common are the letters p and o"), not because he had no belief in the transformative power of poetry per se but because the political requirement changed the criteria of excellence and was likely to lead to a debasement of the language and hence to a lowering of "the plane of regard" (a favorite phrase) from which human beings viewed themselves and established their values. And his credentials for such a custodianship of the poet's role were, of course, impeccable, since his arrest and trial by the Soviet authorities in the 1960's and his subsequent banishment to a work camp near Archangel had specifically to do with his embrace of poetic vocation—a socially parasitical vocation, according to the prosecution. This had turned his case into something of an international cause célèbre and insured him immediate fame when he arrived in the West; but instead of embracing victim status and swimming with the currents of radical chic, Brodsky got down to business right away as a teacher at the University of Michigan.

Before long, however, his celebrity was based more on what he was doing in his new homeland than on what he had done in the old one. To start with, he was an electrifying speaker of his own poems in Russian, and his many appearances at universities all over the country in the 1970's brought a new vitality and seriousness to the business of poetry readings. Far from cajoling the audience with a pose of man-in-the-street low-keyness, Brodsky pitched his performance at a bardic level. His voice was strong, he knew the poems by heart and his cadences had the majesty and poignancy of a cantor's, so his performance never failed to induce a sense of occasion in all who attended. He therefore gradually began to be regarded as the figure of the representative poet, sounding prophetic even though he might demur at the notion of the prophetic role, and impressing the academics by the depth of his knowledge of poetic tradition from classical times up through the Renaissance and in modern European languages, including English.

Still, if Joseph was uneasy about the prophetic, he had no such qualms about the didactic. Nobody enjoyed laying down the law more than he, with the result that his fame as a teacher began to spread and certain aspects of his practice came to be imitated. In particular, his insistence that students learn and recite several poems by heart had considerable influence in creative writing schools all over the United States, and his advocacy of traditional form, his concentration on matters of meter and rhyme, and his high rating of nonmodernist poets like Robert Frost and Thomas Hardy also had the general effect of reawakening an older poetic memory. The climax of all this was to come with his "Immodest Proposal," made in 1991 during his term as poet laureate. Why not print poetry in millions of copies, he asked, since a poem "offers you a sample of complete … human intelligence at work" and since that same poem also tells its readers, "Be like me"? Moreover, because poetry employs memory, "it is of use for the future, not to mention the present." It can also do something for ignorance and is "the only insurance available against the vulgarity of the human heart. Therefore, it should be available to everyone in this country and at a low cost."

This mixture of barefaced challenge and passionate belief was typical of him. He was always putting the slughorn to his lips and blowing a note to call out the opposition—even the opposition within himself. He was, indeed, a walking, talking example of Yeats's notion that poetry comes out of that inner quarrel. It manifested itself in everything he did, from the urgency of his need to go into overdrive when rhyming to the incorrigible cheek of his duel with death itself every time he bared his teeth to nick the filter off a cigarette. He burned not with the hard, gemlike flame that Walter Pater proposed as an ideal but rather with a kind of flame thrower's whoosh and reach, supple and unpredictable, at once a flourish and a menace. When he used the word "tyrant," for example, I was always glad that he wasn't talking about me.

He was all for single combat. He took on stupidity as eagerly as tyranny (in his understanding, after all, the former was only another aspect of the latter), and he was as bold in conversation as he was in print. But the print is what we have of him now, and he will survive behind its black lines, in the pace of its poetic meter or its prose arguments, like Rilke's panther pacing behind black bars with a constancy and inexorability set to outpace all limit and conclusion. And he will survive too in the memories of his friends, but for them there will be an extra sweetness and poignancy in the pictures they carry—which in my own case will include that first sight of him as a young man in a red woolen shirt, scanning his audience and his fellow readers with an eye that was at once as anxious as a hedge creature's and as keen as a hawk's.

Hugh Kenner (review date 14 April 1996)

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SOURCE: "Between Two Worlds," in The New York Times Book Review, April 14, 1996, p. 14.

[In the positive review of On Grief and Reason below, Kenner praises the title essay of the collection, stating that it is "probably the best piece ever written on the poetry of Robert Frost."]

The vital information: Joseph Brodsky was born in 1940 and came to the United States in 1972 as an involuntary exile from the Soviet Union. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1987 and was Poet Laureate of the United States in 1991 and 1992. He died early this year. The essays and lectures collected in On Grief and Reason are mostly post-Nobel. A writer, then, who spent nearly half his life immersed in a language he hadn't grown up speaking.

That can be enabling; the example of Samuel Beckett in Paris comes to mind, or of Joseph Conrad in London. Conrad, who'd grown up with Polish, even had to choose whether the language for his novels would be French or English, each of which offered a stable and literate public. He is said to have chosen English because he judged the competition less formidable: no British Stendhal or Flaubert to be threatened by. Though his spoken English is reported to have been often impenetrable, his fiction abounds in local brilliances no native speaker would have thought of, like "He was densely distressed."

And Brodsky? How did he navigate between the spoken and written modes of American English? Neither offers much guidance to the other. What you say and what you write are apt to be somewhat different. To add complexity, many pieces he wrote were intended for speaking—for instance, in a football stadium at the University of Michigan. He told the 1988 graduating class, "To say the least, you were born, which is in itself half the battle, and you live in a democracy—this halfway house between nightmare and utopia—which throws fewer obstacles in the way of an individual than its alternatives." Whether the first half of that sentence grins a feeble grin or encodes a Russian profundity depends perilously on how the spoken phrases are cadenced. Verbose buffoonery of that order infests many of Brodsky's paragraphs.

But suspension between two worlds also empowered some incomparable pages. The title essay here is probably the best piece ever written on the poetry of Robert Frost. Brodsky ends a brief summary of Frost's life by proposing that both the adulation and the resentment he received had in common

a nearly total misconception of what Frost was all about. He is generally regarded as the poet of the countryside, of rural settings—as a folksy, crusty, wisecrackingold gentleman farmer, generally of positive disposition. In short, as American as apple pie. He was indeed a quintessential American poet; it is up to us, however, to find out what that quintessence is made of, and what the term "American" means as applied to poetry and, perhaps, in general.

It is enthralling to listen to Brodsky's mind at work on what the term "American" means. He very quickly separates Frost from "the continental tradition of the poet as tragic hero." No, Lionel Trilling had it right when he called Frost "terrifying." For tragedy looks back on what has happened, whereas terror pertains to what may happen. Brodsky transcribes a Frost poem, "Come In," and devotes seven pages to guiding us through it. By the time we have assented to those pages we'll have ceased to think of Frost as a folksy farmer. "The 20 lines of the poem constitute, as it were, the title's translation. And in this translation, I am afraid, the expression 'come in' means 'die.'" But the essay still has 32 pages to run, and in them Brodsky turns from Frost "at his lyrical best" to confront "his narrative best": the poem "Home Burial." He commences by proposing that Frost is "a very Virgilian poet," though not the Virgil of the Aeneid, not the Virgil of the Eclogues and Georgics. "With few exceptions," Brodsky ventures, "American poetry is essentially Virgilian, which is to say contemplative."

"Yet Frost's affinity with Virgil is not so much temperamental as technical," he says.

Frost and Virgil have in common a tendency to hide the real subject matter of their dialogues under the monotonous, opaque sheen of their respective pentameters and hexameters. A poet of extraordinary probing and anxiety, the Virgil of the Eclogues and the Georgics is commonly taken for a bard of love and country pleasures, just like the author of North of Boston.

Frost's "Home Burial" begins: "He saw her from the bottom of the stairs / Before she saw him"—on which Brodsky confers the adjective "Hitchcockian." He'll have us imagine this line and a half "sitting on the page all by itself, in minimalist fashion." Now "place yourself in either position—better in his—and you'll see what I mean. Imagine yourself observing, watching somebody or imagine yourself being watched. Imagine yourself interpreting someone's movements—or immobility—unbeknownst to that person. That's what turns you into a hunter, or into Pygmalion." What renders this account gripping is that its author speaks with the authority of experience. This is how poets work: they set up tensions in a dozen words, for the next half-dozen words to interact with. A familiar instance: "Let us go then, you and I, / When the evening is spread out against the sky." That unnerves with portent. Who speaks? And does the "you" address me, the reader? Or someone other than the speaker and me? And go where? Whereupon a third line impinges abruptly on our unease—"Like a patient etherized upon a table." So poems proceed; and attention must regroup, redeploy itself, in very brief stretches. The familiar "Yes, but what does it mean?" derives from an assumption that meaning exists only once the poem is complete. But if our way of reading is to wait impatiently for that moment we'll have experienced nothing.

For this essay on Frost, for an equally probing one on four poems by Thomas Hardy, for an "Homage to Marcus Aurelius" for half a hundred pages on an English translation of a poem Rainer Maria Rilke wrote in German 90 years ago, and for many scattered felicities, this collection is occasion for gratitude. It is rare for someone so advantageously situated, within poetry but both within and outside of American speech, culture and experience, to confide in us with such pedagogic confidence.

Further Reading

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Criticism

Billington, James H. "The Poet Who Proved the Power of Words." Washington Post (January 30, 1996): D1.

Tribute by the librarian of Congress who appointed Brodsky poet laureate of the United States.

Phillips, William. "Intellectuals and Writers since the Thirties." Partisan Review LIX, No. 4 (Fall 1992): 531-58.

Transcript of a panel led by Phillips with writers Saul Bellow, Ralph Ellison, Czeslaw Milosz, and Brodsky. The writers discuss such subjects as the role of writers and intellectuals, history, Eastern European literature, and the influence of religion on society.

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