Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1250
When Brodsky was serving time on charges of “social parasitism” in the far north of the Soviet Union, someone sent him an anthology of English poetry. In it was Auden’s “In Memory of W.B. Yeats”; in that, he read some deceptively simple lines: “Time . . . worships language and forgives/ Everyone by whom it lives.” These words, writes Brodsky in “To Please a Shadow,” set moving a “train of thought . . . still trundling to this day.”
That train of thought moves through these essays at a rate considerably faster than a trundle, and the questions which are its components are central to Brodsky’s work in general, be it poetry or prose:If time worships language, it means that language is greater, or older, than time, which is, in its turn, older and greater than space. . . . So if time—which is synonymous with, nay, even absorbs deity—worships language, where then does language come from? . . . And then isn’t language a repository of time? And isn’t this why time worships it? And isn’t a song, or a poem, or indeed a speech itself, with its caesuras, pauses, spondees, and so forth, a game language plays to restructure time? And aren’t those by whom language “lives” those by whom times does too? And if time “forgives” them, does it do so out of generosity or out of necessity? And isn’t generosity a necessity anyhow?
Time, space, deity, structure, forgiveness, generosity, necessity—these are the terms of Brodsky’s own verse, and they are the ones he applies to the verse of others. Language and time have in part to do with tradition—in part to do with form and voice—and both have to do with memory. Language and space have less to do with white fields on the printed page than with geography and loss. Another way to characterize Brodsky’s frames of reference might be to call them borders— temporal, spatial, and spiritual equivalents of wit’s end.
Language, writes Brodsky, can at least point to some opening when one reaches that end. It has its own intuition and its own dynamic, which can take the writer beyond the limitations of either his person or his creed. At that point, song becomes metaphysics, or prayer. What is important to remember here is that Brodsky is not talking about some otherworldly, higher reality when he calls poetry prayer or metaphysics or the essence of world culture. He is talking about an alternate reality, these things made palpable, concrete; if slang or the vernacular makes them so, then they should be used. The language has just extended its possibilities, not reduced them.
Thus, what the poet writes may be better than the poet himself, or the writing of it may change him more than it changes any reader. This is where aesthetics and ethics meet: in those questions of forgiveness and generosity, of memory and survival, for a single person, a culture, a species. What is poetry but “a mnemonic device allowing one’s brain to retain a world,” he says, and what is literature but the “linguistic equivalent of thinking”? Rhyme, then, is not a clever trick or tired allegiance to acceptable harmonies but refined attention, a way of recognizing the connections among seemingly disparate things, an uncommon and uncoerced view of the world: “A song is a form of linguistic disobedience, and its sound casts a doubt on a lot more than a concrete political system: it questions the entire existential order.” Osip Mandelstam’s poetry was not so much politically suspect as it was linguistically impossible in Joseph Stalin’s day; thus, the poet was hounded, then arrested, then killed.
Questioning the entire existential order is what Fyodor Dostoevski’s prose does and what Leo Tolstoy’s does not; when Russian prose followed Tolstoy’s work, contends Brodsky, it took the path of least resistance. It mimicked a style that was mimetic to start with and finished with the observed world as an absolute. Confronted with one of history’s greatest upheavals, it settled for empirical description on a grand scale, which very quickly settled into catalogs of a reality taken for granted and which included both visual and verbal cliche. Prose written in opposition—such as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s—uses the same conventional syntax, the same narrative technique, the same means and the same assumptions. Franz Kafka, Samuel Beckett, and James Joyce changed those terms for Western fiction. The characteristics of modernist fiction—fragments, absurdity—at least approximate those of the twentieth century itself. Only Andrei Platonov and a handful of others have been willing or able to attempt the same change of face for Russian prose.
Despite the avid worship of Alexander Pushkin practiced in the Soviet Union, poetry has managed to avoid prose’s downfall, and the St. Petersburg tradition has survived—although many of its poets have not. Brodsky is an heir to that tradition, defined less by a common style than by an attitude toward world culture and its Russian forms. For all Brodsky’s acknowledged debt to Auden, his prose owes as much to his native poetry and his native city, not merely to individual poets such as Akhmatova and Mandelstam but also to the intellectual atmosphere reigning there. To explain St. Petersburg/ Leningrad is to explain much about Russian cultural and spiritual life during the last two centuries. The city’s peremptory founding by Peter the Great, its cost in lives (both to build and, some two hundred years later, to defend), its shaky position on the swampy edge of the empire and in the hearts of Russian nationalists (Moscow was always on firmer ground) all combined to make the place a magnificent but uncomfortable embodiment of Russian ambivalence: West versus East, reason versus intuition, us versus them. There are few cities on earth so shaped by idea—first by planners, then by poets—that any literate person reared there is bound to run up against an eerie blend of reality and illusion, Rasputin just down the street from Raskolnikov, real houses made famous by fictional dwellers.
Thus, though Brodsky may relegate space to the status of an inferior force, his own sensibilities have been shaped by his city’s spatial dimensions as much as by its cultural ones: the low, seemingly infinite expanses of skyline, boulevard, and square; the flat Neva River and the Gulf of Finland beyond; porticoes, caryatids, and colonnades that repeat themselves on land and water both. Brodsky’s memoir-essays describe the city as a walker might, a walker invited by those perspectives, he says, to continue walking. Leningrad’s streets, then, might be the physical equivalent of Auden’s stanzas.
One of the key concerns in all these essays is civilization. Here his own style provides as good a definition as any: Erudite, but easy and colloquial, it unites diverse people and periods without generalizing away their particular traits. The emperor Constantine rates the same stylistic treatment as the poet Constantine Cavafy: no more formal, but no less. The resulting impression is not of a leveling of hierarchies, but of a cultural continuity, language providing the closeness that time does not. Brodsky’s pervasive irony, common sense, and wit have little to do with notions of the enigmatic Slavic soul, and while English syntax and its built-in intonations may be responsible in part, Brodsky is translating a sensibility, not exchanging one. He has remained fully a Russian poet while becoming an English essayist.