Less Than One Critical Essays

Joseph Brodsky


(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

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...

(The entire section is 1250 words.)