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Joseph Brodsky’s Less Than One is a collection of essays, most of which were written in English. That in itself would be unremarkable, save that they were written by a major Russian poet, one who won the 1987 Nobel Prize in Literature, who, while continuing to write verse in his...

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Joseph Brodsky’s Less Than One is a collection of essays, most of which were written in English. That in itself would be unremarkable, save that they were written by a major Russian poet, one who won the 1987 Nobel Prize in Literature, who, while continuing to write verse in his native language, switched to prose in a tongue he had learned only as an adult. Brodsky was well established as a poet by the time he took up prose. His work was eagerly read in the Soviet Union despite the fact that practically none of it had been published there. It had, however, been published in the United States and translated into a number of languages. It was and is considered “difficult” by some: full of classical allusion side by side with contemporary slang and adroit rhyme and inventive metrics that push at the boundaries of the traditional forms.

The reason for Brodsky’s switch was in part geographical, which in modern terms has come to mean political as well; in 1972, he found himself exiled from his homeland, apparently forever. Moreover, he found himself in the United States and thus bound to earn a living in an English-speaking world. Yet the reasons Brodsky himself gives are less flatly pragmatic: It was not out of necessity, as for Joseph Conrad, ambition, as for Vladimir Nabokov, or a wish for estrangement, as for Samuel Beckett, that he took to composing in a foreign language but out of the desire to bring himself closer to W.H. Auden—whom he considers “the finest mind of the twentieth century.” That is quite a claim both for Auden and his admirer, but it is typical of Brodsky—a combination of private modesty and intellectual audacity. Any imitation is a stage long since past, however, and what these essays show is an original and independent mind at work—at work on his fellow poets, on Russian literature and European culture, on his own past and his city’s.

The pieces in Less Than One are arranged in the order of their writing, though they need not be read that way. Some were written as speeches or class lectures, such as “A Commencement Address” or “On ‘September 1, 1939,’ by W.H. Auden.” Others were commissioned for various journals or as book introductions. Calling the book an intellectual autobiography would be a bit misleading, since that implies some prior intention on the author’s part and here the linear impulse comes after the fact, in Brodsky’s choice of frame. He begins and ends the collection with the most personal and autobiographical of all the essays, starting with “Less Than One” (1976) and ending with “In a Room and a Half” (1985). The title essay is a recollection of the boy’s unsentimental education first in Soviet schools and then—as soon as possible—out of them. The title itself refers to the ironic sum of self made up of both child and adult but fully neither. In the years separating this essay and “In a Room and a Half,” Brodsky’s parents died and the portion of communal apartment that had been their only home as a family was reassigned. In this last, lengthy piece, Brodsky reflects on their life and his, together and apart— or more precisely, on his existence as a part of theirs and on their life distinct from his.

The sixteen essays framed by these two vary according to their subject and purpose. “On Tyranny,” for example, was written after Leonid Brezhnev’s death, though it never mentions him by name. It has an air of both ironic eulogy and mild scientific curiosity about a subspecies, the tyrant-bureaucrat. The tone is casual, ironic, conversational; the subject is not. “Guide to a Renamed City” and “Flight from Byzantium” might loosely fit into the travel genre, with architectural views leading into past and present empires. The latter piece is a wry and unashamedly subjective look at Christendom (especially the Orthodox version) and Islam, prefaced by a half-serious caution to the reader not to believe everything in print— especially not this.

The bulk of the essays are discussions of poets and poetics, both Russian and Western. A poet’s real biography is like a bird’s, according to Brodsky, “in his vowels and sibilants, in his meters, rhymes, and metaphors.” Nevertheless, Brodsky’s approach has nothing to do with theoretical explorations of “texts” in isolation from the mind that created them—the mind of Anna Akhmatova, for example, who managed to find speech for her nation’s almost unspeakable grief during the Stalin era. Besides Akhmatova, he writes about Marina Tsvetayeva and Osip Mandelstam, the other two great Russian poets of this century; his choices in the West include Auden, Constantine P. Cavafy, Eugenio Montale, and Derek Walcott. Brodsky takes on prose, too, at short range in his obituary for Nadezhda Mandelstam and his discussion of survivors of nineteenth century prose’s dive into the twentieth century, “Catastrophes in the Air.” He ranges from detailed consideration of line-by-line poetics in such pieces as “Footnote to a Poem” and “On ‘September 1, 1939’ by W.H. Auden” to broader considerations of language and culture, culture and history, history and time, all of which eventually run up against notions of good and evil.

Less than One

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Joseph Brodsky is considered by many contemporary critics to be not only the finest poet currently writing in Russian but also one of the preeminent living poets. A Soviet Jewish exile since 1972, Brodsky has been poet-in-residence at several American universities, notably the University of Michigan and Columbia University. Less Than One is a generous collection of his essays on such Russian poets as Anna Akhmatova, Marina Tsvetaeva, and Osip Mandelstam; the Russian prose writers Fyodor Dostoevski and Andrey Platonov; the Western poets W. H. Auden, Constantine Cavafy, Dante, Eugenio Montale, and Derek Walcott; the cities of Constantinople, Alexandria, and Saint Petersburg/Leningrad; and two largely autobiographical memoirs serving as opening and concluding chapters: “Less Than One” and “In a Room and a Half.”

In “Less Than One,” Brodsky introduces two themes that he will weave through most of his work: his conviction that poetry is man’s supreme achievement (even a writer’s “biography is in his twists of language”), and his personal sense of estrangement, isolation, solitude (“the rest of my life can be viewed as a nonstop avoidance of its most importunate aspects”). His tone is candidly intimate, self-confident, sometimes astringent, but never self-pitying. His prose is energetic, incisive, often eloquent, occasionally grandiose.

Brodsky’s parents lived in a cramped apartment, termed “a room and a half,” in Saint Petersburg (he abhors the city’s Soviet name, Leningrad); the poverty, vigor, and cleanliness of his parents constitute his first memories. His father was a journalist and photographer who became a naval officer during World War II, then served as curator of the photography department in Saint Petersburg’s Navy Museum, which the boy would visit admiringly. The son recalls frequent walks home with his father from what he regarded as the city’s most magnificent edifice. He yearns for the splendor of Russia’s naval history, poor in victories but rich in “nobility of spirit”:

To this day, I think that the country would do a hell of a lot better if it had for its national banner not that foul double-headed imperial fowl or the vaguely masonic hammer-and-sickle, but the flag of the Russian Navy: our glorious, incomparably beautiful flag of St. Andrew: the diagonal blue cross against a virgin-white background.

In 1950, the poet’s father was demobilized because of a Stalinist decree that no Jew could rise higher than a commander’s rank in the navy. At the age of forty-seven, he began a new, unstable career as an itinerant free-lance photographer, while the mother earned an equally meager living as a council clerk. Joseph left his schooling at fifteen to contribute to the family’s income by working in a factory. After a year as a milling-machine operator, he became a hospital morgue attendant and began writing poems. When he applied for admission to a submarine academy, he was rejected because he was Jewish.

Brodsky’s reminiscences are vague about his subsequent imprisonment. All that is known is that he had already made a reputation as a talented poet when Soviet authorities summoned him before a Leningrad court in 1964 to answer to the charge of “social parasitism”: he was sentenced to three years’ servitude in a kolkhoz near the Arctic Circle. By 1972, the Soviets had decided that they had had enough of this rebellious individualist and exiled him to Vienna. From there, Carl Proffer, a professor of Russian literature at the University of Michigan, took Brodsky to W. H. Auden’s summer house in the Austrian village of Kirchstetten. Auden gave him shelter and friendship.

In a glowing essay, “To Please a Shadow,” Brodsky anoints Auden as “the greatest mind of the twentieth century” and states that in 1977, after only five years’ residence in the United States, he undertook to write in English to please the shadow of the Anglo-American poet who had died in 1973. Brodsky had been reading Auden’s work in “limp and listless” Russian translations since the early 1960’s; while hauling manure in Siberia he was confronted by Auden’s “In Memory of W. B. Yeats”: Auden’s poetry, and photographs of his deeply lined face, kept him company during the difficult years before his ejection from his homeland. In the summer and fall of 1972, during what turned out to be Auden’s last year, the older poet became Brodsky’s mentor and sometime companion, even though Brodsky did not share Auden’s homosexual proclivities. The Russian’s last memory of Auden is of seeing him perched atop two volumes of the Oxford English Dictionary while dining at a high table: “I thought then that I was seeing the only man who had the right to use those volumes as his seat.”

Brodsky is the only Russian poet who has successfully achieved bilingual status after having been uprooted. Vladimir Nabokov’s is the only other remotely parallel history, but the latter spoke English since his childhood, and for him, as a writer of fiction, the challenge of adaptation was far easier. The first volume of Brodsky’s poems to appear in English was Elegy to John Donne and Other Poems (1967), translated by Nicolas Bethell, followed by Selected Poems (1973), translated by George L. Kline, and A Part of Speech (1980), which combined Russian works translated by such distinguished peers as Richard Wilbur, Derek Walcott, and Howard Moss, with poems written by Brodsky in English during the late 1970’s.

Brodsky’s adroit mastery of the lyric and elegiac modes has been hailed by Auden, Stephen Spender, and other poet-critics. In his introduction to Brodsky’s Selected Poems, Auden expressed his admiration for the Russian’s command of diverse tones of voice and variety of rhymes and meters. He compared Brodsky to Vincent van Gogh and Virginia Woolf in his “capacity to envision material objects as sacramental signs, messengers from the unseen. . . . For Brodsky, as for Rilke and Eliot, poetic language has the same degree of ’reality’ as the world; words regularly interact with things.”

Two key images inform Brodsky’s poetry: One is of his native land, rodina, which he writes about eschatologically, as the realm where an individual or community stands stripped before God; the other is separation, razluka—the apartness of one aspect of the self from other aspects, from other people, from life, from God. Pain, loss, pessimistic introspection, martyrology, and religiosity are the poems’ overriding moods, with Brodsky rooting his perception of God in an earth-centered, Old Testament perspective from which he identifies with an Isaac or a Jacob. He is, however, also attracted to the Christian motifs of the Nativity and Crucifixion as signs of both the limits of mortality and triumph over death.

Brodsky’s poetry is notable for its embrace of a worldwide culture. To be sure, he reaches deeply into Russian tradition, being particularly drawn to the lofty yet rugged idioms of Gavrila Derzhavin. Yet he draws more heavily on the English Metaphysicals—John Donne’s dramatic spiritual discourses and intellectual complexity have influenced Brodsky since the early 1960’s. From Donne he naturally moved to T. S. Eliot’s poetry, particularly in the use of a persona or speaker, as in “Anno Domini.” He has learned not only from the masterful modern Russian poets Mandelstam, Akhmatova, and Tsvetaeva, but also from Greek and Roman literature, Dante, Cesare Pavese, Montale, and Auden.

Joseph Brodsky is thus a unifier of East and West, tradition and modernity, whose work serves as a vital link between the silver age of early twentieth century Russian poetry and the Western achievement of Eliot, Auden, Cavafy, and others. In Less Than One, which won the 1986 National Book Critics Circle Award for literary criticism, he plays a number of variations on the primary theme of poetry’s primacy. What, he asks, does it mean to be a poet? What role can poetry perform in the community at large?

The answer that Brodsky gives, again and again, is reminiscent of the views of both Rainer Maria Rilke and Percy Bysshe Shelley: Not only is the poet superior to the prose writer, but also metrical language is civilization’s Himalayan glory, its highest altitude. Thus he salutes Akhmatova, whose poetry was refused publication from 1922 on: Her poems “will survive because language is older than state and because prosody always survives history. In fact, it hardly needs history; all it needs is a poet, and Akhmatova was just that.” Of Mandelstam’s persecution by the state, Brodsky writes:A poet gets into trouble because of his linguistic, and, by implication, his psychological superiority, rather than because of his politics. 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. And the number of its adversaries grows proportionally.

Reflecting on Nadezhda Mandelstam’s splendid testimony to her husband’s genius in her twin memoirs, Hope Against Hope (1970) and Hope Abandoned (1972), Brodsky builds this syllogistic pyramid: Reality is given its meaning only through perception; the most valuable perceptions are the most refined and sensitive; refinement and sensitivity are imparted by civilization; civilization’s main instrument is language; the monarch of language is poetry; and Osip Mandelstam’s wife and widow, in possession of “the best Russian poetry of the twentieth century,” has therefore recorded a version of reality that is “unchallengeable. . . . Basically, talent doesn’t need history.” In an essay on Tsvetaeva, Brodsky raises his paeans to poetry to religious exaltation: “Ideally. . . it 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.”

It would be a disservice to the nature of these essays if the reader were left with the impression that Brodsky is content to limit his criticism to a lyrical celebration of poetry as the most valuable carrier of culture. In “Footnote to a Poem,” he subjects Tsvetaeva’s poem “Novogodnee” (“New Year’s Greetings”) to a stringent generic, linguistic, and biographical analysis: The poem is an elegy to the memory of a great poet who was also an intimate friend, Rainer Maria Rilke, and as such the lyrical monologue is also a self-portrait. Above all, it is an intensely moving confession, with the author using Rilke as her trusted confidant, whom she elevates from dead mortal to an idealized immortal, “who has ceased being a body in space and has become a soul—in eternity.” The result is “a maximum tension of poetic diction.” Brodsky then analyzes the poem’s structure with minute care, noting Tsvetaeva’s preference of trochees and dactyls over iambs, her skillful use of the caesura and truncated metrical foot, her fondness for dactyline endings, her surpassing precision of detail, her balance of ecstatic charges with grounding prosaisms.

The seventy-two-page analysis, “Footnote to a Poem,” is rivaled by the fifty-two-page tribute to Auden’s ninety-nine-line poem, “September 1, 1939,” which was delivered as a lecture at Columbia, taped and transcribed by two students. Here Brodsky again uses a formidable arsenal of historical, biographical, and prosodic knowledge, including subtle distinctions between British and American idiomatic usage—Auden wrote the poem within weeks of leaving England for the United States. Brodsky’s tone is chattily colloquial: “Words and the way they sound are more important for a poet than ideas and convictions.” Yet his mind is in high metaphorical and metaphysical gear, though mellowed by the nostalgia of his attachment to the dead poet. He examines the poem’s organization brick by brick, with acutely alert attention to theme, rhythm, metrics, imagery, symbolism, tone, voice, political context, stanzaic patterning, literary tradition, Auden’s life—the works. The result is an inspired invitation, not only to visit this particular poem but also to befriend the muse of poetry.

In a stirring address to the 1984 graduating class of Williams College, Brodsky posits extreme individualism as the most effective antidote to evil. He cites an overtly autobiographical anecdote: In a Soviet prison camp, the inmates were challenged to a grueling “socialist competition” in lumber chopping, with the guards pitted against the prisoners. By noon all were tired, by late afternoon they were totally exhausted. One young man, however—guess who?—kept swinging his ax through the lunch break and into the night, before he finally stopped. The result was that “for the rest of his stay in that prison, no call for socialist competition between guards and inmates was issued again, although the wood kept piling up.” Brodsky draws a lesson from this episode analogous to the message of Jaroslav Haek’s The Good Soldier Schweik (1921-1923): “Evil can be made absurd through excess. . . . The victory that is possible here is not a moral but an existential one.”

In an overriding sense, Brodsky’s essays are also Schweikian: He knows that he can defeat neither the totalitarian politics of the twentieth century nor a technologically oriented culture’s indifference to poetry. Any frontal assault would be futile. He therefore uses his talent to expose, to a minority of discerning readers, the meaninglessness of contemporary history and the void of a mechanized age. All Brodsky has at his disposal are his gifts as a major poet and challenging critic; he makes the most of them, working into the spiritual night.


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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 73

Bayley, John. Review in The New York Review of Books. XXXIII (June 12, 1986), p. 3.

Brown, E.J. “Exiles, Early and Late,” in Russian Literature Since the Revolution, 1982.

Heaney, Seamus. “Brodsky’s Nobel: What the Applause Was About,” in The New York Times Book Review. XCII (November 8, 1987), p. 1.

Monas, Sidney. “Words Devouring Things: The Poetry of Joseph Brodsky,” in World Literature Today. LVII (Spring, 1983), pp. 214-218.

Sheppard, R.Z. Review in Time. CXXVII (April 7, 1986), p. 7.

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