The Poem

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 786

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Joseph Brodsky’s sequence comprises fifteen sections, each twelve lines in length (with the single exception of section three, which is sixteen lines). The sections are written in accordance with formal metrics and employ a variety of rhyme schemes and sound patterns to underscore the thematic concerns. Alternating between a first-person singular and a more impersonal, omniscient voice, the individual poems create a collage of perspectives around the central themes of time, exile, and alienation.

The title, “A Part of Speech,” indicates two of the sequence’s primary concerns. One is the sense of an incomplete and fragmented vision arising from the condition of displacement, loss and alienation; the second concern relates directly to the notion of language as a continuum and the poet’s sense of his partial voice, of the difficulties inherent in speech and expression under these conditions.

The first section introduces the speaker’s biographical situation and its relation to poetic expression. The section becomes an ars poetica, an explanation of his poetics, and an invocation to the muse, tying the nature of his temporal and spatial condition to language and creativity itself. Of particular interest is the stress on sound—the importance of articulation (voice) and the emphasis placed on reception (hearing), the two components necessary for successful speech and poetry.

Section 2 begins the process of elaboration, picking up on the initial geographic and climatic references. Here, the effects of the climate, the power of bitter cold to destroy and the desire it engenders for warmth and inclusion, become analogies for the speaker’s psychological and political situation. Brodsky is mapping the condition of a psyche at odds with its environment, grappling with the displacements of time and space, and using the structures of the language itself to embody this reality.

The next section provides a more extreme example, linking exile and loss to linguistic indeterminacies and mental instability. Here, language cannot fix meanings and memory cannot reconstruct or revive a lost reality. The fourth section develops on this idea of indeterminacy and presents an exploration of the fallibility of observation. This examination of how reality is shaped by the observer plays on the concept of altered perspectives by introducing images of distorted vision, of reading and misreading.

Section 5 shifts the focus back toward the poet-seer, illustrating how he recognizes (re-thinks, or re-formulates) images of nature, finding in their naturally determined situations parallels for historical and political determinisms. By doing so, he is moving outside these temporal spheres and shaping experience in accordance with his muse—language.

The next section provides another perspective on consciousness with its illustration of recollection. A glimpse of dawn stimulates memories of a childhood classroom, boredom and ennui—of an early alienation. Section 7 is constructed around the opposite trait: forgetfulness. In this poem, the speaker re-creates memories of a northern village to replace the emptiness of a lost love.

The eighth section expands the theme of memory by relating a prosperous post-war Munich and the realities of its immediate past. The images of present material comfort and sensual enjoyment are ironically undercut by resonances from the imperial and Fascist past. The poet is indicting the failure of memory to protect humankind from tyrannies. The association of this forgetfulness with summer, a time of freedom and pleasure, creates an ironic perspective on the complacencies of the West—an image reiterated in the final poem of the sequence.

The next two sections shift toward a more pastoral vision, where the poet links the natural images of order and continuity. In both instances this entails the recognition of balances and limitations—in section 9, between time and space, and in section 10, between the forces of life and death. Under these strictures, in the context of an eternal present, connection with the Other seems possible.

Sections 11 and 12 continue this exploration of natural imagery in relation to the role of the artist. Both postulate the idea of completion, the added dimension of language. Section 11, by drawing on Immanuel Kant’s notion of synthetic judgment, suggests a potential for meaning and a hope of futurity. The poet, in the following section, comes to embody this synthesis by assuming a hybrid form, that of the centaur.

The last three sections of “A Part of Speech” draw together elements of the speaker’s alienated condition, the potential offered by vision and language, and a warning about the dangers of freedom. Against the silence of repression, the erosion of meaning and the assault upon language, Brodsky sets the poet’s part: “his spoken parta part of speech.” The last poems function as warnings against the seductions of freedom, the assault upon memory and the dulling of vision inherent in the endless summer days of the West.