The Poem

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 entire section is 786 words.)

Forms and Devices

One of the most striking features of Brodsky’s work is his unstinting allegiance to formalism. He understands traditional metrics to be one of the greatest challenges for a poet, the discipline of creating a vibrant, unpredictable expression within the strictures of strict metrical forms. Commenting on the formal verse of Anna Akhmatova, a Russian poet he very much admires, Brodsky suggests she avoided the comic or redundant echo of the metrics by a “collage-like diversification of the content.” The meter, set against this wealth of seemingly unrelated material, acts as a “common denominator” binding them together, becoming a part of the act of speech, the means of articulation. His emulation of this practice can be observed even in the translated version of “A Part of Speech,” in how the rhyme scheme works in tandem with the emotional or intellectual flow of the verses, how the qualities of assonance and alliteration highlight or comment on the material. As he suggests in the first section, his verse was formed by the “zinc-gray breakers that always marched on/ in twos. Hence all rhymes, hence that wan flat voice/ that ripples between them.” This respect for the lineage and traditions of poetry permeates all of Brodsky’s poetics, both in terms of his use of formal metrics and in his intertextual references—for example, the use of elements from Nikolai Gogol’s story “Diary of a Madman” in section 3, or an oblique reference to Robert Lowell...

(The entire section is 528 words.)