The Poem

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

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.

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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.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 528

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 at the beginning of section 10.

A more specific example of Brodsky’s attention to form can be found in a brief examination of section three. Here, the poet employs a variety of devices to delineate the psychological turmoil of the speaker; whether it is the passionate anguish of the lover, the despair of the exile, or the complexities of an artist’s relation to his muse. Aside from its deviation from the standard lengths of the sections, this is also the only poem to adopt an epistolary form, playing on the associations of letter-writing with direct personal address. But these expectations are undercut by an onslaught of indeterminacies: the place is nowhere, the addressee is irrelevant, and the date uncertain. The lack of punctuation, coupled with the complicated clausal structure of the syntax, gives this poem a sense of breathlessness and creates a stream-of-consciousness effect that fits perfectly with the subject matter of passion, loss, and madness. A further accent to the heightened emotion of the speaker is the progressively stronger nature of the rhymes, becoming more pronounced as the tension of the poem builds. The cloistered, confined perspective of the speaker finds its mirror image in the bracketing of individual lines by repetition, assonance, and alliteration. The sound quality of the verse is extremely important to Brodsky, remarking as he has that “soundis the seat of time in the poem, a background against which its content acquires a stereoscopic quality.” The immediacy of the connection between subject and self, the image of the double so central to the poem, is reflected in these echoes, in the very textures of the verse. Throughout the sequence Brodsky brings the metrical voice of the poetry into play.

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