A Struggle Against Suffocation

A Part of Speech

by Joseph Brodsky
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 152 pp., $12.95

Joseph Brodsky
Joseph Brodsky; drawing by David Levine

The strong presence of Joseph Brodsky has needed less than a decade to establish itself in world poetry. Yet of his four books published in Russian, only one, Selected Poems, was translated into English, by George L. Kline. Probably, by a sort of instinct, the cultured public vaguely feels, if not clearly comprehends, his stature. His poetry has attracted good translators, as the present volume shows. On the other hand, the reader of his work enters a huge building of strange architecture (a cathedral? an ICBM site?) at his own risk, since critics and literary scholars have not yet begun to compile literary guidebooks to it.

In syllables, feet, rhyme, stanzas Brodsky follows a tradition, but not slavishly. The very nature of the Russian language seems to have determined a peculiar brand of modernism in our century: innovation within strict metrical patterns. Russian verse in this respect is different from its English, French, and also Polish, Czech, and Serbo-Croatian counterparts. Brodsky’s colloquialisms, slang expressions, and words not met with in literary usage would seem to call for the freedom of William Carlos Williams’s “spoken” rhythms. Instead, together with a web of metaphors, often sustained and enlarged through several stanzas, they make up a pattern of lines to be half sung, half recited. In his practice of poetry as a vocation, Brodsky observes rules of craftsmanship going back to the late eighteenth-century poet Derzhavin. In his experiments with poetic genres—ode, lyrical poem, elegy, descriptive poem, the story in verse—he resembles Auden. The obstacles such poetry presents to transplantation into another language should add to our surprise when we see how Brodsky comes through in English and finds an attentive ear, at least among serious readers.

The secret lies, probably, in the way he reverses some of the trends that have dominated poetry for the last half century. These trends were based on certain unavowed premises which, as is common in the history of ideas, are fated not to be overcome in direct combat, but simply bypassed. Brodsky grew up in the Soviet Union, but being self-educated he has remained impervious to its imposed and largely accepted modes of thinking. During his years of exile, since 1972, he has also preserved a skeptical distance from the intellectual fashions of his new milieu. At the same time, he does not resemble those recent Russian immigrants who stay in their Slavic shell and are mistrustful of the evil West. Looking for his roots, we must turn to the era of European cosmopolitanism, which came to an end with the outbreak of World War I, and ended in Russia with the Revolution. Brodsky takes over where young Osip Mandelstam and young Anna Akhmatova were stopped.

This does not mean, though, that the post-revolutionary decades, so tragic for Russian poetry, did not leave a durable impression on his view of the world. Behind Brodsky’s poetry is the…

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