One demands two things of a poem. Firstly, it must be a well-made verbal object that does honor to the language in which it is written. Secondly, it must say something significant about a reality common to us all, but perceived from a unique perspective. What the poet says has never been said before, but, once he has said it, his readers recognize its validity for themselves.
A really accurate judgment upon a poem as a verbal object can, of course, only be made by persons who are masters of the same mother tongue as its maker. Knowing no Russian and therefore forced to base my judgment on English translations, I can do little more than guess about the poems of Joseph Brodsky. My chief reason for believing that Professor Kline’s translations do justice to their originals is that they convince me that Brodsky is an excellent craftsman. For example, in his long poem “Elegy to John Donne,” the word “sleep” occurs, if I have counted rightly, fifty-two times. Such repetition might very easily have become irritating and affected: in fact, it is handled with consummate art.
Again, it is clear from the translations that Mr. Brodsky commands many tones of voice, from the lyric (“A Christmas Ballad”) to the elegiac (“Verses on the Death of T. S. Eliot”) to the comic-grotesque (“Two Hours in an Empty Tank”), and can handle with equal ease a wide variety of rhymes and meters, short lines, long lines, iambics, anapaestics, masculine rhymes and feminine, as in “Adieu, Mademoiselle Véronique”:
If I end my days in the shelter of dove-wings,
which well may be, since war’s meat-grinder
is now the prerogative of small nations,
since, after manifold combinations,
Mars has moved closer to palms and cacti,
and I myself wouldn’t hurt a housefly….
About the uniqueness and, at the same time, universal relevance of a poet’s vision, it is easier for a foreigner to judge, since this does not primarily depend upon the language in which it is written.
Mr. Brodsky is not an easy poet, but even a cursory reading will reveal that, like Van Gogh and Virginia Woolf, he has an extraordinary capacity to envision material objects as sacramental signs, messengers from the unseen. Here are a few examples.
But this house cannot stand its emptiness.
The lock alone—it seems somehow ungallant—
is slow to recognize the tenant’s touch
and offers brief resistance in the darkness.
The fire, as you can hear, is dying down.
The shadows in the corners have been shifting.
It’s now too late to shake a fist at them
or yell at them to stop what they are doing.
A hand that holds a pillow fast
is creeping down a polished bed- post,
making its way to a cloud breast
by this inept and tongue-tied ges- ture.
A sock, torn on a jagged rock,
twists in the dark; its curve is swan-like.
Its funnel mouth is all …