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Brodsky’s Poetry

In response to:

Three Poems from the April 5, 1973 issue

To the Editors:

It was with the greatest imaginable surprise that I read, in George Kline’s article on Joseph Brodsky [NYR, April 5], the following assertion: “His poetic achievement during the decade since 1962 bears comparison in my judgment with that of thirty-two-year-old Anna Akhmatova (as of 1921), the thirty-two-year-old Boris Pasternak (as of 1922), and the thirty-two-year-old Marina Tsvetayeva and Osip Mandelstam (both as of 1924).” Professor Kline then describes those poets as the four giants of twentieth-century Russian poetry and expresses his confidence that Brodsky will one day stand beside them.

Far be it from me to detract from Brodsky’s poetic achievement. I was largely responsible for the publication, in 1965 (while the author was in his exile in the Far North), of his first volume of poetry, Stikhotvoreniia i poèmy (Poems and Longer Poems). It was published by Inter-Language Literary Associates with my introduction. His second volume of poems, Ostanovka v pustyne (A Halt in the Desert), was also to be published by Inter-Language Literary Associates, but for reasons into which I need not go here its final publication (in 1970) had to be arranged with the revived Chekhov Publishing House in New York.

Brodsky’s first volume consisted mostly of poems written, not later than 1962, but there were also nine poems written in 1964. There were some very fine poems in it, even among those written at a much earlier age—such, for example, as “The Great Elegy,” dedicated to John Donne (whose work Brodsky has also translated), which Mr. Auden rightly praises in his article in the same issue of NYR; or as ‘Isaac and Abraham,” mentioned by George Kline. But there was also much that was youthful, immature, and the general impression one got from the volume was the unevenness of its levels. This was true of the 1964 poems no less than of the earlier ones.

The second volume contained some, but not all, of the best poems from the earlier one, but included also a great many poems written between 1965 and 1969. It was characterized by greater selectivity, but the general level remained uneven. And the same, in my judgment, is true of Brodsky’s more recent poems published in various periodicals. I realize, of course, how subjective most critical assessments of poetry are. I know that as early as 1965 Anna Akhmatova herself had a high opinion of Brodsky as a poet. Nevertheless, I would challenge Professor Kline’s above quoted statement, for it implies that Brodsky’s achievement to date can stand comparison with Akhmatova’s by the time she published her Anno Domini MCMXXI (her third volume), with Pasternak in Sestra moia zhizn‘ (My Sister Life), with Tsvetayeva’s Lebedinyi stan (Swans’ Camp) and other poetry of the revolutionary years, and with Mandelstam’s wonderful Tristia. To me—and I do not think I am alone in this—this is a ridiculously hyperbolized evaluation, and I see it as rather a disservice to Brodsky himself. Let George Kline name even a few of his poems which come up to the general level of those volumes of his then coevals.

Gleb Struve

Berkeley, California

George Kline replies:

I do not feel that it would be appropriate for me to respond to Mr. Struve’s letter. I prefer to let Brodsky’s poetry speak for itself.

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