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Speaking for Language

On Grief and Reason: Essays

by Joseph Brodsky
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 412 pp., $24.00

In 1986 Joseph Brodsky published Less than One, a book of essays. Some of the essays were translated from the Russian; others he wrote directly in English, showing that his command of the language was growing to be near-native.

In two cases, writing in English had a symbolic importance to Brodsky: in a heartfelt homage to W. H. Auden, who greatly helped him after he was forced to leave Russia in 1972, and whom he regards as the greatest poet in English of the century; and in a memoir of his parents, whom he had to leave behind in Leningrad, and who, despite repeated petitions to the authorities, were never granted permission to visit him. He chose English, he says, to honor them in a language of freedom.

Less than One is a powerful book in its own right, worthy to stand beside Brodsky’s principal collections of verse: A Part of Speech (1980) and To Urania (1988). It includes magisterial essays on Osip Mandelstam, Anna Akhmatova, and Marina Tsvetaeva, the poets of the generation before Brodsky to whom he feels closest, as well as two brief masterpieces of autobiographical recreation: the memoir of his parents, and the title essay, on growing up amid the stupefying boredom of Leningrad in the 1950s. There are also travel essays: a trip to Istanbul, for instance, gives rise to thoughts on the Second and Third Romes, Constantinople/Byzantium, and Moscow, and hence on the meaning of the West to Westernizing Russians like himself. Finally, there are two virtuoso literary-critical essays in which he explicates (“unpacks”) individual poems that are particularly dear to him.

Now, nine years later, we have On Grief and Reason, which collects twenty-one essays, all but one written since 1986. Of these, some are without question on a par with the best of the earlier work. In “Spoils of War,” for instance—an essay classical in form, light in touch—Brodsky continues the amusing and sometimes poignant story of his youth, using those traces of the West—corned-beef cans and shortwave radios as well as movies and jazz—that found their way through the Iron Curtain to explore the meaning of the West to Russians. Given the imaginative intensity with which they pored over these artifacts, Brodsky suggests, Russians of his generation were “the real Westerners, perhaps the only ones.”

In his autobiographical journey, Brodsky has yet to arrive at the 1960s, the time of his notorious trial on charges of social parasitism and his sentencing to corrective labor in the Russian Far North. Perhaps he never will: a refusal to exhibit his wounds has always been one of his more admirable traits (“At all costs try to avoid granting yourself the status of the victim,” he advises an audience of students).

Other essays also continue where Less than One left off. The dialogue with Auden begun in “To Please a Shadow” is carried on in “Letter to Horace,” while the long analytical essays on Thomas Hardy and Robert Frost can stand beside the earlier readings of poems by Tsvetaeva and Auden.

Nevertheless, as a whole On Grief and Reason is not as strong as Less than One. Only two of the essays—“Homage to Marcus Aurelius” (1994) and “Letter to Horace” (1995)—mark a clear advance in Brodsky’s thought, and a deepening of it. Several are little more than occasional: a jaundiced memoir of a writers’ conference (“After a Journey”), for instance, and the texts of a couple of commencement addresses. More tellingly, what in earlier essays had seemed no more than passing quirks now reveal themselves as settled elements of a systematic Brodskian philosophy of language.

The system can best be illustrated from the essay on Thomas Hardy. Brodsky regards Hardy as a neglected major poet, “seldom taught, less read,” particularly in America, where he is cast out by fashion-minded critics into the limbo of “premodernism.”

It is certainly true that modern criticism has had little of interest to say about Hardy. Nevertheless, despite what Brodsky says, ordinary readers and (particularly) poets have never deserted him. John Crowe Ransom edited a selection of Hardy’s verse in 1960. Hardy dominates Philip Larkin’s widely read Oxford Book of Twentieth-Century English Verse (1973), with twenty-seven pages as opposed to nineteen for Yeats, sixteen for Auden, a mere nine for Eliot. Nor did the Modernist avant-garde dismiss Hardy en bloc. Ezra Pound, for instance, tirelessly recommended him to younger poets. “Nobody has taught me anything about writing since Thomas Hardy died,” he remarked in 1934.

Brodsky chooses to present Hardy as a neglected poet as part of an attack on the French-influenced modernism of the Pound-Eliot school, and on all the revolutionary -isms of the first decades of the century, which, to his mind, pointed literature in the wrong direction. He wishes to reclaim leading positions in Anglo-American letters for Hardy and Frost, and in general for those poets who built upon, rather than broke with, traditional poetics. Thus he rejects the influential anti-naturalist poetics of the Russian critic Viktor Shklovsky, which are based on unabashed artificiality, on the foregrounding of the poetic device. “This is where modernism goofed,” he says. Genuinely modern aesthetics—the aesthetics of Hardy, Frost, and, later, Auden—uses traditional forms because form, as camouflage, allows the writer “to land a better punch when and where it’s least expected.”

Everyday, commonsense language of this kind is prominent in the literary essays in On Grief and Reason, which appear to have had their origin as lectures to classes of undergraduates. Brodsky’s readiness to meet his audience on their own ground produces some unfortunate effects, including bathetic inflation (some lines by Rilke become “the greatest sequence of three similes in the entire history of poetry”). It is not clear that Brodsky appreciates the social significance of slang, much of which is created by powerless groups, particularly the young, to exclude outsiders. Precisely because it marks a boundary, politeness suggests that outsiders not trespass.

Strong poets have always created their own lineage and, in the process, rewritten the history of poetry. Brodsky is no exception. What he finds in Hardy is, to a degree, what he wants readers to find in himself; his reading of Hardy is most convincing when in veiled fashion it describes his own practices or ambitions. He writes, for example, that the germ of Hardy’s famous poem “The Convergence of the Twain” (on the sinking of the Titanic) probably lay in the word “maiden” (as in the phrase “maiden voyage”), which then generated the central conceit of the poem, ship and iceberg as fated lovers. The suggestion, dropped almost in passing, seems to me a stroke of genius. But beyond that it gives an insight into Brodsky’s own creative habits.

Behind Hardy’s “The Convergence of the Twain” Brodsky also points to the presence of the Schopenhauer of The World as Will and Idea: ship and iceberg collide at the behest of a blind metaphysical force devoid of any ultimate purpose, a force that Brodsky calls “the phenomenal world’s inner essence.” In itself this suggestion is not novel: whether or not Hardy had Schopenhauer in mind, Schopenhauer’s brand of pessimistic determinism was clearly congenial to him. But Brodsky goes further. He recommends to his audience that they read Schopenhauer, “not so much for Mr. Hardy’s sake as for your own.” Schopenhauer’s Will is thus attractive not only to Brodsky’s Hardy but to Brodsky himself.

In fact, through his reading of five Hardy poems, Brodsky intends to reveal Hardy as a vehicle for a Schopenhauerian Will acting through language, more like a scribe used by language than an autonomous user of it. In certain lines of “The Darkling Thrush,” “language flows into the human domain from the realm of non-human truths and dependencies [and] is ultimately the voice of inanimate matter.” While this may not have been what Hardy intended, “it was what this line was after in Thomas Hardy, and he responded.” Thus what we take to be creativity may be “nothing more (or less) than matter’s attempts to articulate itself.”

What is here called the voice of inanimate matter more often becomes, in Brodsky’s essays, the voice of language, the voice of poetry, or the voice of a specific meter. Brodsky is resolutely anti-Freudian in the sense that he is not interested in the notion of a personal unconscious. Thus to him the language that speaks through poets has a truly metaphysical status. And since it sometimes spoke through Hardy, Brodsky makes clear, it is capable of speaking through every real poet, including himself. In a disconcerting way, Brodsky here finds himself not at all far from the kind of reductive cultural critique that claims that speakers are little more than the mouthpieces of dominant discourses or ideologies. The difference is that, while the latter critique is based within history, Brodsky’s idea is that language—the time-marked and time-marking language of poetry—is a metaphysical force operating through and within time but outside history. “Prosody…is simply a repository of time within language,” he wrote in Less than One. “Language is older than state and…prosody always survives history.”

Brodsky is unequivocal in taking away control of the history and development of poetry from the poets themselves and handing it to a metaphysical language—language as will and idea. In Hardy’s poetry, for instance, having acutely pointed to a certain absence of a detectable speaking voice, to an “audial neutrality,” he suggests that this apparently negative attribute would turn out to have great importance to twentieth-century poetry—would, indeed, make Hardy “prophetic” of Auden. But, Brodsky maintains, it was not so much the case that Auden or any other of Hardy’s successors imitated him as that Hardy’s voicelessness became “what the future [of english poetry] liked.”

As an assertion about Hardy or Auden or poetry in general this may be unverifiable and to that extent meaningless. In relation to Brodsky’s own poetic practice, however, it has an interest of its own. Yet for an idea so fundamental to his philosophy of poetry, it is oddly absent from his own poetry. In only one or two poems, and there only fleetingly, does Brodsky directly take as a theme the experience of being spoken through by language (of course he may claim that all his poems embody the experience). One explanation may be that the experience is more appropriately treated at a respectful remove in discursive prose. A more interesting explanation is that the metapoetical theme of poetry reflecting on the conditions of its own existence is absent from his own work precisely because to attempt in his own poems to understand and thus master the force behind him would strike Brodsky as not only impious but futile as well.

But even within the discourse of vatic poetry there remains something odd, even eccentric, in the elevation of prosody in particular to metaphysical status. “Verse meters in themselves are kinds of spiritual magnitudes for which nothing can be substituted,” writes Brodsky. They are “a means of restructuring time.” What precisely does it mean to restructure time? Brodsky never explains fully, or fully enough. He comes closest in the essay on Mandelstam in Less than One, where the time that utters itself through Mandelstam confronts the “mute space” of Stalin; but even there the core of the notion remains mysterious and perhaps even mystical. Nevertheless, when Brodsky says, in On Grief and Reason, that “language…uses a human being, not the other way around,” he would seem to have the meters of poetry above all in mind; and when—particularly in his lectures to students—he pleads for the educative and even redemptive function of poetry (“love is a metaphysical affair whose goal is either accomplishing or liberating one’s soul,… [and] that is and always has been the core of lyric poetry”), it is submission to the rhythms of poetry he is alluding to.

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