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Speaking for Language

If I am right, then Brodsky’s position is not far from that of the educators of ancient Athens, who prescribed for (male) students a tripartite curriculum of music (intended to make the soul rhythmical and harmonious), poetry, and gymnastics. Plato collapsed these three parts into two, music absorbing poetry and becoming the principal mental and spiritual discipline. The powers Brodsky claims for poetry would seem to belong even more more strongly to music. For instance, time is the medium of music more clearly than it is the medium of poetry (we read poetry on the printed page as fast as we like—faster than we should—whereas we listen to music in its own time). Music structures the time in which it is performed, lending it purposive form, more clearly than poetry does. Why then does Brodsky not make his case for poetry along Plato’s lines, as a species of music?

The answer is of course that, while the technical language of prosody may derive from the technical language of music, poetry is not a species of music. Specifically, it works through words, not sounds, and words have meaning; whereas the semantic dimension of music is at most connotational and therefore secondary.

Since antique times we have had a well-developed account, borrowed from music, of the phonics of poetry. We have also elaborated a host of the ories of the semantics of poetry. What we lack is any widely accepted theory that marries the two. The last critics in America who believed they had such a theory were the New Critics; their rather arid style of reading ran out in the sands in the early 1960s. Since then, poetry, and lyric poetry in particular, has become an embarrassment to the critical profession, or at least to the academic arm of that profession, in which poetry tends to be read as prose with ragged right margins rather than as an art in its own right.

In “An Immodest Proposal” (1991), a plea for a federally subsidized program to distribute millions of inexpensive paperback anthologies of American poetry, Brodsky suggests that such lines as Frost’s “No memory of having starred/Atones for later disregard/Or keeps the end from being hard” ought to enter the bloodstream of every citizen, not just because they constitute a lapidary memento mori, and not just because they exemplify language at its purest and most powerful, but because, in absorbing them and making them our own, we work toward an evolutionary goal: “The purpose of evolution, believe it or not, is beauty.”

Perhaps. But what if we experiment? What if we rewrite Frost’s lines thus: “Memories of having starred/Atone for later disregard/And keep the end from being hard”? At a purely metrical level the revision is not, to my ear, inferior to Frost’s original. However, its meaning is opposite. Would these lines, in Brodsky’s eyes, qualify to enter the bloodstream of the nation? The answer is no—the lines are false. But to show how and why they are false entails a poetics with an historical dimension, capable of explaining why it is that Frost’s original, coming into being at the moment in history when it does, carves out for itself a place in time (“restructures time”), while the alternative, the parody, cannot. Such a poetics would have to treat prosody and semantics in a unified and an historical way. For a teacher (and Brodsky clearly thinks of himself as a teacher) to assert that the genuine poem restructures time means little until he can show why the fake does not.

In sum, there are two sides to Brodsky’s critical poetics. On the one hand there is a metaphysical superstructure in which the language-as-Muse speaks through the medium of the poet and thereby accomplishes world-historical (evolutionary) goals of its own. On the other there is a body of insights into and intuitions about how certain poems in English, Russian, and (to a lesser extent) German actually work. The poems Brodsky chooses are clearly poems he loves; his comments on them are always intelligent, often penetrating, sometimes dazzling. I doubt that Mandelstam (in the essay in Less than One) or Hardy (in this collection) have ever had a more sympathetic, more attentive, more co-creative reader. Fortunately the metaphysical superstructure of his system can be detached and laid aside, leaving us with a set of critical readings which in their ambitiousness and their fineness of detail put contemporary academic criticism of poetry to shame.

Can academic critics take a lesson from Brodsky? I fear they will not. To work at his level, one has to live with and by the great poets of the past, and perhaps be visited by the Muse as well.

Can Brodsky learn a lesson from the academy? Yes: not to publish your lecture notes verbatim, unrevised and uncondensed, quips and asides included. The lectures on Frost (forty-four pages), Hardy (sixty-four pages), and Rilke (fifty-two pages) could with advantage have been cut by ten to fifteen pages each.

Though On Grief and Reason intermittently alludes to, and sometimes directly addresses, Brodsky’s own status as an exile and immigrant, it does not, except in an odd and inconclusive exercise about the spy Kim Philby, address politics pure and simple. At the risk of oversimplifying, one can say that Brodsky despairs of politics and looks to literature for redemption.

Thus, in an open letter to Václav Havel, Brodsky suggests that Havel drop the pretense that communism in Central Europe was imposed from abroad and acknowledge that it was the result of “an extraordinary anthropological backslide,” whose basis was no more and no less than original sin. The President, he writes, would be well advised to accept the premise that man is inherently evil; the reeducation of the Czech public might begin with doses of Proust, Kafka, Faulkner, and Camus in the daily papers. In Less than One Brodsky criticized Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn on the same grounds: for refusing to accept what his senses plainly tell him, that humankind is “radically bad.”

In his Nobel Prize lecture Brodsky sketches out an aesthetic credo on the basis of which an ethical public life might be built. Aesthetics, he says, is the mother of ethics, in the sense that making fine aesthetic discriminations teaches one to make fine ethical discriminations. Good art is thus on the side of the good. Evil, on the other hand, “especially political evil, is always a bad stylist.” (At moments like this Brodsky finds himself closer to his illustrious Russo-American precursor, the patrician Vladimir Nabokov, than he might wish to be.)

Entering into dialogue with great literature, Brodsky continues, fosters in the reading subject “a sense of his uniqueness, of individuality, of separateness—thus turning him from a social animal into an autonomous ‘I.”’ In Less than One Brodsky commended Russian poetry for setting “an example of moral purity and firmness,” not least by preserving classical literary forms. Now he rejects the nihilism of postmodernism, “the poetics of ruins and debris, of minimalism, of choked breath,” holding up instead the example of those Eastern European poets of his generation—he does not name them—who, in the wake of the Holocaust and the Gulag, took it as their task to reconstruct a common world culture, and hence to rebuild human dignity.

It is not Brodsky’s manner to attack, discuss, or even mention the names of his philosophical opponents. Thus one can only guess how he would respond to arguments that artworks (or “texts”) construct communities of readers as much as they construct individuals, that an emphasis such as his on a highly individualistic relation between reader and text is historically and culturally bounded, and that what he (following Mandelstam) calls “world culture” is merely the high culture of Western Europe in a particular phase of its history. There can be no doubt, however, that he would reject them.

The prestige enjoyed by the poet in Russia since Pushkin, the example of the great poets in keeping the flame of individual integrity alive during Stalin’s dark night, as well as deeply embedded Russian traditions of reading and memorizing poetry, the availability of cheap editions of the classics, and the near-sacred status of forbidden texts in the samizdat era—these and other factors have contributed to the existence in Russia of a large, committed, and informed public for poetry. The bias of literary studies there toward linguistic analysis—in part a continuation of the Formalist advances of the 1920s, in part a self-protective reaction to the ban, after 1934, on literary criticism not in line with socialist-realist dogma—has further fostered a critical discourse hard to match in the West in its level of technical sophistication.

Comments on Brodsky by his Russian contemporaries—fellow poets, disciples, rivals—collected by the poet and critic Valentina Polukhina prove that, despite nearly a quarter of a century abroad, Brodsky is still read and judged in Russia as a Russian poet.1

His greatest achievement, says the poet Olga Sedakova, is to have “placed a full stop at the end of [the Soviet] literary epoch.” He has done so by bringing back to Russian letters a quality crushed, in the name of optimism, by the Soviet culture industry: a tragic perception of life. Furthermore, he has fertilized Russian poetry by importing new forms from England and America. For this he deserves to stand beside Pushkin. Elena Shvarts, Brodsky’s younger contemporary and perhaps his main rival, concurs: he has brought “a completely new musicality and even a new form of thought” to Russian poetry. (Shvarts is not so kind to Brodsky the essayist, whom she calls “a brilliant sophist.”)

The Russians are particularly illuminating on technical features of Brodsky’s verse. To Yevgeny Rein, Brodsky has found metrical means to embody “the way time flows past and away from you.” This “merging of [the] poetry with the movement of time,” he says, is “metaphysically” Brodsky’s greatest achievement. To the Lithuanian poet Tomas Venclova, Brodsky’s “giant linguistic and cultural reach, his syntax, his thoughts that transcend the limits of the stanza,” make his poetry “a spiritual exercise [which] extends the reach of [the reader’s] soul.”

There is thus no doubt that Brodsky is a powerful presence in Russian literature. Receptive as his fellow writers are to his innovations, however, all except Rein seem skeptical about the metaphysics behind them, a metaphysics that makes the poet the voice of a Language understood as having an independent reality. Lev Loseff dismisses this “idolization” of language out of hand, attributing it to Brodsky’s lack of formal education in linguistics.

Brodsky is not a well-loved poet, as (say) Pasternak was well loved. Russians look in vain to him, says Venclova, for “warmth,’… all-forgivingness, tearfulness, tender-heartedness, or cheeriness.” “He does not believe in man’s inherent goodness; nor does he see nature as … made in the image of God.” The poet Viktor Krivulin expresses doubts about the very un-Russian irony that has by now become habitual to Brodsky. Brodsky cultivates irony, suggests Krivulin, to protect himself from ideas or situations that may make him uncomfortable: “A fear of openness, possibly a desire not to be open … has grown deeper so that every poetic statement already exists inherently as an object for analysis and the following statement springs from that analysis.”

Roy Fisher, one of Brodsky’s best English commentators, points to something analogous in the texture of Brodsky’s self-translations from Russian, which he criticizes as “busy” in a musical sense, with “lots of little notes and pauses.” “Something is running about in the way of the poetry.”

This “busyness,” together with a continual ironic backtracking, has become a feature of Brodsky’s prose as much as of his verse, and is likely to irritate readers of On Grief and Reason. Brodsky’s logic has acquired a jagged quality: trains of thought have no time to develop before being halted, questioned, cast in doubt, subjected to qualifications that are in turn, with mannered irony, interrogated and qualified. There is a continual shuttling back and forth between colloquial and formal diction, and when a bon mot is on the horizon, Brodsky can be trusted to scamper after it. In his fascination with the echo-chamber of the English language, he is again not unlike Nabokov, though Nabokov’s linguistic imagination was more disciplined (but also, perhaps, more trammeled).

The problem of consistency of tone becomes particularly marked in essays that have their origin in public addresses, where, as if in an effort to suppress the habitual sideways movement of his thought, Brodsky goes in for large generalizations and hollow lecture-hall prose. (Specimen: “Since the general purpose of every society is the safety of all its members, it must first postulate the total arbitrariness of history, and the limited value of any recorded negative experience.”)

Brodsky’s difficulties here may in part be temperamental—public occasions clearly do not fire his imagination—but, as the American critic David Bethea has observed, they are also linguistic. Brodsky, says Bethea, has yet to command the “quasi-civic” level of American discourse, as he has yet to entirely command the nuances of ironic humor, the very last level of English, in Bethea’s view, to be mastered by foreigners.2

An alternative approach to Brodsky’s problem with tone is to ask whether his imagined interlocutors are always adequate to him. In his lectures and addresses there seems to be an element of speaking down that leads him not only to simplify his material but also to wisecrack and generally to flatten his emotional and intellectual range; whereas, once he is alone with a subject equal to him, this uneasiness of tone vanishes.

We see Brodsky truly rising to his subject in the two Roman essays in On Grief and Reason. In its emotional reach, the essay on Marcus Aurelius is one of Brodsky’s most ambitious, as though the nobility of his subject frees him to explore a certain melancholy grandeur. Like Zbigniew Herbert, with whose stoic pessimism in public affairs he has more than a little in common, Brodsky looks to Marcus as the one Roman ruler with whom some kind of communion across the ages is possible. “You were just one of the best men that ever lived, and you were obsessed with your duty because you were obsessed with virtue,” he writes movingly. We ought always to choose rulers who, like Marcus, have “a detectable melancholic streak,” he adds wistfully.

The finest essay in the collection is similarly elegiac. It takes the form of a letter from Brodsky the Russian or (in Roman terms) Hyperborean to Horace in the underworld. To Brodsky, Horace is, if not his favorite Roman poet (Ovid holds that place), then at least the great poet of “melancholic equipoise.” Brodsky plays with the conceit that Horace has just completed a spell on earth in the guise of Auden, and that Horace, Auden, and Brodsky himself are thus the same poetic temperament, if not the same person, reborn in successive Pythagorean metamorphoses. His prose attains new and complex, bittersweet tones as he meditates on the death of the poet, on the extinction of the man himself and his survival in the echo of the poetic meters he has served.

  1. 1

    Brodsky Through the Eyes of His Contemporaries (St. Martin’s Press, 1992).

  2. 2

    David M. Bethea, Joseph Brodsky and the Creation of Exile (Princeton University Press, 1994), p. 234.

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