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Working for the Dictionary

To you insane world
But one reply—I refuse.
—Marina Tsvetaeva


Poets have two ways of achieving fame in autocratic societies: they can either sing the praises of the men in power, or they can irritate them. In the past, it was the monarch and the clergy they had to watch out for. If they got into hot water, banishment and the promise of eternal damnation were the usual punishment. In our time, ideologues of new utopias, from the Soviet Union to China, turned out to be far more bloodthirsty overseers of poetry. Even in the United States, poetry books with real or imagined erotic and blasphemous content are regularly removed from the shelves of school libraries to please some self-appointed thought policeman.

Still, when it comes to making martyrs out of its poets, no country in the history of the world can compete with Russia. Of course, exile, prison, and violent death have been the fate of millions of its citizens in the last century, so one should not single out the misery of poets. In a place where for almost seventy years there was one and only one official pseudoscientific truth, anyone who insisted on his or her own explanation of reality was in grave danger of being sent to prison. Lyric poetry, that most marginal and seemingly inconsequential of activities, came to be regarded as potentially a form of subversive activity. To put the situation another way, a poem became a moral act, the ethics of language in a system where lying every time you opened your mouth was every citizen’s sacred duty.

Joseph Brodsky, who was born in 1940 in what was then still called Leningrad and died in New York City in 1996, got into precisely that kind of trouble. He said in a moving memoir of his parents, “I am grateful to my mother and my father not only for giving me life but also for failing to bring up their child as a slave.” He paid dearly for it. He left school at the age of fifteen, worked in a factory, in a city morgue, and at number of other jobs across the Soviet Union, and began writing poetry when he was eighteen. As his finely composed and ideologically improper poems became known in literary circles, he was twice locked up in a mental institution and eventually in 1964 tried and sentenced for the crime of social parasitism to five years of hard labor in a remote village in the far north. He shoveled manure and wrote poems that continued to circulate in manuscript in Russia and eventually abroad. Twenty months later, he was released after an appeal to the authorities by prominent Russian cultural figures. When Brodsky returned to Leningrad, he was a hero to the young, a famous poet, and a public enemy without having yet published any poetry.

Subsequently, the KGB made several attempts to remedy that, offering Brodsky publication in a prestigious journal with the attractive prospect of eventually becoming a member of the Communist literary elite, “the state-bred genus, a cross between a parrot and monkey,” as he described it. He turned them down. He would not be bought. He also refused to play the victim. “Other people had to go through much more and had a much harder time of it than I did,” he said later. In any case, he continued to be an embarrassment to the regime, a free man who said and wrote what he thought and would not be intimidated. Finally, in 1972, he was forcibly expelled from the Soviet Union and came to United States where, fifteen years later, to the great annoyance of the people who sent him packing to what they hoped to be everlasting oblivion, he received the Nobel Prize for literature.

No matter how abominable your condition may be, try not to blame anything or anybody: history, the state, superiors, race, parents, the phase of the moon, childhood, toilet training, etc.,” Brodsky wrote. He accepted exile, almost took it in stride. What could be more normal for a Russian than to be made homeless? As far as he was concerned, exile was the metaphysical condition par excellence of the human spirit, permanent and without remedy. It taught one humility—which normally it would take a lifetime to acquire. “If one were to assign the life of an exiled writer a genre, it would have to be tragicomedy,” he wrote. Yes, there’s something funny about misfortune, even one’s own. Tragicomedy is the expression of the exile’s recognition of the fundamental messiness of everything. It refuses to have events and lives reduced to a single label. Humor is one of the essential manifestations of a free spirit. Authoritarians of all stripes live in fear that someone is making jokes behind their back. A tragic poet is a nuisance already, but a poet who also laughs is a handful even for an evil empire.

Brodsky’s essays and memoirs collected in Less Than One (1986) and On Grief and Reason (1995), without being so intended, give us an intellectual autobiography of the poet. After he was kicked out of school, “that loafer,” as his father used to call him, gave himself a solid education. Brodsky was as cosmopolitan a writer as one can imagine. He was born of Jewish parents in the magnificent former capital of a country whose religion was Eastern Orthodox; the political ideal was absolute power, the alphabet Greek, and the architectural style European. In his essays he is curious, probing, imaginative, alert to ideas and their nuances, always irreverent, always opinionated on everything from tyranny to literature, and often very moving. Even when one vehemently disagrees with him, one cannot help but be impressed by his independence and his intellect, and by the quality of his prose. There’s hardly a page in the essays where one doesn’t come upon a lovely phrase worth underlining:

When it comes to poetry, every bourgeois is a Plato.

The real history of consciousness starts with one’s first lie.

For in real tragedy, it is not the hero who perishes: it is the chorus.

Many of his essays, as is to be expected, are about the poets Brodsky admired most, with pointed commentaries on the poems of Auden, Frost, Cavafy, Mandelstam, Tsvetaeva, Rilke, Horace, and Akhmatova. Missing conspicuously are the French poets, the great precursors of Modernism: Baudelaire, Rimbaud, and Mallarmé. Apart from Auden, the European and American avant-garde and its principal figures and ideas are passed over in silence. This is not really surprising. Modernism with its wholesale rejection of tradition, its firm belief that a poet’s cultural inheritance has lost its authority, could not have great appeal for a poet in a country where that inheritance had been made suspect for political reasons and driven underground. In addition, many members of the avant-garde throughout the world supported Stalin and failed to raise their voices in defense of Russian poets who were being persecuted. Some of the greatest names in Russian literature were imprisoned, sent to labor camps, and shot while some of their Western counterparts, particularly in France, wrote poems idealizing their executioners and lived happily ever after.

Modernism’s most scandalous notion is that it is possible to begin from scratch and be entirely original as if in the arts everything remains in doubt and awaits discovery. Brodsky, on the other hand, was pretty sure that aesthetic values endure, that a poet who wrote centuries ago is still our contemporary. Indeed, what links the past with the present are poets, the custodians of tradition, who confer with their predecessors as if they were still among us. Pindar, Ovid, and Villon are not only worth reading but also worth emulating. Brodsky wanted poetry to have innumerable voices, rich and dense as the heart of a bustling city. Poetry, for him, was the place where true history was written. History, as historians practice it, looks for reasons; poetry’s interest is the human smell of the past. As for culture, when all has been said about it, its real task may be to provide us with the consolation for our mortality.

Brodsky had no use for the free verse tradition of European and American poetry. In an essay on Mandelstam he wrote:

Russian poetry has set an example of moral purity and firmness, which to no small degree has been reflected in the preservation of so-called classical forms without any damage to content. Herein lies her distinction from her Western sisters, though in no way does one presume to judge whom this distinction favors most. However, it is a distinction, and if only for purely ethnographic reasons, that quality ought to be preserved in translation and not forced into some common mold.

This and similar pronouncements, of course, did not make him popular with some American poets.

He once told me seriously that American poets of the generation of Williams, Stevens, Moore, and others ought to have imitated Thomas Hardy. “Had T.S. Eliot, for instance, at the time he read Laforgue,” Brodsky wrote, “read Thomas Hardy instead (as I believe Robert Frost did), the history of poetry in English in this century, or to say the least its present, might be somewhat more absorbing.” He refused to accept the possibility that American and English literatures have diverged long ago, that sounding like Hardy or Tennyson while living in Brooklyn or Iowa would have seemed outlandish and worthy of ridicule.

That American poets en masse abandoned rhyme and meter did not make sense to Brodsky since ideal verse forms already existed. The prevalent belief that there is a form appropriate to every individual poem must have struck him as nonsense. Nor did he accept the related view that the old poetic idiom in English was inadequate and that its language had grown stale. He would point out the example of Frost, of whom he approved, for-getting that Frost was in no way rep-resentative. If one were a budding young poet in New York City seventy years ago, the language and imagery of Eliot and Williams would have reflected far better what one saw and heard every day as one rode the subway to work.

Collected Poems in English represents only a third of Brodsky’s poetic work in Russian. Not included is his first book in English, Selected Poems (1973), translated by George L. Kline, which includes his early masterpiece “Elegy for John Donne.” According to the publisher, it will be reissued later in an expanded edition together with a volume of additional poems translated by other hands. What we have under review then are translations Brodsky himself made, the ones he supervised and gave his approval, plus the poems he wrote in English. Brodsky’s output in Russian is large and of the highest quality.* In it the breadth of formal invention and rhetorical complexity is staggering. He wrote just about every kind of poem, including long lyrical sequences, dramatic monologues, narratives, odes, elegies, sonnets, and sundry light verse. Modulating levels of diction, playful, witty, and endlessly inventive, he is a mouthful in the original Russian as anybody who has heard him read can testify. His poems, as with most Russian poetry, have meter and rhyme. Despite the difficulties, of which he was well aware, he insisted throughout his life that they both be faithfully preserved in translations of his work:

  1. *

    Brodsky’s poetry in the original Russian has recently been reissued in five volumes in newly corrected editions by Slovo/Word Publishers, under the editorial direction of Alexander Sumerkin and Lev Loseff: Ostanovka v pustyne (1970), Konets prekrasnoi epokhi (1977), Chast rechi (1977), Novye stansy k Avguste (1983), Uraniia (1987). His last collection, Peizazh s navodneniem (1996), is still in print with the Ardis Publishing Company.

    To order, contact: Slovo/Word Publishers, 139 East 33rd Street, #9M, New York NY 10016, (212) 686-0199 and (212) 684-2356; Ardis Publishing Company, 2471 El Camino Capistrano, Dana Point CA 92629; (800) 877-7133; fax (732) 225-1562; email: publisher@ardisbooks.com; www.ardisbooks.com.

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