Mastering Speech

Less Than One: Selected Essays

by Joseph Brodsky
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 501 pp., $25.00

It would be tempting to say that Brodsky and Auden are the only really civilized great poets of their respective generations, and of the past few decades. Tempting, and in spite of the difficulty of saying what one means exactly, far from untrue. Civilization, in their sense of it, is an affair of basic humor, a humor which naturally pervades their being and their works, like salt in sea water. With most poets, and writers generally, there is a point at which humor stops, if it has ever started. Many poets, like other writers, can be skittish, or funny, or deeply and wisely comical; and they cultivate these qualities—as Robert Frost did, say, or as Robert Lowell did—in league with their personalities and poetic will. But humor only really exists as the spirit of civilization if it is everywhere inside it, and inside the poetry that can be its expression.

Humor is also an involuntary aspect of personality, the motor nerve of its unconscious linkage to art. Wallace Stevens is at least as great a poet as Auden or Brodsky, but his poetry is extruded on a quite different principle, one sign of which is that one knows exactly where in it the humor begins and ends. Stevens could never have written in a poem “We must love one another or die,” and then changed it to “We must love one another and die.” But possibly Goethe could: in fact on the evidence of the Roman Elegies and some of the poems in the Westöstlicher Divan he certainly could. For Goethe, surprisingly enough, was a poet of total humor, as of total civilization, despite all evidence to the contrary. And Brodsky reminds us that twenty years after he wrote “September 1, 1939” Auden expressed a desire to “become, if possible, a minor Atlantic Goethe.” Brodsky calls this an extremely significant admission, and indeed there is Auden’s humor (and Brodsky’s own in the recognition of it) in the juxtaposition of “Goethe” with “Atlantic.” It is the comic apotheosis of civilization’s possibilities, and yet—like the best humor—expressing itself with no deliberate consciousness of itself.

Brodsky’s discussion of “September 1, 1939,” which appears midway in his collection of essays, is based on a class given at Columbia University, taped and transcribed by two of his students. It is detailed and quite long, and may well, one feels, have started up a lifelong love of Auden’s poetry in many students. It is not a bit theoretical, and it contains a great deal of information—some of it controversial—about love, poetry, politics, and sex. In tone and inspiration it is not unlike Nabokov’s lectures on Russian writers and on Kafka (in the course of which he had a good deal to say about exactly what sort of beetle Gregor Samsa had been turned into in The Metamorphosis, and why he made no attempt to unfurl his wings from their wing cases and fly away). It is, that is to say, a free monologue by…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.