Iosif Alexandrovich Brodsky was reviled and persecuted in his native Soviet Union, but the Western literary establishment lauded him as one of that country's finest poets. From the time he began publishing his verse—both under his own name, and under the name Joseph Brodsky—which was characterized by ironic wit and a spirit of fiery independence, Brodsky aroused the ire of Soviet authorities; he was also persecuted because he was a Jew. He was brought to trial for "parasitism," and a smuggled transcript of that trial helped bring him to the attention of the West, for he answered his interrogators with courageous and articulate idealism. Brodsky was condemned to a Soviet mental institution and later spent five years in Arkhangelsk, an Arctic labor camp. A public outcry from American and European intellectuals over his treatment helped to secure his early release. Forced to emigrate, he moved to Michigan in 1972, where, with the help of the poet W. H. Auden, he settled in at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor as poet-in-residence. He then taught at several universities, including Queens College in New York and Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts. He continued to write poetry, however, often writing in Russian and translating his own work into English, and eventually winning the Nobel Prize for his work. His predominant themes were exile and loss, and he was widely praised for his hauntingly eloquent writing style.
In many ways, Brodsky had lived as an exile before leaving his homeland. His father had lost a position of rank in the Russian Navy because he was Jewish, and the family lived in poverty. Trying to escape the ever-present images of Lenin, Brodsky quit school and embarked on a self-directed education, reading literary classics and working a variety of unusual jobs, which included assisting a coroner and a geologist in Central Asia. He learned English and Polish so that he would be able to translate the poems of John Donne and Czeslaw Milosz. His own poetry expressed his independent character with an originality admired by poets such as Anna Akhmatova.
According to a Times Literary Supplement reviewer, Brodsky's poetry "is religious, intimate, depressed, sometimes confused, sometimes martyr-conscious, sometimes elitist in its views, but it does not constitute an attack on Soviet society or ideology unless withdrawal and isolation are deliberately construed as attack: of course they can be, and evidently were." According to a reviewer in Time, the poet's expulsion from Russia was "the culmination of an inexplicable secret-police vendetta against him that has been going on for over a decade." Brodsky said: "They have simply kicked me out of my country, using the Jewish issue as an excuse." The vendetta first came to a head in a Leningrad trial in 1964, when Brodsky was charged with writing "gibberish" instead of doing honest work; he was sentenced to five years hard labor. Protests from artists and writers helped to secure his release after eighteen months, but his poetry still was banned. Israel invited him to immigrate, and the government encouraged him to go; Brodsky, though, refused, explaining that he did not identify with the Jewish state. Finally, Russian officials insisted that he leave the country. Despite the pressures, Brodsky reportedly wrote to Leonid Brezhnev before leaving Moscow asking for "an opportunity to continue to exist in Russian literature and on Russian soil."
Brodsky's poetry bears the marks of his confrontations with the Russian authorities. "Brodsky is someone who has tasted extremely bitter bread," wrote Stephen Spender in New Statesman, "and his poetry has the air of being ground out between his teeth. . . . It should not be supposed that he is a liberal, or even a socialist. He deals in unpleasing, hostile truths and is a realist of the least comforting and comfortable kind. Everything nice that you would like him to think, he does not think. But he is utterly truthful, deeply religious, fearless and pure. Loving, as well as hating."
Though one might expect Brodsky's poetry to be basically political in nature, this is not the case. "Brodsky's recurrent themes are lyric poets' traditional, indeed timeless concerns—man and nature, love and death, the ineluctability of anguish, the fragility of human achievements and attachments, the preciousness of the privileged moment, the 'unrepeatable.' The tenor of his poetry is not so much apolitical as antipolitical," wrote Victor Erlich. "His besetting sin was not 'dissent' in the proper sense of the word, but a total, and on the whole quietly undemonstrative, estrangement from the Soviet ethos."
Brodsky elaborated on the relationship between poetry and politics in his Nobel lecture, "Uncommon Visage," published in Poets & Writers magazine. Art teaches the writer, he said, "the privateness of the human condition. Being the most ancient as well as the most literal form of private enterprise, it fosters in a man . . . a sense of his uniqueness, of individuality, or separateness—thus turning him from a social animal into an autonomous 'I.'. . . A work of art, of literature especially, and a poem in particular, addresses a man tete-a-tete, entering with him into direct—free of any go-betweens—relations."
In addition, literature points to experience that transcends political limits. Brodsky observed, "Language and, presumably, literature are things that are more ancient and inevitable, more durable than any form of social organization. The revulsion, irony, or indifference often expressed by literature toward the state is essentially the reaction of the permanent—better yet, the infinite—against the temporary, against the finite. . . . The real danger for a writer is not so much the possibility (and often the certainty) of persecution on the part of the state, as it is the possibility of finding oneself mesmerized by the state's features which, whether monstrous or undergoing changes for the better, are always temporary."
Brodsky went on to say that creative writing is an essential exercise of individual freedom, since the writer must make many aesthetic judgments and choices during the process of composition. He pointed out, "It is precisely in this . . . sense that we should understand Dostoyevsky's remark that beauty will save the world, or Matthew Arnold's belief that we shall be saved by poetry. It is probably too late for the world, but for the individual man there always remains a chance. . . . If what distinguishes us from other members of the animal kingdom is speech, then literature—and poetry, in particular, being the highest form of locution—is, to put it bluntly, the goal of our species."
Even more compelling than the relationship between poetry and politics is the relationship between the writer and his language, Brodsky claimed. He explained that the first experience the writer has when taking up a pen to write "is . . . the sensation of immediately falling into dependence on language, on everything that has already been uttered, written, and accomplished in it." But the past accomplishments of a language do not impinge on the writer more than the sense of its vast potential. Brodsky added, "There are times when, by means of a single word, a single rhyme, the writer of a poem manages to find himself where no one has ever been before him, further, perhaps, than he himself would have wished for. . . . Having experienced this acceleration once . . . one falls into dependency on this process, the way others fall into dependency on drugs or alcohol."
In keeping with these views, Brodsky's poetry is known for its originality. Arthur C. Jacobs in the Jewish Quarterly noted that Brodsky is "quite apart from what one thinks of as the main current of Russian verse." A critic in New Leader wrote: "The noisy rant and attitudinizing rhetoric of public issues are superfluous to Brodsky's moral vision and contradictory to his craft. As with all great lyric poets, Brodsky attends to the immediate, the specific, to what he has internally known and felt, to the lucidities of observation heightened and defined by thought."
Though many critics agreed that Brodsky was one of the finest contemporary Russian poets, some felt that the English translations of his poetry are less impressive. Commenting on George L. Kline's translation of Selected Poems, Joseph Brodsky, Stephen Spender wrote: "These poems are impressive in English, though one is left having to imagine the technical virtuosity of brilliant rhyming in the originals. . . . One is never quite allowed to forget that one is reading a second-hand version." In A Part of Speech, Brodsky gathered the work of several translators and made amendments to some of the English versions in an attempt to restore the character of the originals. Brodsky's personal style remains somewhat elusive in that collection due to the subtle effects he achieves in the original Russian, Tom Simmons observed in the Christian Science Monitor. Brodsky, he said, "is a poet of dramatic yet delicate vision—a man with a sense of the increasingly obscured loftiness of human life. But under no circumstances is his poetry dully ethereal. . . . He can portray a luminous moment or a time of seemingly purposeless suffering with equal clarity."
Erlich also felt that some of the lines in Selected Poems are "strained or murky," but that Brodsky at his best had the "originality, incisiveness, depth and formal mastery which mark a major poet." Czeslaw Milosz felt that Brodsky's background allowed him to make a vital contribution to literature. Writing in the New York Review of Books, Milosz stated, "Behind Brodsky's poetry is the experience of political terror, the experience of the debasement of man and the growth of the totalitarian empire. . . . I find it fascinating to read his poems as part of his larger enterprise, which is no less than an attempt to fortify the place of man in a threatening world." This enterprise connected Brodsky to the literary traditions of other times and cultures. Erlich concluded that "the richness and versatility of his gifts, the liveliness and vigor of his intelligence, and his increasingly intimate bond with the Anglo-American literary tradition, augur well for his survival in exile, indeed for his further creative growth."
Exile was always difficult for Brodsky. In one poem, he described an exiled writer as one "who survives like a fish in the sand." Yet despite these feelings, Brodsky was largely unmoved by the sweeping political changes that accompanied the fall of the Soviet Union. He told David Remnick of the Washington Post that those changes were "devoid of autobiographical interest" for him, and that his allegiance was to his language. In the Detroit Free Press, Bob McKelvey cited Brodsky's declaration from a letter: "I belong to the Russian culture. I feel part of it, its component, and no change of place can influence the final consequence of this. A language is a much more ancient and inevitable thing than a state. I belong to the Russian language."
Shortly before his death, Brodsky completed So Forth, a collection of poems he wrote in English, or translated himself from poetry he wrote in Russian. So Forth was judged inferior to Brodsky's best work by several critics, including Michael Glover, who in New Statesman described the collection as "more failure than success." Glover felt that too often Brodsky "lapses into a kind of swashbuckling slanginess, a kind of raw muscularity that, at its worst, reads like embarrassing doggerel." Yet others found So Forth a powerful statement, such as the Publishers Weekly reviewer who called it "an astonishing collection from a writer able to mix the cerebral and the sensual, the political and the intimate, the elegiac and the comic. . . . Brodsky's death is a loss to literature; his final collection of poems is the best consolation we could ask for."
Collected Poems in English, published posthumously, is a definitive collection of Brodsky's translated work and his original work in English. It is "dramatic and ironic, melancholy and blissful," reported Donna Seaman in Booklist. She claimed this volume "will stand as one of the twentieth century's tours de force." Collected Poems in English is "a highly accomplished, deft, and entertaining book, with a talent for exploitation of the richness of language and with a deep core of sorrow," in the estimation of Judy Clarence in Library Journal. It captures Brodsky's trademark sense of "stepping aside and peering in bewilderment" at life, according to Sven Birkerts in the New York Review of Books. Birkerts concluded: "Brodsky charged at the world with full intensity and wrestled his perceptions into lines that fairly vibrate with what they are asked to hold. There is no voice, no vision, remotely like it."
In late April, Cynthia Haven posted a review of Ellendea Proffer Teasley’s new memoir Brodsky Among Us on her Stanford University Book Haven Blog. One person, however, took exception to her criticism of Nobel poet Joseph Brodsky’s translation of his own works from Russian into English. Ann Kjellberg is the late poet’s literary executor and the editor of Brodsky’s Collected Poems in English. She is also the editor of the magazine Little Star. Here is what she had to say:
Poetry, having so little purchase in our reading life, deserves not to be approached on the defensive, but a few recent books that consider the work of Joseph Brodsky from a world perspective have once again raised the question of how effectively he has rendered himself for us in English, and it seemed like a good moment to look a little more deeply into the matter. Brodsky was born in 1940, in Leningrad, and came to the United States as an involuntary exile from the Soviet Union in 1972. By his death in 1996 he had translated many of his own poems into English, a language in which he had by then taught and written for nearly half his life. Coming from the hand of their author, these works fall somewhere between wholly subsidiary translation and original creation. Whether their language is poetically autonomous or too distortingly shaped by its Russian consanguinities has been debated since Brodsky first spoke up in the literary culture of his adoptive land.
To understand the terrain, a few words about Russian prosody are in order. The Russian language allows up to three unstressed syllables in a single word, in contrast to English, which normally follows an unstressed syllable with a stress. This fact allows Russian tremendous metrical versatility. Whereas English poetry is overwhelmingly iambic, Russian poetry spreads equally among many metrical forms, using many other combinations of stressed and unstressed syllables besides the iamb. Furthermore, as Russian is a highly inflected language, word order is permeable, and rhymes are very plentiful, allowing for a proliferation of complex musical schemes in its very young poetic tradition. Formal expression is very, very rich in Russian poetry and an integral part of the poetic experience. This flexibility has also allowed for a very full tradition of formal translation from other languages. Part of the reason Boris Pasternak’s translations of Shakespeare were said to rival the original is that Pasternak had such a plenitude of means at his disposal. The fact that many great literary practitioners (including Brodsky) were driven into translation as a safe literary occupation during Soviet times further enriched the translated canon in Russian, influencing Brodsky’s own perception of the possibilities of formal literary translation.
Brodsky, who received very little institutionalized education and came of age entirely outside the Soviet poetic establishment, was recognized early by his peers as a prodigy of poetic forms. It was his ear that singled him out among the swarm of young aspirants that formed around his mentor Anna Akhmatova, not his wit or his philosophical acumen. Many now regard him as the greatest innovator of Russian prosody since its forms were stabilized in the nineteenth century. He is particularly known for his expansion of the dol’nik, a looser form that cross-breeds accentual-syllabic verse with its wilder accentual cousin. For Brodsky, the musical dimension of a poem was inextricably wound into its semantic heart: the forms had coloration and value, as keys do for composers and tints for painters. He often spoke of the greyness or monotony of certain feet (the amphibrach, for instance) as an antidote to poetic grandstanding: such plays of self-effacement against assertion are very important in his work. Rhyming and metrical problem-solving are also essential to the wit of his poems, which again inflects poetic authority with impishness and deeply colors the poems’ tone. He used the pacing of poetic forms contrapuntally against the plotting and logic of his poems. The forms themselves—their shading, their pathos, their modulation of energy, their inherent proportionality—were absolutely inseparable for him from the poems and from his practice as a poet.
Furthermore, as he wrote powerfully in an essays on the translation of Osip Mandelstam (“Child of Civilization,” Less Than One), for a poet of Brodsky’s generation formal values carried a larger than musical meaning: they were a living link to the values of civilization for which poets toiled secretly in hidden rooms and basements, a whispered voice echoing from the past, an embedded conversation with their peers in books and abroad whose commitment to purely aesthetic values were ridiculed by the reigning Soviet orthodoxy. To perfect the musicality of one’s verse was to scorn the Soviet command that art hew to utilitarian ends; if a poem could be said to have a literal, exportable “meaning,” then that was precisely its least valued dimension.
Such was the import that the poetic forms carried for Brodsky and his fellow émigrés, like stowaways in their literary luggage.
By contrast, when Brodsky arrived in America in 1972, formal poetry was at a low ebb. Traditional forms were equated with loathed authority generally, the influence of the Beats was pervasive and converging with continentally inflected, surrealist tendencies that would feed into the work of John Ashbery and the language poets, and the powerful generation that included Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath was moving toward a more personal, idiosyncratic line. Brodsky quickly took up the cause of form in poetry, both championing the practitioners he most admired and struggling, in his own verse, to render what he had already learned of its possibilities. Richard Wilbur wrote the new arrival a plaintive letter thanking him for his defense of Wilbur’s work and alluding to how demoralizing it was to write formal verse in such times. Brodsky’s heraldic defense of formal verse was at the time conflated with his predictably anti-Communist political views and seen as representing a general, disreputable conservatism.
This trend has reversed somewhat, or at least fragmented. We now have a more eclectic musical environment for poetry, for reasons perhaps similar to those reviving figurative painting and tonal musical composition and realist fiction. Yet Brodsky’s own influence is surely visible here. Brodsky, like W. H. Auden, harkened back to Thomas Hardy as a formative presence, and most contemporary poets would recognize a broad stream in our poetry extending from Hardy and Auden through Philip Larkin, Seamus Heaney, Derek Walcott, Brodsky, and Les Murray, to Paul Muldoon and Glyn Maxwell and Gjertrud Schnackenberg, for example. Many poets who do not write squarely in the formal tradition are more likely to visit it than they were in 1972.
Yet the legacy of that period of formal quiescence remains very much with us. Few American readers can read verse musically with any sophistication. The notion is still widespread that there is a binary division between “formal” and “free” verse—whereas much of the best of what is read as free verse is in fact deeply colored by forms (often shadows of iambic pentameter or echoes of the syllabic lines of Moore and Bishop), and there is a big difference, for example, between verse that follows a colloquial or spoken line and verse that treats language as a found object. Similarly, “formal” poetry is not just conservative poetry that adheres to old structures, but is an evolving medium that grows and develops and constantly makes new means available to the artist. The rhymes and meters of Muldoon alone should be sufficient to make the case that form can be modern.
Brodsky’s effort to enliven and expand the formal repertoire in English, which met with considerable resistance at the time, can surely now be judged a success. Yet critics continue to argue that the specific musicality of Brodsky’s English verse is too infected by “foreignness.” I think this suggestion deserves more scrutiny.
The English language is perhaps the most permeable on earth, and has been subject to external influences almost since its origins. Our own sacrosanct forms are borrowed from the French and Italian. Many of our greatest poets have struggled to infuse English poetry with the music of classical antiquity, for example. There is no reason why this process should stop now, or why our poetry might not continue to be renewed and refreshed through foreign engagements. The notion that to accuse a poet’s intonations of foreignness is sufficient to dismiss them seems unfounded, and unnecessarily to limit the potential resources available for the growth of our verse.
Let us return to the example of Brodsky. A master of an artistic medium comes to us from another language. He embraces our culture and our verse. He dedicates much of his short life to struggling mightily to rewrite his own work so that it can be read and understood by his compatriots. (This in contrast with Nabokov, an oft-mentioned comparison. Nabokov not only grew up speaking English in his aristocratic Saint Petersburg household; he abandoned composition in Russian to become an English-language writer. Brodsky remained primarily a Russian poet, crossing over into English and crossing back and embracing a bilingual literary career.) Should we reject this effort on the grounds of unfamiliarity alone? Or should we perhaps consider that Brodsky brings us important news that might enrich our tradition, which is currently suffering from an undeniable diminution of means? Should we consider whether the challenges that Brodsky’s English verse offer us may themselves be an indication of how our language and our receptivity have contracted? Might it be worth searching for the inner cadences and harmonies in what at first seems startling to us? Or asking ourselves how an apparent violation of convention might create a more muscular or versatile poetic medium?
Here I speak mostly of Brodsky’s formal invention, because the case against his English verse is often tied to the case against formal translation generally. But readers should remember that Brodsky is a difficult poet in any language. Working with him on translations I frequently had occasion to see how he transformed a line that had been proffered by a translator not only with deeper music but deeper thinking—for him the two were intimately entailed. In a recent review in Tablet, Adam Kirsch remarks that some “unpoetic” literal translations of some of Brodsky’s work that appear as examples in a recent book sound “poetic” to him. But we cannot think that the “poetic” is a single category, a switch that can be turned on or off. There is a danger that we will accept translations that appeal to our notion of the “poetic,” or that satisfy our expectations of poetry, without questioning whether they even approach the author’s intellectual grist. Thus, like Alice, we go down a narrower and narrower literary hall.
In this vein, it’s worth considering the frequent case against Brodsky that his English is “unidiomatic.” We should reflect on the prejudices embedded in this judgment. When did being “idiomatic” become a decisive attribute for poetry? Our own language has a particular history of returning to its colloquial roots. From Chaucer, to Shakespeare, to Wordsworth, to Auden, our great poets have recalled us to the spoken line. But other traditions have developed differently. Many poetries have a high or courtly style and a colloquial style that poets draw into strategic conflict. Brodsky himself was often accused by Soviet critics of mixing high and low. Other poets have innovated by disrupting or vexing expectation, creating a new or idiosyncratic rhetoric. By keeping the spoken and the colloquial so central to our tradition, we may have deafened ourselves to the beauty and value of innovations like these.
Indeed, Brodsky used to complain that the criticisms leveled against him for his work in English were precisely the same as those leveled against him by his Russian detractors. One difference may be that challenging orthodoxies goes down more easily in literary circles when the orthodoxies are Soviet.
Ease of digestion is at a premium in our speed-reading culture. We seem more often than not to look for reasons not to address ourselves to challenging work. However, given that contemporary Americans are raised with so little education of the poetic ear, and that the number of students of Russian (and other languages) diminishes by the hour, we might hesitate before calling for the reprocessing of work by an acknowledged genius to suit our local tastes. Brodsky’s poems in English come to us double-refracted, as it were, through his own aesthetic character. They are spun once, in the original, and then spun again, just for us. We get his difficult message double-distilled. We inhabit his precise self-placement in one civilization, lifted up and dropped into a completely different one. It is a tall order. We can find reasons to avoid it. The routines of translation give us a chance to recast the problem into a Brodsky who goes down more easily. But that may not be the Brodsky we need.
Joseph Brodsky (1940-96) came to the United States in 1972, an involuntary exile from the Soviet Union. He received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1987 and served as Poet Laureate of the United States in 1991 and 1992.
Ann Kjellberg, editor at Little Star, has been an editor at The New York Review of Books, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, and Artes, the journal of the Swedish Academy. She is the literary executor of the poet Joseph Brodsky and the editor of Brodsky’s Collected Poems in English. She is an adjunct professor of creative writing at Bryn Mawr College.
This post originally appeared on The Book Haven
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