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A Struggle Against Suffocation


A Struggle Against Suffocation

Joseph Brodsky
Joseph Brodsky; drawing by David Levine

The strong presence of Joseph Brodsky has needed less than a decade to establish itself in world poetry. Yet of his four books published in Russian, only one, Selected Poems, was translated into English, by George L. Kline. Probably, by a sort of instinct, the cultured public vaguely feels, if not clearly comprehends, his stature. His poetry has attracted good translators, as the present volume shows. On the other hand, the reader of his work enters a huge building of strange architecture (a cathedral? an ICBM site?) at his own risk, since critics and literary scholars have not yet begun to compile literary guidebooks to it.

In syllables, feet, rhyme, stanzas Brodsky follows a tradition, but not slavishly. The very nature of the Russian language seems to have determined a peculiar brand of modernism in our century: innovation within strict metrical patterns. Russian verse in this respect is different from its English, French, and also Polish, Czech, and Serbo-Croatian counterparts. Brodsky’s colloquialisms, slang expressions, and words not met with in literary usage would seem to call for the freedom of William Carlos Williams’s “spoken” rhythms. Instead, together with a web of metaphors, often sustained and enlarged through several stanzas, they make up a pattern of lines to be half sung, half recited. In his practice of poetry as a vocation, Brodsky observes rules of craftsmanship going back to the late eighteenth-century poet Derzhavin. In his experiments with poetic genres—ode, lyrical poem, elegy, descriptive poem, the story in verse—he resembles Auden. The obstacles such poetry presents to transplantation into another language should add to our surprise when we see how Brodsky comes through in English and finds an attentive ear, at least among serious readers.

The secret lies, probably, in the way he reverses some of the trends that have dominated poetry for the last half century. These trends were based on certain unavowed premises which, as is common in the history of ideas, are fated not to be overcome in direct combat, but simply bypassed. Brodsky grew up in the Soviet Union, but being self-educated he has remained impervious to its imposed and largely accepted modes of thinking. During his years of exile, since 1972, he has also preserved a skeptical distance from the intellectual fashions of his new milieu. At the same time, he does not resemble those recent Russian immigrants who stay in their Slavic shell and are mistrustful of the evil West. Looking for his roots, we must turn to the era of European cosmopolitanism, which came to an end with the outbreak of World War I, and ended in Russia with the Revolution. Brodsky takes over where young Osip Mandelstam and young Anna Akhmatova were stopped.

This does not mean, though, that the post-revolutionary decades, so tragic for Russian poetry, did not leave a durable impression on his view of the world. Behind Brodsky’s poetry is the experience of political terror, the experience of the debasement of man and the growth of the totalitarian empire. Thus we may speak of two currents, Western and Russian, both originating in cosmopolitan Europe before 1914, coming together again, the second current represented in the work of a poet who has been banished from his own country. The reversal of trends which I mentioned may be owing precisely to that coming together.

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. Contrary to the tendency prevailing today, he believes that the poet, before he is ready to confront ultimate questions, must observe a certain code. He should be God-fearing, love his country and his native tongue, rely upon his conscience, avoid alliances with evil, and be attached to tradition. These elementary rules cannot be forgotten or ridiculed by a poet, since absorbing them is part of his initiation, more exactly ordination, into a sacred craft.

Certain principles must be observed. A poet betrays his vocation (Nadezhda Mandelstam speaks of such poets in her memoirs) when he lets himself be seduced or becomes a seducer. The modern age threatens him with its noise of theories, intellectual fads, slogans appealing to the emotions, and novelties changing into clichés. By allowing himself to treat that noise too seriously, a poet risks forgetting that he is part of a tradition that has lasted for thousands of years. If he forgets this tradition, he is all the more likely to try to seduce his readers, offering them a false and distorted image of the present. A poet also risks being lured into serving the men who wield power. In resisting that temptation he will be helped by perceiving how miserable are their minds and how short-lived their schemes. They deserve their fate, which, after they have briefly thrashed about, is silence. So to use poetry to attack them is to do them too much honor.


The poet’s task as Brodsky conceives it is to try to preserve continuity in a world more and more afflicted with a loss of memory. His basic text would be the Bible. The European or American poet must be constantly aware that he belongs to a given civilization, born on the shores of the Mediterranean, that is a fusion of Jewish, Greek, and Roman elements. Thus, Greece and Rome will be for him a source of topoi and of forms. If he is a Russian, his poetry, by drawing from his great Western predecessors (Dante and the English metaphysical poets), can stress the unity of European culture and avoid the Slavophile’s game of alternating attitudes of inferiority and superiority to the West.

In attempting to reconstruct a poetics from Brodsky’s work, I do not want to present him as a man looking for refuge in a safe conservatism. My point is that his despair is that of a poet who belongs to the end of the twentieth century, and it acquires its full significance only when juxtaposed with a code consisting of a few fundamental beliefs. This despair is held in check so that each poem becomes an exercise in stamina.

A Part of Speech contains several poems written in the Soviet Union, but its major theme is exile, in a double sense: literally and as a metaphor for the condition of post-modern man. Brodsky is an autobiographical poet and his topics are related to his itinerary: the Leningrad of his childhood and youth, the Crimea, a sovkhoz in the north where he served his sentence after being arrested for “parasitism” (i.e., for being an unlicensed poet), Lithuania, America (Ann Arbor and Cape Cod), Venice, Florence, Mexico, and England. Travel, voluntary and involuntary, leaves its trace: the book is a philosophical diary in verse. It differs from works of romantic travels of the past, for they had a horizontal quality, as the earth then preserved something of the quality of a plane. Now the world is irreversibly round and getting smaller every day. How then is one to build a fortress on it—for oneself, for man?

Perhaps by going to a German town where an insane addict of power started his career and by reflecting there on a transitory gloria mundi.

In the little town out of which death sprawled over the class- room map
the cobblestones shine like scales that coat a carp,
on the secular chestnut tree melting candles hung,
and a cast-iron lion pines for a good harangue.
Through the much laundered, pale window gauze
woundlike carnations and kirchen
   needles ooze;
a tram rattles far off, as in days of yore,
but no one gets off at the stadium any more.
The real end of the war is a sweet blonde’s frock
across a Viennese armchair’s fragile back
while the humming winged silver bullets fly,
taking lives southward, in mid- July.

(From “A Part of Speech,” translated by Brodsky himself)

I selected this poem because the poet’s own itinerary and the history of the twentieth century meet here, and because it exemplifies some of Brodsky’s qualities, his terse, manly, and vibrant tone. The lines tend to join in couplets, but often he sounds breathless, running one sentence on for several lines. Those who have heard him read his poetry know how closely its scansion corresponds to its ardor and restrained vehemence.

Man against space and time. The two words, crucial for his poetry, invariably are given ominous connotations by Brodsky: “And space rises like some bill of fare,” “Time’s invented by death,” “the nothingness of Time,” “Here space appears unnerved by its own feats,” “and space backed up like a crab, time surged ahead…soiling its garments with the tar of night,” “Buzzing around my jugular, time….” One needs only to add two other words, “hemisphere’ and “empire” as being central to a reading of Brodsky.

And geography blended
with time equals destiny.

(“Strophes,” translated by David McDuff with the poet)

Brodsky moved from one continent to another, from a hemisphere to a hemisphere, from one empire to another empire. His poem “Lullaby of Cape Cod” (translated by Anthony Hecht) is a long meditation on displacement.

Like a snake charmer, like the Pied Piper of old,
playing my flute I passed the green janissaries,
my testes sensing their poleaxe’s sinister cold,
as when one wades into water. And then with the brine
of sea-water sharpness filling, flooding the mouth,
I crossed the line

and sailed into muttony clouds.

Then, a few stanzas later:

I write from an Empire whose enor- mous flanks
extend beneath the sea. Having sampled two
oceans as well as continents, I feel that I know
what the globe itself must feel: there’s nowhere to go.

“Empire” is one of Brodsky’s prankish words. The Roman conquests were not called “liberations” or “anti-colonialist.” They were just feats of force. Similarly, neither Charlemagne’s nor Napoleon’s quest for power was much disguised by ideology. The twentieth century witnesses a struggle between a few centers of control, while Orwellian double-speak spreads a smoke screen of high-sounding slogans. That their country is also an empire may, for the Russians, be a source of pride, and for Americans, with their strange habit of breast-beating, a source of shame, but the reality is inescapable. For Brodsky, “empire” also means the very dimensions of a continent, the monumentality itself, of which he is fond.


There are no illusions here: the Earth is not enough and the Sun is insufficient to light up both hemispheres simultaneously (“The light has never been enough”). Yet, as we have come to expect of Brodsky, “Lullaby of Cape Cod,” one of his strongest poems, is an affirmation of endurance. He accomplishes what previous generations of Russian émigré writers were unable to do: to make the lands of exile, however reluctantly, their own, to take possession through the poetic word. He uses the metaphor of a stranded fish which adapts itself “to some deep, cellular wish,” and wriggles toward the bushes. He continues,

Yet just because shoes exist and the foot is shod
some surface will always be there, some place to stand,
a portion of dry land.

Brodsky is a poet with a complex cultural inheritance and he freely draws on models and archetypes of human behavior from literature. That is how he deals with the problem of the individual against an oppressive society, of the poet against the center of power. In “Letters to a Roman Friend” (translated by George L. Kline), one more variation on the theme of Horace’s provincial retreat, Horace addresses strophes to Postumus who lives in Imperial Rome. In “Torso” (translated by Howard Moss), life, symbolized by a mouse, is opposed to the “Empire” which petrifies everything. Here it is difficult to avoid thinking of Pushkin’s “Bronze Horseman,” where poor Evgeny, a mouse indeed, is pursued by the monument of Peter the Great. The very personal troubles of Brodsky himself in 1969, when he was still in Russia, are transformed, and lifted to a classical plane. In “The End of a Beautiful Era” (translated by David Rigsbee with the poet) he writes:

Does my brain earn a slug, as a spot where an error occurred
earns a good pointing finger?

The closing stanza reads:

The keen-sightedness of our days is the sort that befits the dead end
whose concrete begs for spittle and not a witty comment. Wake up a dinosaur, not a prince, to recite you the moral!
Birds have feathers for penning last words, though it’s better to ask.
For the innocent head there is noth- ing in store but an ax and the evergreen laurel.

By “prince” is meant not Hamlet but Rurik, the legendary founder of the Kievan state. The fourth line refers to a magic bird of a fairy tale, but this is lost in translation.

Even a cycle of eminently autobiographical short poems, “A Part of Speech” (translated, it seems to me very well, by Brodsky himself), transposes twentieth-century situations by alluding to the era of Oriental courts and courtiers:

is when you forget the spelling of the tyrant’s name
and your mouth’s saliva is sweeter than Persian pie.

In some of his most moving poems Brodsky uses themes taken from the Bible, Homer, and Virgil. Among his highest accomplishments I place “Odysseus to Telemachus” and “Nunc Dimittis,” on old Simeon receiving the Christ Child in the temple. Both are translated by George L. Kline. The opening of the former poem is beautiful in its simplicity:

My dear Telemachus,
The Trojan War
is over now; I don’t recall who won it.

I regret that Brodsky’s other “classical” poems have not been included in the present volume. These are: “Isaac and Abraham,” “Sonnet” (“Great-hearted Hecor has been speared to death”), “To Lycomedes on Scyros,” “Aeneas and Dido,” “Post Aetatem Nostram.” The urge to make use of motifs from antiquity is common to several other contemporary poets and is probably evidence of their mistrust of the amorphousness of our own time. Still, no two poets treat these themes similarly, the proportion of the experienced and the literary differing for each. In Brodsky the second component is just sufficient to cool strong emotion; he is less sardonic in these poems than in his others.

Still, what I have said is no more than one approach to defining Brodsky’s work. This is philosophical poetry, bearing the mark of what Goethe considered the highest stage in the spiritual development of the individual, which he called “Respect.” It is a poetry at two poles of human existence: love as it is lived and suffered through, and death almost tasted and feared. Both love and death are approached in these poems with awe and through an inspired incantation which does not sound to me secular. An intensity that deserves to be called religious combined with a metaphorical denseness makes Brodsky a true descendant of the English metaphysical poets and it is clear he feels an affinity with them.

The long love poem “A Song to No Music” (translated by David Rigsbee with the poet) develops a geometrical, very baroque metaphor of two “points,” i.e., two lovers, separated in space but united by lines meeting somewhere above them: thus, a triangle is formed. In “The Butterfly” (translated by George L. Kline) the seventeenth century is revisited, revived, and enriched. The magnificent “Elegy for John Donne” was written while he was still in Russia, and is included in Selected Poems. While in the Soviet north he learned of the death of T.S. Eliot and wrote a dirge, borrowing its form from Auden’s poem on the death of Yeats. I know of no poet in the West who mourned Eliot in a poem.

Brodsky has no talisman of faith that can protect him from despair and the fear of death, and in this respect he is close to many other contemporary poets. Death, for him, is always associated with Nothingness.

placing a mirror close
to my still-breathing lips,
seeing if I can stand
non-being in daylight.

(“Nature morte” translated by George L. Kline)

However, his tone is not one of resignation, and this distinguishes him from his contemporaries. Quite extraordinary is the poem on growing old, “1972” (translated by Alan Myers with the poet), whose stanzas enumerate one by one, with a sort of masochistic glee, the signs of the destructive work of time upon the author’s body. But then, in a peculiar leap of optimistic rhythm, we read a sudden appeal to beat the drum and march forward, together with one’s shadow. The translation, successful on the whole, does not convey the soaring movement of the last stanza

Bej v baraban, poka derzis’ palocki
s ten ‘ju svoej marsiruja v nogu.

The reappearance of stoicism in the literature of this century is often said to be based on analogies between the ancient and modern worlds, marked as they both are by a departure of the gods. To the question whether Brodsky’s determination is stoic, I would answer no. I see a deep affinity between him and Lev Shestov. A haughty, scornful, and austere thinker, who did his best work during his years of exile in Paris (where he died in 1939), Shestov was discovered, together with Kierkegaard, by the French existentialists. His self-appointed role as the enfant terrible of philosophy ensures that he will be rediscovered again and again. Shestov disliked stoicism, in which he saw the quintessence of the submission to Necessity typical, according to him, of Greek thought. To Athens, he opposed Jerusalem, to Socrates and Plato he opposed The Book of Job. His work is imbued with that respect for the Sacred that I find in Brodsky; it is a “serious call” to strive ceaselessly for transcendence without accepting things as they are, and without the comforts of serenity. Shestov’s God, enigmatic and mocking of human expectations, asked for piety even if, or perhaps just because, he remained silent about saving a pious man from the Pit.

A study of Brodsky and Shestov ought to be written, not necessarily to search for the influence (real, I think) of the philosopher on the poet, but rather to stress a strange convergence in the tactics chosen by these two defenders of the Holy in the age of disbelief. The adjectives applied to Shestov, and his style—haughty, scornful, austere—fit Brodsky as well. Fortunately so, for were he more pliable and polite he would not have been able to maintain the purity of his refusal:

A loyal subject of these second-rate years
I proudly admit that my finest ideas
are second-rate, and may the future take them
as trophies of my struggle against suffocation.

A “struggle against suffocation” is a major endeavor of poets in these last decades of the century, wherever they live. Unlike philosophers, they have their home in the language, in its past, present, and future, though few of them make such a conscious choice as Brodsky, who had to tear away the cobwebs of the journalese that infest his native tongue before he could engage in “purifying the language of the tribe.” In a way, he is in a privileged position, since he is surrounded by new worlds unnamed in Russian. They are waiting for discovery by a poet who looks at them in a specific, non-Western way.

What gets left of a man amounts to a part. To his spoken part. To a part of speech.

(“A Part of Speech”)

Thus, as a defense against despair, we have the oeuvre of a man wholly concentrated on his poetry. Here poems of circumstance, including descriptions of visited cities and countries, have a definite presence and purpose. In his struggle against the Necessity of space and time, Shestov was less lucky, since he was merely a philosopher. Brodsky seizes upon a street, a detail of architecture, an aura of a place, and removes it from the flow of time and from space, to preserve it in a crystalline meter. He gathers several tableaux—from Mexico, from Lithuania—under the title of “divertissement” or “divertimento,” probably in the musical sense, although it can also be associated with “le divertissement” of Pascal who saw in it the main remedy for the misery of the human condition.

Some of the purest epigrammatic verses of Brodsky make up the “Lithuanian Divertissement.” Among them are “Liejyklos” and “The Dominicans.” The first of these is the name of a street, the second is a Roman Catholic church in Wilno, now the capital of Soviet Lithuania. I cannot write impersonally of this cycle. In that city of my adolescence and youth, then belonging to Poland, I know every stone. The cycle is dedicated to our mutual friend, the Lithuanian poet Tomas Venclova. The space created by the poem becomes, in my perception, an empyrean realm where three poets of different nationalities and backgrounds can celebrate their meeting in the teeth of reality which in that region is especially ominous and oppressive. I do not know to what extent Brodsky’s poetry is now known in Lithuania. In Poland he is highly esteemed in literary circles, but translations of his poems and articles about him appear in samizdat publications only.

In his foreword to the Selected Poems, Auden said that, if one can judge by translations, Brodsky should be a poet of the first order. Let us hope that A Part of Speech will help to secure for him the undisputed standing he deserves as a major poet, thanks to his work in English, which in a considerable number of lines comes close to the original in conciseness and strength.


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