Speaking for Language


Speaking for Language


On Grief and Reason: Essays

by Joseph Brodsky

In 1986 Joseph Brodsky published Less than One, a book of essays. Some of the essays were translated from the Russian; others he wrote directly in English, showing that his command of the language was growing to be near-native.

In two cases, writing in English had a symbolic importance to Brodsky: in a heartfelt homage to W. H. Auden, who greatly helped him after he was forced to leave Russia in 1972, and whom he regards as the greatest poet in English of the century; and in a memoir of his parents, whom he had to leave behind in Leningrad, and who, despite repeated petitions to the authorities, were never granted permission to visit him. He chose English, he says, to honor them in a language of freedom.

Less than One is a powerful book in its own right, worthy to stand beside Brodsky’s principal collections of verse: A Part of Speech (1980) and To Urania (1988). It includes magisterial essays on Osip Mandelstam, Anna Akhmatova, and Marina Tsvetaeva, the poets of the generation before Brodsky to whom he feels closest, as well as two brief masterpieces of autobiographical recreation: the memoir of his parents, and the title essay, on growing up amid the stupefying boredom of Leningrad in the 1950s. There are also travel essays: a trip to Istanbul, for instance, gives rise to thoughts on the Second and Third Romes, Constantinople/Byzantium, and Moscow, and hence on the meaning of the West to Westernizing Russians like himself. Finally, there are two virtuoso literary-critical essays in which he explicates (“unpacks”) individual poems that are particularly dear to him.

Now, nine years later, we have On Grief and Reason, which collects twenty-one essays, all but one written since 1986. Of these, some are without question on a par with the best of the earlier work. In “Spoils of War,” for instance—an essay classical in form, light in touch—Brodsky continues the amusing and sometimes poignant story of his youth, using those traces of the West—corned-beef cans and shortwave radios as well as movies and jazz—that found their way through the Iron Curtain to explore the meaning of the West to Russians. Given the imaginative intensity with which they pored over these artifacts, Brodsky suggests, Russians of his generation were “the real Westerners, perhaps the only ones.”

In his autobiographical journey, Brodsky has yet to arrive at the 1960s, the time of his notorious trial on charges of social parasitism and his sentencing to corrective labor in the Russian Far North. Perhaps he never will: a refusal to exhibit his wounds has always been one of his more admirable traits (“At all costs try to avoid granting yourself the status of the victim,” he advises an audience of students).

Other essays also continue where Less than One left off. The dialogue with Auden begun in “To Please a Shadow” is carried on in “Letter to Horace,” while the long analytical essays on Thomas Hardy and Robert Frost can stand beside the earlier readings of poems by Tsvetaeva and Auden.

Nevertheless, as a whole On Grief and Reason is not as strong as Less than One. Only two of the essays—“Homage to Marcus Aurelius” (1994) and “Letter to Horace” (1995)—mark a clear advance in Brodsky’s thought, and a deepening of it. Several are little more than occasional: a jaundiced memoir of a writers’ conference (“After a Journey”), for instance, and the texts of a couple of commencement addresses. More tellingly, what in earlier essays had seemed no more than passing quirks now reveal themselves as settled elements of a systematic Brodskian philosophy of language.

The system can best be illustrated from the essay on Thomas Hardy. Brodsky regards Hardy as a neglected major poet, “seldom taught, less read,” particularly in America, where he is cast out by fashion-minded critics into the limbo of “premodernism.”

It is certainly true that modern criticism has had little of interest to say about Hardy. Nevertheless, despite what Brodsky says, ordinary readers and (particularly) poets have never deserted him. John Crowe Ransom edited a selection of Hardy’s verse in 1960. Hardy dominates Philip Larkin’s widely read Oxford Book of Twentieth-Century English Verse (1973), with twenty-seven pages as opposed to nineteen for Yeats, sixteen for Auden, a mere nine for Eliot. Nor did the Modernist avant-garde dismiss Hardy en bloc. Ezra Pound, for instance, tirelessly recommended him to younger poets. “Nobody has taught me anything about writing since Thomas Hardy died,” he remarked in 1934.

Brodsky chooses to present Hardy as a neglected poet as part of an attack on the French-influenced modernism of the Pound-Eliot school, and on all the revolutionary -isms of the first decades of the century, which, to his mind, pointed literature in the wrong direction. He wishes to reclaim leading positions in Anglo-American letters for Hardy and Frost, and in general for those poets who built upon, rather than broke with, traditional poetics. Thus he rejects the influential anti-naturalist poetics of the Russian critic Viktor Shklovsky, which are based on unabashed artificiality, on the foregrounding of the poetic device. “This is where modernism goofed,” he says. Genuinely modern aesthetics—the aesthetics of Hardy, Frost, and, later, Auden—uses traditional forms because form, as camouflage, allows the writer “to land a better punch when and where it’s least expected.”


Everyday, commonsense language of this kind is prominent in the literary essays in On Grief and Reason, which appear to have had their origin as lectures to classes of undergraduates. Brodsky’s readiness to meet his audience on their own ground produces some unfortunate effects, including bathetic inflation (some lines by Rilke become “the greatest sequence of three similes in the entire history of poetry”). It is not clear that Brodsky appreciates the social significance of slang, much of which is created by powerless groups, particularly the young, to exclude outsiders. Precisely because it marks a boundary, politeness suggests that outsiders not trespass.

Strong poets have always created their own lineage and, in the process, rewritten the history of poetry. Brodsky is no exception. What he finds in Hardy is, to a degree, what he wants readers to find in himself; his reading of Hardy is most convincing when in veiled fashion it describes his own practices or ambitions. He writes, for example, that the germ of Hardy’s famous poem “The Convergence of the Twain” (on the sinking of the Titanic) probably lay in the word “maiden” (as in the phrase “maiden voyage”), which then generated the central conceit of the poem, ship and iceberg as fated lovers. The suggestion, dropped almost in passing, seems to me a stroke of genius. But beyond that it gives an insight into Brodsky’s own creative habits.

Behind Hardy’s “The Convergence of the Twain” Brodsky also points to the presence of the Schopenhauer of The World as Will and Idea: ship and iceberg collide at the behest of a blind metaphysical force devoid of any ultimate purpose, a force that Brodsky calls “the phenomenal world’s inner essence.” In itself this suggestion is not novel: whether or not Hardy had Schopenhauer in mind, Schopenhauer’s brand of pessimistic determinism was clearly congenial to him. But Brodsky goes further. He recommends to his audience that they read Schopenhauer, “not so much for Mr. Hardy’s sake as for your own.” Schopenhauer’s Will is thus attractive not only to Brodsky’s Hardy but to Brodsky himself.

In fact, through his reading of five Hardy poems, Brodsky intends to reveal Hardy as a vehicle for a Schopenhauerian Will acting through language, more like a scribe used by language than an autonomous user of it. In certain lines of “The Darkling Thrush,” “language flows into the human domain from the realm of non-human truths and dependencies [and] is ultimately the voice of inanimate matter.” While this may not have been what Hardy intended, “it was what this line was after in Thomas Hardy, and he responded.” Thus what we take to be creativity may be “nothing more (or less) than matter’s attempts to articulate itself.”

What is here called the voice of inanimate matter more often becomes, in Brodsky’s essays, the voice of language, the voice of poetry, or the voice of a specific meter. Brodsky is resolutely anti-Freudian in the sense that he is not interested in the notion of a personal unconscious. Thus to him the language that speaks through poets has a truly metaphysical status. And since it sometimes spoke through Hardy, Brodsky makes clear, it is capable of speaking through every real poet, including himself. In a disconcerting way, Brodsky here finds himself not at all far from the kind of reductive cultural critique that claims that speakers are little more than the mouthpieces of dominant discourses or ideologies. The difference is that, while the latter critique is based within history, Brodsky’s idea is that language—the time-marked and time-marking language of poetry—is a metaphysical force operating through and within time but outside history. “Prosody…is simply a repository of time within language,” he wrote in Less than One. “Language is older than state and…prosody always survives history.”

Brodsky is unequivocal in taking away control of the history and development of poetry from the poets themselves and handing it to a metaphysical language—language as will and idea. In Hardy’s poetry, for instance, having acutely pointed to a certain absence of a detectable speaking voice, to an “audial neutrality,” he suggests that this apparently negative attribute would turn out to have great importance to twentieth-century poetry—would, indeed, make Hardy “prophetic” of Auden. But, Brodsky maintains, it was not so much the case that Auden or any other of Hardy’s successors imitated him as that Hardy’s voicelessness became “what the future [of english poetry] liked.”


As an assertion about Hardy or Auden or poetry in general this may be unverifiable and to that extent meaningless. In relation to Brodsky’s own poetic practice, however, it has an interest of its own. Yet for an idea so fundamental to his philosophy of poetry, it is oddly absent from his own poetry. In only one or two poems, and there only fleetingly, does Brodsky directly take as a theme the experience of being spoken through by language (of course he may claim that all his poems embody the experience). One explanation may be that the experience is more appropriately treated at a respectful remove in discursive prose. A more interesting explanation is that the metapoetical theme of poetry reflecting on the conditions of its own existence is absent from his own work precisely because to attempt in his own poems to understand and thus master the force behind him would strike Brodsky as not only impious but futile as well.

But even within the discourse of vatic poetry there remains something odd, even eccentric, in the elevation of prosody in particular to metaphysical status. “Verse meters in themselves are kinds of spiritual magnitudes for which nothing can be substituted,” writes Brodsky. They are “a means of restructuring time.” What precisely does it mean to restructure time? Brodsky never explains fully, or fully enough. He comes closest in the essay on Mandelstam in Less than One, where the time that utters itself through Mandelstam confronts the “mute space” of Stalin; but even there the core of the notion remains mysterious and perhaps even mystical. Nevertheless, when Brodsky says, in On Grief and Reason, that “language…uses a human being, not the other way around,” he would seem to have the meters of poetry above all in mind; and when—particularly in his lectures to students—he pleads for the educative and even redemptive function of poetry (“love is a metaphysical affair whose goal is either accomplishing or liberating one’s soul,… [and] that is and always has been the core of lyric poetry”), it is submission to the rhythms of poetry he is alluding to.

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.

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.

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.


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