Joseph Brodsky

(1940 - 1996)


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The Art of the Temporary

Issue Date: 10.09.00
Post Date: 10.02.00

Collected Poems in English
by Joseph Brodsky
edited by Ann Kjellberg
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 540 pp
here to buy this book)


Joseph Brodsky, who died in 1996 at the terribly early age of 55, now enjoys at least three posthumous lives. First, and by far most important, is the Russian poet who was frequently called the best poet of his generation, the heir to Akhmatova, Mandelstam, and Tsvetaeva. This body of work is inaccessible to most American readers, this writer included, but Brodsky himself saw it as the heart of his achievement. In 1987, after he received the Nobel Prize, an interviewer asked him if he had won as an American poet of Russian origin or a Russian poet living in America, and he firmly replied: "A Russian poet, an English essayist, and, of course, an American citizen."

Brodsky's second legacy is his uniquely passionate and humanistic defense of poetry, made in the face of Soviet repression and American indifference. He was one of the few writers and thinkers in our time who would argue, without embarrassment, that "poetry occupies a higher position than prose, and the poet, in principle, is higher than the prose writer"; and more, that "literature--and poetry in particular, being the highest form of locution--is, to put it bluntly, the goal of our species." Brodsky even made the claim, contrary to his beloved Auden, that literature is of direct moral and political benefit to its readers: "I'll just say that I believe--not empirically, alas, but only theoretically--that for someone who has read a lot of Dickens, to shoot his like in the name of some idea is somewhat more problematic than for someone who has read no Dickens." When Brodsky made such assertions, his audience could not easily dismiss them, because his own life was an example of poetry saving a soul from tyranny.

The story of that life has been told and retold, though seldom by Brodsky himself. ("For a writer to mention his penal experiences," he wrote, "is like dropping names for normal folk.") In his early twenties, he was savaged in the Soviet literary press and hauled before a Leningrad tribunal, which demanded: "Who included you among the ranks of the poets?" His reply--"No one. Who included me among the ranks of human beings?"--has become legendary, but at the time he paid for it with a year and a half in an Arctic labor settlement. Prevented from publishing, Brodsky was eventually expelled from the Soviet Union in 1972, never to see his family or his country again. The courage with which he then remade his life and his career in America is equally impressive. Avoiding the emigre's self-pity and parochialism, he resolved to participate in American literary life, and he taught himself to write in English--first critical prose, then translations of his own poetry, and finally original poems.

Which brings us to Brodsky's third, and most problematic, posthumous identity: the English poet. Collected Poems in English contains the three volumes of poetry that appeared between 1980 and 1996--A Part of Speech, To Urania, and So Forth--as well as a short section of previously uncollected poems. It is not a complete English edition: it does not include some of the poems written in Russia that appeared in his first English volume, the Penguin Selected Poems of 1973, nor--as Ann Kjellberg explains--"translations by other hands of poems in Russian written after 1972 that Brodsky was unable to see through translation during his lifetime." And it is certainly not a complete translation of Brodsky's opus, since--as Kjellberg further explains--"the author was able to render into English about a third of his mature work in Russian." (The Russian originals have just been reissued, in corrected editions, by Slovo/Word Publishers in New York.)

Still, this is an important book, because it provides a comprehensive opportunity to evaluate Brodsky as an American poet. Following the poet's example in So Forth, Kjellberg identifies the translator of each poem only in the endnotes, thus issuing "an invitation to the reader to consider the poems as if they were original texts in English." It is hard to know whether Brodsky himself would make this invitation, at least so explicitly. He did write in English, and he did translate his Russian poems; but no one was more alive to the tremendous difficulties of translation, to the incommensurability of languages, especially languages so different as Russian and English. "What a poet actually listens to, what really does dictate to him the next line, is the language," he wrote; "whatever language's gender happens to be, a poet's attachment to it is monogamous, for a poet, by trade at least, is a monoglot." Or, even more emphatically, in his essay on Mandelstam:

What is called the music of a poem is essentially time restructured in such a way that it brings this poem's content into a linguistically inevitable, memorable focus ... that horizon vanishes in translations, leaving on the page absorbing but one-dimensional content.... What translation has in common with censorship is that both operate on the basis of the "what's possible" principle, and it must be noted that linguistic barriers can be as high as those erected by the state.

The author of those lines would not want readers to pass lightly over the gulf dividing his Russian verse from his English verse. It is impossible to evaluate the Collected Poems in English as though they were the work of an American poet--they are not, and they do not read as if they were. Unless this is understood, these poems will be misunderstood. With a few exceptions, they are translations, although the author and the translator are sometimes the same person; and while Brodsky's own translations naturally have a unique status, they are not necessarily definitive.

By preserving the organization of Brodsky's three books, the Collected Poems in English does not present the poems chronologically, in the order of writing; but it reflects, at least roughly, the order of translation, and this is probably more important. Indeed, the three books more or less correspond to three stages in Brodsky's American career. In the first, largely represented in A Part of Speech (1980), he relied on translators and other poets to render his work into English; in the second, the years of To Urania (1988), he began to make his own translations, sometimes in collaboration with others, with very mixed results; and in the third, corresponding to So Forth (1996), the aims and the methods of his translations changed for the better, and he began to include a number of original English poems.

To read the book from beginning to end, then, is to hear Brodsky's own voice come to the fore--haltingly at first, then more confidently, but never as the voice of a native English writer. In fact, for clarity and poetic decorum, the earliest translations--by a variety of hands, including Anthony Hecht, Richard Wilbur, and Derek Walcott--are the best. When Brodsky begins to direct the translation, this decorum is broken by a more colloquial, humorous, idiosyncratic style, which may or may not be the tone of Brodsky's Russian verse, but certainly seems to be the tone that he wanted for his English verse. The wide-ranging diction, the awkward or jokey rhymes, the rapid progression of thoughts and metaphors: all this often results in confusion, semantic obscurity, tonal uneasiness. And sometimes, for interesting reasons, the poems that seem most ambitious in their conception are the least successful in translation. Their power can be guessed at, perhaps imagined, but not really felt.

What does come through in translation, at every stage in Brodsky's career, is his extremely fertile metaphorical imagination, his delight in significant and unlikely conceits. This is the element of poetry that is always easiest to translate, since it is a relation of ideas more than of words. Where rhythm and rhyme fall away, image and argument can survive. And Brodsky, who read the modernists of the 1930s and John Donne as a young man in Russia, had a great gift for their sort of ironically suggestive metaphors. In his memorial tribute to Stephen Spender, he remarked that reading MacNeice, Spender and Auden "unshackled me," especially by "their common knack for taking a bewildered look at the familiar."

When other elements of a translation fail, these images remind us of the quality of Brodsky's imagination: "death in its speckledness/looks like the vague outlines of Asia"; "This pull in one direction only has made/me something elongated, like a horse's head"; or, best of all, from "The Thames at Chelsea":

And when you sleep, the telephone numbers
of your past and present blend to produce a figure--
astronomical. And your finger turning the dial
of the winter moon finds the colorless, vile
chirp, "Engaged," and this steady noise
is clearer than God's own voice.

That poem was written in 1974, and is translated by David Rigsbee; it belongs to Brodsky's early American phase, lucid, the rhymes unobtrusive, the sense coming before the sound.

Yet the same agility and unlikeliness that we admire here can become, when Brodsky himself takes over the translation, rapid and clotted to the point of confusion. Here we see, perhaps, an unsuccessful attempt to transfer into English the nuance and the variety that Brodsky saw as characteristic of Russian poetry:

Russian poetry on the whole is not very topical. Its basic technique is one of beating around the bush, approaching the theme from various angles. The clear-cut treatment of the subject matter, which is so characteristic of poetry in English, usually gets exercised within this or that line, and then a poet moves on to something else; it seldom makes for an entire poem.

This describes fairly well the rapid movement of ideas in "December in Florence," from 1976, one of the first poems that the poet translated himself:

A man gets reduced to pen's rustle on paper, to
wedges, ringlets of letters, and also, due
to the slippery surface, to commas and full stops. True,
often, in some common word, the unwitting pen
strays into drawing--while tackling an
"M"--some eyebrows: ink is more honest than
blood. And a face, with moist words inside
out to dry what has just been said,
smirks like the crumpled paper absorbed by shade.

The number of different conceits packed into these lines makes them very difficult to follow; and the sound, too, is unappealing, in a phrase such as "wedges, ringlets of letters." Most obtrusive of all is the rhyming, which requires unnatural and unrhythmic constructions: "to/wedges," "true,/often, "inside/out."

This insistence on a poem's rhyme scheme, often to the detriment of its sense and even its meter, was not an idle choice. Brodsky wrote often about his principled attachment to strict form. He believed that a translator must carry over the form of the original: "It should be remembered that verse meters in themselves are kinds of spiritual magnitudes for which nothing can be substituted. They cannot be replaced even by each other, let alone by free verse. Differences in meters are differences in breath and in heartbeat." The irony is that, in a poem such as "December in Florence," so much is sacrificed for the sake of the rhyme-scheme that the poem loses the energy that meter should provide; it seems more "written" and less "sung" than free verse. The rhymes strike us intellectually, and we recognize that the original poem was rhymed in a certain way; but they do not serve their purpose in the English poem.

When one compares the translations made by accomplished American poets, the difference is immediately clear. Consider Anthony Hecht's rendition of "Lullaby of Cape Cod":

Like a carried-over number in addition,
the sea comes up in the dark
and on the beach it leaves its delible mark,
and the unvarying, diastolic motion,
the repetitious, drugged sway of the ocean,
cradles a splinter adrift for a million years.

Perhaps this sounds more like Hecht than like Brodsky; but as Brodsky himself wrote, "translation is a search for an equivalent, not for a substitute," and the poem is both clearer and more pleasing for being re-spoken in Hecht's poetic voice.

Certain poets, whose energies are primarily metaphorical, might not suffer as Brodsky often does in translation. Wislawa Szymborska comes across extremely clearly in English, since she is a genuinely Metaphysical poet; and Yehuda Amichai's Open Closed Open is similarly successful. But Brodsky, though lucid and brilliant in his imagery, seems often to be more interested in rhythm, sound, and rhetoric than in idea and argument; and so there is more to be lost. This loss is most acutely felt in some of the sequences in To Urania--"Twenty Sonnets to Mary Queen of Scots," "Sextet," "Roman Elegies," "Venetian Stanzas,"--which are translated either by Brodsky alone or with a partner. They feel, as Robert Hass wrote, "like wandering through the ruins of a noble building."

These poems are intelligent, rich in imagery and movement, but too often do not cohere musically or even semantically:

Oh, a dark eye is obviously more fluent
in brown furniture, pomegranates, oak shutters.
It's more keen, it's more cordial than a blue one;
to the blue one, though, nothing matters!
The blue one can always tell the owner
from the goods, especially before closing--
that is, time from living--and turn the latter over,
as tails strain to look at heads in tossing.

The complex transformations of the last four lines--owner and goods, time and living, heads and tails--seem to me almost impossible to resolve into a single meaning. And something similar takes place in Brodsky's first poems written in English, such as "Allenby Road," from 1981:

And your closing the shutters unleashes the domino
theory; for no matter what size a lump
melts in your throat, the future snowballs each "no"
to coin a profile by the burning lamp.
Neither because there is a lot of guilt
nor because local prices are somewhat steep,
nobody picks this brick pocket filled
with change that barely buys some sleep.

Even when the sense of a poem is clear, the urgency that comes from well-handled form often decays in translation. "Twenty Sonnets to Mary Queen of Scots," translated by Brodsky with Peter France, proposes the queen as a symbol of romance and doomed passion, in opposition to the prosaic, politics-minded "Good Queen Bess." The sequence is witty, various, and convincing; but it is too halting, rhythmically, to take flight:

May God send you in others--not a chance!
He, capable of many things at once,
won't--citing Parmenides--reinspire
the bloodstream fire, the bone-crushing creeps,
which melt the lead in fillings with desire
to touch--"your hips," I must delete--your lips.

Where Brodsky approaches most nearly the simple, universal themes--in his meditations, his odes, and his sequences--the intellectual content of the poem means less than the particular movement of the language, and the poem suffers the more. As a result, his more striking and memorable poems are those with a more limited compass: occasional and political poems, elegies and narratives. In these modes, his ironic understatement and eye for the significant detail--both reminiscent of Auden--come through with great immediacy. "Lines on the Winter Campaign, 1980," about Soviet soldiers in Afghanistan, is a fine example:

The dreams are identical, as are the greatcoats.
Plenty of cartridges, few recollections,
and the tang in the mouth of too many "hurrahs."
Glory to those who, their glances lowered,
marched in the sixties to abortion tables,
sparing the homeland its present stigma.

Those last three lines are truly audacious, in a way that no didactic protest-poet could manage without sounding shrill and offensive. (Imagine how an American poem about Vietnam might use the same idea.) Brodsky is effective because of his restrained tone, his seeming objectivity. In the same way, in "Mexican Divertimento," translated by Brodsky and Alan Myers, he conjures up a banana republic in six lines:

The constitution is beyond
reproach. The text with traces of leapfrogging
dictators lies enshrined within
the National Library, secure beneath green bullet-
proof glass--it should be noted, the very same
as fitted in the President's Rolls-Royce.

And in "An Admonition," which might be read as an homage or a response to Auden's "Atlantis," Brodsky invents an Asia that is part historical, part sinister fable, through a series of instructions:

If somebody yells "Hey stranger!" don't answer. Play deaf and dumb.
Even though you may know it, don't speak the tongue.
Try not to stand out--either in profile or
full face; simply don't wash your face at times. What's more,
when they rip a cur's throat with a saw, don't cringe.
Smoking, douse your butts with spittle. And besides, arrange
to wear gray--the hue of the earth-- especially underclothes,
to reduce the temptation to blend your flesh with earth.

The concrete, the detailed, may not be Brodsky's only mode, or even his most characteristic mode; but it is the mode that comes across best in English, partially because, as we have seen, it shows the influence of English poetry. Brodsky often said that what he valued in English was precisely this specificity, in contrast to the rhetoric and the emotion of Russian. In an interview in 1987, he observed: "In Russian, what matters is the combination; the main question you ask yourself when you write is whether it sounds good. In English you ask yourself whether it makes sense...It's a language of reason, whereas Russian is basically a language of texture."

Of course, English too has its textures, and it is quite possible to be rhetorical and imprecise in the language of Shelley and Hart Crane. Yet one can imagine that a part of Brodsky's novelty, as a Russian poet, was to import this particular vision of English into his native language, much as Eliot made over the French of Laforgue and Corbière into English. And, ironically, when Brodsky crosses the border back into English, his innovations are more familiar than they would be to his original audience.

It is in the last section of the Collected Poems in English, the poems from So Forth, that Brodsky attains his fullest ease as a translator and an English poet. The poems written in English tend to become more modest, ballad-like, sentimental; but in this restricted compass, there is a purity of tone and meaning that is very pleasing. "Törnfallet" is a muted, Hardyesque love poem:

I took her in marriage
in a granite parish.
The snow lent her whiteness,
a pine was a witness....

And at night the stubborn
sun of her auburn
hair shone from my pillow
at post and pillar.

(Some of Brodsky's rhymes become almost exact when you imagine the lines spoken in a Russian accent.)

The influence of early Auden, too, is strongly felt in late Brodsky. A poem such as "Anthem" makes excellent use of the meter of "This lunar beauty," raising it from the lyric to the philosophic:

What I have in common
with the ancient Roman
is not a Caesar,
but the weather.

Likewise, the main features
I share with the future's
mutants are those curious
shapes of cumulus...

then a rational anthem
sung by one atom
to the rest of matter
should please the latter.

Here, too, is one of the clearer instances of the theme that winds its way through this whole volume: the distinction between history and nature, "Caesar" and "weather," cause and effect, determinism and freedom--or, as Brodsky often has it, between Clio, the muse of history, and Urania, the muse of astronomy. It seems almost inevitable that Brodsky, who was pressed so closely by the dialecticalmaterialist view of history, would rebel, praising instead the unbounded, the free, whether in nature or human nature. His statement of this opposition can sometimes be obscure, and insufficently prepared, as in "Lithuanian Nocturne":

...these words, with their fear of the morning,
scattered thinly at midnight by some slurring voice--
a sound more like houseflies
bravely clicking a tin,
and which won't satiate
the new Clio adorning
checkpoint gowns, but in which
ever-naked Urania is to rejoice!
Only she, our Muse
of the point lost in space, our Muse of forgotten
outlines can assess, and in full,
like a miser, the use
of small change, immobility's token
paid for flights of the soul.

Somewhat awkwardly, Brodsky opposes Clio, who is "gowned" in the uniform of a soldier at a checkpoint, to "ever-naked Urania," who shuns such political divisions, preferring instead to be "lost in space." "Cause" and "effect" are other names for these antagonists; and unless one has this specific meaning of the words in mind, Brodsky's use of them can sometimes sound vague or grandiose, as in "Portrait of Tragedy": "the aria of effect beats cause's wheezes." But if one connects them back to Clio and Urania, the reader can see that "cause"--everything that explains, limits, determines human activity--is being denigrated in favor of "effect," the individual human being allegedly inferior to the cause, but superior in being able to sing.

Specifically, it is the poet who sings the "aria of effect," affirming his freedom and his singularity. And in Brodsky's late poems, this conception of the poet takes on a cosmic dimension, a kind of pantheistic belief that the universe itself delights in his arias--the "rational anthem/sung by one atom/to the rest of matter," or, in "Via Funari":

In any case, it's no less probable
that the famous inanimateness
of the cosmos, tired of its pretty vicious
infinitude, seeks for itself an earthly
abode; and we come in handy.

This poem, from 1995, was translated by Brodsky alone, and even this brief excerpt shows that he has moved a long way towards clarity. The half-rhymes or quarter-rhymes are much less obtrusive, so that the poem almost reads like free verse. So, too, in "Vertumnus," from 1990:

nowadays I sense that behind my back also stretches
a street overgrown with colonnades, that at its far end
also shimmer the turquoise crescents
of the Adriatic. Their total is, clearly,
your present, Vertumnus--small change, if you will; some loose
silver with which, occasionally, rich infinity
showers the temporary. Partly out of superstition,
partly, perhaps, because it alone--
the temporary--is capable of sensation, of happiness.

The greater clarity of idea, sense, and movement in the verse from the 1990s makes one regret, all the more, the lack of these things in many of the poems in To Urania. Brodsky's mastery of English came very quickly, as his essays attest; and it would be hard to find a native speaker so sensitive to the nuances of the language, as he demonstrates in his close readings of Auden and Frost. But the ability to shape an English poem came later, and in the meantime many of his translations suffered.

Even if Brodsky knew this, one feels that he would have felt the sacrifice worthwhile, because his decision to write in English was not just an aesthetic one. In his essay "The Conditions We Call Exile," originally a speech delivered to a convention of emigré writers in 1987, he wrote movingly of the psychological dangers of that condition: "the reality of [exile] consists of an exiled writer constantly fighting and conspiring to restore his significance, his leading role, his authority." Turning himself at least partially into an American writer allowed Brodsky to escape this confinement, to lead a literary life in his new country--which he did with astonishing success, becoming the Poet Laureate of the United States.

His love for America and the English language was deep and genuine. In the same lecture, he said that going from Russia to America is, "in many ways, like going home--because [the exile] gets closer to the seat of the ideals which inspired him all along." Collected Poems in English is a great testament to that inspiration. If the book does not fully communicate Brodsky's poetic stature, we should not be altogether surprised. To accomplish in poetry what Nabokov or Conrad did in prose is probably impossible; and Brodsky's own translations are always interesting and revealing, even when they are not poetically successful. It would be a shame, however, if this book inhibits any future translator from trying to carry over this Russian music into English. Only when other intelligences, with other linguistic resources, are applied to Joseph Brodsky's work will American readers approach--though never, perhaps, completely attain--a genuine appreciation of its power.

ADAM KIRSCH writes frequently about poetry for The New Republic.






Jan 4, 2011

Nowhere Man

The poet Joseph Brodsky, kicked out of the USSR and never fully at ease writing in English, was a man of many residences and few homes, as a new biography shows


By Adam Kirsch


With most writers, the passage of time helps to consolidate their achievement and fix their reputation. Fifteen years after a poet’s death would seem like ample time for this posthumous process to be completed—especially in the case of a poet as famous as Joseph Brodsky, who became internationally known in his twenties and won the Nobel Prize in 1987. Certainly there is no mystery about the standing of poets like Seamus Heaney or Derek Walcott, Brodsky’s friends, contemporaries, and fellow-laureates. Whether you enjoy reading Heaney or not, the shape of his achievement is clear; his name stands for a certain kind of writing and thinking.

Brodsky, however, continues to look a little blurry to American readers. His work does not have the currency or influence, among younger poets, that his reputation would suggest. Some critics, especially in England, are prepared to dismiss him entirely, to call his work overrated and his reputation unearned. But most simply ignore him, as though he did not belong to the same conversation that includes Heaney or John Ashbery or Adrienne Rich.

In one crucial sense, of course, he does not. All those poets write in English; but Iosif Aleksandrovich Brodsky, born in Leningrad in 1940, was a Russian poet. This means that it is Russian readers, familiar with Brodksy’s language and literary tradition, who must decide his claims to greatness. And as Lev Loseff shows in Joseph Brodsky: A Literary Biography, his clarifying new book, the best Russian judges have been unanimous about Brodsky from the beginning.

When he was 21 years old, for instance, he was introduced to Anna Akhmatova, the tragic heroine of 20th-century Russian poetry. Loseff, a poet and friend of Brodsky’s, explains that such “pilgrimages” to Akhmatova were common for young writers, who would arrive “bearing flowers and notebooks full of poetry.” Unsurprisingly, the encounter made a deep impression on Brodsky: “I suddenly realized—you know, somehow the veil suddenly lifts—just who or rather just what I was dealing with.” What is more surprising is that Akhmatova, then 72 years old, immediately accepted Brodsky as an equal: “Iosif, you and I know every rhyme in the Russian language,” she told him. In 1965, after reading a poem of Brodsky’s, she wrote in her diary: “Either I know nothing at all or this is genius.”

There is nothing new about English readers being baffled by poetry that Russians adore. On the contrary, it’s a critical truism that Russian poetry doesn’t translate well. Pushkin occupies the same place in Russian literature as Shakespeare does in English, but it has always been hard for us to really understand why. Twentieth-century masters like Osip Mandelstam and Marina Tsvetaeva are probably as well known in America for their life stories as for their writings. If Brodsky belongs in their company, then it makes sense for him to remain a little obscure to Americans, just as they do.

What makes Brodsky’s case so unusual is that this Russian poet spent almost half his life in America. Between 1972, when he was expelled from the USSR, and his death in 1996, Brodsky traveled extensively—“probably no Russian writer ever traveled more,” Loseff writes. But his home bases remained New York, where he lived in a two-room apartment on Morton Street, and South Hadley, Mass., where he taught at Mount Holyoke College. He even managed to become a vital figure in the American literary world, eventually being named U.S. Poet Laureate. This was possible, in large part, because Brodsky translated his own later work into English—first with the help of translators and other poets, then on his own. (Eventually he even wrote some modest original poems in English.) These versions were the ones included in his American collections, published by Farrar Straus Giroux, and now available in Brodsky’s Complete Poems in English.

Yet few English readers have been really satisfied with Brodsky’s own translations. His desire to make them is understandable—by turning himself into an American poet, after a fashion, he was saved from the obscurity and resentment that is the usual lot of the literary émigré. But he never became a master of English, in the way that, say, Vladimir Nabokov did. (As Loseff points out, Brodsky came to English much later than Nabokov and was largely self-taught, while the well-born novelist had English tutors from childhood.) Indeed, Brodsky in English remains, all too often, wrenched, unidiomatic, and unmusical. The genius of the Russian poet can be intuited—you can sense it in Brodsky’s intellectual range, bold metaphors, and rhetorical flow—but not really experienced. Loseff quotes the American poet Robert Hass to the effect that reading Brodsky in English is “like wandering through the ruins of a noble building.”

Loseff’s book is, as its subtitle insists, a strictly literary biography. The outlines of Brodsky’s life are sketched, but private experiences are related only when they directly inspired his poetry. Thus Loseff tells, in brief and general terms, the story of Brodsky’s long, tumultuous love affair with a woman named Marina Basmanova, which drove him to a suicide attempt, produced a son, and inspired some major poems. On the other hand, Brodsky’s marriage, late in life, is dispatched in a single sentence, and there is little about other friendships or relationships.

Where Loseff excels is in sketching the Russian literary and cultural context for Brodsky’s work—the poets he knew and admired, the “schools” that dominated Leningrad poetry in his youth. This kind of analysis is a reminder of how little Brodsky can be understood through an American prism. Likewise, the excerpts from his early Russian poems, translated (along with the whole book) by Jane Ann Miller, show how much we would benefit from a comprehensive new translation of Brodsky’s poetry. Miller’s excellent work is only seemingly slighted by the odd way that each of her verse translations is followed by the word “non-poetic”: This is to show that the translation is not by Brodsky, but in fact, her lucid and convincing versions are often more effectively poetic than the poet’s own.

Joseph Brodsky: A Literary Biography also helps to shed light on the complex question of Brodsky’s Jewishness. In one sense, Brodsky is unequivocal on this subject: “I’m a Jew. One hundred percent. You can’t be more Jewish than I am,” he told an interviewer. Yet he was typical of his Soviet Jewish generation in having absolutely no knowledge of Judaism—apparently he did not even read the Bible until he was in his twenties—and his understanding of Jewishness seems to have been passive and minimal. “When anybody asked what my ethnic background was, I of course answered Jewish,” he explained, “but that didn’t happen often. There was really no need to ask. I can’t say a Russian r.” Brodsky saw Jewishness in terms of such details of speech and appearance, like his prominent nose and pale skin. It could also be a cause of (fairly minor) discrimination: He recalled being teased by classmates and having his application to the Naval Academy rejected because of anti-Semitism.

But his essential identity, as he created it in his poems and essays, was universalist and cosmopolitan. Its key ingredients were the Russian language, European art and literature, and classical history: “Roman Elegies,” “To Urania,” “Venetian Stanzas,” and “Twenty Sonnets to Mary Queen of Scots” are typical Brodsky titles. He seems to belong to the noble tradition of Jewish writers who, emancipated or severed from Jewishness, became universal humanists. One thinks of Marx, or Freud, or especially, in this case, Osip Mandelstam, whom Brodsky described in a superb essay as “a little Jewish boy with a heart full of Russian iambic pentameters.” The phrase is obviously autobiographical as well, and when Brodsky calls Mandelstam “the child of civilization,” he could be describing himself.

The story of the orphaned Jew who is reborn as the child of civilization is one of the great and ambiguous legends of modernity; and all such stories include a scene where the child is forcibly reminded that civilization doesn’t always trump history. That moment came for Brodsky in 1972, when he was abruptly summoned to the Leningrad bureau of OVIR, the office of visa and registration. The acronym was much in the American news at the time thanks to the Soviet Jewry movement. As Gal Beckerman writes in his recent book When They Come For Us We’ll Be Gone [2], it was OVIR that obstructed Soviet Jews from going to Israel—or, at certain politically opportune moments, made emigration possible. This was one of those moments—in 1972, 32,000 Jews were allowed to leave as a token gesture in advance of President Nixon’s visit to Moscow.

But Brodsky was quite surprised to be one of them. He was by no means a refusenik, and the reason why he was persona non grata with the Soviet regime had to do not with his identity as a Jew, but with his identity as a poet. In 1964, Brodsky had been denounced by a Communist party loyalist for the vague crime of “parasitism,” or refusal to work. In fact, Loseff writes, he held a number of jobs, many of them quite arduous—he had worked on a geological expedition to the Arctic and as an assistant to a boiler inspector. But he had no real career, preferring short-term work that kept his time free for writing, and he shunned the established literary clubs and unions.

In short, he was acting just as a poet should—educating himself in his art, preserving his freedom, steering clear of cant and obligation. In the USSR, however, this was an intolerable display of independence, and Brodsky was subjected to a trial that truly merits the adjective Kafkaesque. As Loseff shows, the witnesses against him were a cross-section of ordinary citizens—a clerk, a soldier, a retiree—who all “began their testimony by stating that they did not know Brodsky personally.” Indeed, they hadn’t even read his poems, few of which had been published at the time. Their testimony amounted to stating that, based on what they had read about Brodsky in slanderous, error-filled newspaper articles, they believed him to be “anti-social.”

The judge, a caricature of a party hack, asked Brodsky who had given him the right to call himself a poet: “Did you try to attend a school where they train [poets]?” His reply—“I don’t think it comes from education … I think it’s from God”—is deservedly legendary. Indeed, the trial created such a loathsome spectacle—a stupid bureaucracy persecuting an idealistic young poet—that it became an international embarrassment for the Soviets. Brodsky was sent to do hard labor in exile, but after pressure from abroad, including a statement by the usually pro-Soviet Jean-Paul Sartre, his sentence was commuted after a year.

The official malice toward Brodsky remained, however, and he was not allowed to publish his poetry in the USSR, even as unauthorized editions appeared abroad. In 1972, then, the authorities decided to take advantage of the Soviet Jewry agitation to get rid of Brodsky once and for all—and it was his Jewishness that gave them the means. Summoned to OVIR, he was told that he must write out a statement accepting an invitation to Israel, or else he’d be “in big trouble.” He had no interest in going to Israel, or even in leaving the country; but within four weeks Brodsky was on a plane to Vienna, the transfer point for Jewish émigrés. He never returned to Russia, not even after the fall of Communism, and he never saw his parents again. Nor, of course, did he go to Israel; and while he became an American citizen, his body is buried in Venice. Loseff quotes his friend Susan Sontag’s telling explanation: “Venice was the ideal place to bury Brodsky, since it was essentially nowhere.” Does being a child of civilization mean belonging everywhere and nowhere? As Brodsky himself put it, in his poem “Venetian Stanzas I”: “At night here we hold soliloquies/ to an audience of echoes, whose breath won’t warm up, alas.”





THE TLS 22 May 2018


‘May 24th, 1980’



Just before quitting “the country that bore and nursed” him, the poet Joseph Brodsky (1940–1996) managed to smuggle the transcript of his trial of 1964 – in which he was charged with “social parasitism” and idleness – out of the Soviet Union:

Judge: And what is your profession in general?
Brodsky: Poet-translator.
Judge: Who recognized you as a poet? Who listed you in the ranks of poets?
Brodsky: No one. Who listed me in the ranks of humanity?

For Brodsky, exile was not a political condition but an existential one, through which he contemplated the condition of humanity. The occupation of poet becomes a means to occupy and endure exile. The poem “May 24th, 1980” (first published in the TLS in 1987, the same year he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature) dated on his birthday was self-translated by Brodsky. Critics have accused the translation of being self-heroizing, whereas the original is not. However, the charm of Brodsky’s rendition of his poem is that it is a self-portrait painted without false modesty or bitterness. In it, he reflects on his life up until that moment, insisting on the right not to belong (“by education I’m nothing. By affiliation I’m nothing” said Brodsky in an interview for the Washington Post in 1987).

Soviet authorities declared Brodsky “a pseudo-poet” who failed to fulfil his “constitutional duty to work honestly for the good of the motherland”. Having “carved [his] term and nickname on bunks and rafters” at Soviet prison camps and a psychiatric facility, Brodsky was involuntarily expelled from the USSR in 1972 and continued his life in Britain and the US. Initially, he longed to be at home on native soil, to eat the bread born from that soil, reaping the “planted rye” that joined him to his native land and compatriots instead of consuming “the bread of exile” which is “stale and warty” (in 1922, his mentor the poet Anna Akhmatova wrote: “I pity the exile’s lot . . . wormwood infects your foreign bread”). In the end Brodsky rejected an invitation to return to Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union. He died in New York at the age of fifty-five but he considered his life “long”. As his good friend and fellow poet, Stephen Spender wrote: “Brodsky is someone who has tasted extremely bitter bread”.






24 мая 1980 ("Я входил вместо дикого зверя в клетку") - Бродский


Я входил вместо дикого зверя в клетку, 
выжигал свой срок и кликуху гвоздем в бараке, 
жил у моря, играл в рулетку, 
обедал черт знает с кем во фраке. 
С высоты ледника я озирал полмира, 
трижды тонул, дважды бывал распорот. 
Бросил страну, что меня вскормила. 
Из забывших меня можно составить город. 
Я слонялся в степях, помнящих вопли гунна, 
надевал на себя что сызнова входит в моду, 
сеял рожь, покрывал черной толью гумна 
и не пил только сухую воду. 
Я впустил в свои сны вороненый зрачок конвоя, 
жрал хлеб изгнанья, не оставляя корок. 
Позволял своим связкам все звуки, помимо воя; 
перешел на шепот. Теперь мне сорок. 
Что сказать мне о жизни? Что оказалась длинной. 
Только с горем я чувствую солидарность. 
Но пока мне рот не забили глиной, 
из него раздаваться будет лишь благодарность. 



May 24th, 1980’



I have braved, for want of wild beasts, steel cages,
carved my term and nickname on bunks and rafters,
lived by the sea, flashed aces in an oasis,
dined with the-devil-knows-whom, in tails, on truffles.
From the height of a glacier I beheld half a world, the earthly
width. Twice have drowned, thrice let knives rake my nitty-gritty.
Quit the country that bore and nursed me.
Those who forgot me would make a city.
I have waded the steppes that saw yelling Huns in saddles,
worn the clothes nowadays back in fashion in every quarter,
planted rye, tarred the roofs of pigsties and stables,
guzzled everything save dry water.
I’ve admitted the sentries’ third eye into my wet and foul
dreams. Munched the bread of exile: it’s stale and warty.
Granted my lungs all sounds except the howl;
switched to a whisper. Now I am forty.
What should I say about life? That it’s long and abhors transparence.
Broken eggs make me grieve; the omelette, though, makes me vomit.
Yet until brown clay has been crammed down my larynx,
only gratitude will be gushing from it.