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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Cost of Brodsky's Exile

When the Soviet authorities began persecuting the young Joseph Brodsky in 1964, Anna Akhmatova, his mentor and friend, was heard tartly to observe: "What a biography they're creating for our red head! You'd think he hired them." Indeed, although Brodsky the man suffered, the poet never looked back.

Confined first in 1965 to a psychiatric hospital, then to a kolkhoz in the Archangelsk Oblast on a charge of social parasitism, Brodsky's plight -- and more importantly his poetry -- was thrust before a world audience. Jean Paul Sartre, no less, wrote a cunningly manipulative letter to the Supreme Soviet chairman, Anastas Mikoyan, pleading that this "very young man, who already is or, perhaps, will become a good poet" be released so that the Western foes of the Soviet Union could be cheated of a propaganda coup.

But by 1972 Western media interest in the poet was swelling uncontrollably. The Soviet authorities settled on a policy of damage control and the poet was forced to emigrate to America. "And exile, after all, is a kind of success," Brodsky remarked sardonically in his essay, "The Condition We Call Exile."

But more tangible achievements were to follow. The first English-language volume of Brodsky's poetry was published in 1973 with an introduction by W. H. Auden, who declared that, "in Russian, Joseph Brodsky must be a poet of the first order." (It was so profound an honor that Brodsky described the rest of his life as an anticlimax.)

Other awards ensued: the Nobel Prize for literature in 1987, along with a clutch of lesser literary trophies; an honorary degree from Oxford for the autodidact who left school at 15; and a term as U.S. poet laureate in 1991. More importantly, by 1980, Brodsky was confident enough of his grasp of English to begin assiduously reworking translations of his poetry. From there he moved on to "auto translations" and eventually began composing verse in English.

So, by the time Brodsky succumbed to his chronic heart condition and died last January, he had -- in the words of G. S. Smith, professor of Russian at Oxford University -- achieved literary "canonization" and "become an international cultural guru with a license to sound off about anything that t[ook] his fancy."

And now posthumous editions of Brodsky's essays, On Grief and Reason, and his most recent poetry, So Forth, have been published in English. This should consolidate his reputation as the greatest Russian poet of the late 20th century. Or perhaps not.

Brodsky himself would have despised the biographical introduction to his writing here. He was adamant that a poet should only be judged "through the prism of his work." In "How to Read a Book," a lecture which he gave at the opening of the Turin book fair in 1988, he is dismissive of both hack critics and academic ones. Only a writer is qualified to judge another even at the risk of allowing the patina of the reviewer's own prose to outshine the text being reviewed. As for literary biography as a genre, he "abhors it" because it is reductive and "based on the breathtaking premise that art can be explained by life."

This said, however, few poets have been as willing to speak directly to their public. Brodsky was profiled repeatedly in the press (an incomplete count by a Russian academic uncovered 61 major interviews between 1973 and 1990 alone). He was a denizen of the international lecture circuit and traveled widely to share his views on poetics, politics and the process of traveling itself, as well as conducting detailed analyses of the work of his favorite authors. And it is these lectures and essays which are collected in "On Grief and Reason," along with some more personal pieces such as his memories of the Leningrad war years and his touching tribute to Stephen Spender upon his death.

Brodsky never shied away from making grandiloquent claims for poetry. In "Uncommon Visage," the Nobel lecture, he states that since language alone distinguishes man from beast, then "the highest form of locution is, to put it bluntly, the goal of our species." By this line of reasoning poets are the "most perfect example of the human species in terms of biology." The act of reading poetry will make flawed leaders better since "aesthetics is the mother of ethics." Literature is the most reliable form of "moral insurance" in which a society can invest. Indeed, the most modest claim that Brodsky makes on poetry's behalf is that it will teach the reader how to read prose and the writer how to avoid cliche, repetition and verbosity.

Brodsky may not have learned his own lessons, however. And if the reader wants to understand the genesis of Brodsky's poetic themes and styles, it is advisable to read the essays first. Here you will be able to trace the development of Brodsky's philosophical interest in time, causality and memory often expressed through his pet metaphors (the marble statue, Chinese graphic characters, horizontal borders, and the egg, to name but a few). You will familiarize yourself with Brodsky's repertoire of barren expressions -- such as "not to mention," "to say the least," "so to speak," "if you will," "better yet" -- which are an irritating mannerism in the prose, but which should have no place in a poem; as well as the uncomfortable combination of archaic words and inverted sentence order with American street slang.

A couple of sentences taken at random from the essay "A Place as Good as Any," is as good an example as any of his style: "Whatever one travels for -- to modify one's territorial imperative, to get an eyeful of creation, to escape reality (awful tautology though this is), the net result of course is feeding that octopus constantly hungry for new details for its nightly chow. The composite city of your subconscious sojourn -- nay! return -- will therefore permanently sport a golden cupola."

However, in the remarkable essay, "Wooing the Inanimate" (Brodsky is at his best when he is actively teaching his students how to interpret a poem rather then engaging in intellectual pyrotechnics) in which four of Thomas Hardy's poems are analyzed with flair, Brodsky makes clear his debt to this English poet. He admires Hardy for his discordant, cramped verse which acted as a bridge between Victorian poetic diction and that of the 20th-century modernists. Hardy, in Brodsky's view, was not trying to create harmonious cadences; instead he was using verse as a means of transport, and the destination was an idea. And this is a useful point to bear in mind as you struggle to navigate through Brodsky's troubled, and often choppy, verse.

No one should underestimate the difficulty of writing poetry in a foreign language. There have been several master prose writers or playwrights who have deftly negotiated the leap from mother to step-mother tongue (Nabokov, Beckett and Conrad, to name the most accomplished), but to write poetry in a new language is a task which few have attempted.

But Brodsky is bolder. Only eight out of the 64 poems collected in "So Forth" were assisted translations; and 21 poems were written in English. The reader will identify these poems primarily because the process of writing in English seems to vulgarize Brodsky's muse. In "Anti-Shenandoah," to take a comic example, he rhymes "my slowly peeled banana" and "Tampax Americana." Elsewhere in the poem "Blues" he glibly sets "Manhattan" against "Man, I hate him."

When not rhyming slickly, Brodsky uses enjambment so compulsively -- running line after line into one another -- that the verse would begin to read like prose were it not for the inverted word order, such as in the mawkish poem about Christ's birth in Bethlehem, "Star of the Nativity." And then there are the plain grammatical errors, the jarring of a misused tense here, or of an inelegant pronoun or plural there.

That is not to say that there are not moments of harmony when the conjunction of Brodsky's hard earned classical learning and his earthy humor, his private melancholy and his metaphysical musings merge to create something approaching greatness ("Venice: Lido" and "Brise Marine").

Even Brodsky had his doubts. Many of his essays start with disclaimers justifying his "breezy" tone. In "After a Journey, or Homage to Vertebrae," Brodsky's grandiose claims for the power of poetry are set aside when he encounters a Yugoslav pharmacist in Rio who is a devoted fan and worships precisely the power of Brodsky's poetry. "I feel like an imposter, because what they think I am does not exist ... What exists is a haunted lunatic trying hard not to hurt anyone because the main thing is not literature, but the ability not to cause pain to anyone ... As if there was something else in the world besides despair, neurosis and the fear of going up in smoke!"

Brodsky's long-term reputation will not go up in smoke. But a more distant, dispassionate appraisal of his work will doubtless reveal the extent of the damage which the Soviet authorities inflicted on this young poet with potential for genius when they cast him onto the international stage, cut off from his vital prop, the Russian language.

"On Grief and Reason -- Essays" by Joseph Brodsky is published by Hamish Hamilton (U.K.), 484 pages, ?20, and by Farrar, Straus & Giroux Inc. (U.S.), $24 . "So Forth -- Poems," Hamish Hamilton, 132 pages, ?16, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $18.

"Ab Ovo"

Ultimately, there

should be a language

in which the word "egg"

is reduced to O

entirely. The Italian

comes the closest,

naturally, with its uova.

That's why Alighieri thought

it the healthiest food,

sharing the predilection

with sopranos and tenors

whose pear-like torsos

in the final analysis

embody "opera."

The same pertains to

the truly Romantic, that is,

German poets, with

practically every line

starting the way

they'd begin a breakfast,

or to the equally

cocky mathematicians

brooding over their

regularly laid infinity,

whose immaculate

zeros won't ever hatch.

-- January 1996