Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

For Brodsky, Poetry Was a Nation Unto Itself

Russians take in death in stages. Friends and family gather for the farewell to the body, the grave site, the wake. Then comes the ninth-day wake and the 40th day, when the soul is said to shed its ties to the corporeal world. A year later, and on subsequent anniversaries, they visit the cemetery to share food and drink. They pour a shot for the departed and drink a toast, though you don't clink glasses when the dead are present.

There is an emotional wisdom in this ritual sequence. By the ninth day, mourning turns you numb. A month later, death seems unreal, a mistake. The person is not gone forever, but merely absent, misplaced. Grief, memory's jealous guard, has been drowned in practical cares, jilted as too shrill and demanding a companion. And so, when Russians assemble on the 40th day, they allow grief to return and gently nudge reality back on course.

At 5 p.m. last Friday, 40 days after the poet Joseph Brodsky died at the age of 55, a distinguished, linguistically motley crowd gathered under the dusky vaults of New York's Cathedral of St. John the Divine to celebrate his life and work. His poems were read by fellow Nobel laureates Czeslaw Milosz, Seamus Heaney and Derek Walcott, the Russian poets Yevgeny Rein and Vladimir Ufland, and the dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov, among others. Everyone there, whether they even knew Joseph, was part of an extended family of "friends of the word," to borrow Osip Mandelstam's expression.

That family wasn't limited to those present. Many who knew and loved the man, myself among them, and even more who loved the poetry -- in Russia there are thousands upon thousands -- could not be there. But, here, over the last 40 days, alone, in memorial gatherings, or sitting around kitchen tables, we have talked, remembered and read his books in the country he left 24 years ago. Here, where his poems once read in pale, carbon copy samizdat, newspapers, television and radio have honored his memory and his work. Speaking, reading and remembering are as essential to grief as they are to freedom. As they are to poetry. And for Joseph the connection between freedom and poetry wasn't a metaphoric flourish. It was, as the Russian saying goes, "a fact of his biography."

It's hard to write about someone you know, and even harder to use the past tense about someone whose voice still sounds in your inner ear. The grammatical shift feels like betrayal. First names and personal pronouns, especially "I," seem an invasion of privacy. Surnames seem an affected disloyalty. Nothing you write is enough. As it turns out, Joseph struggled with much the same feeling when he wrote about the English poet Stephen Spender, whose funeral he attended last summer. His words offer a kind of permission to write about him: "Living is like quoting, and once you've learned something by heart, it's yours as much as the author's."

Hearing that voice inside my head, I am aware of how carefully one watched one's tongue, so to speak, in Joseph's presence. I first got to know him as a student in his 20th-century poetry course at Columbia University. He made us memorize poems, by Hardy, Frost and Auden, among others. Then he would give pop quizzes. Nothing out of the ordinary for Russians, but something of a trial for American students. He stunned the class more than once by taking a student's words seriously enough to pronounce them insufferably idiotic. Not exactly your standard American pedagogical approach. But effective. Everyone thought long and hard before raising a hand. Recently, in the age of political correctness, he enjoyed going against the grain. He exhorted students to "avoid at all costs the status of the victim. Of all the parts of your body, be most vigilant over your index finger, for it is blame-thirsty." What concerned him most was the continued health of their language, that, as he put it, literacy not be replaced by "videocy."

I rediscovered Frost -- and quite literally America -- listening to Joseph read the terse New Englander in the rhythmic, guttural intonations of his own Russian. That intonation, and the extraordinarily generous intelligence behind it, made compatriots of poets separated by time and language, and taught us that poetry is a nation unto itself. His tactics were no doubt intimidating to some, but they weren't meant personally; there were higher stakes involved. In Joseph's classroom, you learned that the spoken word is as weighty as the written, and you must choose them both with care.

Later, that attention to language presided over coffees at the Cafe Reggio on MacDougal Street, work on translations in his study, jokes at birthday parties and chitchat over the phone. His spoken English was a cocktail of Russian consonants laced with British vowels and the occasional American twang -- in proportions set by his own inimitable phrasing, which was much the same whatever language he was speaking. He loved puns, the sillier and more unexpected the better. His command of English, oral or written, was enviable. In conversation with Joseph, I sometimes felt self-conscious, as though it were not I who was the native speaker. He made the familiar an exotic gift. The sensation was a delectable mix of sensuality and anxiety, like speaking a new foreign language. I could feel the shape of words on my tongue, almost taste them.

Needless to say, the self-consciousness was more pronounced, if less instructive, in Russian. But it was tempered by the knowledge that it wasn't so much faults in my Russian that were under scrutiny (though Joseph would always correct mistakes in grammar or usage) as the use to which words were put. Human beings are entrusted with a precious charge and should not treat it wantonly. It is a matter of self-respect and responsibility. In a century where the abuse of power and the abuse of language have gone hand in hand, this was a lesson in moral integrity. And that lesson applies equally to Soviet censorship and American "packaging." For Joseph, poetry (aesthetics) was ethics incarnate. "Aesthetic experience is always a private one," he wrote in his Nobel address, "and this kind of privacy ... can itself turn out to be, if not a guarantee, then a form of defense, against enslavement. For a man with taste, particularly literary taste, is less susceptible to the refrains and the rhythmical incantations peculiar to any version of political demagogy." "Evil," he continued, "especially political evil, is always a bad stylist."

In Russia, the death of a poet is the private affair of the whole country, and the nation mourns like a friend. The 40th day has come and gone. Now begins the process of comprehending the loss and the legacy, what Joseph's life and work meant and mean to each reader -- and to the country that raised him, expelled him, loved him and to which he chose not to return. His life has moved into what he called "the jaws of the past tense." Fortunately, the words remain, and poetry is always in the present.

Jamey Gambrell is deputy director of the Open Society Institute (Soros Foundation), Russia, and has translated poems and essays by Joseph Brodsky. She contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.