Joseph Brodsky: a Poetry of Nerve

Commonweal / 22 May 1992

Joseph Brodsky

by Jim Forest

Joseph Brodsky was introduced to an audience at the John Adams Institute in Amsterdam December 15 not as a poet but as the poet. “In him,” said his friend and translator Kees Verheul, “we are faced with the poet, or rather the carrier of the poet.” Listening impassively to the introduction, Brodsky fiddled with an unlighted filter cigarette, occasionally placing it in his lips, until after about ten minutes, ending a drawn out silent drama that upstaged his introducer, Brodsky finally lit it, inhaling deeply, then blowing out the smoke in a long thin stream. His toying with the cigarette resembled an erotic play.

His first task was the unveiling of a bronze bust of himself, the work of the sculptor Sylvia Willink. “The only respect in which this head differs from the one I carry on my shoulders,” Brodsky commented after admiring the Caesar-like image, “is that it can’t speak — and it can’t kiss.”

Brodsky’s English is fast, fluent, almost reckless, a special variety that has the smell of a Jewish bakery in Manhattan’s lower east side. He may have been born and raised in Leningrad/St. Petersburg but his voice is at home in the New World.

He started off reading with “A Song,” a poem with the refrain, “I wish you were here, dear,” which concludes, “What’s the point of forgetting / if it’s followed by dying?” (It was, he confessed, a pastiche of Auden’s “Twelve Songs.”) Then came “Epitaph to a Centaur” with the line “…his animal part turned out to be less durable than his humanity.” Then “The Butterflies” about a life one-day long, a space in time just right for the blaze of a poem.

Especially when reading in his native language, Brodsky recites like a deacon singing the Gospel in a Russian church, a kind of liturgical chant, the recitation of each line governed by strict rules of rhythm with definite places for rising and falling stresses, that are impartial to the content of the words. This way of reading creates a cathedral space around him and us and a sense of no longer being in ordinary time or space. He reminds me of watching Vladimir Horowitz performing in a concert hall in Moscow, playing with total detachment as if, far from playing, he was listening, and perhaps not even listening to this particular piano. His fingers moved, but hardly more than if he were absent- mindedly drumming a table top in a café while waiting for someone who was late. Similarly Brodsky’s face, even while he chants the poetry with such concentrated purpose, such spiritual discipline, seems a face in the audience rather than belonging to the poet. His eyes wander toward the large windows and the view they offer of the sky and street and other buildings, like a child in school waiting for recess.

In the pause I asked him to sign my copy of his book of essays, Less Than One. He looked with surprise at my pen, a black and green Pelikan I bought in Assisi in 1986 to mark the passage from organizational employment to the more adventurous life of freelance writing. He pulled from his shirt pocket an identical Pelikan and said, “I have two of them.” We agreed that there is something sacred about a good pen. I told him about how his way of reading reminded me of the chanting of the Gospel or the way a cantor sings the prayers in the synagogue. “Of course they are deeply related,” he said.

I made a similar comment in the public discussion that followed. The deacon, the cantor and the poet are all practicing the “melic art,” Brodsky responded, pausing like a good teacher to spell “melic”. [OED: “Melic: Of poetry; Intended to be sung; applied spec. to the strophic species of Greek lyric verse. Hence applied to poets who compose such verse.”] “It is quite deliberate. Meters are meters. There is music in poetry. I try to bring out the euphonic aspect of the poem. My manner of delivery goes back to the training I received in my Russian high school. A good teacher requires a lot of memorization of poetry and requires you to deliver. Your recitation makes it clear to the teacher what you have understood.”

The poet in the west in this century, Brodsky continued, has the problem “of almost always being on the defensive, aware of the sardonic listener who will smirk at the poet’s raptures.” Thus he tends to read diffidently, taking some distance from his poem. And this is a great pity because in fact “poetry is an act of mental aggression upon the audience. The self-effacing poet should perhaps take the next logical step and shut up altogether.”

A question was asked about nihilism. Brodsky replied that according to Aristotle there are four different temperaments and each has to do with the location of bile in the body. “I have no philosophy, only temperament.” (Later he quoted a Japanese poet: “I’ve got no principles, no convictions — just nerve.”) His own temperament leads him to shrug off the problem of death, as if to say, “You know you are going to lose. So what?” Someone with another temperament may be quite irritated and preoccupied with the problem and even develop a philosophy of nihilism. But for himself, he went on, “nothingness is a lousy subject. How can one make a philosophy out of it?”

“In Russian we have the word nichtoe — nothing. It’s an interesting word with too many consonants. It doesn’t give you a sense of limit. It suggests a journey.” (Later, commenting on the euphony that exists in every language, he noted that “Russian words are two, three syllables, minimum. To utter a Russian word is an acoustic event.”)

He noted that experience of extraordinary events does not necessarily produce a poem. “Extremes of experience have a tendency to bring out banal expressions. You can survive Hiroshima or 25 years in a concentration camp and not write a single line, or experience a one-night stand and write an immortal lyric.”

“Art,” he said, “is older than any form of social organization. It started, shall we say, a long time ago.”

The question was asked whether poetry could have anything to do with politics. Brodsky said no, the reason being that the task of the poet is to avoid cliches, to create precedents, to make something new. “The artist is trying not to repeat his predecessors, to say the least.” Thus it is sometimes said of a poet that he is ahead of his time. This is an incorrect perception, he explained. “A poet is never ahead or behind his time, just operating on his own frequency.”

He also said he hears people complain, “I don’t care for modern poetry.” He said the reason for this is that poetry builds on itself, it has a kind of development through time. You could understand modern poetry if you began with the poetry you do understand and work from there. Reading modern poetry “is like boarding a runaway train. You may decide you don’t like the train. Its route, well, it’s not yours, that’s all.”

Someone commented on how striking the contrast was between the original poems that Brodsky had recited, and the reading by the translator of the same poems in Dutch. Brodsky said this was due not so much to differences in the verbal content of the poem in its two forms but “how you read” and that this is greatly shaped by one’s national background. “Russian stresses the music. Otherwise you are just counting syllables.”

He was unhappy about the “big infusion of English words” into modern Russian. But language has its own life, refusing to behave according to the tastes of a balding poet, even when he has the Nobel Prize. “Language is a generational thing. You have very intimate pet words that have to do with your generation and place. It was different in my generation to be in St. Petersburg than to be in Moscow. In St. Petersburg we said ch-toe while in Moscow it was stow.”

Wasn’t it hard for the writer to have to live in exile, he was asked, and isn’t it a pity so many writers are exiles? Brodsky found it not so remarkable. “You have guest workers and boat people, not only exiled writers. This takes the orchid out of the writer’s lapel. To live elsewhere is a norm in the twentieth century. There’s nothing very significant about it. It’s just more palatable when it’s a writer than with those possessing other skills.” There was something to be said for the writer packing his bags. “The further away from his homeland the writer is, the better for literature.” One’s address isn’t so important.

“A poet,” he concluded, “is like a bird. He chirps no matter what twig he lands on — and mistakes the rustle of leaves for applause.”

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