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What the Line was After
by Kenneth Sherman

With the death of Joseph Brodsky earlier this year, twentieth-century Russian poetry comes full circle. It began with Mandelshtam, Akhmatova, Tsvetaeva, and Pasternak-brilliant poets who created their early works in the Soviet Union's relatively benign pre-Stalinist era. Their later sufferings during the reign of terror would include imprisonment and death, ostracism, suicide, and censorship.
Brodsky's career went in the opposite direction. Arrested at the age of twenty-three for being a "social parasite" (writing poetry without the proper credentials), he served two years' hard labour in Russia's wastelands. In 1972 the Soviets expelled him, unwittingly presenting the West with a priceless gift. In the U.S., Brodsky began to write in English, recited his poetry for large audiences, and published his essays in The New Yorker. He lived to witness the demise of the regime that had persecuted him and died close to the end of the century in Brooklyn Heights, a free man.
On Grief and Reason, his second essay collection, appeared a few weeks before his death. It contains twenty-one pieces, some of them occasional addresses for conferences or university commencements. While these lighter, entertaining pieces are often of interest, the book's importance lies with its eight major essays. Some readers may find them overly demanding, because for Brodsky, prose was the continuation of his poetry by other means. The Polish poet Stanislaw Baranczak has correctly observed that Brodsky's essays-reminiscences, homages, and close readings of poems-are the prose equivalents of the elegy, the hymn of praise, and the ars poetica. But this only partly explains why they are so demanding.
The other reason is that, though Brodsky wrote some of his later work in English, though he claimed to identify with Donne and Auden, he was first and foremost a Russian poet. Consequently, when he writes in English his feeling for language remains Russian, and as he himself observes, "English is an analytical language," while "Russian is highly inflected." This conflict may account for his occasional convoluted sentences, verbosity, and misuse of colloquialisms, while his sporadic chattiness may be an attempt to mask his insecurity with English. Yet even without these weaknesses, the English-speaking reader would find Brodsky difficult since his style is outside the realm of the traditional English essay. His prose is aphoristic, witty, metaphysical in intent, and erratic in thought rather than strictly logical. Even so, it is worth reading. Every style has its traps and while Brodsky's is at times frustrating, its leaps often take us to intellectual frontiers where few writers would be willing to travel.
Not only does one's semantic ground have its own laws, its own directional imperative, it also tends to determine one's true poetic progenitors. Brodsky's first book of essays, Less Than One , contains a piece entitled "A Poet and Prose". It is a consideration of the essays of Marina Tsvetaeva. It is also the closest Brodsky ever came to describing his own approach to writing prose.
He tells us that Tsvetaeva's reader is "dealing not with a linear (analytic) development but with a crystalline (synthesizing) growth of thought." He describes her style, as well as her contemporary Mandelshtam's, as characterized by "linguistic and metaphorical density" and "linguistic oversaturation". He says that Tsvetaeva's work expresses "her constant endeavour to raise the pitch a note higher, an idea higher." Readers of Mandelshtam and Tsvetaeva will recognize this expansive, risk-taking quality in Brodsky's own essays and will concur that there is nothing like it in traditional English criticism. Its salutary effect on Western poetry was noted by Seamus Heaney in his essay "The Government of the Tongue", where he compared T. S. Eliot's reading of Dante as a didactic, theological poet, to Mandelshtam's liberating view of Dante as (in Heaney's words) "the epitome of chemical suddenness ... the sponsor of impulse and instinct."
Three of the major essays in this book are close readings of poets: "On Grief and Reason"(Frost), "Ninety Years Later"(Rilke), and "Wooing the Inanimate" (Hardy). In the title piece, Brodsky examines the language in Robert Frost's poem "Home Burial", which deals with the conflict between a husband and wife who have recently lost a child. This reading is an elaboration of Lionel Trilling's description of Frost as "a terrifying poet". Brodsky reveals Frost's astonishing degree of detachment, even in dealing with so emotional a subject as the loss of a child. He assures us that Frost's autobiography-the truth of his "dark" character-is in his use of language, not in the mere facts of his life. The poem is an argument, not so much between a wife and husband (though even on that level it reveals more than a sociology or self-help text), but between grief and reason, passion and intellect, Dionysus and Apollo-what Brodsky refers to as "poetry's indelible ink".
In the piece on Rilke's "Orpheus. Eurydice. Hermes", Brodsky writes intriguingly about mythology, and primal man's acquaintance with caves, burial sites, and the netherworld. His comments on the origins of "verse" (from the Latin versus, which means "turn") force us to think more deeply about the Orpheus myth, in which a poet's turning is an error that costs him a loved one. His detailed sensitivity to this beautiful and heartbreaking poem, animates, and subtly accentuates its effectiveness.
Brodsky reads each poem with his eyes, ears, and intellect, attentive to the poem's imagery, musicality, and thought. Each is a full reading, "saturated", to use his term, though never pretending to be definitive or final. He makes a point of emphasizing the "dash, not a period" that Frost puts at the conclusion of "Home Burial", and the missing period after the god's name in Rilke's title "Orpheus. Eurydice. Hermes", because for Brodsky, "what has been uttered is never the end but the edge of speech, which-owing to the existence of time-is followed by something. And what follows is always more interesting than what has been said." Hence, his prose, characterized by speed and desire, rarely feels contained; it is always groping after more: the next striking image, witticism, revelation. He is constantly attempting to raise the metaphysical ante.
It is not surprising that in the essays of a linguistically acrobatic author like Brodsky, language itself emerges as a protagonist. Not that he is in any way a deconstructionist who thinks literature is self-referential and solipsistic. His starting-points are the Hebraic notion that God is a Name, and the statement of John's Gospel, "In the beginning was the Word." As he says in "Ninety Years Later", "Mimesis precedes genesis"-which I take to mean that poetry, or inventive language, defines being or existence. The question of language and existence is most fully extended in his lengthy essay "Wooing the Inanimate", a consideration of Thomas Hardy's poetry.
Brodsky provides an expert reading of five Hardy poems, as he tries to explain the poet's contemporaneity. This has to do, he says, with Hardy's voice of detachment, his "audial neutrality", which was a result of his "appetite for the infinite and the inanimate." Hardy's particular genius was in cutting back on Victorian sentimentality. To do this, he looked to the world of things, of inanimate matter. In this sense he was being prescient, since, as Brodsky puts it, "the truth about the world" is "nonhuman". Hardy went after the inanimate "for its diction." Language, as Brodsky understands it, is also a thing, a part of the inanimate world; in fact it is "the inanimate's first line of information about itself, released to the animate."
This is an interesting observation and allows us to link Hardy to contemporary European anti-poetry, to the detached voice, for instance, of Zbignieff Herbert as he contemplates the coldness of a pebble. To help us understand the meaning of Hardy's insights, Brodsky connects them to Schopenhauer's notion of the Immanent Will, "the nonrational force and its blind, striving power operating in the world." We may also think of Camus' "indifference of the universe", for Brodsky uses the term "existential truth" when praising Hardy's relevance to our age.
The truth that Hardy discovers, however, is not his doing alone. He must share that with language. It is here, at the point where Brodsky invests language with a presence all its own that we may have trouble accepting his argument. He believes that "language is capable of arrangements that reduce a human being to, at best, the function of a scribe ... that utilize a human being, not the other way around." Discussing the effectiveness of a poem, he states: "I am far from suggesting that this is what Thomas Hardy was after in this line. Rather, it was what the line was after in Thomas Hardy."
What does he accomplish by looking upon language as a separate entity? It is common to regard language as a tool, forgetting that it is capable of mutation and transformation. Brodsky likens it to a changeable yet essential element, comparable to "our own cellular mixture". This allows him to release it from the mundane, to invest it with the power-and perhaps mystery-it possesses. It also enables him to limit the egocentricity of the poet, making him a servant of language, not a romantic demi-god. After a poet dies, the Muse "finds herself another mouthpiece in the next generation." This theme of humility runs throughout these essays. In his reminiscence of Stephen Spender, for instance, Brodsky writes: "If you are not born with some organic disorder, poetry-writing it as well as reading it-will teach you humility.... The dead alone will set you straight fast."
But if this view of language demotes the poet, it certainly elevates poetry itself, perhaps to being a quasi-religion. It is difficult to accept the idea that language is an entity unto itself, because it is so dependent on its relationship to us, as readers, writers, and speakers. We are responsible for its shifts and permutations. In the beginning may have been the Word, but it required a human to utter it. And was that human merely a "scribe" taking down what was dictated, or did he or she modify, edit, perhaps even censor?
This essay on Hardy (actually, it is a lecture) runs sixty-four pages and one wonders whether this length is necessary. It is fair to say that Brodsky's previous collection, Less Than One, is a tighter book, with its superbly condensed observations on Cavafy, Montale, Akhmatova, and Mandelshtam. There, Brodsky did the hard work for the reader, while in On Grief And Reason he is more apt to take one through the various steps of his enquiry and conclusions. Still, there are segments in these lengthy essays where he displays his laser-like capacity to pinpoint a poet's essential qualities. Here are his comments on Rilke:
"He is a poet of isolation, and isolating the subject is his forte. Give him a subject and he will turn it into an object, take it out of its context, and go for its core, inhabiting it with his extraordinary erudition, intuitions, and instinct for allusion. The net result is that the subject becomes his, colonized by the intensity of his attention and imagination."
One may ask whether explicating a poem is self-defeating, like explaining a joke. Unlike a joke, though, poetry depends on re-cognition-knowing again-and to re-read a poem after it has been explicated augments our enjoyment. It also leads us off onto our own tangential interpretations. In his essay on Rilke, Brodsky states that "translation is the father of civilization," and it may be that all of his close reading is an attempt to civilize his audience by translating poetry into terms that might make us more sensitive to language, more aware of our imaginative selves. The audience for poetry has become small; Brodsky estimates it throughout the ages at 1% of the population, but guesses (based on statistics of book sales) that in North America it is now .001% of the population. It is possible for human beings to lose certain faculties: How many of us can sit through a drama by Shakespeare? How many can re-read an Emily Dickinson poem until the layers begin to reveal themselves? This has to do with our lack of concentration, insensitivity to the nuances of language, incapacity to respond to allusions and references, whether they be biblical, mythical, or literary.
Brodsky has a belief in poetry's ability to cure civilizations of violence, to unite us with the past, as well as to free us from personal neuroses. In his less intellectual pieces, he has chosen to act as a promoter of poetry. In an address to the Library of Congress, he proposes that the U.S. government print 2.5 million copies of poetry books and sell them for two dollars a piece. "Poetry," he says, "should be as ubiquitous as gas stations." He rails about "a tremendous cultural backslide" and predicts that a man "unable to articulate, to express himself adequately...is bound to act violently, extending his vocabulary with a weapon where there should have been an adjective." In his address to the Turin book fair, he tells his listeners that they should read poetry, as opposed to novels, if they wish to develop sound taste in literature, since poetry, precise, laconic, and epigrammatic, "offers the highest possible standards for any linguistic operation."
Not all of On Grief and Reason is about poetry. Some pieces, continuing in the vein of "In a Room and a Half" from Brodsky's earlier collection, are autobiographical. The most charming of these is "Spoils of War", in which he remembers the pleasant intrusion of Western objects and sounds into post-war Russia. American films, canned meat, portable radios-all are scrutinized as emblems of a world he and his peers long to inhabit. His walk through "some grimy industrial outskirt of Leningrad" and suddenly hearing out of an open window the voice of Ella Fitzgerald singing "A-tisket, A-tasket," is most evocative.
In two of his finest essays, Brodsky is able to penetrate the curtain of time by attaching himself to classical figures. In "Homage to Marcus Aurelius", his subject is ethics; in "Letter to Horace", poetry.
The essay on the Emperor Marcus Aurelius is the most perfectly written in the book. This may be because Brodsky has chosen a voice unlike his own. The style of Aurelius' Meditations , slow, brooding, melancholic, seems to have had a stabilizing effect on Brodsky's prose. Describing the goodness of Marcus, he writes:
"He has surprisingly little blood on his hands. He would rather pardon than punish those who rebelled against him; those who fought him, he would rather subdue than destroy. The laws he made benefited the most powerless: widows, slaves... he didn't like circenses that much and when he had to attend a show, he is reported to have read or written or been briefed during the performance. It was he, however, who introduced to the Roman Circus the safety net for acrobats."
According to Brodsky, antiquity is an arbitrary concept we have created, not only to falsely organize the past, but to distance ourselves from it. So doing, we feel superior. It is true that most of us harbour an evolutionary notion of history that could be illustrated by an upward moving line labelled progress. "And what," he asks, "if the very notion of such evolution is a lie?" The purpose of studying the Meditations is to realize that there is something absolute about fairness and goodness; Aurelius would be considered a moral man today (certainly a more impressive ruler than the banal ones we elect). "Ethics," Brodsky says, "is the criterion of the present ... it turns every yesterday and tomorrow into now."
Poetry does the same. In his "Letter to Horace" (an inventive example of what Auden called "breaking bread with the dead"), Brodsky writes to the shade of the Roman poet, confident he can communicate with him. Counting the years between them, Brodsky asks, "Two thousand years-of what? By whose count, Flaccus? Certainly not in terms of metrics. Tetrameters are tetrameters, no matter when and no matter where. Be they in Greek, Latin, Russian, English ... When it comes to collapsing time, our trade, I am afraid, beats history...."
Not only does poetry collapse time, it also preserves the vibrancy of experience. So it is not strange for Brodsky to confess to Horace that he feels the dead poet's presence more than that of a remembered love affair: "To me, your reality is practically greater than that of my private memory." Since life is for the most part disjointed and amorphous, poetry, which Brodsky claims "restructures time," has the ability to intensify or focus it in such a way as to make it memorable. A poem is not "a metaphor for reality but a reality itself." And if we were to enquire why reality aspires to poetry, he would answer, "Cupidas. Appetite. Desire." In the short but brilliant essay, "Altra Ego", he muses on the root of lyrical poetry. After questioning the romantic and relatively recent notion of the poet as a Don Juan figure, after condemning literary biographies (the "bad-mouthing of poets") whose purpose is to belittle poetry's authority, he states the seriousness of the poet's romantic quest: "Love is a metaphysical affair whose goal is either accomplishing or liberating one's soul." The loved one is a visage of the poet's own psyche. As for the poem, it is "an act of love, not so much of an author for his subject as of language for a piece of reality." According to Brodsky, there are two things happening simultaneously in the composing of lyric poetry: the poet longing for his love and the Muse (language) longing to be articulated.
Metamorphosis emerges as Brodsky's grand motif: the mutability and transferability of language, love, personalities. He liked to quote Tsvetaeva's aphorism, "Reading is complicity in the creative process," and believed that when one reads an author, one actually becomes him or her. That is why he asks his audience in "On Grief and Reason", "Would you like to become Robert Frost?" That is why he can see himself conversing with Horace in the netherworld, even if it is only by tapping poetic rhythms. He believed in a poet's afterlife. Reading him, we are it.

Kenneth Sherman's most recent book is Open to Currents (Wolsak & Wynn). He is now finishing a book of essays, Void and Voice.


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