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Dry Land of Days Where We Remain - on Brodsky
"A prominent forehead, hair swept back yet framing the head with a reddish halo, a sharp though not quite aquiline nose, and pale blue eyes-this is how I remember Joseph Brodsky when I met him at the Vancouver Airport in the fall of 1972, when he arrived to give one of his first readings in North America, only months after his expulsion from the Soviet Union.

I wanted him to field questions in addition to reading his own poetry, and as we sat and drank whisky, he responded in his, as yet very broken, English: "Da, but no strings attached, OK?" Brodsky must have realized I found this amusing, for he tried to explain why he was apprehensive about "strings". No strings were attached, and he gave both a reading and a two-hour question-and-answer session at the University of British Columbia. The session was lively, for Brodsky was highly spirited and outspoken, and while I and others had at times to provide him with the proper English equivalents to his Anglo-Russian concoctions, there was no mistaking the vigour of his mind or his linguistic capabilities, as when he coined the word, komfortabilnost', to indicate the cozy status of the officially approved Soviet poets.

The present perspective, after the implosion of the Soviet Union, makes it difficult to convey Brodsky's situation in 1972. For, strange as it may seem, many viewed him with suspicion, if not hostility. It should be remembered that Brodsky's appearance in the West had been preceded by the triumphant tours of North American campuses by the official Soviet poets, Yevtushenko and Voznesensky, the latter's tour in 1971 in Canada having been organized by our own External Affairs. Russian poetry was in, the Soviet Union was in, at least among the radicalized students, counter-culture youth, and anti-war activists, while Pierre Elliott Trudeau was trying to distance Canada from the United States by bringing it closer to the Soviet Union. So who was Brodsky? An exile from an in-country? At Voznesensky's reading at the UBC ("a voice like a full orchestra"), there were close to 1,000 people; at Brodsky's, perhaps 200, and there was little excitement as he read (in Russian!) a 300-line poem in his incantatory, somewhat monotonous manner.

There was a lot that Brodsky had to counter in the North American perception of Soviet poetry (and of Soviet communism in general) at that particular time, and he began doing it right away, in Vancouver. He said, and this was quoted in the local press, that the officially approved Soviet poets were on his s..t-list. And he had the gall to ask several American students draft-dodging at UBC whether they thought it was moral to run away from doing their military duty in Vietnam; didn't they realize that other American boys would have to serve and perhaps die instead of them? It came close to a scuffle, and he had to be rescued.

Yet, Brodsky managed to live down the pro-Soviet and radical sentiments, and it was he, not Voznesensky or Yevtushenko, who got the Nobel Prize. No doubt, deservedly, as far as these two poets are concerned, but whether truly deserved, is another question, which did bother some, and especially those who could read him only in translation. Unlike Czeslaw Milosz, who managed to create an adequate English idiom for his poetry, Brodsky first allowed himself to be translated by someone who did know Russian, but was no poet; then by prominent American poets, who didn't know Russian; and then he tried to translate his poetry himself while preserving its formal (traditional and virtuoso at the same time) features, with less than satisfactory results (his English was racy by this time, but hardly native). It is fair to say that his fame has suffered a steep decline, both in the West and in his native country.

In my view, the jury on Brodsky's poetry, both as regards its substance and quality, is still out. What his work needs is not so much formal studies of his brilliant versification, as a critical, part intellectual, part literary discussion of his poetry-not in the context of Dante, Donne, Mandelstam, Eliot, and Auden (as David Bethea and others have done), but of Milosz, Herbert, Rozewicz, Holub, Popa, Kaplinski, Bringhurst, Levertov, Szymborska, and Heaney. But this, of course, may be asking too much in our cyberspace, unless one believes, as Brodsky did that epochs are, ultimately, judged by the quality and intellectual acumen of their poets and philosophers, and not of their scientists, technologists, academics, and university administrators."

Bogdan Czaykowski, poet, literary critic, and Professor of Slavic Languages & Literatures at the University of British Columbia.

"Joseph Brodsky struck terror in his graduate students. His weekly seminar at Columbia University-three hours of brilliant talk punctuated by an occasional question, the answers to which only irritated him-would leave me reeling. He spoke aphoristically, in absolute terms: `the cornerstones of Western civilization are The Iliad and the Bible.' His jesting had a moral purpose: `The Russians have invented a new holiday [when Polish Communist authorities declared martial law]: tanksgiving.' His tirades were instructive. In a discussion of Milosz's `Elegy for N.N.', when someone asked him where to find Labrador on a map, he cried, `You Americans have no sense of geography, which means you have no sense of space. And you have no sense of history, which means you have no sense of time.' And time, as his beloved Auden wrote, `Worships language and forgives/Everyone by whom it lives.' Like other young poets in the room, I prayed for such mercy. Brodsky had already been granted it.

Forbidden to smoke (at forty, he was recovering from the first of several heart surgeries), he would dive across the seminar table at the sight of a student's cigarettes, crying `Please, may I have one?' He smoked with a passion, inhaling deeply, silently preparing the next variation on his lessons in `linguistic disobedience'. For example, lecturing on Cavafy, he said, `Well, class, now I will tell you how to be great poets.' We leaned forward in our seats. `You must become gay,' said the man who had just been named to Cosmopolitan's list of the world's most eligible bachelors. Yet, he had a serious point to make: as an outsider, Cavafy had a privileged position from which to view society. No doubt Brodsky, a Russian Jew in exile from his homeland and his language, felt the same privilege. The next week he advised us to go to law school, where we would learn not only the logic of law, which in his view was analogous to poetry's logic, but also another language-this from a high school dropout who was teaching himself to write poems and essays in English.

After class, I would walk down Riverside Drive, then cross 72nd Street to Central Park, meditating on Brodsky's words, adopting his version of what he called Auden's `code of conscience', which shaped my own response to literature. For isn't that which we take from great poems (and I include Brodsky's essays among my favourite poetic texts) a sharper sense of how to live? `Language propels the poet into spheres he would not otherwise be able to approach, irrespective of the degree of psychic or mental concentration of which he might be capable beyond the writing of verse,' he wrote. `And this propulsion takes place with unusual swiftness: with the speed of sound-greater than what is afforded by imagination or experience. As a rule, a poet is considerably older when he finishes a poem than he was at the outset.' I was considerably older when I left Brodsky's class."

Christopher Merrill, American author of several books, including poetry (Watch Fire) and non-fiction (The Old Bridge: The Third Balkan War and the Age of the Refugee), currently residing and teaching in Connecticut.

"He died in January, at the beginning of the year-These words, written by Joseph Brodsky more than thirty years ago, in verses to T.S. Eliot, would turn out to be words about himself. In repeating them, we realize once again that poets do not die. Joseph Brodsky simply went where he would encounter Eliot and Auden, Achmatova and Donne, Ovid and Propertius-those poets with whom he conversed on equal terms while he was alive.

He had an astounding destiny-probably the most astounding in Russian literature. Brodsky grew up at a time when the high tragedy that characterized the first half of the twentieth century seemed to be transformed into a destructive, no-way-out Absurd. Having accepted the Absurd as a given, he was able to build an enormous poetic edifice on the vacant space, to restore the continuity of a dead culture, moreover, to reveal it anew to the world. In this task, he was definitely helped by his dear (and probably the only Eastern European) city where a citizen does not feel inferior to the West, but where he is able to have a natural dialogue with it. He took in Venice, Rome, and New York as his own cities, and in return they received him as a worthy citizen; but, to the last, he was a Petersburger, just as Dante was always a Florentine.

Brodsky's artistic and ethical freedom carried a high price: loneliness. He reacted to the system in which he spent his youth with exceptional contempt. He was thoroughly convinced that the empire of culture and language was much more mighty and exacting than any historical empire. He was incompatible with the empire in which he happened to be born. It ended with his exile, which was probably more difficult for a poet than physical annihilation, but infinitely more preferable for his readers.

Brodsky wrote his most important works while in exile. He was surrounded by friends; in his last years, fate granted him personal happiness. But loneliness still followed him. He constantly fled from literary clichés, from his previous styles, from his many readers and disciples, and in the end he fled the world. What he didn't flee from was the Russian language.

His poems, with their phonetic pressure, their polysemous word registers, their complexity, and their refinement of syntax, still can astound-even against the background of twentieth-century Russian lyric poetry, in which grandeur is hardly an uncommon characteristic. In his poetry, two main traditions come together and culminate: on the one hand, the strict refinement of Achmatova and Mandelstam; and on the other hand, a daring novelty which is usually associated with Futurism, but which Brodsky himself associated with Tsvetayeva. His poems are, in essence, a series of almost mathematical limits approaching the infinitely small and the infinitely big-and non-being and that which negates non-being. This is the language that remains when there is nothing but complete darkness, and that retains forever the ability to guide consciousness to the point where there is a spark of light.

This language lives longer than Man, and the rhythm cannot be destroyed. In January of 1996, Joseph Brodsky finally escaped into the world of language and rhythm, into the world that he always felt was his own-more worthy and comprehensive than the world of history. No matter how difficult was our loss, we will bear it, listening to the noise of the sea of the past and the future which surrounds `the dry land of days where we remain'." 

Tomas Venclova, Lithuanian poet and Professor of Slavic Languages & Literatures at Yale University. His most recent book in English is Winter Dialogue (Northwestern University Press).


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