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Linguistic Disobedience and the Code of Conscience - a summation
"Unlike society, a good poet always has the future, and his poems, in a manner of speaking, are an invitation for us to sample it."

(from "An Immodest Proposal")

Meeting Joseph Brodsky during the 1994 Toronto Festival of Authors left a lasting impression on me. The compound of greatness and an authoritative manner of speaking with the Nobel laureate's touching modesty created an incredible aura of spirituality that dominated over the prosaic reality of the hotel room with its view of Lake Ontario. The one-hour interview ended with a sweeping shake of the Nobel fountain pen and Brodsky's autographing of my edition of Watermark, which still smelled fresh off the printing press. Utterly impressed, I returned home on foot later, pondering how Brodsky's personal magnetism and brilliance charmed in direct contact, and how his life and work were dedicated to returning poetry and the poet to their proper place and dignity.

Brodsky considered poetry the most subtle and fundamental instrument of evolution whose aim is nothing less than beauty liberating truth. Beauty demands that ethical choices be made which can determine an individual's moral face. Brodsky was of the opinion that the writer should be judged according to his work. Behind this seemingly liberal statement hid the noble conviction that the greatness of the artist derives directly from his greatness as a human being.

Brodsky treated his appointment as U.S. Poet Laureate in 1991-1992 as a solemn public service because of the mutual respect of the public for the poet's word and of the poet for readers. "What is poetry which does not rescue either nations or people?" asked Bertold Brecht. Brodsky's belief in the power of song to enlarge the field of communication between people made him want to publish a poetry anthology in several million copies. A book should be accessible. It should be put on a shelf, forgotten on a park bench, or thrown into a rubbish bin, just so that it would have a chance to find its way into the hands of an accidental reader:

A quarter of a century ago, in a previous incarnation in Russia, I knew a man who was translating Robert Frost into Russian... He showed me a hardcover edition, which fell open onto the page with "Happiness Makes Up in Height for What It Lacks in Length". Across the page went a huge, size-twelve imprint of a soldier's boot. The front page of the book bore the stamp STALAG #3B, which was a World War II concentration camp for Allied POWs somewhere in France. Now, there is a case of a book of poems finding its reader. All it had to do was to be around. Otherwise it couldn't be stepped on, let alone picked up. (from "An Immodest Proposal")

Brodsky quit school at the age of fifteen. Even in democratic countries, this is unheard of: social pressures and the firm belief in the blessings of general education are unquestionable. But Brodsky was born in a country where most privileges were obligations first of all. "Making his melodramatic exit through the school gate", the future Nobel laureate risked limitless repressions from the all-powerful state. In the Soviet system, there was no place for solitude: whoever did not wish to participate in the "building of socialism" was stamped with the name of "social parasite". As a result, the intuitive gesture of escape from indoctrination having as its goal the subjugation of the individual to the "right" ideology, brought easily foreseeable consequences in the space of years: arrest, confinement in psychiatric hospitals, a famous trial, banishment, and finally forced emigration. An end to the gehenna seemed improbable: more than one prisoner of a Soviet camp got a bullet in the head instead of a passport. Ossip Mandelstam, who was writing a few dozen years earlier, died in a camp, and he wasn't lacking in the greatness of spirit and heart that allowed Brodsky to survive the repressions.

More so than the erudition acquired through the self-taught man's passion for reading, it is these experiences with totalitarianism that granted the poet the right to assume the tone of a mentor, and especially to speak up in the name of freedom. A human being who could preserve the freedom of conscience in Soviet Russia had to discover his own place in every circumstance.

Emigration was for him, therefore, of secondary concern. He didn't need to adjust his value system because he believed that regardless of the place in which one found oneself, one had to participate in the drama of existence. This is a recurrent topic, as in the exquisite cycle, "A Part of Speech": freedom is when you forget how to spell the tyrant's name... He easily and naturally crossed the borders of states and cultures. He learned Polish in order to access books that were not published in Soviet Russia and which he could buy in Polish bookstores. Through Polish translations, he became acquainted with writers like Eugene Ionesco, Malcolm Lowry, and William Faulkner. A few years after leaving Russia, he translated his poems into English; he even began to write creatively in English. This is phenomenonal, especially in poetry, which the writer himself considered the most precise instrument of communication. His intellectual adventures and impressive career are attributable to titanic work and to the fire of genius that derives from a divine spark. It doesn't often happen that a seventh-grade dropout acquires the knowledge and horizons of a wise man, and receives, at the same time, the highest honours that can be bestowed.

In his poetry, Brodsky expanded the perspective of an individual shut within four walls of pain to a metaphysical dimension. The traditional, precise form of his poems is exploded by the vivid, colourful imagination that strikes one with its fresh metaphors and suggestive, memorable images. He believed that in the beginning was the song whose form he acknowledged was the most suitable for poetry. What is the value of a poem whose mission cannot be remembered easily? He shared this typically Russian belief in his melodious recitations during which he would conquer the hearts of his listeners:

Lean over. I'll whisper something to you: I am

grateful for everything: for the chicken cartilage

and for the chirr of scissors already cutting

out the void for me-for it is your hem.

Doesn't matter if it's pitch black, doesn't matter if

it holds nothing: no ovals, no limbs to count.

The more invisible something is,

the more certain it's been around,

and the more obviously it's everywhere...

(from "Roman Elegies") Brodsky's creative work constitutes a profound philosophical tract that contains a synthesis of contemporary humanism. It proffers the most fundamental and subtle truths, flashes of definitions and diagnoses that set the realm of ethical sovereignty. It is an attempt to expand the borders of human consciousness. It is an unconventional and detailed describing of the world, an introduction to the extreme possibilities of the human mind, a bequeathing of the despair flowing from sensitivity to and delight in the fragility of life and the reality of that world.

Literature is an ability to ask genuine questions. Brodsky goes much further: he provides answers to the most difficult questions. The Russian Nobel laureate's disposition of genuine humility coupled with pride allowed him to keep discovering an unfleeting beauty in the striking transitoriness of life. In Brodsky's writings, one is struck by the unheard-of precision in argumentation: considerations noted in passing recall a scholarly debate in which the good is found at the top of an iron hierarchy set against the ocean of doubt and the relativity of judgements.

Brodsky didn't care for writers who offer relaxation (including William Carlos Williams); rather, he was drawn to those who threw out challenges, such as Edwin Arlington Robinson, Thomas Hardy, W.H. Auden, and Robert Frost. In his youth, he was entranced by Eliot. As his knowledge of English waxed, so did his enthusiasm for Eliot wane. His opinion of Walt Whitman, whom he critiqued at the age of twenty and then cast off completely in his later years, surprises. Several women poets held a privileged place in his vast literary pantheon, including Marianne Moore, Elisabeth Bishop, Louise Bogan, and the Australian poet, Juliette Wright.

Joseph Brodsky died in his sleep at the age of fifty-five in January 1996. His life was stamped with the drama of history. He came into the world in Leningrad (St. Petersburg) during the Second World War and became a witness to and participant in the bitter events which shaped the course of the second half of the twentieth century. As a Jew rooted in the values of the Christian culture, he experienced all the more painfully the division created by the Iron Curtain. He underwent imprisonment and wandering, and, finally, he experienced a sweet freedom, sharing his song in chosen fatherlands. He was buried, like Stravinsky and Diagelev, in Venice, the place in which the beauty and transitoriness of the world are reflected most profoundly.


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