BOOKS: THE MUSE AND MORTALS
Joseph Brodsky, poet and thinker, dissident, Nobel prizewinner, completed two books just before his early death this year. Is it too soon to assess how he will be remembered? published hlittle classic The Desert and the Sown, womense ibehind her, havingso translated the poet Hafiz and published hlittle classic nd her, the poet Hafiz and
Sunday 24 November 1996
For Brodsky, who was much possessed towards the end with thoughts about what's durable and what's not, it would have seemed like one of history's bad jokes to be forgotten or misremembered so soon. He didn't master the English tongue and pit himself against some of its greatest poets only to get conflated with a second-rate novelist (Brodsky regarded most novelists as automatically second-rate, on the grounds that the novel is a second- rate form). But reputations don't necessarily hold out any longer than book bindings do. The question now, sharpened by the publication of the last two books he wrote - On Grief and Reason, a volume of essays, and So Forth, a collection of poems - is if and why Brodsky deserves enduring attention.
He does, I think, for three reasons. One was his refusal, once he left the Soviet Union for the west in 1972, to behave as dissidents and exiles are expected to. The sympathy vote was huge - and probably part of what won him the Nobel - but he wouldn't play along. Victimhood wasn't in his nature; he didn't want to be a nostalgist or a political pawn. When he did refer to his internal exile "as a young pup, kicked out of my home to the Polar Circle", it was in passing and sardonically - talking about such stuff was a form of name-dropping, he felt. His essay here on the condition of exile is wonder- fully clear-minded and un-selfdramatising. Displacement and misplacement are the century's commonplace, he says. Exile should be seen as an opportunity, not a calamity: a chance to learn a new language (including the language of humility) and - since exile invariably means a passage from tyranny to democracy - a kind of homecoming, which takes the writer "closer to the seat of the ideals which inspired him all along".
Brodsky's second great quality was his belief that poetry must be highly intelligent. There's no room in his world for ignorance, or faux-naivety, or even - late-20th-century life being a complex affair - for simplicity. His own mind was volcanic, constantly erupting ideas. Part of the fascination of his essays is that you never know where he'll go next - and suspect sometimes he doesn't know, either. In the poems, this unpredictability can be exasperating (more of which in a moment), but few prose writers better dramatise the mind in action.
Finally, and most importantly, Brodsky matters because of his absolute faith in poetry. Reading poetry, he claims in the various lectures reprinted here, makes us less neurotic and saves us having to fork out for shrinks; discourages us from cliche and verbosity; brings together the two main modes of cognition, the occidental and oriental, left-hemisphere and right; represents the "supreme form of human locution"; is an antidote to summary solutions; is what best distinguishes us from animals; is, in short, not entertainment, or even art, "but our anthropological, genetic goal, our linguistic, evolutionary beacon".
If this sounds a lot to claim for poetry, Brodsky has more. For he also believed, with Arnold and Leavis, that poetry sharpens our moral focus and that if we chose political leaders on the basis of their reading experience, not their economic programmes, there'd be much less grief on earth. He isn't always persuasive: considering the counter-evidence that Lenin, Stalin, Hitler and Mao were highly literate, he replies that "their hit list was longer than their reading list" - which is too pat an answer. He could be batty, too, and knew it, apologising for his "loony" schemes for poetry to be brought to every household, like electricity or milk. But such enthusiasm is understandable in a poet whose own life had been magically transformed by poetry. Brodsky simply wouldn't have recognised the criticism that he loved poetry more than life: to him poetry was life.
More troublingly, he also loved poetry more than love. Few poets since Robert Graves have dared to speak of the Muse. Brodsky did, and found himself charged with being old-fashioned or, to give it another name, misogynistic. Unchastened, daring even more, he declared that the Muse, "nee language", precedes and outshines all mortal women. His essay on these matters, "Altra Ego", is bold and iconoclastic, but not very likeable. Love poetry, he argues, may be an applied art, written to get someone to go to bed with you, but ultimately it's narcissistic, a self-portrait, with the real-life lover serving as "one's soul's stand-in". Hence the peculiarly unvisual quality of many love poems, which tell us more about lover than beloved; hence their peculiar impersonality, too. It doesn't really matter (except to biographers, and Brodsky didn't care for biography) who they're for. They belong more to language than to life.
This is certainly true of most of Brodsky's love poems, through which various dears, darlings, maidens, damsels, belles, beauties and playmates flit, strangely anonymous and not always kindly remembered. There are two lovely intimate moments in So Forth, one where Brodsky pictures himself with his young wife and daughter, on Ischia, the other a promise to his daughter, whose flowering he knows he'll not live to see, that he'll watch over her in some inanimate, invisible form. But Brodsky is characteristically more detached than this, as several ballads and love songs here exemplify.
His detachment can have advantages. When he is being tough about the human condition, as in the haunting Nordic "Tornfallet", or in the terrifying but also funny "Song of Welcome" ("here's your will, and here's a few / takers. Here's an empty pew. / Here's life after you"), he can sound almost like Beckett. The more he absents himself, the bleaker the world- view - and the happier the results. But once he comes into the picture, um-ing and er-ing over the reader's shoulder, the tone wavers. "Clouds", for instance, is a celebration of Baltic cirri and cumuli, but too buoyant for its own good:
Ah, your rent-free
castles! Those lofty
soft hotbeds of the
of seraphs and ball gowns;
crashing of bogus
starched barricades ...
Though the form here is quatrains, the voice is chatty and discursive, like late Auden, whose "Bucolics" ("Dear water, clear water, playful in all your streams") is the precedent. The trouble is that, despite his command of British irony and American demotic, Brodsky hasn't Auden's lightly affable voice. Haughtily scorning the view that poetry should use the language of the street - "This assertion is quite absurd," he said, "It is the people who should speak the language of literature" - his mission is to improve and instruct. To judge from his essays, he was a great lecturer. But in poetry the lecturer is always a bore. One poem in So Forth is actually called "At a Lecture", and reworks a conceit from a talk he gave. "About an hour ago," he tells the audience at the Library of Congress, "the stage where I stand now as well as your seats were quite empty. An hour hence, they will be empty again ... Had it been endowed with a consciousness of its own, it would regard our presence as a nuisance." In the poem this becomes:
Since mistakes are inevitable, I can easily
for a man standing before you in this room filled with yourselves. Yet in about one hour
this will be corrected, at your and at my expense, and the place will be reclaimed by
It's not clear what has been gained by the translation.
Translation in a larger sense is the Brodsky problem, of course. Being one of nature's control-freaks, and that feeling he'd been Englished too smoothly by others, he set about the task himself. He's no Caliban: his command of English can be highly sophisticated. But there's something centaur-like about the poetry (the centaur is a recurrent image of his): shiningly intelligent up top, yet oddly clumping in diction and rhythm. He loves English not wisely but too well, gorging on archaisms. Even when highly controlled, the language is somehow all over the place. An evocation of August rain, attractively physical at first, degenerates into a flash- flood of murky images. The doorstep of an absent friend makes him pause and torture himself, and us, with a run of clanging metaphors:
The doorbell button is but a crater
in miniature, modestly gaping in the
wake of some cosmic touch, the crumb of
all doorways are peppered with this
Brodsky often speaks of the superiority of poetry, which compresses thought, over prose, which lets it spill out. But in his case almost the reverse is true: whereas the poems are uneconomical with the truth, the prose can be brilliantly incisive. His obituary of Stephen Spender has one of the finest laconic openings you'll ever read, though the first sentence of his letter to Horace runs it close. And no poem in So Forth venerates objects and condenses a whole era in the way his prose essay "Spoils of War" does, with its story of coming of age in Leningrad among corned-beef cans, shortwave radios, thermos flasks, jazz records, Hollywood films and winter boots.
In that moving tribute to Spender, all the more poignant for being written in the shadow of his own death, Brodsky ventures that a person's life "is in the end a patchwork of someone else's recollections". If that is so, then Brodsky is secure: he was an extraordinary man, and his friends' fond memorials keep coming. But poets have to be more than the sum of admirers. And though Brodsky was a great advocate for poetry, he isn't one of those by whom language lives. Sad to say, in English at least, the poems don't live up to the life.
! `On Grief And Reason: Essays' is published by Hamish Hamilton at pounds 20. `So Forth: Poems' is published by Hamish Hamilton at pounds 16.
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