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To Please a Shadow : Joseph Brodsky's Seduction of the Muse in English

October 31, 1987|JOSEPH BRODSKY

When a writer resorts to a language other than his mother tongue, he does so either out of necessity, like Conrad, or because of burning ambition, like Nabokov, or for the sake of greater estrangement, like Beckett. Belonging to a different league, in the summer of 1977, in New York, after living in this country for five years, I purchased in a small typewriter shop on Sixth Avenue a portable "Lettera 22" and set out to write (essays, translations, occasionally a poem) in English for a reason that had very little to do with the above. My sole purpose then, as it is now, was to find myself in closer proximity to the man whom I considered the greatest mind of the 20th Century: Wystan Hugh Auden.

I was, of course, perfectly aware of the futility of my undertaking, not so much because I was born in Russia and into its language (which I am never to abandon--and I hope vice versa) as because of this poet's intelligence, which in my view has no equal. I was aware of the futility of this effort, moreover, because Auden had been dead four years then. Yet to my mind, writing in English was the best way to get near him, to work on his terms, to be judged, if not by his code of conscience, then by whatever it is in the English language that made this code of conscience possible.

These words, the very structure of these sentences, all show anyone who has read a single stanza or a single paragraph of Auden's how I fail. To me, though, a failure by his standards is preferable to a success by others'. Besides, I knew from the outset that I was bound to fail; whether this sort of sobriety was my own or has been borrowed from his writing, I can no longer tell. All I hope for while writing in his tongue is that I won't lower his level of mental operation, his plane of regard. This is as much as one can do for a better man: to continue in his vein; this, I think, is what civilizations are all about.

I knew that by temperament and otherwise, I was a different man, and that in the best case possible I'd be regarded as his imitator. Still, for me that would be a compliment. Also I had a second line of defense: I could always pull back to my writing in Russian, of which I was pretty confident and which even he, had he known the language, probably would have liked. My desire to write in English had nothing to do with any sense of confidence, contentment, or comfort; it was simply a desire to please a shadow. Of course, where he was by then, linguistic barriers hardly mattered, but somehow I thought that he might like it better if I made myself clear to him in English. (Although when I tried, on the green grass at Kirchstetten 11 years ago now, it didn't work; the English I had at that time was better for reading and listening than for speaking. Perhaps just as well.)

To put it differently, unable to return the full amount of what has been given, one tries to pay back at least in the same coin. After all, he did so himself, borrowing the "Don Juan" stanza for his "Letter to Lord Byron" or hexameters for his "Shield of Achilles." Courtship always requires a degree of self-sacrifice and assimilation, all the more so if one is courting a pure spirit. While in the flesh, this man did so much that belief in immortality of his soul becomes somehow unavoidable. What he left us with amounts to a gospel which is both brought about by and filled with love that's anything but finite--with love, that is, which can in no way all be harbored by human flesh and which therefore needs words. If there were no churches, one could easily have built one upon this poet, and its main precept would run something like his

If equal affection cannot be,

Let the more loving one be me.


If a poet has any obligation toward society, it is to write well. Being in the minority, he has no other choice. Failing this duty, he sinks into oblivion. Society, on the other hand, has no obligation toward the poet. A majority by definition, society thinks of itself as having other options than reading verses, no matter how well written. Its failure to do so results in its sinking to that level of locution at which society falls easy prey to a demagogue or a tyrant. This is society's own equivalent of oblivion; a tyrant, of course, may try to save his subjects from it by some spectacular blood bath.

I first read Auden some 20 years ago in Russia in rather limp and listless translations that I found in an anthology of contemporary English poetry subtitled "From Browning to Our Days." "Our Days" were those of 1937, when the volume was published. Needless to say, almost the entire body of its translators along with its editor, M. Gutner, were arrested soon afterward, and many of them perished. Needless to say, for the next 40 years no other anthology of contemporary English poetry was published in Russia, and the said volume became something of a collector's item.

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