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When Society Chooses to Ignore Poetry : ON GRIEF AND REASON by Joseph Brodsky; Farrar, Straus & Giroux $24, 484 pages


An enigma strikes anyone who has read Russian literature and pondered Russia's history: How could the same country give birth to so many people of outstanding humanity--and, at the same time, as if to a wholly different species, so many murderous goons?

In these 21 essays, Joseph Brodsky, the Nobel Prize-winning poet who was expelled from the Soviet Union in 1972 and lived in the United States until his death on Jan. 28, not only proves himself, unsurprisingly, to be one of the good guys but comes up, quite unexpectedly, with an answer.


Haven't the Russians always taken poetry more seriously than anyone else? Yes and no, Brodsky says. The "celebrated Russian intelligentsia" of the 19th and early 20th centuries did, but not the mass of the nation. "Reduced . . . to a crude formula, the Russian tragedy is precisely the tragedy of a society in which literature turned out to be the prerogative of the minority."

The goons, in other words, never got the message. And in that sense--in failing to absorb what literature, the most highly evolved form of human speech, could have taught them--they really were a different, and inferior, species.

What about us--the democratic West? The Cold War enabled us to "externalize evil" by identifying it with communism, Brodsky warns. We forgot that "man isn't that good," that we, too, are capable of evil--as America's poets, a numerous, productive and talented tribe, a "natural resource of endurance," have been reminding us all along, if only we would listen.

Brodsky ranges widely in these essays, in a supple, pungent, idiomatic English that puts most native speakers of the language to shame. He explicates and appreciates other poets--Robert Frost, Thomas Hardy, Rainer Maria Rilke, W.H. Auden, Stephen Spender; he addresses a graduating class at the University of Michigan and (in an open letter), Czech President Vaclav Havel, a fellow writer; he discusses the Stoic "Meditations" of Marcus Aurelius, superspy Kim Philby and the shifting terrain of exile. He is serious and funny, blunt and indirect by turns.

He keeps coming back, though, to the idea that "aesthetics precedes ethics," that literature, in the words of his 1987 Nobel acceptance speech, is "moral insurance," and that we all need it desperately, lest we be goons too.

Is this true? Right now, it almost doesn't matter; it's so exhilarating just to hear such a blithe and fearless assertion at a time when poetry is considered, at best, a frill in educating the work force of the 21st century to "compete."

Brodsky sees a different kind of competition:

"The old adage about the poet's role in, or his duty to, his society puts the entire issue upside down," he insists. "By writing . . . in the language of his society, a poet takes a large step toward it. It is society's job to meet him halfway, that is, to open his book and read it. . . .

"By failing to read or listen to poets, a society dooms itself to inferior modes of articulation--of the politician, or the salesman, or the charlatan--in short, to its own. It forfeits . . . its own evolutionary potential. . . .

"The charge frequently leveled against poetry--that it is difficult, obscure, hermetic and whatnot--indicates not the state of poetry but, frankly, the rung of the evolutionary ladder on which society is stuck."

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