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The Brodsky Paradox

COLLECTED POEMS IN ENGLISH; By Joseph Brodsky; Edited by Ann Kjellberg; Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 540 pp., $30

October 29, 2000|JOHN BAYLEY | John Bayley is the author of numerous works, including "Leo Tolstoy," "The Red Hat: A Novel" and "Elegy for Iris."

With a mild malice that is far from innocent, the poet A.E. Housman observed that when readers say they like a poem, they usually mean they like something inside the poem: that is to say, its content or its meaning. As a poet whose poems, so he claimed, suddenly appeared in his head, pure in their poemhood as the driven snow, he was confident he knew what he was talking about. Nonetheless the distinction won't do. Archibald MacLeish was similarly wide of the mark when he famously stated at the end of his poem "Ars Poetica" that:

A poem should not mean

But be.

Sounds OK? But. . . .

The poet Mallarme was closer to making the same point in a more reasonable yet more penetrating way. He told the painter Degas, who dabbled in sonnet writing and always claimed he had plenty of ideas for them, that "poetry, my dear Degas, is not made with ideas. It is made with words."

Such matters are familiar to all students who have done a university course in poetry. But they seem worth considering again in relation to the great poet Joseph Brodsky, whose genius disconcerts the reader by not confining itself to the words that make poetry in his own native language. Brodsky, like Milton or Michelangelo, was a virtuoso in at least two languages, whereas most poets have enough to do to wring a sudden life, never seen or suspected before, from the words with which they and their readers are already familiar, making a tongue unknown in any other speech.

Pushkin, revered master of all Russian poets, Brodsky not least, showed his fellow-countrymen that their own simplest words can nonetheless become enchanted poetry. But Pushkin, like most upper-class Russians of his time, habitually used French when conversing with his peers or writing them letters; and his longest, liveliest and most sophisticated poem, "Eugene Onegin," not only uses French terms and expressions but also has a deliberately cosmopolitan feel about it. Nabokov swore that it, and every other poem, could not be translated:

What is translation? On a platter

A poet's pale and glaring head,

A parrot's screech, a monkey's chatter,

And profanation of the dead.

But nonetheless he rendered it into his own sort of Nabokovese, an outlandish and exotic dialect designed--somewhat ironically--to render painstakingly each Russian word into its exact English equivalent.

Nabokov must have known this was an impossible task. A gifted prose writer in two languages, he wrote some of his novels in Russian, some in English. In each case, it was his own peculiar style and language, just as Joseph Conrad's English is his own language, but he did not attempt to write the same book in both languages or to make the two mutually convertible. Brodsky attempted this much more daring task. To what extent has he succeeded?

Well, not entirely. Dr. Johnson observed that a dog dancing on its hind legs did not dance well: The wonder was that he did it at all. And when poetry is concerned, that "not entirely" is bound to be a fatal judgment. By the lights of Housman or Mallarme, a poem that does "not entirely" succeed in being a poem is not really one at all. But Brodsky, quite rightly, was not a bit abashed by that. His cosmopolitan poetry, whether written in Russian or in English, has a very great deal inside it, indeed is positively swarming: not only with striking sentiments but with actual things of all kinds. So, of course, in Byron's "Don Juan" or Auden's "Letter from Iceland." These splendid tours de force do not care whether they are "entirely" poems or not, and they are the ones that Brodsky's liveliest and most characteristic poems, like "Lullaby of Cape Cod" translated by Anthony Hecht, most clearly resemble.

Like Auden, his spiritual comrade and colleague by temperament and in performance, Brodsky had an almost obsessive relish for this world of things and objects. Kipling, for whose work he also used to express unbounded admiration, had a similar fondness: neither poet being exactly a stickler for total accuracy when carried away by the pleasures of detail. In "Collected Poems in English," excellent notes supplied by the editor and translators reveal Brodsky's habits here in a most engaging way. Editor Ann Kjellberg notes in her wise introduction that he was partial to "twists of language," language and meaning in the cosmopolitan hinterland between several languages that sometimes gets twisted up with an almost surrealist insouciance.

A dignified statement embracing this point is made on the cover announcement by Susan Sontag, for whom Brodsky is a "world poet," as accessible to readers like herself, who cannot read him in Russian, as he is to native speakers. He is a world poet because of the extraordinary velocity and density of material notation in his poetry, which he referred to as "accelerated thinking."

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