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The Brodsky Question

Was the exuberant Russian poet a fake?

Joseph Brodsky, Collected Poems in English (Farrar Straus & Giroux, 2000) 540 pp.

Might as well dub it the Brodsky Question. Did the exiled, Nobel-winning, international man of letters – he died in 1996 – enjoy a bogus reputation as a major English poet? Brodsky published seven books in the Soviet Union, running up a reputation as one of its finest poets, before being ousted from the country in 1972 after serving 18 months in a Siberian labor camp. Thirty-two years old and already a legend, he landed in the United States, turned his attention to his new literary predicament, and began, with help, to adapt his Russian poetry into English. He soon grew proficient enough (or, rather, bold enough) to independently transcribe his own poems, and then (more audaciously) began to pen original verse. Few writers have possessed sufficient giftedness to garner prestige and prominence in two languages. Conrad is one, Beckett, and, of course, Nabokov. Yet despite his stature, Brodsky’s seat amongst that elite crew has never been very secure. The Russian Brodsky, as far as we can determine from the reactions of his readers and critics, has been applausively received. It’s the English Brodsky, however, or the “Brodsky” born out of his aggressive self-translating and freewheeling versifying, who has created all the worry. And the principal embarrassment being disputed there – a dispute that, for me, manifested itself most memorably in last July’s TLS with the spirited exchange between Craig Raine and Lachlan MacKinnon – involves Brodsky’s alleged incompetence in his adopted tongue. His three books of English poetry (A Part Of Speech, To Urania, and So Forth) have been the subject of intense scrutiny and controversy, with his “feel” for the English language being routinely, and often furiously, called into question. It should be said that as an unapologetic bearer of high seriousness, Brodsky (in his émigré guise) roamed world literature with extraordinary authority, but the severity of his detractors’ verdict – that his English oeuvre is shipwrecked by stylistic, syntactic, and idiomatic blunders – is enough to put a little suspense into one’s reading of his posthumous Collected Poems in English.

Evidence, of course, isn’t hard to find. A spot check turns up miscalculations like “Let’s put our fingers into her mouth that gnashes/ scurvy-eaten keyboards inflamed by wolfram flashes / showing her spit-rich palate with blizzards of kinfolk’s ashes” and “And your closing the shutters unleashes the domino / theory; for no matter what size a lump / melts in your throat, the future snowballs each “no” / to coin a profile by the burning lamp.” These sorts of infelicities, we are told, were the result of a strenuous bid for fidelity. As editor Ann Kjellberg advises us, Brodsky “believed strongly that a poem’s verse structure should be rendered in translation, and to this he applied the dictates of his very particular ear.” (Is it me, or doesn’t Kjellberg’s use of “particular” seem cunning in the way she puts pressure on the adjective to yield a tincture of personal skepticism?) It’s impossible to know the initial virtues of those lines I quoted above – or, to put it another way, it’s impossible to know what “verse structure” Brodsky’s “particular ear” is Englishing. Yet these baffling moments, and the inconclusive, provisional state of many of these poems – what Kjellberg describes as “a body of work resting somewhere between translation and original creation” – are often explained as the residue of profound bilingual explorations. It’s telling, then, that in accordance with his wishes, the identities of Brodsky’s translators and collaborators have been hidden away in the notes. This policy, argues Kjellberg, should be understood as “an invitation to the reader to consider the poems as if they were original texts in English.” But why would a reader agree to such a thing? And wouldn’t an invitation to treat the poems as “original texts in English” also restrict supporters from exploiting a poem’s adapted status as the reason for its “uniqueness”? Either the poems are rogue artifacts, or they aren’t. You can’t have it both ways. Brodsky, of course, can, and this provides him with a cover of protection. Many readers accept his invitation while conveniently ignoring the request’s more punitive implications. Brodsky’s poetry is thus allowed to be both particle and wave.

This have-it-both-ways logic has, I think, been an enabling factor in Brodsky’s fame, encouraging us to treat his approximate, made-to-fit renderings – simultaneously and without worry of contradiction – as fully flourished achievements. His supporters, in other words, are persuaded to confuse the truth as they know it, with the truth as they’d like it. Daniel Weissbort, who contributed a letter to the TLS debate, defended Brodsky’s “blemishes” by arguing that his “self-translations operate in territory between English and Russian” and as such “his experiments were quite radical, perhaps somewhat ahead of their time.” Well, those conditionals – in between, experimental, radical, ahead of their time – will let you get away with a lot (and, indeed, I often get the sense that Brodsky’s reputation hangs on a hedged bet). But an honest presumption of accountability would oblige us to face Brodsky not as a linguistic trailblazer but as a literary curiosity: a Russian poet who – unwisely – loved the English language beyond any anxiety of influence. Brodsky seems to have amalgamated his voice into existence using elements of Byron, Browning, Hardy, Auden, Lowell, and Frost (generating, at times, an uncomfortable crush of incompatible effects). True, this facing-all-ways voice can permit a terrific imaginative fecundity. An Ovidian fugue like “The Fly” is a poem whose shape-shifting speed and unpredictability will leave many poets feeling like plain-style plodders. This, though, while good, isn’t enough. Successful individual plays don’t alter the fact that the game itself is being lost. And no matter how inventive and kinetically alert his writing can be, one rarely feels his insights have been grounded in their ideal cadence and phrasing. Brodsky’s assimilationist tendencies stall his capacity to richly evoke the gradient of a specific experience and instead force his poems to travel through a succession of gratuitous effects. There are exceptions, yes (“A Part of Speech,” “Clouds”), but more often than not the poetry’s compositional build-up – feeding freely and imprudently on whatever option comes its way – results in an enunciatory mess:

The century will soon be over,
but sooner it will be me.
That’s not the message of a
trembling knee.
Rather, the influence of not-to-be

on to-be. Of the hunter upon –
so to speak – his fowl,
be that one’s heart valve or a
red brick wall.
We hear the whiplash’s foul

whistle recalling vainly the surnames
of those who have loved us back,
writhing in the slippery palms
of the local quack.
The world has just lost the knack

of being the place where sofa,
a fox-trot, a lampshade’s cream
trimmings, a bodice, a risqué
utterance reigned supreme.
Who could foresee time’s grim

eraser wiping them off like some
chicken scrawl
from a notepad? Nobody, not a soul.
Yet time’s shuffling sole

has accomplished just that.

These hopped-up lines – the first nineteen of “Fin de Siècle” – don’t ring right. Brodsky was, in his poems, an overwhelming talker, and his “long affinity for English,” as Kjellberg calls it, certainly prompted incursions that took him deep into the language. Unfortunately he was also saddled with an ear that was unable to properly naturalize what it heard. Thus the ugly rhymes (me/knee/be), the abysmal wordplay (“a risqué utterance reigned supreme”), and the too-arch humor (“The century will be over, but sooner it will be me”). Mind you, as an act of ventriloquism, it isn’t bad. The high-spirited writing is aurally sensitive enough to catch, in phrasing and inflection, something of a colloquial color. The sense-making, though, does seem to suffer. A hard-to-decode line like “We hear the whiplash’s foul / whistle recalling vainly the surnames of those who have loved us back, / writhing in the slippery palms of the local quack” is an excellent example of Brodsky’s conversational energy moving inside an expressiveness that’s been stopped dead in its tracks. Now here’s where the habit of talking about Brodsky out of the two sides of our mouth can get especially problematic. If we appreciate his English poetry for its exciting strangeness, or its innovative Russian-accented angle of attack, or its freshening of convention, what we are really appreciating is everything we can afford to concede. In other words, what does it mean to say we appreciate it as “poetry” if it doesn’t mean that we appreciate it as an achieved utterance, as idiom and form thriving together in a perfect expression of feeling? Or do we follow the lead of coy critics like Adam Kirsch who, reluctant to dismiss, declares the poems “interesting and revealing, even when they are not poetically successful”? Know what I think? I think Brodsky, able to only half-attend to the full resources of his late-acquired language, wrote with the translator’s readiness to compromise, and that’s what kept him from being a English poet of the first order. As for us, we read his poems the way we read any translation – with the readiness to forgive – and that’s what undermines our ability to assess his rank.

With this collection, Robert Frost’s speculation that poetry is “what gets left out in translation” is brought to its most severe conclusion. The poems range from peculiar, can’t-quite-put-your-finger-on-it counterintuitive stretches of writing (“Near Alexandria,” “Vertumnus,” “Venice: Lido”) to botches so embarrassing we simply want to look the other way (“Variation in V,” “Ex Voto,” “A Song,” “Blue”). And I do not think, as some critics do, that Brodsky’s Russian instincts brought great new sonorities to our language. The enthusiasm with which he “foreignized” his fluency (and thus wrenched his poems into one knockabout shape after another) may have left him able to off-balance the expected music of a word – this often seems to be what is meant when critics praise the “new linguistic space” he “opened” in English – but he was unable to wed that new noise to a sense of inevitability. Certainly as a critic Brodsky was sensitive enough to accord due diligence to the words in other people’s poems, and maybe the true Brodsky Question isn’t whether he was a major English poet (he most certainly wasn’t) but how a critic of his gifts (the subtle and scrupulous explications of Thomas Hardy’s poetry in On Grief and Reason are among the finest close readings I’ve ever read) was oblivious to the fact that he was publishing poems of such over-muscled waywardness. Perhaps the excellence of Brodsky’s prose proves how difficult English poetry is to master, that the linguistic intuition and dexterity needed to write poised, verbiage-avoiding poems is too confounding to pick up second-hand. Brodsky may very well have been one of the century’s great Russian poets; he obviously wanted to stake a similar claim for himself in English. For William Logan, however, Brodsky’s English poems are “an elegy for great ambition.” Though what would you call it if a foreign poet, in a prideful assumption of virtuosity, casually and indulgently pursues everything he loves about his adopted language, but fails – again and again – to extend that language in precise, necessary and nuanced directions? Ambition indeed. Journeyman’s overconfidence is more like it.