Joseph Brodsky and the Creation of Exileby David M. Bethea
Joseph Brodsky, one of the most prominent contemporary American poets, is also among the finest living poets in the Russian language. Nevertheless, his poetry and the crucial bilingual dimension of his poetic world are still insufficiently understood by Western audiences. How did the Russian-born Brodsky arrive at his present status as an international man of letters and American poet laureate? Has he been created by his bilingual experience, or has he fashioned the bilingual self as a necessary precondition for writing poetry in the first place? Here David Bethea suggests that the key to Brodsky, perhaps the last of the great Russian poets in the "bardic" mode, is in his relation to others, or the Other.Brodsky's master trope turns out to be "triangular vision," the tendency to mediate a prior model (Dante) with a closer model (Mandelstam) in the creation of a palimpsest-like text in which the poet is implicated as a triangulated hybrid of these earlier incarnations. In pursuing this theme, Bethea compares and contrasts Brodsky to the poet's favorite models--Donne, Auden, Mandelstam, and Tsvetaeva--and analyzes his fundamental differences with Nabokov, the only Russian exile of Brodsky's stature to rival him as a bilingual phenomenon. Various critical paradigms are used throughout the study as foils to Brodsky's thinking.
"A sympathetic, inward account of its subject, showing the grandeur, yet modesty, of Brodsky's stance, and finnishing with a suggestive afterword on the future for a bardic veiw of poetry and an umpoetic world . . . [Bethea] does justice to a phenomenally giffted writer who is one of the voices most worth listening to as our millennium slips away."Times Literary Supplement
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Joseph Brodsky and the Creation of Exile
By David M. Bethea
PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 1994 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
Joseph Brodsky and the Creation of Exile: A Polemical Introduction
When amorists grow bald, then amours shrink
Into the compass and curriculum
Of introspective exiles, lecturing.
(Wallace Stevens, Le Monocle de Mon Oncle)
The twentieth century, now nearing its end, seems to have had its way with all the arts except poetry. Viewed less chronologically and more exaltedly, history has imposed its reality on the arts. What we imply when we speak of modern aesthetics is nothing but the noise of history jamming or subjugating the song of art. Every ism is both evidence, direct or indirect, of art's defeat and a scar covering up the shame of this defeat. Though it may be crass to say so, existence has proved capable of defining the artist's consciousness, and proof of this can be found in the means the artist uses. For that matter, any mention of means is, in itself, a sign of adaptation. (Brodsky, "Poetry as a Form of Resistance," 220)
Thus begins one of the many forewords and afterwords that Joseph Brodsky has written for fellow poets since arriving on the shores of his adoptive country twenty years ago. Almost all these celebratory framings, these sturdy and sometimes antique-sounding bookends placed on the shelf of time to shore up a worthy volume against the "moral deafness" of contemporary reader expectation, reveal the same sensibility and tone of voice ("Beyond Consolation," 14). But this instance is particularly fascinating, and perhaps for that reason is as good a place as any to make our entry. This foreword was penned for a Polish edition of the selected verse of Tomas Venclova, the émigré Lithuanian poet and professor of Slavic at Yale. The edition itself was prepared by Stanislaw Baranczak, another poet (this time Polish) and professor at Harvard. Brodsky's original comments were made in Russian, which means in effect that three languages, three cultures, and three poets came together for the sole purpose of presenting Venclova to Polish readers. Perhaps little should be made of this demonstration of cultural solidarity, other than that Brodsky's reputation and Baranczak's considerable translating skills were necessary to give Venclova's verse the best chance of finding a larger audience. And yet there is more here than meets the untrained eye, especially when Brodsky's words are translated into English, as they were in a recent issue of PMLA. Now the audience is dramatically different, with the result that the speaker could be seen as a postmodern Pnin who has picked up the wrong lecture for the Cremona Women's Club. Presumably Brodsky himself experiences none of this, but the English translation of his Russian sententiae creates the impression in a reader aware of both contexts that the utterer of these words has, as though in a dream sequence, come to his own lecture, begun to speak, literally, ex cathedra, and then discovered to his chagrin that he has forgotten to get dressed. Why is this so? Let us investigate further, since it is this crease across the well-pressed seam of cultural habit, this sdvig (shift), as the Russian formalists might call it in another context, that goes to the heart of Brodsky's calling as poet and man of letters.
First of all, it takes a certain kind of consciousness to produce the sentences of this opening quotation, just as it takes a certain kind of audience to understand them fully. To claim that a century can "have its way" with anything human, including the creation of art, is to make a conventional temporal marker into a manipulative Greek god. (This is all the more startling when one realizes that on many occasions Brodsky has included among his most basic beliefs the Marxist-mocking idea that, for the genuine artist, "consciousness determines being.") Why the volte-face? One can imagine many contemporary readers recoiling almost instinctively from the statement's summary boldness. All the century's decades except the 1990s and all the arts except poetry collapse into a topic sentence. Mandelstam, we recall, could speak of his century within the Russian context as a beast with a broken back, but he was a high modernist and myth weaver of the most haunting power, and so we allow him his metaphorical stitching of time and animation. Brodsky, however, is writing in 1989. These words come across as a kind of verbal gauntlet hurled down in defiance (Of whom? Of what?). They are sure to the point of arrogance, combative, almost Olympian in their—Again, what is it? Scorn? Bitter resignation? Where could this man be standing, culturally speaking, in order to pronounce these thoughts? They could belong to a modern Underground Man, except that the speaker does not seem to care if they are heeded, at least in the now of their initial utterance. They do not invite qualification and they are indifferent to potential interlocutors. They are expressed by a man who appears to know his mind and who frames his insights within a system of values that is intensely, fiercely his own. They are, in short, the very opposite of "open." Where, we are justified in asking, does this tone come from?
"Every ism is ... evidence ... of art's defeat" is the verbal equivalent of a stone engraving: it gives the appearance of being there for all time, or, what is the same, of being outside time, unconditional. What we have here is discursive writing as a kind of epitaph, or possibly cenotaph, avant la lettre. The "punch" in Brodsky's lines comes more from images than from the incremental pace of a logically unfolding argument—the "jamming" noise of history or the "scar" covering the shame of defeat. And this force is constantly amplified by what Jakobson called the poetic function, by the fact, for example, that shram (scar) and sram (shame) rhyme in the original, being identical in sound except for the initial consonant (Russkaia mysl', no. 3829 [25 May 1990]). The "cool, reflective, nonrepresentational" qualities associated with "aesthetic distance" in poetic language are thus elided with the "concrete, motor, representational" qualities of "iconicity" (Hartman, Beyond Formalism, 338). After all, how can one argue with metaphor, a trope that in this instance seems to do nothing so much as to take its own argument by the throat? Moreover, why would one choose to study this speaker, so peremptory in his judgments, at a time when those judgments are so clearly out of season with the current intellectual climate? Does not a phrase like the "song of art" sound musty and dated? Who among contemporary critics is comfortable speaking of "art" as a meaningful rubric (Is it not elitist?) or, worse, anthropomorphizing it with a singing voice? And finally, one wonders at the wisdom of Brodsky's anti-Marxist sentiment. By saying that "existence has proved capable of defining the artist's consciousness" he seems to be both admitting defeat and ridiculing, from his viewpoint, the diminution in human potential inherent in this economy. Whose existence and whose consciousness? How can a statement this large and porous be truth-bearing in any meaningful way? We might conclude, therefore, that this is writing which in all likelihood would find few champions among academy-trained humanists. It belongs, in short, to what can only be called a different type of discourse.
But that, it seems, is Brodsky's point. He is a poet who has agreed, provisionally, to descend into prose, much the same as the Mandelstam who wrote "The Fourth Prose" or the Tsvetaeva who wrote "The Poet on the Critic [or Criticism]." He is not writing to gain enfranchisement in the here and now, nor has he ever written for an academic—or narrowly "artistic," for that matter—audience, including an American one. Statements such as "Nothing is more appealing to the sensitive imagination than vicarious tragedy; it provides the artist with a sense of 'world crisis' without direct threat to his own anatomy" (Brodsky, "Poetry as a Form of Resistance," 221) immediately draw blood with their irony and their implication of hypocrisy. They are bound, therefore, to annoy certain readers and to push Brodsky still further to the margins of the regnant discourse. Should we question his motives? Certainly. Yet we should also recall that he has never sought solidarity with any group or "interpretive community" other than his own private "dead poets' society." Homer, Virgil, Ovid, Martial, Catullus, Horace, Dante, Donne, Mandelstam, Akhmatova, Tsvetaeva, Auden, Frost, Lowell—these are his jury of peers, his writing must meet their standards. "Joe Brodsky's List of Good Books," a two-page photocopy of more than a hundred texts central to Western civilization, enjoys legendary status among Brodsky's literature students at Mount Holyoke. Not fortuitously, Greek and Roman authors are especially well represented. The fact is that Brodsky has always been out of step with intellectual priestly castes passing judgment on the topicality of his poetic word. In the Soviet Union he was tried for political crimes (although he had no explicit political agenda) and made into an icon by the dissident movement while still in his early twenties; in the United States precisely the opposite situation has obtained—he is considered a kind of gadfly New York intellectual, whose views might be swiftly dismissed as reactionary if it were not for his long-suffering past and status as illustrious outsider.
Brodsky is an American poet laureate whose primary audience is in another language and culture and, in some cases, not even of this world. Perhaps more striking from our vantage, he would prefer to have the past interrogate the present rather than the present the past. His reactions to the maps and fault lines associated not only with geopolitical empire but with a Foucauldian power struggle for the dominant discourse range from the indifferent to the positively inimical and, in any case, tend to the "longer view" of spatial and temporal removes. There is no place in Brodsky's poetics or worldview for what the critic Gary Saul Morson calls "presentism"—that is, the tendency to see and judge all the past through the lens of a late-twentieth-century intellectual. Everything exists in a kind of reverse perspective where the past is rich and various (though inevitably tragic), the present impoverished and barely adequate, and the future a series of ciphers. As Brodsky continues in the same foreword to the Venclova poems,
The suggestion that the modern artist's perception of the world is more complex and intricate than that of the audience (not to mention that of his creative forebears) is ultimately undemocratic and unconvincing ... The proposition that the artist feels, comprehends and expresses something unattainable by the ordinary person is no more convincing than the suggestion that the artist's physical pain, hunger, and sexual satisfaction are more intense than those of a commoner. True art is always democratic precisely because there is no denominator more common, either in society or history, than the sense that reality is imperfect and that a better alternative should be sought. ("Poetry as a Form of Resistance," 221)
We might get closer to a preliminary understanding of what "authorizes" Brodsky by returning to the occasion for his remarks. Brodsky is a strikingly occasional writer, though each entry into the fray on behalf of a fellow poet is never fully, or even primarily, ad hoc, but rather a subtle variation on a central and unwavering theme. Poetry is the ultimate askesis. It is prior to all else, including life, politics, history, and love. What Brodsky, Venclova, and Baranczak have in common is a past, both personal and historico-cultural, lived under the shadow of the late (in both senses) Soviet empire. They represent national cultures that have been dangerously corrupted by the "belle époque" (prekrasnaia epokha) of Soviet rule, as Brodsky ironically describes it in his poetry, and that, in some basic sense, have ceased to be their own. And yet, despite this widespread malaise and the curse of ideology, they have all found ways to write authentic verse. Indeed, some would say that this curse, which is only that in terms of daily life, has been a blessing, or at least a solid point d'appui, for poetry. Brodsky, this logic goes, would not be "Brodsky" without the defining crucible of the persecution, penury, trials, imprisonment, and exile. These, however, are imponderables, and Brodsky himself is the first to dismiss the aureole of biographical legend that others have constructed around him.
What can be said by way of comparison is done so with special eloquence by Seamus Heaney, a poet with whom Brodsky has much to share:
When poets of the Free World "envy" their Eastern European successors, they do so not in the simple-minded spirit sometimes attributed to them and which is a caricature of their subtler, more shadowy complexes. Western poets do not assume that a tyrannical situation is somehow mitigated by the fact that it produces heroic artists and last-ditch art. Their envy is not at all for the plight of the artists but for the act of faith in art which becomes manifest as the artist copes with the tyrannical conditions. They stand m awe as life rises to the challenge of Yeats's imagined "Black out; Heaven blazing into the head:/ Tragedy wrought to its uttermost." In the professional literary milieu of the West, the poet is susceptible to self-deprecation and scepticism; the poet in the United States, for example, is aware that the machine of reputation-making and book distribution, whether it elevates or ignores him or her, is indifferent to the moral and ethical force of the poetry being distributed ... I am reminded of Stephen Dedalus's enigmatic declaration that the shortest way to Tara was via Holyhead, implying that departure from Ireland and an inspection of the country from the outside was the surest way of getting to the core of the Irish experience. I wonder if we might not nowadays affirm, analogously, that the shortest way to Whitby, the monastery where Caedmon sang the first Anglo-Saxon verses, is via Warsaw and Prague. (Heaney, "The Impact of Translation," 6–7)
The difference between, say, Brodsky, Venclova, Baranczak, Milosz, and Zbigniew Herbert, on the one hand, and, on the other, those equally talented Western poets "susceptible to self-deprecation and scepticism" and therefore caught in the cogs of a "machine of reputation-making and book distribution ... indifferent to the moral and ethical force" of poetry is, as Heaney correctly points out, "the act of faith in art which becomes manifest as the artist copes with tyrannical conditions." "When an entire community is struck by misfortune, for instance, the Nazi occupation of Poland, the 'schism between the poet and the great human family' [a quotation from Oscar Milosz's A Few Words about Poetry] disappears and poetry becomes as essential as bread," writes Czeslaw Milosz (Witness, 31). Or to recast Heaney's argument in Milosz's terms, "Is noneschatological poetry possible?" (Witness, 37). Yeats imagines the Black Out through which these poets have lived and out of which they have written. This is where Brodsky's discourse has its provenance, and we cannot understand how he arrived at Whitby until we begin to reconstitute the precise meaning of "via Leningrad/Petersburg."
The present book is about Joseph Brodsky, the metaphysical implications of exile, and the poetry that is written when the first and second enter into dialogue. It cannot be about all three at the same time—unless it itself is a poem—which immediately raises the issue of origins. What comes first, Joseph Brodsky the man, the status of exile with which he and his work have traditionally been associated, or the poems themselves? It is a choice that lies at the center of his biographical legend and of his "creative path" (tvorcheskn put'), as the Russians are wont to say. Brodsky himself would take bitter issue with any outside attempt to place a causal conjunction ("because," "as a result of") between the facts of his life and, as he puts it in an English phrase that owes its birth to the Russian (izgiby stilia), his "twists of language" (Less, 3). We of course are perfectly entitled to differ with Brodsky, to claim that he qua poet is a product of this experience or that aspect of character or background, and we would be, logically, right. But Brodsky would counter, and here he would be "more right," by saying that his knowledge of Mandelstam, Tsvetaeva, Auden, and Donne or his persecution at the hands of Soviet authorities have not made his poetry, even as they have, through their collective residue, helped to make it possible. The most that can be said, according to the poet himself, is that such factors and considerations were present at his poetry's birth, but that its life, that initial benevolent fillip in the delivery room of consciousness when image, rhyme, meter, strophic pattern, and spiritual "vector" (one of the poet's favorite words) all commence to pulsate and breathe in homeostatic movement, is its own. In Brodsky's celebrated butterfly poem, the hand moves across the blank sheet of paper to create a line of verse, just as the insect's wing flutters in the air, separating its viewer from the nothingness (nichto) beyond, but neither the hand nor the wing knows why this movement is called forth.
Excerpted from Joseph Brodsky and the Creation of Exile by David M. Bethea. Copyright © 1994 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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