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Selected Poems 1968-1996 by Joseph Brodsky (Penguin)

Selected Poems 1968-1996 by Joseph Brodsky (Penguin)

Brodsky, who died aged 55 in 1996, it can hardly be denied is a major Russian American poet. He took exile in the US from Russia in 1972, also translating some of his own works into English. He won the Nobel in 1987, and was US poet laureate in 1991. It is worth noting also that he has been praised for his essays including Less Than One (1986). 

Preceded by such high praise it can be difficult to an extent to form one’s own view of the poetry. This new Penguin Classics selection arranges the chosen poems near enough chronologically, but does not foreground the original collections in which they appeared, except maybe for A Part of Speech, from which the title poem is featured.

I would tend to the view that Brodsky’s writing is both fierce and unassuming. Two key figures to whom he relates are Akhmatova, of whom it might be said was a protégé, one of the ‘Akhmatova’s Orphans’; and W. H. Auden, another American émigré, whom he counted as a key influence.

On a stylistic note, Brodsky frequently, but not always, wrote in measured rhyme, a challenge no doubt for translators. A key poem here would be the early ‘Six Years Later’, as eg

                        her misty sadness cleared, and showed

            a cloudless distance waiting up the road (p3)

noting the rhyme of ‘showed’ and ‘road’. Yet this is somewhat atypical, albeit intriguing, well coined and accessible.

The volume is a mix of shorter and longer poems. Several are quite lengthy, one could cite ‘The Fly’, ‘Nature Morte’, ‘The Butterfly’, ‘In England’, ‘Roman Elegies’, ‘Eclogue IV: Winter’ (after Virgil), and ‘Vertumnus’.

In numerous respects I found ‘The Fly’ quite pertinent here. It is centre spaced; but I found a key expression here was ‘I am your cellmate, not your warden./ There is no pardon.’ (p110) There is this sense of affinity with even the most fleeting and vulnerable of creatures, and this could be compared too to the long poem ‘The Butterfly’. Brodsky may be fierce in so many ways, resolute, outspoken, chancing risks, but he is not above creatures or being at the lowest level. He seems unburdened by that sense of heavy responsibility linked to the Nobel and the laureateship. 

A poem which finds Brodsky at perhaps his most reflective and candid is ‘May 24, 1980’. It begins ‘I have braved, for want of wild beasts, steel cages’ (p70) and ends

            ‘What should I say about my life? That it’s long and abhors transparence.

            Broken eggs make me grieve; the omelette, though, makes me vomit.

            Yet until brown clay has been crammed down my larynx,

            only gratitude will be gushing from it.’ (p70)

This bespeaks perhaps a strong dose of commitment and resistance.

Brodsky acknowledged among his influences W.H. Auden and Robert Frost. In his Nobel lecture he credited Anna Akhmatova, Mandelstam, Tsvetaeva, as well as Frost and Auden. Though this suggests a relatively orthodox strain of descent, Brodsky did meet some persecution from the authorities. An interesting footnote is that Walcott translated some Brodsky, and the poet also dedicated a poem to him. (‘Eclogue IV’)

Another very relevant poem is ‘A Part of Speech’, which includes the lines;-

                                         ‘Life, that no one dares

            to appraise, like that gift horse’s mouth,

            bares its teeth in a grin at each

            encounter. What gets left of man amounts

            to a part. To his spoken part. To a part of speech.’ (p53)

Never look a gift horse in the mouth, shall we say, unless one wants a full accounting of the picture, and grinning to boot. Yet we have also the primacy of speech and the use of language as a means to relate if not also of self consciousness and understanding.

What to take from this. Perhaps ironically some of the shorter poems are as persuasive as the long ones. Equally Brodsky is not a rigorous formalist, pertaining eg to rhyme, but neither are his lines particularly loose. He had a difficult life; for example, being exiled for 5 years in Arkhangelsk, though he made the most of it. His travelling to the US in 1972 was not voluntary but owing to state expulsion. His situation must surely relate on a certain level to the conditions of earlier poets in Russia like Akhmatova who were treated by the state with suspicion, Russia verging on an authoritarian position relating to the arts.

I must say I find Brodsky significant predominantly as a key Russian poet, perhaps more so than an American. It would be impossible for him to shed that whelming weight of his past. And though he admired W.H. Auden their styles are radically different, wherein he is surely much closer to Akhmatova. That said, he is a key poet of the 1980s and 90s on the international scene, and one Russian poet who has decidedly made an impact abroad, choosing to be cellmate rather than warden (‘The Fly’).

Clark Allison 27th November 2021 

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