The origami master from Russia

On Grief and Reason
February 28, 1997

The cover photograph of the late Joseph Brodsky and his Nobel lecture reproduced in this collection of essays both present the austere visage and stern profile of one who has made a fierce and uncompromising commitment, unashamed and unafraid, to Art, to nothing less, with poetry as its pinnacle. In ringing tones and the highest rhetorical style he expressed his belief in the Muse and her "uncommon visage": democracy is its enemy as much as tyranny he said, because both insist on their being "champions of common good, masters of the masses, heralds of historical necessity" whereas literature "helps a person to make the time of his existence more specific, to distinguish himself from the crowd". He had scorn for the view that a writer should employ the language of the streets: "It is only if we have resolved that it is time for Homo sapiens to come to a halt in his development that literature should speak the language of the people. Otherwise it is people who should speak the language of literature."

Of course Brodsky did not spend his life on the podium in Stockholm; he probably did not even consider it the crowning moment of his life when he stood there. For a writer those moments occur when one is alone, at one's desk, and one finds the word that is the key to the underworld one is exploring; then a line follows, entering into it, suddenly opening up what had seemed shut and illuminating what had been dark. It was that moment that Brodsky pursued all his life - and often achieved - and he could have held himself apart, above the crowd, if he wished. As it happened, the poet in him was combined with the pedagogue, and with enormous generosity of spirit and kindness, as well as wit and despair, he appears to have felt a compulsion to make available to others the fruit of his experience and study.

Several of the speeches included here were delivered as commencement addresses at small American colleges. They were not patronising, they were not condescending: they do the young the honour of speaking to them with almost brutal honesty, and telling them what they were surely not accustomed to hearing: "A substantial part of what lies ahead for you is going to be claimed by boredom." "Neurosis and depression will enter your lexicon; pills your medical cabinet," for instance. He presented them first with this unusual notion: "When hit by boredom, go for it. Let yourself be crushed by it: submerge, hit bottom", then one that could be thought crushing: "boredom is your window on timeI your window on time's infinity, which is to say your insignificance in itI the most valuable lesson in your life", followed by the epiphany: "Boredom is an invasion of time into your set of values.

It puts your existence into its perspective, the net result of which is humility and precision." He quoted the German poet Peter Huchel's line, "'Remember me'/whispers the dust," then explained: "You are insignificant because you are finite. Yet the more finite a thing is, the more charged with life, emotion, joy, fears, compassionI passion is the privilege of the insignificant." The advice he offered must have seemed to them distinctly old-fashioned: "try to respect life not only for its amenities but for its hardships too I what's good about a hardship is that it's not a deception" and "try wearing grey... lower your voice too..." Not exactly what might send graduation caps twirling into the air along with multi-coloured balloons but it came from a man who was living proof of every word he spoke, and who cared enough for these students to try to equip them.

Brodsky was no hermit and he worked at establishing a line of communication with his strange, unfamiliar audiences: "So flip the channel: you can't put this network out of circulation, but at least you can reduce its ratings." He sprinkled his speech with folksy phrases like "I sure hope" and "looks like we've goofed" (betraying the awkwardness of the effort to appear familiar), and made "an immodest proposal" to the Library of Congress in 1991.

Placing before them the shocking figure of 1 per cent of the population being poetry readers, he suggested that "books be brought to the doorstep like electricity, or like milk in England. They should be considered utilities... poetry could be sold in drugstores... At the very east, an anthology of American poetry should be found in the drawer of every room in every motel of the land, next to the Bible, which will surely not object to this proximity, since it does not object to the proximity of the phone book." Extraordinarily enough, this advice was taken up and such anthologies printed and distributed. Poetry began to appear in subway stations and on trains. Coffee bars and pubs now regularly hold poetry readings and "poetry slams"; an annual Cowboy Poetry gathering draws some 10,000 cowboys to Elko, Nevada, and on St Valentine's Day this year Dover Publications distributed several thousand copies of love poetry on Amtrak.

A poem by Auden read in a popular film became a bestseller, so did a 60p production of the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. It is difficult to say if all of this would have given Brodsky pleasure. One rather suspects that, when asked to play a public role, he rose to do so, but that it required of him a louder voice, bigger gestures, more hyperbole and flamboyant similes than he might have otherwise used. Perhaps a Russian poet rises more easily to such a role than say, an English poet might.

Certainly it was not at the cost of the pedagogue who grew from that schoolboy who thrilled to the very names he heard in his history class: "Caius Julius Caesar! Caesar Octavius Augustus! And then - Marcus Aurelius!" In a letter he addressed to Horace, he confessed that "everything I've written is, technically, addressed to you: you personally, as well as the rest of you. Because when one writes one's verse, one's most immediate audience is not one's contemporaries, let alone posterity, but one's predecessors. Those who gave one a language, who gave one forms." It helps one to understand and to recognise the place of Brodsky's body of work in the 20th century when one sees how he himself could survey the immensity of time and space and wonder: "the future, or the distant past? a landscape or a ruin? These things, after all, have great similarity". On his first visit to Rome, it was Marcus Aurelius seated upon his bronze horse whom he greeted as his close acquaintance, and when he left Rome, it was this horseman he saw through the rain, in motion, alive, a leader of the only kind Brodsky would acknowledge: "melancholic and reasonable". Marcus Aurelius's stoicism was surely a model for Brodsky, as "the texture of existence, not just a mental pursuit". Like him, Brodsky learnt young that "life had to be subverted" and that melancholy and reason were the only possible responses to life.

It was this melancholy that he clearly found appealing in Robert Frost's work. Dismissing the notion of Frost being "generally of a positive disposition" and "American as apple pie", he found him "essentially Virgilian, which is to say contemplative" and detected in poems like the disturbing "Home Burial" not so much tragedy which is, after all, fait accompli, but terror, which is the potential for and anticipation of tragedy. Nature poetry it might be but "Nature for this poet is neither friend nor foe, nor is it the backdrop for human drama, it is this poet's terrifying self-portrait." In his essay "Grief and reason" he marvellously uncovers the "sediment" of darkness even in poems like "Come In" but reminds us that "if this poem is dark, darker still is the mind of its master". Thomas Hardy, for all his preoccupation with death, he saw as "nature's ally" and nature in Hardy's verse as human friendly: "To 'lean upon a coppice gate' suggests a nature reasonably civilised, accustomedI to human traffic." In both these poets Brodsky saw a theatrical, even cinematic quality, and he shows us how Hardy, in describing the sunken Titanic, used the technique of montage but that "It was poetry that invented the technique of montage, not Eisenstein. A vertical arrangement of verses on the page is a film."

To read his essays on Frost, Hardy and Rilke is like watching a master of origami fold and pleat a sheet of paper, densely and intricately, till with a flourish he pulls out of it a fantastic creature, elegant in form, stunning in its surprise. But not all the essays are of the same order - an occasional one is turgid (eg, "How to read a book") or gratuitously flippant (eg, "After a journey") - perhaps he played the public role he assumed too often for a poet.

Yet no one believed more fiercely in the privacy of a poet's life: he consistently debunked the biographical approach to literature. To him the premises that art can be explained by life was a fallacy; of the poet he said "his life is hostage to his metier, not the other way around." Not only did he not see any connection between art and life but he also believed that art outlives life "and this unpalatable realisation lies behind the lumpen desire to subordinate the former to the latter. The finite always mistakes the permanent for the infinite and nurtures designs upon it."

He would therefore surely not like it said but it is in the more personal essays - "Spoils of war" and "The condition we call exile" - that the many aspects of his life and work come together with a kind of harmony and balance of which a poet would surely approve. Both of them contain dire warnings against "granting yourself the status of a victim". How easily he could have fallen into that (nowadays) gilded trap: how many committees/societies there are searching for such victim/champions, how eagerly publicity is sought for them, support rushed to them in the form of grants, fellowships, print, film and podium. Brodsky, to his undying honour, shunned all that, believing "I am here to speak about the predicament of a poet who is never, in the final analysis, a victimI" and that "one's fate consists first of all in mastering a life of one's own, not imposed or prescribed from without."

One sees that already in the small glimpses he allows us of his childhood in wartime Leningrad: the joys to be found in the tall, square cans of corned beef, not because they spelt relief from the Great Hunger but because of the efficient key that unrolled the strip of metal and opened it ("a revelation to a Russian child: we knew only knives. The country was still nails, hammers, nuts, and bolts: that's what held it togetherI"); the names of German airplanes (Junkers, Stukas...); such wartime trophies as a father's thermos flask, or flashlight, or shortwave radio set ("this brown, shining-like-an-old shoe Phillips set"); music recorded on X-ray film, the voice of Ella Fitzgerald; prewar Hollywood films - Tarzan jumping off Brooklyn Bridge against a backdrop of New York alone would make understandable "almost an entire generation's opting out", he declared.

This persona of the young rebel that made him thumb his nose at the might of the Soviet Union with such steely insouciance remained with him even if it matured into an "awareness of the provisional, faintly absurd nature of any reality at hand" which he said "comes not from one's physique or temperament but from one's metier" (and that he recognised instantly, on arrival in the West, in Auden and Spender). For that metier, for that freedom to choose and possess it, "it turned out we were prepared to payI and quite dearly - with the rest of our lives, which is a lot, of course. But anything less would have been plain whoring. Not to mention that, in those days, the rest of our lives was all we had."

There were rewards to be had in making such a choice, of course, but no one could ever suspect Brodsky of having had them in mind. The society of exiles is one he mostly treated with caustic hilarity, although there were occasions - eg, when he came upon the Soviet secret agent Kim Philby's visage on a Soviet Union stamp reproduced in the London Review of Books that he picked up in a Belsize Park bookshop - when it occasioned an intemperate, almost hysterical outburst that showed that willy-nilly he did remain a part of that "exiled" or expatriate society from which he mostly very wisely distanced himself. It also showed where his loyalties truly lay: in the one pure, undefiled land he knew - the land of poetry, literature, and art.

No title could be more appropriate for this collection than the one chosen, Grief and Reason - although, as a poet, Brodsky would surely have introduced a caesura: Grief - and Reason.

Anita Desai is professor of writing, Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

On Grief and Reason

Author - Joseph Brodsky
ISBN - 0 241 13567 2
Publisher - Hamish Hamilton
Price - £20.00
Pages - 484

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