Wednesday, May 26, 2010

A Stream without a Main Current? On Russian Poetry after Brodsky

Joseph Brodsky / Image courtesy of magictoken

Had Joseph Brodsky not died in 1996, he would have been 70 years old this past Monday. The Russian-speaking Internet is abuzz with opinions about the Nobel laureate’s birthday and what it means for his body of work. Many commentators focus on the tragedy of his untimely death—a death particularly painful to Russian readers because Brodsky is almost universally recognized as a genius who breathed a new kind of life into the Russian language. How ironic, then, that he ultimately became U.S. Poet Laureate! (Brodsky was exiled from the Soviet Union in 1972, after which he taught at American universities for over twenty years, beginning with my alma mater, the University of Michigan.)

Brodsky’s friend and fellow poet Anatoly Naiman, writing in Kommersant, argues that “observing—much less celebrating—the 70th birthday of a person who died at 55 is, generally speaking, absurd. That several of his peers who were close to him in his youth are alive confirms without a doubt that he certainly could have been alive now. And that he left us means that it was not written in the book of fate, or written at his birth, or wherever such things are written, that he would reach seventy. For such figures after death another kind of counting takes over in the calendar: the next date is set at 100, then 150, 200.” If there is a bright side to any of this, Naiman continues, it is that Brodsky the person—as opposed to Brodsky the poet—hasn’t yet been forgotten: “Today’s date is simply an occasion to reminisce about him while there are still those who can remember.”

Another Leningrad poet and contemporary of Brodsky’s, Yevgeny Rein, writes in Literaturnaya Gazeta that Brodsky left a gaping hole in literature that has yet to be filled: “And now, fourteen years after his death, in Russian poetry there invariably continues to be felt a certain emptiness. Poetry seems to have persisted, but it has come to look like a stream on whose bed rush a few dozen rivulets. This stream no longer has a main current, so swimming out into deep waters is impossible.”

Alexander Genis, on the other hand, addresses not so much Brodsky’s death as he does the experience of living for decades with Brodsky’s work. In his Novaya Gazeta essay on the long poem “Lullaby of Cape Cod,” he says of Brodsky, “for thirty years I haven’t gone on one journey without his books.” Genis believes that the poetry lends itself to travel, since Brodsky’s art is “an art of the local” and his poems often begin with a landscape: “Considering complex metaphysics to be bad science, he started from the earth on his trip toward heaven.” But as a traveling companion, Brodsky is always a step ahead of Genis: “More often than not I came after Brodsky—he had been everywhere and he was there earlier.”

(Radio Svoboda also posted a slideshow this week of photographs of Brodsky accompanied by spoken excerpts—in English—of Genis’s essay “Brodsky in New York.”)

Finally, the website recently posted excerpts on Brodsky from Lev Losev’s posthumous memoir Meander (Меандр)—in particular, they give three sections of the long essay entitled “About Iosif” (“Про Иосифа”). In this first of those sections, Losev thinks back to the time when he first became acquainted with Brodsky in the early 1960s in Leningrad. He doesn’t recall the precise moment when they met: “Iosif in my memory comes into focus out of a blurry crowd of half-acquaintances. I remember that I first began to hear about him from the then-inseparable Vinogradov, Uflyand, and Eremin [three other Leningrad poets]. They mockingly but without malice mentioned ‘The Great Russian (Poet)’. … Not that [Brodsky] actually shouted in his guttural voice, “I am a great Russian poet,” but apparently his histrionic manner of reading and behaving, the cosmic pretensions of his still rather uneven youthful poems seemed a little comic to the older poets.” If they only knew then what he would become! In any case, with so much deadly serious stuff being published for Brodsky’s birthday, it’s nice to see something that reminds us of a time when he was just a little silly.

I think it fitting that one of my first entries on this blog happens to be about Brodsky, since it was his poetry that first got me to take myself seriously as a translator. While I was writing the Brodsky chapter of my dissertation as a graduate student at the University of Michigan, I translated many of his poems for my own scholarly purposes—a good number of them in a seminar with a fine mentor, Vadim Besprozvany. But when I happened to show some of the translations to the editor of a quarterly review, he expressed interest in publishing them. Luck, however, only seemed to be on my side. The trouble was (and still is) that the Brodsky estate has a new edition of his poetry in the works, so all uncommissioned translations have been put on hold. That was the end of that. And now I’ve got dozens of translations of Brodsky poems that I can’t publish.

Still, I learned in the process how translation ought to be done if publication is a desired end: a translator should get permission to publish from the author or the author’s estate before getting too deeply into a project. It’s a simple as that. The tricky part is getting in touch with well-known poets to ask them for permission. After all, some of them don’t necessarily want to be found…

But enough griping. In honor of Brodsky’s birthday, I think a poem is in order. Due to the copyright restrictions I just explained, however, I can’t put up the complete text of any of my translations of Brodsky’s poems. But I can give a brief excerpt of one of my favorites, “New England” (“Новая Англия”), which Brodsky wrote near the end of his life.

Brodsky begins the poem by describing a landscape where “everything seems senseless, [but] the trees continue to grow,” and then goes on to urge his reader (who is really the poet himself) to “be wary of the local trees—the alders, the elms, and the oaks.” He closes the poem with the exile’s fantasy of chopping down all the trees, chopping down the living objects that estrange him from the place:

Someday all of this will be kindling for the stove;
they will make of it a pencil or, God willing, a bed.
But the earth—in which you will also be obliged to sleep,
utterly alone, no less—you will never have to kiss.

(Когда-нибудь всем, что видишь, растопят печь, / сделают карандаш или, Бог даст, кровать. / Но землю, в которую тоже придется лечь, / тем более одному—можно не целовать.)

How appropriate, then, that after death Brodsky’s body was buried not in America, but in his beloved Venice—the shimmering Italian mirror that reflects his native “Peter.”


  1. I didn't know that about the estate forbidding translations -- how ridiculous, especially since the available translations are by and large so lousy (particularly those by Brodsky himself, who had a completely unjustified confidence in his own feel for English poetic diction).

    At any rate, if you find you've overindulged in touching reminiscences of the Master, you can cleanse your palate with this hilarious takeoff by Alik Manov.

  2. Brodsky did indeed come out with some strange locutions in his self-translations and poems written in English, but I consider some of his later English stuff more or less successful. Not brilliant, perhaps, but not bad.

    As for the Manov page, funny stuff! Quite clever how he lifts bits and pieces from Brodsky's poems and interviews, not to mention cliches about the poet, to weave his tale.

  3. Thank you for including that snippet of poetry, Jamie. I know it sounds trite, but I still find it difficult to comprehend that Brodsky died so young.