In the spring issue of the illustrious Kenyon Review, I review two books: Irena Grudzińska Gross‘s Czesław Miłosz and Joseph Brodsky: Fellowship of Poets (Yale University Press) and Brodsky Through the Eyes of His Contemporaries, vol. 2, edited by Valentina Polukhina (Academic Studies Press).
That’s the good news. The bad is that you are only allowed to read the first page online. It’s here.
So here’s a little more from the piece, for free: Joseph Brodsky‘s reading style has been much remarked upon, and I open my article with Brodsky’s first engagement outside Russia, at London’s 1972 Poetry International Festival, in the first few dizzying weeks of his exile: “the poet poured out his poems in the hypnotic incantation that was to become his trademark: an archaic sound — a lament from a lost civilization, an ancient prayer, or simply a metronomic wail.”
Daniel Weissbort remembers Brodsky reading this way:
“ . . . his hands straining the pockets of his jacket, his jaw jutting, as though his attention had just been caught by something and he were staring at it, scrutinizing it, while continuing to mouth the poem, almost absent-mindedly, that is, while the poem continues to be mouthed by him. His voice rises symphonically: ‘syn ili Bog’ [‘son or God’], already on the turn towards an abrupt descent; and then the pause and a resonant drop, a full octave: ‘Ya tvoi’ [‘I am thine’]. As the poet, with an almost embarrassed or reluctant nod, and a quick, pained smile, departs his poem”.
Gross recounts that Brodsky was asked about his declamatory bent during his triumphant tour of Poland, and landed this punch: “Today’s poet is afraid of the sardonic laughter of his reader, and because of it he tries to soften his poems . . . This is a mistake. The poet should charge his public like a tank, so that the reader has no escape. Poetry is an act of metaphysical and linguistic attack, not of a retreat. If a poet wants to be modest and nonaggressive, he should stop writing.”
Not Miłosz’s style, to put it mildly, and so he gently chastised the younger poet. Miłosz also lamented Brodsky’s poetry in English: “The resistance against writing poetry in other languages should be considered a virtue. . . . We are born in a concrete point of the Earth and we have to remain faithful to this point, restrained in our following of foreign fashions.”
This was more than a case of brass meeting polish. Miłosz saw history as a horror he wished to escape, but in a larger sense, he was also at home in the wider story of centuries. He was a son of the Polish-speaking landed gentry in Lithuania and had a law degree from Stefan Batory University. The urbane elder poet had the educational context lacking in Brodsky, the deﬁant autodidact who dropped out of school as a teenager. When cornered on an error or a prejudice, Brodsky covered himself by ﬁring off a belligerent blast; Miłosz could put his views into a historical framework, whether by referring to pronouncements of the medieval popes or the legal system of the Res publica. History, language, tradition connected with Catholicism because, writes Gross, “Without God there is no history.” But where Miłosz turned to tradition and his Catholicism, Brodsky was in a tailspin and could not ﬁnd peace.
From Irena’s book, I recount this devastating story:
Few have written about solitude and time with Brodsky’s urgency, before he was ﬁnally felled, at ﬁfty-ﬁve, by the heart ailments that had dogged him for decades. “Miłosz was very busy, yet he sounded like a person who was not pressed for time. Brodsky ran against time,” writes Gross. “In that ﬁght he was not supported by religion or by history — national or private.” Time was truly his enemy.
Gross recounts this riveting anecdote: “In 1994, when he was forced to visit a cardiologist during his stay in Sweden, he told him that he felt like a wounded animal who simply tried to survive. He expected to die at any time; when leaving his hotel room, he would put his papers in order. ‘Hurry sickness’ was the diagnosis of the psychologist who interviewed him on that occasion”.
The Kenyon Review can be ordered online here.