In the mid-1960s, a colleague asked George Kline what he thought of the young, little-known poet Joseph Brodsky. George replied that hadn’t seen enough of his work, only the odd bit of verse here and there in translation. Then the colleague pulled out the samizdat “Elegy for John Donne“ from mid-way through a large stack of papers on his desk. The poem, written when the Leningrad poet was 23, was unlike anything else coming out of Russia.
At least, this is the story that George told me in a recent conversation. George, of course, went on to play a pivotal role in the poet’s life, and he in his. He translated the poems that made the future Nobel laureate’s reputation in the West with the Penguin Selected.
I was thinking of his anecdote today. Then I ran across this article on the Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty website. I had saved the link in my electronic bookmarks for future readings – but then never returned to it. How did I miss it, probably for a couple years? The fascinating 1981 interview with Igor Pomeranzev suffered from multiple layers of neglect – mine the most recent. The radio interview aired only recently, because Pomeranzev hadn’t yet learned the joys of sound editing.
Here are a few excerpts:
Igor Pomerantsev: Your poem “Great Elegy to John Donne” began circulating in samizdat in the Soviet Union in the mid-1960s. Donne was virtually unknown in the Soviet Union at that time. How did you discover him?
Joseph Brodsky: I stumbled across him the same way most people did: in the epigraph of the [Hemingway] novel For Whom The Bell Tolls. [The epigraph is taken from Donne’s “Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions” – Eds]. For some reason I felt this came from a line of verse and so I tried to find a translation of Donne. It was futile. Only later did I guess it was a fragment from a sermon. In some sense, Donne began for me the same way as he did for his English contemporaries. He was much better known in his day as a preacher than a poet.
The most interesting aspect was how I obtained a book of his. I had searched through the anthologies. In 1964 I was given five years [sentence for social parasitism], arrested, and sent to Arkhangelsk Oblast [near the Arctic Circle – CH], and for my birthday Lidiya Korneyevna Chukovskaya sent me, probably from her father’s library, a “Modern Library” edition of Donne. This was when I first read all of Donne’s poetry, read it seriously. … I wrote it, I think, in ’62, when I knew remarkably little about Donne — in other words practically nothing, except a few fragments from his sermons and poems that I had found in anthologies. The main circumstance that moved me to undertake this poem was the possibility that it seemed to me existed at that period, the possibility of the centrifugal movement of a poem…well, not so much centrifugal… like a stone falling into a pond… and the gradual ripple outwards… a device more from cinematography, yes, when the camera moves back from the center.
So, in answer to your question, I would say it was more the image of the poet. Not so much the image even as the image of a body in space. Donne is English, he lives on an island. And starting with his bedroom, the perspective steadily widens. First the room, then his neighborhood, then London, the whole island, the sea, then his place in the world. At that time, this didn’t so much, I would say, interest me as gripped me at the moment when I was composing it.
Pomerantsev: My next question is more to you as a translator than a poet. You’ve translated several of Donne’s poems. They say a translator is always in competition with the author he translates. How did you feel translating Donne — like a competitor, ally, pupil, or colleague?
Brodsky: Well, absolutely not as a competitor. Competition with Donne is absolutely out of the question thanks to Donne’s qualities as a poet. He is one of the greatest figures in world literature…A translator, simply a translator, not an ally…Perhaps more of an ally, since a translator is always to some extent an ally. A pupil, yes, because I learned an awful lot by translating him.
The thing is that Russian poetry is overwhelmingly strophic; that is, it operates through extraordinarily simple strophic units – four-line stanzas. While in Donne’s verse I encountered a much more interesting and thrilling structure. He creates extraordinarily complex strophic constructions. I found it very interesting, and very instructive. So, consciously or unconsciously, I began doing the same but not as a competitor – as a pupil. That was probably the main lesson. And then again, when you read or translate Donne you learn from his view of things. What I really liked about Donne was the translation of the heavenly to the earthly – i.e., the translation of the eternal to the transient… Is this too long?
Brodsky: It’s quite interesting, because there’s an awful lot to be said about this. In fact, it’s like Tsvetaeva said: “The voice of heavenly truth against earthly truth.” Except it isn’t so much “against” as the translation of heavenly truth into the language of earthly truth, i.e. of eternal phenomena into transient language. And both win as a result. It is merely the bringing nearer…how to put it…the expression of the seraphic order. Once it is spoken of, the seraphic order becomes more real. And this wonderful interaction is actually the essence, the bread of poetry. …
And for him there was no such thing as antagonism. I mean that antagonism for him existed as an expression of antagonism generally, in the world, in nature, but not as a specific antagonism…There’s so much that could be said about him. As a poet, he was fairly uneven stylistically. Coleridge said something remarkable about him. He said that when you read Donne’s successors, the poets of around a century later, Dryden, Pope and so on, everything comes down to counting syllables and feet, while reading Donne you measure not the number of syllables but time. That’s exactly what Donne was doing in his verse. It’s akin to Mandelstam’s drawing out the caesura, yes, holding back an instant, stopping…for something which seems wonderful to the poet for one or another reason. Or the other way around, like in his Voronezh Notebooks, there you have unevenness, jumps, and truncated feet, truncated meter, feverish haste – so as to hasten or eliminate the instant which seems terrible. …
Pomerantsev: And yet the poets of the ’20s and ’30s, like Eliot, managed to see in Donne…
Pomerantsev: … the spirit of their time.
Brodsky: Certainly. Because Donne, with the themes that he raised, with his uncertainty, with the fragmentation or duality of his consciousness is, of course, a poet of our times. The problems he raises are those of mankind as a whole, and especially of man living at a time of excess information, population…
Read the rest here. It’s never too late, apparently.