Remembering Joseph Brodsky: “a whole and almost molecular engagement with poetry”

“Nothing of this man’s thinking was held back…”

Peter Filkins has an excellent retrospective, “Words Preserved Against a Day of Fear,” on Russian Nobel Poet Joseph Brodsky, with plenty of anecdotes, in a recent edition of The American Scholar But then, I’m a fan of the genre. Filkins was a student at Columbia in the early 1980s. He describes a class this way:

There, in what can only be described as the Soviet glumness of Dodge Hall, Brodsky would hold forth for two hours each Tuesday. Hardy, Frost, Cavafy, and Auden were the main fare, as well as Wilfred Owen, Osip Mandelstam, and Marina Tsvetaeva. Brodsky was not the most elegant of classroom managers, to say the least. His method mainly consisted of asking a question for which he clearly had the answer, and then proceeding to quietly reply to any student response with either “Garbage” or “Pretty good.” (I once received a “Pretty good—in fact, that’s awfully good!” at which point it felt as if the heavens would burst into chorus.) Described this way, Brodsky’s method sounds like a nightmare, and I’m sure for some it was, but for many of us the performance was mesmerizing.

Not a “failed poet”… not a boxer, either.

From three to five P.M. on those darkening fall afternoons, we felt that we were not so much in the presence of a poet, and certainly not an academic or a scholar, as of poetry itself. Nothing of this man’s thinking was held back, and it seemed as if he were making his case for poetry to the spheres rather than to a roomful of graduate students. Yes, he could be rude, and no, none of us ever got our essays back with any kind of useful comments, if we got them back at all. And he could be wrongheaded (his case for reading Frost’s “Home Burial” as a tragic rendering of Pygmalion’s love for Galatea seemed a stretch) or even flat wrong (Brecht and Neruda are not second-rate poets—they were just Marxists; Nabokov is not a “failed poet,” just a fellow genius of a different stripe). But once you found your way past the manner, you got to the matter: a whole and almost molecular engagement with what poetry can be, why it matters, and why it is the very manna of thought and feeling when read seriously.

This kind of gravitas remains the central attraction of Brodsky’s verse. He pegged poetry as “the supreme form of human locution in any culture,” representing “not even a form of art, but our anthropological, genetic goal, our linguistic, evolutionary beacon” (from his essay “An Immodest Proposal”). Although these ideals might seem too lofty for the marginalized art of poetry to bear up under today, they were at the core of what he felt to be his charge as a teacher. Agree with him or not on any particular poet or poem, there was no ignoring what he handed over freely to his class, and what he cites elsewhere in the same essay, namely, that poetry “is the only insurance available against the vulgarity of the human heart.” Reading poetry, “you become what you read, you become the state of the language which is a poem, and its epiphany or its revelation is yours,” and the same could be said for his teaching.


I’ve published the reading lists that Joseph B. gave people, and the one he gave me,  here. But Filkins got a different one. Here’s the story:

That same night after his aria on Frost, as we walked out of Dodge Hall, I had the audacity to ask if he might want to go for a drink. “Let’s try it!” he offered, and before I knew it, I was sitting at a table in a bar across the street, waiting for Brodsky to collect our drinks and wondering, what the hell am I going to say now? Wisely, I started with the only thing I could think of: “What should I read?”

Nodding his head in approval, he asked for pen and paper, and there in a little notebook I carried around he scribbled down a list: Edwin Arlington Robinson, Weldon Kees (underlined), Ovid, Horace, Virgil, Catullus, minor Alexandrian poets, Paul Celan, Peter Huchel, Georg Trakl (underlined), Antonio Machado, Umberto Saba, Eugenio Montale (underlined), Andrew Marvell, Ivor Gurney, Patrick Kavanagh, Douglas Dunne, Zbigniew Herbert (underlined), Vasco Popa, Vladimir Holan, Ingeborg Bachmann, “Gilgamesh,” Randall Jarrell, Vachel Lindsay, Theodore Roethke, Edgar Lee Masters, Howard Nemerov, Max Jacob, Thomas Trahern, and then a short list of essayists: Hannah Arendt, William Hazlitt, George Orwell, Elias Canetti (underlined and Crowds and Power added), (Temptation to Exist added), and finally the poet Les Murray added in my own hand after he suggested it. The sheet of paper, roughly the size of an iPhone but, as Brodsky would say, with far more and far greater information stored within it, remains tucked away inside my copy of A Part of Speech to this day.

Read the whole thing here.

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One Response to “Remembering Joseph Brodsky: “a whole and almost molecular engagement with poetry””

  1. Margaret Says:

    YOU’VE made my day….thank you for this!