Last weekend I was chatting with Joseph Brodsky‘s first translator, George Kline. The Bryn Mawr professor befriended the young Russian poet in St. Petersburg, and went on to be the translator of the Harper & Row 1973 Selected Poems, with a foreword by W.H. Auden. It was later reissued as a Penguin paperback – I carried that dog-eared volume with me from 1976, when I bought it in an Ann Arbor bookstore, until it was lost it in a foreign city … somewhere in Vilnius, as I recall, sometime in the late 1990s.
George thanked me for sending him Czesław Miłosz‘s “Notes on Brodsky.” I couldn’t recall having done so, but looked up a copy for myself in Stanford’s Green Library, in a 1996 Partisan Review, to make sure I hadn’t.
The piece is well worth excerpting. “The presence of Brodsky for many among his poet-colleagues was a mainstay and as if a point of reference,” the Polish poet wrote. Later, “whatever survived from the past has been due to the principle of hierarchical distinction.”
“Here was a man who by his oeuvre and by his life reminded us, against what today is so often proclaimed and written, that hierarchy exists. That hierarchy cannot be contrived by syllogisms and established in a discourse. Rather, by living and writing, we affirm it every day anew. It has something to do with the elementary division into beauty and ugliness, truth and falsity, goodness and cruelty, liberty and tyranny. But, first of all, hierarchy means respect for that which is elevated and unconcern, rather than scorn, for that which is base. …
“To go straight to the goal, not letting oneself be swayed by any voices calling for one’s attention. That is, knowing how to recognize what is important and clinging only to it. That was precisely the the strong side of the great Russian writers of the past.
“Brodsky’s life and writing tended toward accomplishment, as an arrow tends towards the aim. Yet, evidently, that was an illusion, just as in the case of Pushkin or Dostoevsky. We must therefore formulate it differently – that fate tends straight to the aim, while the one who is ruled by fate knows how to read its main lines and to comprehend, be it dimly, that to which one is called.”
His words brought back what the Miłosz had said to me on the same subject, about “maintaining one’s own vision, one’s own taste, let us say, against the current fashion of the day.”
From my Georgia Review interview a dozen years ago: “I have lived a long time in the West and tried to remain faithful to a line of Polish poetry. The same applies to Brodsky and Russia. The history of poetry is the history of language. That’s why Joseph Brodsky wrote that we write to please our predecessors, not our contemporaries.” I’ve quoted this part before, about Milosz’s crucial division between esse and devenir:
“There was at a given moment a stable world where we could see, hold on to values that were a reflection of the eternal order of things. Now we are in a flux. This is a very peculiar way of life. … When everything is in flux, revision, it is healthy to have some poets who preserve the feeling of respect. In a way, Brodsky was a conservative voice in that sense – he had a lot of sense.”
“For me, the value of Brodsky was his sobering effect, and his enormous feeling of hierarchy. He had a great feeling of hierarchy of value in works of art and works of literature.”