Posts Tagged ‘“joseph brodsky”’

Does good literature inoculate us against lies? Poet Tomas Venclova thinks so.

Sunday, June 3rd, 2018
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“Above all, love language” (Photo: Dylan Vaughan)

I was one of the few people to review Magnetic North, the great Baltic poet Tomas Venclova‘s book-length Q&A with poet and translator Ellen Hinsey certainly in the West, when I wrote for the Times Literary Supplement earlier this year. The book was never going to get a huge commercial audience, certainly, but seeing the long excerpt in the current Music & Literature makes me wonder if the book will have a second (and maybe third and fourth) life in excerpts.

I’m willing to help the process along, so here is an excerpt of the excerpt in the tony online journal (and if you don’t know Music & Literatureyou should): 

Before we go on to speak about other poems, I’d like to ask about poetic inspiration. In her book Hope Against Hope, Nadezhda Mandelstam says that for poets “auditory hallucinations” are a reoccurring occupational hazard, and that Osip Mandelstam experienced poetic inspiration as a musical phrase insistently ringing in his ears. Early on, did you notice any particular sensations that heralded the onset of a poem?

I’m not a very musical person. My imagination is more visual than aural: I admire (and, I hope, understand) architecture and painting, and I love Bach, Handel, and Purcell primarily because they remind me of architecture. Thus, the phenomenon of auditory hallucination described by Nadezhda Mandelstam comes to me not so much as musical phrases sensu stricto, but rather as rhythmic units that can also be understood in spatial terms. But yes, I experience an insistent and intrusive, even irksome feeling of something constantly repeating itself and demanding a liberating effort. It is frequently preceded by a general feeling of unease and a bout of bad mood. In my youth, I learned to understand this as the signal: “A poem is coming.”

Interlocutor

The passage above was the first that caught my eye in the Music & Literature article, but then another further dow, picked up a theme I’d discussed only a few days ago in The Book Haven post, “’Bro – he lives!’ Joseph Brodsky on the morality of uselessness, and the need to ‘switch off’. The Lithuanian poet Venclova’s work, from the beginning “constituted his own specific universe,” as his interlocutor, said his translator, Ellen Hinsey. 

I think Brodsky had in mind not just Soviet reality, but reality as such. True, Soviet reality was grimmer than most. After the nightmare of the camps and executions, from which we were trying to awake (to quote Stephen Dedalus, whose experience was milder than ours), we were confronted by an ugly and monotonous present that promised no further change. We were surrounded by the absurd. And that was only a part—one of the worst parts, to tell the truth—of the chaos and nonsense of life. Poetry—and art in general—was a way of resisting that chaos, holding it at bay. This also had political consequences. Politics, seen from this perspective, was something transitory (even if one had to make decent choices in everyday life). On the other hand, it would be an overstatement or even a distortion to assert that we were totally apolitical in our work. The stifling Soviet atmosphere, aggravated by the smug audacity of the authorities, provoked not only disdain, but resentment and indignation that could not help but find its way into our verses. …

Everything possible

Akhmatova frequently speaks about how the Soviet period robbed individuals of the chance to live out their own destinies. In your “A Poem about Memory,” and elsewhere, you reflect on “such a shortage of authentic fate—”

In her magnificent poem, the fifth “Northern Elegy,” Akhmatova speaks about all the things she was denied due to the circumstances of her era. She nevertheless states that she perhaps did everything that was possible in the only life left to her. I was stunned by these proud words. Naturally, our situations were not comparable, but in “A Poem about Memory,” I attempted to understand the way to “do everything possible.” …

He loves architecture.

All literature of quality provides the reader with patterns and insights that enable him or her—perhaps not systematically, but frequently enough—to resist false doctrines. Poetry, in particular, is somewhat mysteriously linked to ethics; and poetic discipline to the fortitude of the spirit. Many poets, including Zbigniew Herbert and Akhmatova—and her protégé, Joseph Brodsky—insisted that refusal to succumb to evil is primarily a matter of taste. I was of the same mind. …

Thus the human quality of tenacity also becomes an important component of personal and poetic ethics. Or as you described in “A Poem about Friends,” dedicated to Natasha Gorbanevskaya, and written after the 1968 demonstration against the invasion of Czechoslovakia in Red Square: “And those who live are chosen by the fog, / Deserted houses, journeys into the distance, / Their weapons are staunchness, abstinence from speech”—

During this period, it seemed as though the course of events were governed by laws of raw power, that is, by statistics. The force of words and human solidarity were our means to counter this, even if this meant prison or exile, as was the case for many of my friends. Speech—or, at least, a silent refusal to lie—was the axis of their existence. I tried to convey this in the very title of my book.

And the title of the book is Magnetic NorthRead the Music & Literature piece here

“Bro – he lives!” Joseph Brodsky on the morality of uselessness, and the need to “switch off”

Monday, May 28th, 2018
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Sentenced to hard labor in Norenskaya, after a show trial.

Nobel poet Joseph Brodsky famously said that all that poetry and politics have in common are the letters “p” and “o.” In a sense, that can be said to be the topic of Rachel Wiseman‘s “Switching Off: Joseph Brodsky and the Moral Responsibility to Be Useless,” over at The Point. 

It was the poet’s birthday a few days ago (he would have been 78), but it was also right after Philip Roth‘s death, so I didn’t post. Yet it would be ungrateful not to say something about the man who gave so much to me.

Fortunately, David Streitfeld of the New York Times sent me this article this morning, and it’s too good not to let the world know about it. (It’s one of a series on intellectuals – here.)

Спасибо, David

Wiseman begins with the 1964 show trial, where the Nobel poet, then 23, was labeled a social parasite. Then she contrasts his position with journalist Keith Gessen‘s criticism of him:

“If a poet has any obligation to society,” Brodsky said, “it is to write well. Being in the minority, he has no other choice.” The Soviet trial judge is not the only one who has taken this attitude to indicate a lack of social conscience. The novelist and critic Keith Gessen, in a 2008 article for the New York Times Book Reviewfaulted Brodsky’s generation of intellectuals and those who followed for being “powerless to stop Putin from terrorizing the country, not because they feared him, but because after the destruction of the Soviet Union they retreated into ‘private life,’ which is what they wanted all along.” Gessen is a great fan of Brodsky the poet, but wishes he would be more of a critic. In a New Yorker essay from 2011, he condemned Brodsky for allowing himself to become a “propagandist for poetry.” Gessen searched Brodsky’s oeuvre in vain for an example that might undercut the unapologetic aestheticism that had “hardened into dogma.” Not unlike the judge, Gessen seemed to demand of Brodsky, How were you useful to the motherland? How could someone of Brodsky’s intelligence actually believe that aesthetics governs ethics and not the other way around?

In a sense, she begins to demonstrate the point the article is trying to make. It sags in midway, as she addresses growing up in the “multicultural, bubblegum Nineties” and the politics du jour (“national nightmare”) – the piece becomes predictable and rote in outlook. It fades into outrage, repetitive emotions, and the mob before it regains altitude:

Every generation of intellectuals finds a way of coming to terms with the limits of their agency. Brodsky’s chose poetry; mine and Gessen’s took the train downtown. It’s not a strict binary, of course: these two tendencies can coexist in the same individual and express themselves in different ways. But we might consider that switching off, for Brodsky, was a way of performing his social responsibility, not shirking it. In Brodsky’s view, politics was one level of human existence, but it was a low rung. The business of poetry, he thought, is to “indicate something more … the size of the whole ladder.” He held that “art is not a better, but an alternative existence … not an attempt to escape reality but the opposite, an attempt to animate it.” What compels a poet to write is less “a concern for one’s perishable flesh” than “the urge to spare certain things of one’s world—of one’s personal civilization—one’s own non-semantic continuum.”

Gessen critiques

Hard to know what to quote because so much of it is so good. But let’s end at the ending. Those who have sent me emails know my standard footer: “Evil takes root when one man starts to think that he is better than another.” It’s a remarkable quote, and true in just about every case I can think of. Here’s where it comes from, embedded in his remarks on the Biblical passage enjoining us to turn the other cheek:

Brodsky gives an account of the standard interpretation of the lines of scripture that inspired this doctrine of passive resistance and then goes on to mention the ending, which is less commonly quoted. The idea is not just to turn the cheek to the person who strikes you—you are also supposed to give him your coat: “No matter how evil your enemy is, the crucial thing is that he is human; and although incapable of loving another like ourselves, we nonetheless know that evil takes root when one man starts to think that he is better than another. (This is why you’ve been hit on your right cheek in the first place.) At best, therefore, what one can get from turning the other cheek to one’s enemy is the satisfaction of alerting the latter to the futility of his action. ‘Look,’ the other cheek says, ‘what you are hitting is just flesh. It’s not me. You can’t crush my soul.’”

As David wrote to me when he sent the link, “bro – he lives!” Then he added, “anyway, what was it exactly they used to call him?  joe the bro, no? it was a play off  ‘joe the pro.'”

С днем ​​рождения, Иосиф. It’s true. “Bro, he lives.”

Postscript: Oh, but I forgot to include the tweet David sent a few minutes earlier. It’s below. Sounds about right, except … a “green velour suit”? In the 1970s, maybe … but the 90s?  I went to twitter and a whole stream of postscripts followed, including some from James Marcus:

My “Joseph Brodsky: Conversations” – now in Portuguese!

Sunday, May 13th, 2018
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The Brazilian edition of my Joseph Brodsky: Conversations has just been published by the tony new house Editora Âyiné, and I couldn’t be more pleased.

That’s the third language for the collection of interviews. It made its Italian debut with Milano’s first-rate Adelphi in 2015 (we wrote about that here), and of course the English language edition with the cover photo by Richard Avedon was published a dozen years ago.

Do you speak Portuguese? Now’s your chance. Order your copy on Brazil’s amazon site here. From the website:

Como nasce a poesia? De qual misterioso labor é êxito? Qual é sua tarefa? Quem se colocou, ao menos uma vez, uma dessas perguntas poderá enfim encontrar nestas entrevistas – que cobrem a vida de Brodsky no exílio, desde o início da década de 1970 até poucas semanas antes de sua morte súbita em New York em 1996 – respostas de uma clareza audaz. Descobrirá que a poesia é «um acelerador incrível do processo cognitivo», «nosso objetivo antropológico, nosso objetivo genético», e que não há melhor instrumento para «mostrar às pessoas a verdadeira versão da escala das coisas». Descobrirá também que o que sempre considerou artifícios técnicos inescrutáveis – esquemas métricos, por exemplo – são, na verdade, «padrões mágicos», «ímãs espirituais», capazes de afetar profundamente a poesia, fazendo com que um conteúdo moderno expresso segundo uma forma fixa (um soneto, por assim dizer) possa assustar tanto quanto «um carro indo pela pista errada numa rodovia». Brodsky sabia iluminar o trabalho dos poetas que amava – Auden, Frost, Kavafis, Mandelstam, Akhmátova, Tsvetáeva, Miłosz, Herbert, para limitarmo-nos a seus contemporâneos – com uma lucidez sempre acompanhada de uma vibrante participação: «Eu dificilmente extraio tanta alegria da leitura como quando estou lendo Auden. É uma verdadeira alegria, e, com alegria, não quero dizer simplesmente prazer, pois a alegria é algo muito sombrio em si mesmo». Essas conversações servirão também como um guia à melhor poesia: esse «esforço estético» capaz de frear «nossa bestialidade».

Joseph Brodsky a second Pushkin? “Prove it!” he said. And she did.

Tuesday, March 20th, 2018
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Men attended, but only women and guest author lined up for photographer Jakob Margolis.

Valentina Polukhina was one of the women being honored during Mark Yakovlev‘s presentation of his book Joseph Brodsky and The Fate of Three Women. Valentina spoke at the Russian Cultural Center on Kensington High Street in London. She is one of the world’s leading scholars of the Russian Nobel poet Joseph Brodsky.

She proved it.

During her talk, she retold a story that she told me sometime earlier, so I’ll share it here. During her early days with the poet, she told him he was a second Pushkin. Not the first time he had been compared with the ur-Russian poet of all time, the author of the justly renowned Eugene Onegin.

But his reaction was skeptical. “Prove it!” he said.

Her response: to interview his fellow Russian poets, writers, and other colleagues. That was volume 1 of the remarkably insightful Brodsky Through the Eyes of His ContemporariesThen she followed up by interviewing his colleagues in other countries. That was volume 2. Then she interviewed still others for a third volume. (The series has been slightly abbreviated for the two-volume English-language series by Academic Studies Press.)

Humble Moi also spoke at the Russian Cultural Centre that evening, but my topic was George L. Kline, the pivotal scholar who smuggled his poems out of the Soviet Union and translated his Selected Poems. My words:

“George Kline was a modest and retiring man, but on occasion he could be as forthright and adamant as Nobel poet Joseph Brodsky himself. In a 1994 letter, he wrote: ‘Akhamatova discovered Brodsky for Russia, but I discovered him for the West.’ And in 1987, ‘I was the first in the West to recognize him as a major poet, and the first to translate his work in extenso.’

“And it was true. What’s lesser known is how greatly this quiet Bryn Mawr professor supported scholars around the world who were working with Russian poetry and Brodsky in particular.

“Though we had never met face to face, George Kline was a regular presence in my life. My publication fifteen years ago of Joseph Brodsky: Conversations was my carte d’entree to this world, decades after I had studied with Brodsky at the University of Michigan. Some months after publication George sent me a multi-page letter noting the errata in my text. I later learned that anyone in the world who wrote or published something about Joseph Brodsky could expect such a letter, delineating the errors in the text. He did the same for his own works, carefully setting out the mistakes.

Answering a question or two. (Photo: Jakob Margolis)

“He was thorough, neutral, scholarly. Nevertheless, I persisted, and I don’t think I could have made whatever scholarly contribution I have in the Brodsky world without George’s encouragement, advice, and occasional recommendation. And in 2012, we decided to create a long written record of his work with Brodsky, in the form of a conversation.

“I didn’t know then what I would learn. That he had been a World War II pilot, for which he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. That he was the founder and acknowledged dean of the Russian philosophy in the United States as a scholarly specialty. And that he’d translated Akhmatova, Tsvetaeva, Pasternak, Tomas Venclova, and others. Even so, he’s mostly he’s remembered today as the man who brought Joseph Brodsky into English, and the poems into America itself by bootlegging manuscripts out of the Soviet Union.”

Yes, one person asked me, but did George translate the poet to replicate the meter and rhyme of the original? Yes, I said, he did. “But did he succeed?” queried a second. “Read for yourself! ‘The Butterfly’ is a masterpiece!”

Oh, and the bronze sculpture of the poet in the corner next to Valentina? It was also honored. But then, Yuri Firsov‘s creation had an event of its own, tonight:

Poet Tomas Venclova in the TLS: “All will end well, but I will not see it.”

Friday, February 2nd, 2018
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A “historical optimist” (Photo: Dylan Vaughan)

My review of  Lithuanian poet, essayist, and freedom fighter Tomas Venclova‘s Magnetic North, “No Pigeons in the Attic,” is featured in this week’s Times Literary Supplement here. Readers of the Book Haven will recognize the name of the eminent European intellectual, although it is, in general, too little recognized on this side of the Atlantic. We’ve written about him here and here and here and here, among other places. Magnetic North is a book-length Q&A with translator Ellen Hinsey, recapping his life, his art, and his nation’s turbulent history.

A few excerpts from my piece:

He rejects the romantic notion that a poet’s work only thrives in his or her homeland. “It would be absurd to maintain that a writer needs permanent contact with his or her native soil and withers when deprived of it”, he says, citing Marina Tsvetaeva, Nabokov and Brodsky among the dislocated Russians; Mickiewicz, Norwid, Miłosz and Gombrowicz among the Poles. He finds something fortunate even in exile, and seems to enjoy the role of lucid observer: “As a rule, one sees the general contours of the country’s development more clearly if one is not embroiled in local squabbles. For  an ‘outsider,’ these contours are projected on the larger screen of history”. But his international wanderings have not eroded his love of country – he has written three books on Vilnius, one of them the most commercially successful of his long career. He likens his beloved capital to a European Jerusalem. “I once said that these heterogeneous, asymmetric, and extraordinary buildings kept us from forgetting the very idea of civilization”, he recalls. “I still believe this.”

***

Lithuanian, the native tongue of 3 million people, continues to fascinate and sustain him, as it is “not only archaic, but rich and sonorous, virtually on a par with the Greek of Homer and Aeschylus. To me, as a poet, this has been rewarding”. He likens its rough phonetics to feldspar, adding that it has retained an archaic vocabulary and grammatical structure akin to preclassical Latin of the third century BC. And, Venclova points out, while it is one of the classical Indo-European languages, like Latin, Ancient Greek, Gothic, or Old Slavonic, it is the only one of them that  is still alive. It nearly was not so. In the nineteenth century, it was in serious decline, like Gaelic or Welsh. Venclova compares it to the former, another archaic language that embodies an ancient past. Neighbouring Poland views Lithuania the way the English view Scotland, as wild and untamed, with “more primeval forests and a valiant but not-too-civilized people”.

***

And the historical winner is…

Venclova has described himself as an “historical optimist”, which he characterizes thus: “All will end well, but I will not see it”. He views with dismay the growing nationalism that is threatening the cosmopolitanism he embraces. He notes that everyone in the twentieth century was a “loser” – Franz Joseph, Wilhelm II, Nicholas II, Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin and Churchill, even Mahatma Gandhi. All except for Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s assassin, an obscure Serbian nationalist: “The only winner was Gavrilo Princip, since his mentality has survived – indeed, it has resolutely endured”.

 Read the rest here.  As for the title,  “No Pigeons in the Attic,” well … read the article.

Postscript on 2/21: And some nice feedback in the TLS letters column, as tweeted:

Joseph Brodsky on Anna Akhmatova: “Big gray eyes. Sort of like snow leopards.”

Wednesday, January 17th, 2018
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“You do not know what you were forgiven.”

A link for a radio discussion of the great Russian poet Anna Akhmatova – the interview is with the Irish journalist Mary Russell, one of her many fans, and it aired on RTE Europe here.

Akhmatova’s protégé was Nobel poet Joseph Brodsky, who was drawn to her circle in 1961, a few years before she died. He speaks for a few moments at the beginning of the clip, but to my ear the timber isn’t quite right, a bit tinny (and Russell calls him “Joe Brodsky,” which jars, because no one ever did).

He speaks about Akhmatova this way:

“She’s the kind of poet whose lines you unwittingly mumble to yourself, especially when you’re in trouble. I remember several times, when I would be sick in hospital, surgery, this and that, et cetera et cetera. I would find myself mumbling, completely unrelated to the situation, a few of her lines. Well, they are very memorable.”

Then Akhmatova’s own voice breaks in, reading a few lines in Russian, before he continues: “She was simply, physically, visibly, beautiful. Big gray eyes. Sort of like snow leopards – you know those eyes, ya? Tremendous nose. She was one of the most beautiful women of the century, I think. Tremendous head. Just … absolutely majestic.”

Russell describes her hours of on the train from Leningrad to Komarova, where Akhmatova is buried. Deep snow in countryside. Accompanying her, a woman who had attended the funeral in 1966. They walked through the darkening, forest to the cemetery. She brought flowers, and found the grave already covered with bunch of fresh, red carnations. (It reminds me of my own trek to Pasternak‘s austere, snow-swept dacha outside Moscow – I mentioned it here.)

But which lines did he mumble to himself? I wondered. Perhaps he gives a hint when he reads this 1919 poem, in Russian (it’s better in Russian, trust me):

Has this century been worse than those that went before?
Surely so, that in a fog of fear and grief
It has probed the blackest sore,
And yet has failed to bring relief.

In the west the setting sun still blazes,
And city roofs are gleaming in its light,
But here Death scrawls crosses on the houses,
And calls the ravens, and the ravens fly.

I’m not fond of this online translation, but too many of my books are still in boxes to hunt for something better. Perhaps Solomon Volkov cuts to the heart of the matter when in Conversations with Joseph Brodsky:

“We did not go to her for praise, or literary recognition, or any kind of approval for our work. […] We went to see her because she set our souls in motion, because in her presence you seem to move on from the emotional and spiritual – oh, I don’t know what you call it – level you were on. You rejected the language you spoke every day for the language she used. Of course, we discussed literature, and we gossiped, and we ran out for vodka, listened to Mozart, and mocked the government. Looking back, though, what I hear and see is not this; in my consciousness surfaces one line from the same ‘Sweetbriar in Blossom’: “You do not know what you were forgiven.” This line tears itself away rather than bursting out of the context because it is uttered by the voice of the soul, for the forgiver is always greater than the offense and whoever inflicts it. This line, seemingly addressed to one person, is in fact addressed to the whole world. It is the soul’s response to existence. It is this, and not the ways of verse-making, that we learned from her.”

“I should be drinking you from a mug, but I’m drinking you in drops, which make me cough.”

Friday, December 22nd, 2017
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Beginning on a High C: Marina Tsvetaeva in 1914.

Too few Americans know the oeuvre of Muscovite poet Marina Tsvetaeva (1892-1941) – partly, I think it’s because of the translations. How can one translate her? Where other poems end, hers begin. And her poems typically begin “at the far right – i.e., highest – end of the octave, on high C.”

Those are the words of her admirer, poet Joseph Brodsky, who wrote, “Tsvetaeva is a poet of extremes only in the sense that for her an ‘extreme’ is not so much the end of the known world as the beginning of the unknowable one.”

He continues: “Tsvetaeva is an extremely candid poet, quite possibly the most candid in the history of Russian poetry. She makes no secret of anything, least of all of her aesthetic and philosophical credos, which are scattered about her verse and prose with the frequency of a first person singular pronoun.”

So here are a few of those aphorisms, which have been gathered from her diaries and notebooks from about 1917 to 1922, over at the Paris Review:

I should be drinking you from a mug, but I’m drinking you in drops, which make me cough.

You don’t want people to know that you love a certain person? Then say: “I adore him!” But some people know what this means.

Kinship by blood is coarse and strong, kinship by choice—is fine. And what is fine can tear.

Betrayal already points to love. You can’t betray an acquaintance.

And this one is especially intriguing:

The heart: it is a musical, rather than a physical organ.

There! What a naughty thing I’ve been! I’ve used up six of the ten “aesthetic and philosophical credos” on this post. Find the rest over at the Paris Review here.

Great news! Rome revokes Ovid’s exile!

Friday, December 15th, 2017
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Come back, Ovid! All is forgiven! Whatever you did!

According to a report from ANSA,  the Rome city council yesterday revoked the Emperor Augustus‘s direct order exiling the poet from the city. It’s a little late: the poet died 2,000 years ago, in the year 17 or 18 A.D. He was between 58 and 60 years old.

The motion came from the ruling anti-establishment 5-Star Movement (M5S), which said it wanted to “repair the serious wrong suffered” by Publius Ovidius Naso, the the author of the Metamophoses and the Art of Love.

Ovid, one of the three canonical Roman poets along with Virgil and Horace, was exiled to a remote Black Sea town, Tomis, in today’s Romania, in 8 AD, in one of the mysteries of literary history. [Ettore Ferrari’s statue of Ovid in modernday Constanta at right.]

Ovid himself attributes his exile to carmen et error, “a poem and a mistake,” but his discretion in discussing the causes has resulted in much speculation among scholars.

According to a local website, the council unanimously approved the motion, which calls for “necessary measures” to be adopted to repeal the exile order, Repubblica reported. However, only the M5S took part in Thursday afternoon’s vote.

Rome’s deputy mayor and councillor for culture Luca Bergamo said the decision was “an important symbol because it’s about the fundamental right of artists to express themselves freely in a society in which the freedom of artistic expression is more and more repressed”.

Ovid has previously been acquitted by a court in Sulmona, the Abruzzo town where he was born, which passed its verdict onto Rome authorities.

Ovid wrote several poetry collections describing the pain of banishment. I wrote a little about this in my 2011 Kenyon Review piece about two other exiles, Nobel poets Joseph Brodsky and Czesław Miłosz:

According to a legend, Ovid wrote poetry in the language of the Gatae during his long exile on the Black Sea coast. “Brodsky would be an heir to that tradition, although his exile was not as dramatic as that of the Roman poet” (242), [Irena] Gross writes. She suggests Ovid may have been a literary “genotype” for Brodsky (285).

The pattern of Ovid, exiled for nobody knows what, may have absorbed Brodsky even earlier than generally supposed. I remember the poet in a melancholy mood in 1975. He asked me if I had read Ovid’s Tristia. I hadn’t, but got the book from the University of Michigan library, eager to please him. It’s still with me, with its sedate green cover and dog-eared edges, with exiled Ovid keening:

I am a Roman poet—forgive me, my Muses, forgive me—
 And I am forced to say many things in Sarmatian speech.
(Book vii, 11. 55-56)

Partying with Walcott, Heaney, Brodsky: “I wished I could have brought it all home in a jar.”

Friday, December 1st, 2017
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Could he have found a big enough jar?

I never met Nobel poet Derek Walcott – but Sven Birkerts did, and he writes a marvelous, ebullient essay about Walcott and his sidekicks and fellow Nobel poet laureates, Seamus Heaney and Joseph Brodsky, “Long Tables, Open Bottles, and Smoke” over at Lithub.

Sven Birkerts met the Caribbean poet in 1981 at Boston University. Walcott was allowing non-students to audit his poetry seminar, and Birkerts jumped at the opportunity. It sounds a lot like Joseph Brodsky’s class back in Ann Arbor, except for the locale with its associations:

“We met in #222, the same second-floor room on Bay State road where Robert Lowell had taught his now-legendary seminar that included, among others, young poets George Starbuck, Anne Sexton, and Sylvia Plath. Derek was pleased by the association and often invoked his old mentor “Cal.” Our class, which I audited for two years, had a loose free-associational format, like nothing I’d experienced—at least not before I met Joseph back in Ann Arbor. Was this how poets did it? It seemed radical and right, such a change from the syllabus-driven proceedings I’d known as an undergrad. In these sessions, a poem would be passed around—a ballad, something by Thomas Hardy or Elizabeth Bishop, say—like a specimen we could study, or, more flatteringly, like a melody handed off to a group of musicians to see what might happen. Meanings were not at issue—not in any conventional way. The conversations turned on rhythm, rhyme, cadence: the elements we came to see as primary to meaning.”

And the parties were unforgettable:

A judicious, sardonic rejoinder…

What a delight it was to see these three utterly distinctive looking individuals together at a party! And it seems, looking back, that there were parties all the time. Long tables, open bottles, and smoke. God, how people smoked in 1981—Joseph with his L&M’s (“Wystan smoked these”), Derek with filterless Pall Malls, Seamus with his Dunhills. And everyone gathered around them doing the same. If the reader now expects accounts of high literary seriousness, however, she will be disappointed. These gatherings were about play. They were exercises in comic brinksmanship. Who would pull off the night’s best line, the funniest story; which of the three would most quickly reduce the other two to convulsions? Those of us lucky enough to be at the table barely got a word in. If we had any function, it was to keep things going, to prompt. A question, a compliment—it didn’t matter, anything could be a trigger. Joseph was usually first out of the box with some dark jibe, which would inevitably set Derek into volatile contortions, releasing his extraordinary laugh, a full-body explosion. It would then fall to Seamus to offer the judicious sardonic rejoinder. I wished I could have brought it all home in a jar. My stomach hurt from laughing. I lay in bed, my head spinning from combined excesses, but also with the feeling that the world was, as Frost had it, “the right place for love.”

A full-body explosion

So much life – and all three are dead now. One poet mentioned in the article is most happily alive. I was pleased that Walcott loved Adam Zagajewski‘s “Going to Lvov,” and in a paragraph that makes me envious (I would not have put it this way, but I wish I had), he writes: “Derek’s reasons for adoring it are immediately clear. Zagajewski is writing directly in what I think of as the key of Walcott—and Brodsky—moving forward by the same logic of transformations, assuming the same coded equivalences between the things of the world and the words with which they are transmitted. Here the poet plays with such likeness directly, joining in our minds the visual punctuation of the Russian ‘soft sign’ and the sibilance that calls up the movement of water.”

And I couldn’t agree with him more when he reaches this conclusion: “These, I think, were the best years—before the Nobel Prizes. Say what you will, the feeling in a room changes when a certified Nobelist is present, never mind two or three. There is, of course, the overt or conspicuously concealed regard of the non-Nobelists present; and then the deft but still obvious efforts of the laureates not to be acting as eminences. It’s true, of course, that the poets were already known and honored before then, but somehow their earlier celebrity energized much more than it constrained.”

Read the whole exuberant essay here. Oh, and before I forget, check out his two-hour conversation on technology, books, and life over at the “Virtual Memories Show” here. Sample quote: “When I was your age, I discovered the doubling over of one’s own experience. . . . Themes, recurrences and motifs in my life began to manifest. Then as if on command, the whole sunken continent of memory began to detach from the sea-floor.”

Mikhail Baryshnikov: “Water is his church, Brodsky’s church.”

Wednesday, November 1st, 2017
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“I remember his voice, I remember the way he read.” Screenshot from Brodsky/Baryshnikov

We’ve written before about Mikhail Baryshnikov’s acclaimed Brodsky/Baryshnikov show, which blends the renowned dancer’s movements with the poetry of his friend, the Nobel poet Joseph Brodsky. (I hear rumors that the show, which debuted in the dancer’s native Riga, is coming to Berkeley, but so far it’s not showing up on any websites so far.)

However, we missed Neil Munshi’s Financial Times of London’s article, “Poetry and motion: Mikhail Baryshnikov on Joseph Brodsky”, which describes the two Russians’ long camaraderie. An excerpt:

“He loved to be by the embankment, because it reminded him of Leningrad, with the water and perspective,” Baryshnikov says. “In his poetry, there are so many poems about water, from the north to Venice, to the Hudson, to the Caribbean. He really worked on a metaphysical level about the water: the proximity, and the colour, and the essence of it. Water is his church, Brodsky’s church, because he grew up [with the] Neva River.” Baryshnikov has referred to Brodsky as his “university”, the man who gave him the higher education his dancing prevented him from receiving. Brodsky introduced him to not just the work of writers but to the writers themselves.

Screenshot from Brodsky/Baryshnikov

“He said that he was surprised how much poetry I know, which was a total exaggeration. He was trying to pay me a compliment, I don’t know why. But I would rather sit and listen to his conversations with Derek Walcott, and maybe half of it, I couldn’t understand. Or with Stephen Spender, or Czeslaw Milosz. He’d just talk about politics with Susan Sontag,” he says. Baryshnikov moved on to reading “Walcott from St Lucia, and Seamus Heaney in Ireland, or Louise Glück, in the States, or Mark Strand”.

“One of the first books Joseph gave me was a book of Mark Strand,” Baryshnikov says. “He said, ‘Mouse, have this.’ And I said, ‘Joseph, I don’t speak a word of English.’ It was at the very beginning. He said, ‘You will, and very soon, and we will read this man.’ And he was absolutely right.”  And there was always Brodsky. Baryshnikov keeps a full collection of his friend’s work in all of his homes and offices. “I always travel with one or two [of Brodsky’s] books. And some of them are still too difficult for me. I’m not pretending that I know his work inside-out at all,” he says. “I remember his voice, I remember the way he read. Sometimes he asked me to read. He said, ‘I want to hear a different voice, can you read this?’ Sometimes, I was lucky to be the first person to whom he read.”

Read the whole thing here.

Early days: Joseph Brodsky in Ann Arbor in the 1970s.