Quarterly Conversation: “For Brodsky, poetry was a ticket out of this world.”


A brilliant article in today’s Quarterly Conversation offers a fresh take on Lev Loseff‘s much-discussed Joseph Brodsky: A Literary Life. Marbled with impressive insights, it represents the finest standards of literary journalism, and should establish a new highpoint for the rapidly disappearing genre … let me dissemble no further, dear reader, I myself wrote the review.

A hackneyed opening gambit, I know … So let’s cut to the chase with a little shameless plugging via an excerpt:

“For Brodsky, poetry was a ticket out of this world. And in Russia, the poet is godlike. To know both is to understand the context for this erudite and often wise book—a work more likely to find readers among current fans, rather than find new ones. Yet Joseph Brodsky: A Literary Life is simultaneously enlightening, perplexing, and exasperating. The knowledgeable reader is left feeling rewarded and cheated at once, as if invited to a sumptuous banquet and offered only canapés. The protean figure remains beyond the range of these pages. The door remains at once half open and half closed to us.

You’ll read no secrets in Loseff’s volume. But neither will you get Brodsky’s bewildering, mesmerizing blend of hubris and humility, charm, and abrasiveness. Brodsky was a Catherine Wheel of metaphysical brilliance, scathing insults, and intellectual splendor.

Russia’s longing for pure poet-heroes held an incandescent grip on the Russian psyche, and the nation bleaches its bards to an unearned whiteness. Writers have always claimed special moral exemptions for themselves—wishing to be something grander than simply a guy who wields a ballpoint or stares at an empty computer screen. Brodsky upped the ante.

He told Loseff that the lesser cannot comment on the greater, the mice cannot review the cat. Was he exempting himself from criticism? Certainly. But Brodsky was also the first to bend his knee to those he saw above him on the ladder—from Ovid to Auden. The sense of hierarchy may rub against the egalitarian Brodsky who once wrote, ‘Evil takes root when one man starts to think that he is better than another,’ but the contradiction can be chalked up to his complex humanity as easily as his self-blindness.”

Read the rest here.

Quarterly Conversation is run by Scott Esposito. It’s another valiant online effort to sustain serious literary criticism – and that’s no hyperbole.

It’s gotten some rave reviews, from The Nation, among others.  From Columbia University Press: “It would not be a stretch to say that The Quarterly Conversation has come to be one of the better places—online or in print—to turn to for literary and cultural criticism.”  According to Canongate Books’s “Meet at the Gate”: “If a website was able to drool, Meet At The Gate would be drooling over The Quarterly Conversation. It’s what online literary magazines are meant to be.”

The always insightful Patrick Kurp, by the way, reviews Denise Gigante‘s The Keats Brothers: The Life of John and George in the same issue – it’s here (and the Book Haven Q&A with Denise is here).  An excerpt from Patrick’s review:

… despite Gigante’s standing as an academic in a major university English department, she is a writer, not a slinger of theory or political poseur. Out of primary documents she reanimates a major poet and his world, and crafts a transatlantic adventure story with a novelist’s gift for moving narrative along. In brief, Gigante convincingly demonstrates that George Keats, the poet’s junior by sixteen months, served as John’s “muse.” In an 1818 letter to Ann Wylie, John says: “My brother George has ever been more than a brother to me, he has been my greatest friend.”

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7 Responses to “Quarterly Conversation: “For Brodsky, poetry was a ticket out of this world.””

  1. Abe Bombeck Says:

    This passage, in the complete review: “the frequent appearance of a star as ‘a sacred constant in Brodsky’s poetry,’… ‘the star was always the point at which suffering and divine love were joined,’” presents an interesting link between the work of Brodsky and Simone Weil.

  2. Cynthia Haven Says:

    Abe, could you elaborate a bit?

  3. Abe Bombeck Says:

    That “suffering and divine love are joined”, strikes me as a less exacting version of Weil’s formulation that “the absence of God is the the most marvelous testimony of perfect love.” This contradiction which formed the basis of Weil’s mysticism is so radical I was surprised to read that for Brodsky (or anyone) it also provided a way of approaching the horrors of existence without flinching.

  4. Cynthia Haven Says:

    Good point, but the quote, of course, is from Loseff, not Joseph. However, J.B. was the one who introduced me to the works of Simone Weil when I was a university student in Ann Arbor. The two of them could have influenced each other on that subject.

    Another influence: Czeslaw Milosz, who translated Weil into Polish. He, too, used to quote Weil, that “distance is the soul of beauty.”

  5. Cynthia Haven Says:

    I’d welcome any additional thoughts from you, Abe.

  6. Abe Bombeck Says:

    I know Milosz uses Weil as a counterpoint to Shestov in his essay Shestov, or the Purity of Despair and he also mentions his reading of Shestov helped him to understand Brodsky. Do you have an opinion on whether Weil or Shestov exerted greater influence on Brodsky’s thought?

  7. Cynthia Haven Says:

    I know when I left Ann Arbor, J.B. made a short list of books that I should read – and both Shestov and Weil were on it. He was my introduction to both.

    I kept the little slip of paper in my wallet until it was stolen from my Islington flat after I moved to the U.K.

    Which exerted a greater influence? Hard to say.