Posts Tagged ‘Joseph Brodsky’

Joseph Brodsky on Yevgeny Rein and his “almost infantlike thirst for words”

Wednesday, December 29th, 2021
Portrait of the artist (Ave Maria Möistlik/Creative Commons)

Today is the 86th birthday of Yevgeny Rein, one of Russia’s leading poets and winner of the prestigious Pushkin Prize. Fortunately, Los Angeles Review of Books editor Boris Dralyuk reminded me of the occasion on Twitter. What better way to celebrate than cite the comments of his friend, the Nobel poet Joseph Brodsky?

Both were in the quartet of “Akhmatova’s orphans,” the group of young poets who were protégés of Anna Akhmatova in the years before her death in 1966. The quartet also included Dmitri Bobyshev and Anatoly Naiman.

Brodsky called Rein “metrically the most gifted Russian poet of the second half of the 20th century.” He continues in a 1994 Commentary introduction:

“… the death of the world order for Rein is not a singular event but a gradual process. Rein is a poet of erosion, of disintegration—of human relationships, moral categories, historical connections, and dependencies of any nature binomial or multipolar. And his verse, like a spinning black record, is the only form of mutation accessible to him, a fact testified to above all by his assonant rhymes. To top it all, this poet is extraordinarily concrete, substantive. Eighty percent of a Rein poem commonly consists of nouns and proper names. The remaining 20 percent is verbs, adverbs, and, least, adjectives. As a result, the reader often has the impression that the subject of the elegy is language itself, parts of speech illuminated by the sunset of the past tense, which casts its long shadow into the present and even touches the future.

Brodsky teaching students in Ann Arbor, 1974

“But what might seem to the reader a conscious artifice, or at the very least a product of retrospection, is not. For the surplus materiality, the oversaturation with nouns, was present in Rein’s poetry from the beginning. In his earliest poems, at the end of the 1950s—in particular in his first poem, “Arthur Rimbaud”—one notes a kind of “Adamism,” a tendency to name things, to enumerate the objects of this world, an almost infantlike thirst for words. For this poet, the discovery of the world accompanied the development of diction. Ahead of him there was, if not life, then at least a huge dictionary.”

He concludes: “Russian poetry has never had enough time (or space, for that matter). This explains its intensity and wrenching quality—not to say hysteria. What has been created in the existent parameters over the last hundred years—under Damocles’ sword—is extraordinary, but too often colored by a sense of ‘now or never!'”

Well, read the whole thing here, along with Brodsky’s selection of his poems.

Nota bene: Photo above taken by East Bay photographer Terrence McCarthy. We worked together at the Michigan Daily long ago. The photo is reproduced in this year’s The Man Who Brought Brodsky into English: Conversations with George L. Kline. Read more about that book here.

A Halloween poem from Czesław Miłosz

Sunday, October 31st, 2021

I’ve been on the road, giving talks for Czesław Miłosz: A California Life at the University of Chicago, San Francisco’s legendary City Lights Bookstore, and soon at the University of California, Berkeley. Now I’m camped out at Harvard for a few days. I’ll post links and photos soon.

Meanwhile, here’s a timely poem from the subject of my book, Czesław Miłosz, which comes to me courtesy NEA fellow Jim May on Twitter. The poem written in South Hadley. No doubt the Polish poet was visiting his friend and fellow Nobelist Joseph Brodsky.

Postscript on 10/31 from Stanford Prof. Grisha Freidin: “Exile, multiplied by another poet’s exile, by the melancholy season, by the Styx-like river, with the other shore still shrouded in darkness… Note absence of self-pity. Quintessential Czesław.”

“The Man Who Brought Brodsky into English” in the TLS: “Kline emerges as human, warm and vividly idiosyncratic in the pages of [Cynthia] Haven’s volume …”

Monday, June 7th, 2021

The Man Who Brought Brodsky into English: Conversations with George L. Kline is finally in the pages of the Times Literary Supplement. We’d seen the online version, but there’s nothing like viewing the printed page – so here it is for you. In the words of reviewer Stephanie Sandler: “[George] Kline emerges as human, warm and vividly idiosyncratic in the pages of [Cynthia] Haven’s volume …” Also reviewed, the Selected Poems 1968-1996, edited by Ann Kjellberg, and Joseph Brodsky and Collaborative Self-Translation, by Natasha Rulyova.

From Ann Kjellberg’s introduction to the new Selected, which was published in English in The New York Review of Books and in Russia’s Colta: “We now live in a time of which Brodsky was an advance scout – a time when any writers operate beyond their original borders and outside their mother tongues, often, like Brodsky, bearing witness to violence and disruption, often answering, through art, to those experiences, in language refracted, by necessity, through other language. In Brodsky’s moment there was a cluster of poets, some from the margins of empire, some, like Brodsky, severed from their roots – Walcott, Heaney, Paz, Milosz, to name a few – who brought with them commanding traditions, as well as the imprint of history’s dislocations. We would do well now to attend to their song, standing as they did in our doorway between a broken past and the language’s future.”

And read the whole story of Brodsky’s “rich, complicated legacy” in the TLS here.

The odd couple: Nobel poet Joseph Brodsky and the man who brought him into English, George Kline

Sunday, April 11th, 2021

The introduction to my new book, The Man Who Brought Brodsky Into English: Conversations with George L. Kline, is online over at The Literary Hub, known to most of us as LitHub or simply “The Hub.”

You can read it here. Or you can start below:

George L. Kline translated more of Nobel laureate Joseph Brodsky’s poems than any other single person, with the exception of Brodsky himself. He described himself to me as “Brodsky’s first serious translator.” Bryn Mawr’s Milton C. Nahm Professor of Philosophy was a modest and retiring man, but on occasion he could be as forthright and adamant as Brodsky himself. In a 1994 letter, the Slavic scholar wrote: “Akhmatova 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.” It was all true. He was, moreover, one of the few translators who was a fluent Russian speaker.

Brodsky’s first book in America, 1973’s Joseph Brodsky: Selected Poems, changed my life as well as the poet’s—and all the translations were Kline’s. The meditative poems of time, consciousness, suffering, alienation, even redemption sounded a note that was octaves above the free-form narcissism, the weary story of the self that typified American poetry at the time. This book established a Western audience for Brodsky, and blew open a window to the East. I studied with him at the University of Michigan, and that was a formative experience, too, as it was for so many of his protégées who became writers in his wake.

This is the story of how that book was born, and what happened in the years following. The three-decade collaboration of Kline and Brodsky is a tale that has not been told in its entirety until now.

The first translation one reads of a foreign poet makes an indelible impression, and so I confess a bias, since Kline’s translations were the first that I read. But my preference wasn’t wholly subjective; and I wasn’t alone—they made an impression on the entire Anglophone world. They also launched a stunning, unconventional literary career in the West for Brodsky.


He was obviously not a superstar poet—such as Richard Wilbur, or Seamus Heaney, or Anthony Hecht, who also translated Brodsky’s poetry although they didn’t know Russian—but rather a Slavic scholar with a serious interest in poetry. This book shows how deep this philosopher’s commitment was, and that these poems were not the whimsy of a dilettante. His translations were important not only because they were the first, but because they tried to preserve, as Brodsky wished, the metrical and rhyme schemes of the original, often with surprising sensitivity and success.

As I pored over the book with the stylized green-and-purple portrait on the cover as a university student, I knew nothing of the translator, George L. Kline. Yet the book, the man, and the poet would be one of the more remarkable adventures of my life. The three of us formed an unlikely troika of temperaments and training, friendship and estrangements.

George was meticulous, reserved, and deeply principled; Brodsky was an evident genius, a Catherine wheel of a man, who fraternized with the leading cultural figures of his time. The two were lucky to have found each other; yet their personalities were worlds apart. I entered the scene writing about both men decades later, undoubtedly one of the girls described in Brodsky’s 1972 poem “In the Lake District,” the place where he had been appointed “to wear out the patience of the ingenuous local youth.”

Read the rest here.

“The Man Who Brought Brodsky into English”: a Q&A

Saturday, March 27th, 2021

Boston College”s Prof. Maxim D. Shrayer, author of Waiting for America and Leaving Russia, interviewed me about my new book just out this month: I’m happy to say The Man Who Brought Brodsky into English: George L. Kline in Conversation is now available wherever you buy books. The interview:

Cynthia, let me begin by asking you to describe your path to the book—a double path that led you to Joseph Brodsky and to George L. Kline.


I studied with Joseph Brodsky at the University of Michigan—his first port of call in the U.S. It was psychological and aesthetic jolt, like sticking your finger into a light socket. And yes, we memorized hundreds of lines of poetry in his classes.

For many of us, Brodsky’s Selected Poems in 1973 was a radical reorganization of what poetry can be and mean in our times. However, I didn’t connect with the book’s translator, George Kline, until after I published Joseph Brodsky: Conversations in 2002. George and I stayed connected with Christmas cards and occasional phone calls. But we’d never actually met face to face—so I had no real sense of his age, until in late 2012, when he mentioned that he was almost 92.

George was a champion for Joseph Brodsky and his poetry—many people know that, but many don’t know that he was also a wise and kindly supporter of poets, Slavic scholars, and translators everywhere. He had never given a full account of his collaboration with the Russian-born Nobel poet, however, and I realized time was running out. So we began recording conversations.

His health was failing, and our talks became shorter and more infrequent. Towards the end, he urged me to augment our interviews with his articles, correspondence, and papers, reconstructing a portrait of his collaboration with Brodsky. George died in 2014.

His death was a huge loss for the field of Russian studies. But for you and your work, unimaginable… What was it like continuing without him?

The effort was more than a jigsaw puzzle. I felt like I was carefully gluing together a model airplane to take us to another world – a world that began with Soviet Leningrad in the 1960s where George met the young red-headed poet and ended with the poet’s death at his home in Brooklyn in 1996. More than that, it was the world that Brodsky created with his poems, which they both inhabited.

What role did Kline play in Brodsky’s life and literary career, and what did Brodsky mean to Kline?

George translated more of Brodsky’s poetry into English than anyone else, with the exception of Brodsky himself. Poetry was an avocation for George, but my goodness—look at how George evolved as a translator from his early “Elegy for John Donne” to his stunning translation of “The Butterfly” a decade later!

Incidentally, many people also do not know that Kline was a highly regarded Slavic scholar, writing about Russian religion and philosophy. His obituaries in journals focused on that work, not his work with Joseph Brodsky!

Joseph Brodsky was the adventure of George Kline’s life, I think. He found himself lunching with world poets and attending the Nobel awards ceremonies in Stockholm. But it wasn’t his world or natural habitat, and George knew that.

How would you describe Kline’s approach to translating Brodsky? Why do you think Brodsky—who at times wasn’t easy to please—appreciated Kline’s translations?

It was an unlikely partnership, in temperament and training, but one trait they shared was a commitment to maintaining the formal scheme—rhyme, meter, and so on—of the original poem.

George was also insistent that nothing be added to or subtracted from the poem. Of course, Joseph changed his poems freely, but that was the poet’s prerogative—not the translator’s.

I said that George evolved as a translator—well, Brodsky changed, too. He was extremely lucky to have found Kline early in his poetic career. But as he became an internationally recognized writer, he had a greater range of translators to choose from, some of them outstanding poets in their own right: Anthony Hecht, Richard Wilbur, Derek Walcott among them. George sometimes felt sidelined, inevitably. But George had a full, rich life of his own.

A riveting teacher at the University of Michigan
(Photo: Terrence McCarthy)

Where do you think Brodsky’s poetry, often described as “metaphysical,” found common ground with Kline’s own philosophical interests and pursuits?

They both had a sacred vision of the world—and of the word. Both defy easy categorization. Kline was loosely “Unitarian,” Brodsky caught or suspended between Judaism and Christianity. At one point he described himself as a Calvinist, at other times his vision seemed almost Catholic—given his love of Italy, how could it be otherwise?

George remembers seeing a volume of Nikolay Berdyaev on Brodsky’s desk when he first visited the poet’s his Leningrad room—The Philosophy of the Free Spirit. That may indicate his turn of mind as well. Another point of connection with the philosophy professor.

One poem Kline loved, and that he unfailingly presented at readings, was Brodsky’s “Nunc Dimittis.” It’s Jewish and Christian, illustrating the transition between the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, both powerfully represented. The dying Simeon and the infant Christ, who grows in cosmic and historical dimensions. That poem alone shows the fusion of those two sides of himself.

The years since his early days have seen many more translations. How do you feel about more recent English retranslations of Brodsky’s poems? 

The more the merrier. Kline himself wanted to see more translations of Brodsky’s work, he was a translation “liberal.” There are always trade-offs in translation. He wanted to see what others would do. Brodsky is said to be untranslatable. If so, the best we can do is have multiple translations and triangulate meaning. As English speakers living in 21st century America, we also need to have a better understanding of the art of translation—and its necessary choices, sacrifices, limits. That’s what this book is for.

Finally, Cynthia, if one were to play devil’s advocate or dismiss totalizing explanations by suggesting that Kline wasn’t the only person who “brought Brodsky into English”—there were after all W.H. Auden and Carl Proffer—what might your response be?

Oh heavens! I would never wish to diminish the legacy of either of those remarkable men. Both are pivotal in Brodsky’s story. I’m delighted that mine is the second book—after Ellendea Proffer Teasley’s Brodsky Among Us—to appear in the book series you curate for Academic Studies Press. Both the Proffers had vital roles in Joseph’s life and work. There should be a statue to them in Russia. I’ve said that before.

Carl Proffer brought Brodsky to America, meeting him in Vienna, changing the poet’s plans and planes, diverting him to the U.S., and finagling a University of Michigan appointment for the young man who had dropped out of school at 15. Joseph himself said that Carl Proffer “was simply an incarnation of all the best things that humanity and being American represent.”

W.H. Auden’s foreword in Selected Poems was critical. It launched Brodsky’s first important book in the West. It also began a personal friendship that was foundational for Brodsky as a poet and a human being. But Auden didn’t bring the poems into English.

George made a home for Joseph in the English language, beginning in the first days of his exile, as they revised poems together at Goose Pond in the Berkshires. George Kline is behind the Selected—not only in his translations, but in getting it published at a high level where it would get the world attention it merited.

Don’t forget that when Kline heard about the Nobel prize on the radio, he called London to offer his congratulations to Brodsky. The poet replied, “And congratulations to you, too, George.”

Cynthia, congratulations to you on the book, and may it have a long life.

Joseph Brodsky teaching at the University of Michigan, Spring 1973 (Photo: Terrence McCarthy)