Posts Tagged ‘Joseph Brodsky’

Czesław Miłosz and the “wonder eclipse”

Tuesday, January 9th, 2024
His constant regret: that human experience eludes description.

In 2022, Tikkun published an article by the writer Lucien Zell, “The Wonder Eclipse: Scaling the Cliffs of Milosz,” in which he discusses his six-week Community of Writers” master class led by Pulitzer-prizewinning poet Robert Hass. The inevitable subject was Czesław Miłosz, since Hass’s life was transfigured by his contact with the Polish Nobelist. Hass became his foremost translator into English. Well, so many lives were changed by Miłosz. Mine too.

Zell discusses an interesting translation imbroglio with Miłosz’s 1936 poem “Encounter” in which the poet recalls a wagon ride through frozen Lithuanian fields at dawn. The final lines are famous:

A pupil of wonder, too.

O my love, where are they, where are they going
The flash of a hand, streak of movement, rustle of pebbles.
I ask not out of sorrow, but in wonder.
(Trans. by the poet and Lillian Vallee)

However, on a trip to Poland, another Polish poet told Hass that the poem’s final word (in Polish: zamyślenia) meant, not ‘wonder’, but, rather, ‘pensive contemplation’. “In class, Hass’s sharp scowl well-described his shock and dismay at his ‘poor’ translation . . . till, upon returning to Berkeley and rechecking his notes, he confirmed, breaking into a relieved chuckle, that Milosz himself had suggested ‘wonder’ as the appropriate English rendering of the term. In one of my course’s break-out rooms, we discussed the possibility that Milosz’s perspective had shifted enough to revise his initial poetic impulse, to the extent that by the time he found himself exiled to California (circa 1960s-70s-80s), his own ‘pensive contemplation’ had transmuted to ‘wonder.’”

Hass also described a moment when a colleague, recalling Milosz’s experiences of war and displacement, diagnosed Miłosz with ‘survivor’s guilt.’ Hass corrected him: “No, not guilt—wonder.” As Miłosz wrote in Witness of Poetry: “What surrounds us, here and now, is not guaranteed. It could just as well not exist—and so man constructs poetry out of the remnants found in ruins.” And so, I suspect, we construct our lives, too.

Joseph Brodsky thinks one basic mark of my poetry,” Milosz remarked, in an interview with Renata Gorczyńska, “is the constant regret that human experience eludes description.” Zell recalled what Milosz wrote in a passage from his poem “Notes”: “CONSOLATION: Calm down. Both your sins and your good deeds will be lost in oblivion.”

Read the rest here. And read the whole poem “Encounter” here.

Postscript: Meanwhile, don’t forget to read my own take on the great poet of California, who happened to write in Polish in Czesław Miłosz: A California Life. (Articles about that here.)

According to Cory Oldweiler writing about Czesław Miłosz: A California Life (Berkeley: Heyday Books, 2021) in The Los Angeles Review of Books, “Haven lets us into her thought processes, even when she is questioning them, and lovingly recreates conversations — in the relative present, at a café with Robert Hass as they thumb through Miłosz’s 2001 volume New and Collected Poems; and in the recent past, at Miłosz’s Grizzly Peak home as the poet drinks bourbon and chats with friends into the wee hours.”

Said Ilya Kaminsky, author of Deaf Republic
: Czesław Miłosz: A California Life asks about the meaning of exile, about the possibilities of a new home, about the transformation of a poetic perspective, about alienation and the building of literary bridges. But in the end, the book asks one big, nearly impossible question: How did the great Polish exile Miłosz change his newfound home—and how did California, after so many years, transform Miłosz’s own metaphysics? For it is a metaphysical question, after all: How does a place change the poet, and what does a poet do to shift our perspective on the place? On this unending journey, Cynthia L. Haven is an illuminating guide, one who brings knowledge, precision, and grace. There is much to learn from this book about Miłosz and California, yes, but also about poetry and the world.”

Eminent critic Leon Wieseltier had the final word: “Cynthia Haven’s book is delicious. She evokes so much so vividly and so intelligently; for me her pages were a restoration of a richer and less lonely time. And her intuition is right: Czeslaw Milosz and California are indeed a chapter in each other’s history.” 

Accept no imitations!

What were Joseph Brodsky’s words on Yevgeny Prigozhin’s grave today?

Tuesday, August 29th, 2023

The funeral of Wagner head Yevgeny Prigozhin was held today at a private cemetery on the outskirts of St Petersburg, his home town. He died when his business jet crashed last week. It’s been two months since he staged an aborted mutiny against Russian military commanders. At that time, his troops briefly took control of the southern city of Rostov and advanced towards Moscow. Vladimir Putin did not attend the services today.

He was buried without military honors, according to Meduza, noting that instead, a few “cryptic” lines from Joseph Brodsky were placed beside his grave.

From The Guardian:

“The farewell to Yevgeny Viktorovich took place in a closed format. Those who wish to say goodbye may visit Porokhovskoye cemetery,” the press service said in its first post on Telegram in two months, ending days of speculation over how the warlord would be laid to rest.

“Pro-Russian media also published images of Prigozhin’s headstone at the Porokhovskoye cemetery. Prigozhin’s name is written on the headstone, alongside a poem by the St Petersburg-born Nobel laureate Joseph Brodsky.”

I wondered which poem was it was, and was not surprised to learn it is “Nature Morte.” As I guessed, it’s the last three stanzas. In George L. Kline‘s translation:

Mary now speaks to Christ:
‘Are you my son? – or God?
You are nailed to the cross.
Where lies my homeward road?

‘Can I pass through my gate
not having understood:
Are you dead? – or alive?
Are you my son? – or God?’

Christ speaks to her in turn:
‘Whether dead or alive,
woman, it’s all the same – 
son or God, I am thine.’

The modest scholar who dared to send poems to Brodsky. Here’s one of them.

Saturday, June 25th, 2022

Nobel poet Joseph Brodsky‘s interactions with his translators were not always harmonious; in fact, sometimes they were downright contentious. Yet there was often a good deal of mutual affection nevertheless – sometimes even devotion.

My interviews with his first translator, the eminent Bryn Mawr philosopher and Slavic scholar George L. Kline, are the basis of my volume, The Man Who Brought Brodsky into English: Conversations with George L. Kline. Kline was one of the key figures in bringing Brodsky to the U.S., and one of the first in the West to recognize his importance as a poet, translating his early 1963 poem Elegy for John Donne, which I was pleased to include in my book (it hadn’t been republished since his first 1973 collection), and bootlegging manuscripts out of the USSR.

Poet and translator had a long tradition of exchanging birthday and holiday messages in verse, often delivered via telegram. It demonstrates the playful friendship that bound the poet and this translator, even through the rough patches when they disagreed about how to translate a line. But, I must admit, it must have taken some courage to send poems to the man who would win a Nobel.

I published several of the poems in the book. Here’s one I missed that I recently found among my papers. It’s dated 1975 – just three years after his expulsion from the U.S.S.R., and sent as a mailgram to Venice, where the poet was spending his holidays:

According to The New York Times
Wet Venice has been saved from sinking.
So let your spirits with her climb,
While light heads banish heavy thinking.

There. How many people would dare to scribble short poems to a world-class poet? I’m rather glad the unassuming scholar did.

Nobel poet Joseph Brodsky to Russia’s leader: “A language is a much more ancient and inevitable thing than a state.”

Monday, February 21st, 2022

When American tourists visiting Soviet Moscow asked Russian Nobel poet Joseph Brodsky where they could get the best view of the Kremlin, he responded gleefully: “from the cockpit of an American bomber.”

He left more quietly, however, on a when he was famously expelled from his homeland in 1972 – but not without sending a letter to the head of the U.S.S.R.: Leonid Ilyich Brezhnev, who held that position longer than anyone except Stalin. The poet told Brezhnev he was “leaving Russia against my will, which you may know something about.” Then he made a job plea: “I want to ask you to give me an opportunity to preserve my presence and my existence in the Russian literary world, at least as a translator, which is what I have been until now…” He was denied this modest role.

“We all face the same sentence.”

His letter of June 4, 1972, begins:

“Dear Leonid Ilich . . . A language is a much more ancient and inevitable thing than a state. I belong to the Russian language. As to the state, from my point of view, the measure of a writer’s patriotism is not oaths from a high platform, but how he writes in the language of the people among whom he lives . . . Although I am losing my Soviet citizenship, I do not cease to be a Russian poet. I believe that I will return. Poets always return in flesh or on paper.”

“From evil, anger, hate – even if justified – we none of us profit. We all face the same sentence. Death. I who write these lines will die; you who read them will, too. Only our deeds will remain, but even they will suffer destruction. It’s hard enough to exist in this world – there’s no need to make it any harder.”

He never published the letter. When asked if he should, he replied, “No, it was a matter between Brezhnev and me.” “And if you published it, then it’s not to Brezhnev?” And the poet replied yes, precisely. Ellendea Proffer Teasley recalled in Brodsky Among Us, “Joseph was bold when he approached the famous and the accomplished. It was not that he was egotistical – although he had a strong ego – it was that he took his calling seriously. This is why he felt he had a right to address Brezhnev – he was a poet and therefore equal to any leader.”

Brezhnev never answered. Why would he answer a letter from an impertinent nobody? And Russia never learned. We mourn the catastrophic decisions today to roll back the clock to the 1980s. As Anne Applebaum wrote today in The Atlantic: “Despite everything that was said, everything that was promised, and everything that was discussed, Ukraine will fight alone. At a dinner last night, a Ukrainian woman whom I first met in 2014—she began her career as an anti-corruption activist—stood up and told the room that not only was she returning to Kyiv, so was her husband, a British citizen. He had recently flown to London on family business, but if there was going to be a war, he wanted to be in Ukraine. The other Ukrainians in the room nodded: They were all scrambling to find flights back too. The rest of us— American, Polish, Danish, British—said nothing. Because we knew that we would not be joining them.”

“All tyrannies rule through fraud and force, but when the fraud is exposed they must rely exclusively on force.” ~ George Orwell.

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.”