Posts Tagged ‘Marina Tsvetaeva’

Do Nina Kossman’s new translations of Tsvetaeva capture her “doom-eager splendor”? See what you think.

Saturday, November 7th, 2020
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Kossman at the Tsvetaeva Museum in Moscow.

Twenty years ago, critic Harold Bloom wrote to the young poet Nina Kossman to tell her that her “intensely eloquent” translations of the poet Marina Tsvetaeva manage to “capture the doom-eager splendor of a superbly gifted poet.” W.S. Merwin wrote that these are “direct, strong, audible translations,” adding, “I hear Tsvetaeva’s voice, more of it, and in a new pitch, which makes something clear in her poems that I had only guessed at before.”

Her most recent collection, Other Shepherdswas published earlier this year by Poets & Traitors Press. Kossman’s collection pairs about a hundred poems, half by Tsvetaeva and half by her fellow Muscovite translator. Kossman pairs them “not in competition but with humility,” making of this doubling a new kind of conversation. As she writes in the Preface, “The aim is not to emulate her but to create a dialogue between her poem and mine, a resonance possible not only between two poets but between two eras. My goal is not to aspire to her heights, which are unscalable, as they are hers and no one else’s, but to approach her and to speak.”

As for the title, she writes: “Other Shepherds comes from my translation of Tsvetaeva’s poem which ends with, “There is an island—thank God!— / Where I don’t need a tambourine, / Where black wool/ Hangs from every fence. Yes / —There are in the world black flocks, / Other shepherds.” (1920).”

“Although the poem’s protagonist is addressing a lover, I took the last line slightly out of its amorous context and used it in a broader sense, in a kind of social, or rather, existential sense,” she explains. “I don’t believe that I have sinned against the poet by looking at her poem this way; in fact, I think the poem is quite amenable to this interpretation, especially if we look at the ending of the penultimate stanza. ‘In your flock there was no / Sheep blacker than I’ which resonates far beyond the personal context of a rejected woman speaking to her lover.”

A “black sheep,” for sure.

Nina Kossman was born in “the same Communist dystopia that, a few decades before my birth, led Marina Tsvetaeva to commit suicide by hanging.” She writes that it was a place where “‘being different,’ an uncomfortable feeling in any society at any time, led to much more than the usual social ostracism; where comrades were clearly divided into ‘white sheep’ and ‘black sheep,’ and where the black sheep didn’t end up very well.”

“Since I left the Soviet Union as a child, my experience of ‘black-sheep-ness’ was somewhat limited, but I have been very aware of my parents’ experience, particularly that of my mother—a Jew, a daughter of an ‘enemy of the people,’ a student of genetics in the era of Lysenko (the official Soviet biologist who rejected genetics), and thus thrice an outsider in the society that didn’t tolerate outsiders,” she explains.

“The title has another meaning too. Having lived in two so- called ‘superpowers,’ i.e. having spent my childhood in the Soviet Union, where personal freedoms were curtailed, and my youth and adulthood in ‘something of its opposite’ (my way of referring to the US as a teenager) with its seemingly unlimited personal freedoms, I found both wanting. Being a ‘black sheep’ in the Soviet Union was not only painful psychologically. It pushed you to the edge of a very real abyss, since a threat of physical extermination was real. In the US, being a black sheep in a herd, a society where outsiders are accepted, yields only psychological pain. And so an immigrant from the former Soviet Union swings between these two. These are two very different kinds of ‘black-sheep-ness,’ one hard core and the other soft. The black sheep consciousness continues in the so-called free world, attenuated, without the attendant fear of physical extermination.”

Do her poem pairings do the job? See a sample of the pairings below:

 

“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.

Defending the “Eros of difficulty”

Sunday, March 22nd, 2015
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Sor_Juana_Inés_de_la_Cruz_(Miguel_Cabrera)

Every schoolkid in Mexico knows her poems.

One of the grace notes in my long career was writing for the Los Angeles Times Book Review when Steve Wasserman was its editor (I’ve written about him before here and here and here and here.) It was, at that time, the best book review in the country – the one that consistently offered the greatest number of “must-read” articles every single week. Here’s one of the things that made it terrific, in Steve’s own words:

In 1997, Penguin announced that it would publish a volume of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz’s selected writings. Years ago, Carlos Fuentes had told me of this remarkable 17th-century Mexican nun and poet. I had never heard of her. Nor was I alone. Much of her work had yet to be translated into English, even some 300 years after her death. It was, Fuentes said, a scandal, as if Shakespeare had still to be translated into Spanish. The whole of Spanish literature owed a debt to her genius. Thus I decided that an anthology of her writings, newly translated by the excellent Margaret Sayers Peden and published under the imprimatur of Penguin Classics, ought to be treated as news. After all, about a quarter of the readers of the Los Angeles Times had Latino roots.

I asked Octavio Paz, Mexico’s greatest living poet and critic, to contribute a lengthy essay on Sor Juana. When he agreed, I felt I had gotten something worth playing big on the front page of the Book Review. But when I showed my superiors the color proof of the cover, I was met with incomprehension. Sor Juana who? A nun who’d been dead for almost half a millennium? Had I taken complete leave of my senses? Couldn’t I find something by someone living who might be better known to our many subscribers, say, the latest thriller from James Patterson?

Dispirited, I trundled up to the paper’s executive dining room to brood upon the wisdom of my decision. When Alberto Gonzalez, the paper’s longtime Mexican-American waiter, appeared to take my order, seeing the proof before me, he exhaled audibly and exclaimed: “Sor Juana!” “You’ve heard of her?” I asked. “Of course,” he said. “Every school child in Mexico knows her poems. I still remember my parents taking me as a boy to visit her convent, now a museum. I know many of her poems by heart.” At which point, in a mellifluous Spanish, he began to recite several verses. So much for my minders, I thought; I’m going to trust Alberto on this one.

After Paz’s paean appeared in the Sunday edition, many people wrote to praise the Book Review for at last recognizing the cultural heritage of a substantial segment of the paper’s readers. Their response suggested, at least to me, that the best way to connect with readers was to give them the news that stays news. In the end, it hardly mattered. In the summer of 2009, four years after I left, the Tribune Company, which had bought the Times for more than $8 billion, shuttered the Review. The staff was mostly sacked.

Well, this is just one of the many reasons I loved the late, lamented L.A. Times Book Review. Steve also had the courage to publish my piece on Irma Kudrova‘s remarkable work on Marina Tsvetaeva, Death of a Poet, which had not yet been published in English (my long ago piece is here). The book was published by Overlook Press as a result of the interest. Kudrova, one of those lifelong devotees every Russian poet of any stature attracts, had access to Lubyanka prison interrogation records during the brief period they were made available to the public in pre-Putin Russia, which makes her record even more imperative.

The excerpt above is from Steve’s essay, “In Defense of Difficulty,” appearing in the The American Conservative, a notable departure for this staunchly left-wing writer who contributes regularly to Truthdig – I applaud his attempt to fight our current  ideological segregation; it’s high time people learn to actually talk to one another again, especially on issues that should concern us all. Although he has described a telling incident from his L.A. Times days, the subject of his article is not self-promotion (I can do that for him) but rather the disappearance of serious criticism in our culture: “the ideal of serious enjoyment of what isn’t instantly understood is rare in American life. It is under constant siege. It is the object of scorn from both the left and the right. The pleasures of critical thinking ought not to be seen as belonging to the province of an elite. They are the birthright of every citizen. For such pleasures are at the very heart of literacy, without which democracy itself is dulled. More than ever, we need a defense of the Eros of difficulty.” (Cough, cough, Geoffrey Hill, cough, cough.)

wasserman2

Preach it, Steve.

I know, I know… don’t the old ‘uns always crab about the times? Yes and no. There are periods where this is not true, and everyone knows it – I think people do tend to know when they’re living in a golden age. In any case, shouldn’t an argument be evaluated on its own merits, and not whether or not others have said it before? Prima facie evidence is the disappearance of the book review section he once edited. Steve gets some reinforcement from such critics as Evgeny Morozov and Jaron Lanier, who worried that “whatever advantages might accrue to consumers and the culture at large from the emergence of such behemoths as Amazon, not only would proven methods of cultural production and distribution be made obsolete, but we were in danger of being enrolled, whether we liked it or not, in an overwhelmingly fast and visually furious culture that, as numerous studies have shown, renders serious reading and cultural criticism increasingly irrelevant, hollowing out habits of attention indispensable for absorbing long-form narrative and sustained argument.” As Leon Wieseltier, of the recently trashed New Republic, wrote, “Writing is not typed talking.” I think, as Steve rightly points out, “A culture filled with smooth and familiar consumptions produces in people rigid mental habits and stultified conceptions.”

I have often rebelled against editors who have insistently tried to excise exotic words and phrases from my copy, in favor of the well-worn, the over-familiar, even the clichéd – so Steve, who is now editor at large for Yale University Press, has me in his pocket with this one: “Sometimes it feels as if the world is divided into two classes: one very large class spurns difficulty, while the other very much smaller delights in it. There are readers who, when encountering an unfamiliar word, instead of reaching for a dictionary, choose to regard it as a sign of the author’s contempt or pretension, a deliberate refusal to speak in a language ordinary people can understand. Others, encountering the same word, happily seize on it as a chance to learn something new, to broaden their horizons. They eagerly seek a literature that upends assumptions, challenges prejudices, turns them inside out and forces them to see the world through new eyes. The second group is an endangered species … The exercise of cultural authority and artistic or literary or aesthetic discrimination is seen as evidence of snobbery, entitlement and privilege lording it over ordinary folks.”

He also describes Theodor Adorno‘s reaction to receiving his good friend Gershom Sholom‘s translation of the Zohar. (I wrote about the current effort to get that dense and esoteric masterwork into English here.)  Adorno wrote that the casual reader will only discern the general schema, “which is truly revealed only at the price of a lifetime’s commitment – nothing less.”

“The price of a lifetime’s commitment.” Nothing less. I like that. Read the whole thing here. Meanwhile, I think I’ll go find that Penguin paperback on Sor Juana.

“It matters to hear speech on the streetcar”: a new interview with Joseph Brodsky

Saturday, February 2nd, 2013
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No principles, just nerves.

A few days ago, all the social media were atwitter with a newly published 1987 interview with Joseph Brodsky.  The piece opened with a comment on his leaving the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters in 1972, to protest of the organization’s induction of the Soviet poet Yevgeni Yevtushenko as an honorary member.  Hmmmm???

Nyet!  Something was wrong. A Soviet poet who had already endured KGB interrogations and arrests, a famous trial, and a long stretch to cool his heels in the far North was not  going to be joining elite American literary organizations – not in 1972.  His departure from the organization was in fact in 1987.  I wrote a comment. I got an emailed reply from the beleaguered blogger and journalist, Marcia DeSanctis.  She’s a very experienced and knowledgeable reporter of all things Russian, and suffered a mortifying slip of the pen in the course of tweeking a phrase.  Well, who among us bloggers could not confess to one or two of those?  In fact, I consoled her with the story of a monstrous gaffe of my own that happened the same way, which I’ll save for another time. Unless Richard Kaluzynski outs me first.

A poet, too?

But I gave a closer look to Marcia’s online oeuvre as a result – and I was impressed.

Over the days since, the former ABC news journalist has shared her transcripts and letters from Vladimir Voinovich and Yuz Aleshkovsky from the summer of 1987 over at Tin House.  All three interviews were incorporated in an article she wrote for the The Christian Science Monitor.

Here’s the one with J.B., and it’s got some pretty good stuff:

MD: Then who do you consider the most significant writers in the Russian language?

JB:  The Possessed by Dostoevsky is still the best and most accurate example of the Russian psyche in literature. Platonov is one of the greatest Russian poet, absolutely singular. And Tsvetaeva. These are huge and significant writers. For Russians, Tsvetaeva might be the most important of all. In general, the tenor of Russian literature is consolation – the justification of the existential order on the highest plane of regard. Justification for the Russian nation. Tsvetaeva is a departure from that – her voice doesn’t offer that. She was a writer who regarded reality as unjustifiable – controlled, in a sense, by arbitrary force – the philosophy of discomfort in negative human potential. Her spirit and the spirit of her writing is totally non-orthodox, Calvinist, provides you with discomfort. What distinguishes a writer is the spiritual information the writer offers. Nabokov doesn’t offer that. For all his elegance and precision, he’s a soothing author but Tsvetaeva is of more consequence.

Who knew the author of The Foundation Pit was a poet, too, let alone a great one?  I didn’t.  Either Brodsky misspoke and meant to say prose, or else somebody better get busy with translations.

MD: How important is it to you whether or not you are published in the USSR?

Reality is unjustifiable.

JB: I have no principles, I have only nerves. I’ve never cared very much about what’s happening with my work. I was lucky to have people in Russia interested in me, without having been published. I don’t give a damn whether I am or am not published there. I know that one day, I’ll die and will be published.

I write little poems when I feel like it. Over the years it became my profession. What started out as a deviation became my occupation, and from there came discipline and routine. I trust inertia more than the creative impulse. Stravinsky said, “I do it for myself and my probable alter ego.” I think that every writing career starts as a personal quest for personal betterment. To achieve some kind of sainthood, to make yourself better than you are. You quickly notice that the pen operates more efficiently than the soul. More success as a writer means the loss, somewhat, of the soul. You get on a collision course, and away from your original goal. This results in a terrific personal crisis. Take Gogol, who threw the manuscript of Dead Souls into the fireplace. To bring the work together with the soul as much as possible takes extraordinary effort. It’s no different today than when I was 24.

MD:  You speak English quite well but you write in Russian. Is it problematic as a writer to be exiled from your mother tongue?

JB:   The only problem with writing in Russian is that it matters to hear speech on the streetcar. Those things set you up to find the words in your gut. Elsewhere, you’re bound to become idiosyncratic, hermetic, self-sufficient. You derive pride from being self-reliant. You become an autonomous system, a spacecraft, and it depends on how strong your batteries are. But in the long run, you’re an autonomous entity anyway, one way or another. The less you deceive yourself, the better. Otherwise, the result is a tragic worldview.

George Kline: scholar, translator, and chronicler of Soviet bugaboos

Wednesday, January 16th, 2013
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In 1974…

George L. Kline is someone you’ve likely never heard of, unless you have an interest in Russian philosophy,” writes Michael McIntyre over at “Extravagant Creation.”

Well, that’s not quite true.  Those of us who know Russian poetry will know his translations of Joseph Brodsky, and perhaps also of Boris Pasternak, Marina Tsvetaeva, and others.  The Eric Voegelin scholar Paul Caringella alerted me to McIntyre’s 2010 post, which celebrates my Bryn Mawr friend and correspondent:

What’s so great about reading Kline is that you are not only learning at the hands of someone who has thoroughly mastered his field, you are doing so via writing that is at once scholarly and accessible, that doesn’t take ten pages to explain what only needs one page.  Kline’s monographs are few in number – he seems to prefer writing articles and book chapters – and relatively brief in length.

In the academic world of publish-or-perish overproduction, that comes as a splash of sanity.  McIntyre is attuned to a side of my scholarly  friend that I had overlooked – for example, his 1968 book Religious and Anti-Religious Thought in Russia (University of Chicago Press).  To my shame, I didn’t know George had written such a book, but I immediately made amends by ordering it for $5.60 on Abebooks.

A “chamber of horrors”?

The history George describes is a fascinating one:

Some former churches – notably the former Kazan Cathedral in Leningrad – were turned into anti-religious museums that included “chambers of horrors” exhibits that graphically portrayed torture practices used during the Spanish Inquisition.  In 1960 alone, half a million people visited the anti-religious museum in Leningrad; many groups of children were sent there by their schools and they were treated to guided tours by museum staff who provided them with extensive anti-religious commentary.  Religious instruction for children was restricted to private homes only, in groups of three or less.  Since 1962, children could be baptized only if both parents applied for it, and both parents supplied a certificate from their workplace or place of residence (the issuers of these certificates were expected to do all they could to try to dissuade the “misguided” parents).

From the posts of some of my more virulently anti-religious Facebook friends, one would think that the “chamber of horrors” is overdue for revival.  In any case, one could see why Joseph Brodsky’s “Elegy to John Donne” was such a knock-out punch in the U.S.S.R., and why George was so swept away by it, as the Book Haven explained yesterday.  Take, for example, the concluding lines of the poem:

Man’s garment gapes with holes. It can be torn,
… And only the far sky,
in darkness, brings the healing needle home.
Sleep, John Donne, sleep. Sleep soundly, do not fret
your soul. As for your coat, it’s torn; all limp
it hangs.  But see, there from the clouds will shine
that Star which made your world endure till now.

I’ve benefited greatly over the years from George’s tireless generosity, scholarly precision, and remarkable experiences.  So have others.  From “George L. Kline: An Appreciation,” included in the 1994 book Russian Thought After Communism : The Recovery of a Philosophical Heritage (edited by James P. Scanlan):

In many ways as important as Kline’s formal teaching is the informal help he has provided to a multitude of students and colleagues in the field, not only in the United States but throughout the world.  Anyone who has sought George Kline’s advice or assistance on some matter relating to Russian philosophy is fully aware of his remarkable readiness to share information from his vast store of knowledge, go over a translation, review a paper, or comment on a research project – all with the most careful and patient attention, the highest scholarly standards, and the most humane sensitivity to the needs and interests of others.

It’s a joy to discover people like George L. Kline!

Couldn’t agree more.

Brodsky and Donne in the Arctic: “the image of a body in space.”

Tuesday, January 15th, 2013
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At the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, in 1972.

In the mid-1960s, a colleague asked George Kline  what he thought of the young, little-known poet Joseph Brodsky.  George replied that hadn’t seen enough of his work, only the odd bit of verse here and there in translation.  Then the colleague pulled out the samizdat “Elegy for John Donne from mid-way through a large stack of papers on his desk.  The poem, written when the Leningrad poet was 23, was unlike anything else coming out of Russia.

Roommates.

At least, this is the story that George told me in a recent conversation. George, of course, went on to play a pivotal role in the poet’s life, and he in his.  He translated the poems that made the future Nobel laureate’s reputation in the West with the Penguin Selected.

I was thinking of his anecdote today.  Then I ran across this article on the Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty website. I had saved the link in my electronic bookmarks for future readings – but then never returned to it.  How did I miss it, probably for a couple years?  The fascinating 1981 interview with Igor Pomeranzev suffered from multiple layers of neglect – mine the most recent.  The radio interview aired only recently, because Pomeranzev hadn’t yet learned the joys of sound editing.

Here are a few excerpts:

Igor Pomerantsev: Your poem “Great Elegy to John Donne” began circulating in samizdat in the Soviet Union in the mid-1960s. Donne was virtually unknown in the Soviet Union at that time. How did you discover him?

Joseph Brodsky: I stumbled across him the same way most people did: in the epigraph of the [Hemingway] novel For Whom The Bell Tolls. [The epigraph is taken from Donne’s “Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions” – Eds]. For some reason I felt this came from a line of verse and so I tried to find a translation of Donne. It was futile. Only later did I guess it was a fragment from a sermon. In some sense, Donne began for me the same way as he did for his English contemporaries. He was much better known in his day as a preacher than a poet.

The most interesting aspect was how I obtained a book of his. I had searched through the anthologies. In 1964 I was given five years [sentence for social parasitism], arrested, and sent to Arkhangelsk Oblast [near the Arctic Circle – CH], and for my birthday Lidiya Korneyevna Chukovskaya sent me, probably from her father’s library, a “Modern Library” edition of Donne. This was when I first read all of Donne’s poetry, read it seriously. …  I wrote it, I think, in ’62, when I knew remarkably little about Donne — in other words practically nothing, except a few fragments from his sermons and poems that I had found in anthologies. The main circumstance that moved me to undertake this poem was the possibility that it seemed to me existed at that period, the possibility of the centrifugal movement of a poem…well, not so much centrifugal… like a stone falling into a pond… and the gradual ripple outwards… a device more from cinematography, yes, when the camera moves back from the center.

So, in answer to your question, I would say it was more the image of the poet. Not so much the image even as the image of a body in space. Donne is English, he lives on an island. And starting with his bedroom, the perspective steadily widens. First the room, then his neighborhood, then London, the whole island, the sea, then his place in the world. At that time, this didn’t so much, I would say, interest me as gripped me at the moment when I was composing it.

Pomerantsev: My next question is more to you as a translator than a poet. You’ve translated several of Donne’s poems. They say a translator is always in competition with the author he translates. How did you feel translating Donne — like a competitor, ally, pupil, or colleague?

Brodsky:  Well, absolutely not as a competitor. Competition with Donne is absolutely out of the question thanks to Donne’s qualities as a poet. He is one of the greatest figures in world literature…A translator, simply a translator, not an ally…Perhaps more of an ally, since a translator is always to some extent an ally. A pupil, yes, because I learned an awful lot by translating him.

The thing is that Russian poetry is overwhelmingly strophic; that is, it operates through extraordinarily simple strophic units – four-line stanzas. While in Donne’s verse I encountered a much more interesting and thrilling structure. He creates extraordinarily complex strophic constructions. I found it very interesting, and very instructive. So, consciously or unconsciously, I began doing the same but not as a competitor – as a pupil. That was probably the main lesson. And then again, when you read or translate Donne you learn from his view of things. What I really liked about Donne was the translation of the heavenly to the earthly – i.e., the translation of the eternal to the transient… Is this too long?

Pomerantsev: No.

Brodsky:  It’s quite interesting, because there’s an awful lot to be said about this. In fact, it’s like Tsvetaeva said: “The voice of heavenly truth against earthly truth.” Except it isn’t so much “against” as the translation of heavenly truth into the language of earthly truth, i.e. of eternal phenomena into transient language. And both win as a result. It is merely the bringing nearer…how to put it…the expression of the seraphic order. Once it is spoken of, the seraphic order becomes more real. And this wonderful interaction is actually the essence, the bread of poetry. …

 And for him there was no such thing as antagonism. I mean that antagonism for him existed as an expression of antagonism generally, in the world, in nature, but not as a specific antagonism…There’s so much that could be said about him. As a poet, he was fairly uneven stylistically. Coleridge said something remarkable about him. He said that when you read Donne’s successors, the poets of around a century later, Dryden, Pope and so on, everything comes down to counting syllables and feet, while reading Donne you measure not the number of syllables but time. That’s exactly what Donne was doing in his verse. It’s akin to Mandelstam’s drawing out the caesura, yes, holding back an instant, stopping…for something which seems wonderful to the poet for one or another reason. Or the other way around, like in his Voronezh Notebooks, there you have unevenness, jumps, and truncated feet, truncated meter, feverish haste – so as to hasten or eliminate the instant which seems terrible. …

Pomerantsev: And yet the poets of the ’20s and ’30s, like Eliot, managed to see in Donne…

Brodsky:  Yes?

Pomerantsev: … the spirit of their time.

Brodsky:  Certainly. Because Donne, with the themes that he raised, with his uncertainty, with the fragmentation or duality of his consciousness is, of course, a poet of our times. The problems he raises are those of mankind as a whole, and especially of man living at a time of excess information, population…

Read the rest here.  It’s never too late, apparently.