Joseph Brodsky: a Spirit Seeking Flesh but Finding Words

DIANE SCHARPER

June 01, 1991|By DIANE SCHARPER

When World War II ended, the Nobel-Prize-winning poet Joseph Brodsky was 5 years old. Yet he remembers much of the post-war chaos. One scene, in particular, stands out.

It occurred as an old, bald, man with a wooden leg tried numerous times to get into one of the railway cars. But people besieged the cattle trains ''like mad insects.'' and each time the man was pushed away. After the train started to move, he managed to grab the handle of one of the cars. Then a woman lifted a kettle and poured boiling water straight onto his head. Brodsky would always remember how the man fell and ''a thousand legs swallowed him up.''

Exiled from the Soviet Union in 1972, Mr. Brodsky, who became (( an American citizen in 1977, is currently professor of literature at Mount Holyoke College. He has taught at numerous universities, among them Columbia and the University of Michigan, where he served as poet in residence. He has published five volumes of poems and a volume of his collected essays, ''Less Than One,'' which won the prestigious National Book Critics Circle award for 1986. In recognition of his distinguished literacy achievement, Brodsky received the 1987 Nobel Prize for literature.

And now the United States has given him the highest honor it reserves for a poet. In September, Joseph Brodsky will succeed Mark Strand as poet laureate and consultant in poetry to the Library of Congress.

Born May 24, 1940, in Leningrad to Russian-Jewish parents, Mr. Brodsky is much more than poet laureate. Many consider him to be the world's greatest living poet, the genius who will take his rightful beside the immortals of literature. Largely self-educated, Brodsky dropped out of school at age 15; he read widely and deeply in philosophy, theology, mythology and literature.

He taught himself the Polish language, which gave him access to major Western writers then unavailable in Russian translation; among them were Joseph Conrad, Marcel Proust, Virginia Woolf, and William Faulkner. He also became familiar with the leading modern Polish poets, including Czeslaw Milosz, another Nobel Prize recipient. Soon he was translating Polish poems into Russian.

By 1958, when he began writing his own poetry, Nikita Khrushchev had decided to harness all the energies of Soviet society to ''socially useful work.'' Because of Mr. Brodsky's talent and independence of mind, he was arrested three times and tried -- not for any political offense (until recently his writing has been apolitical) but for the crime of writing.

In 1964, he was sentenced to five years hard labor in the village of Norinskaya, near the Arctic Circle. Here he was tortured; here during long winter nights, he wrote poems recalling his lost homeland. And here he learned literary English. Using a Russian-English dictionary, he translated poems, including several by W.H. Auden, from Untermeyer's anthology of English and American poetry.

''I remember sitting there,'' Mr. Brodsky says, ''peering through the square porthole-size window at the wet, muddy, dirt road with a few stray chickens on it . . . half-wondering whether my grasp of English wasn't playing tricks on me. I guess I was simply refusing to believe that way back in 1939 an English poet [W.H. Auden] had said, 'Time . . . worships language and forgives/Everyone by whom it lives . . .' ''

Deciding that Auden possessed the greatest mind of the 20th century, Mr. Brodsky taught himself to speak, to read and to write in English and ''put himself into Auden's code of consciousness.'' Mr. Brodsky's poetry had always been intensely personal, addressing themes of love and remembrance. But gradually, language as a creative force became one of his major concerns. Poets don't use language, he said in his Nobel acceptance speech; language uses and lives through the poet, taking the poet ''into that beginning where the Word was.''

And ''if what distinguishes us from animals is speech,'' Mr. Brodsky explained, ''then poetry, being the highest form of locution, is the goal of our species.'' Poems accelerate consciousness. One who writes a poem writes it because the language prompts him -- not the other way around. That prompting, Mr. Brodsky said, ''is the moment when the future of language invades the present.''

Language, as this exiled Russian poet describes it, propels us into the future and forces us to remember the past. By remembering, we make art. Art doesn't attempt to escape reality, according to Mr. Brodsky. It animates reality. ''Art is a spirit seeking flesh but finding words.''

K? *Diane Scharper teaches writing at Towson State University.

North Baltic

When a blizzard powders the harbor, when the creaking pine

leaves in the air an imprint deeper than a sled's steel runner,

what degree of blueness can be gained by an eye? What sign

language can sprout from a chary manner?

Falling out of sight, the outside world

makes a face its hostage: pale, plain, snowbound.

Thus a mollusc stays phosphorescent at the ocean's floor

and thus silence absorbs all speeds of sound.

Thus a match is enough to set a stove aglow;

thus a grandfather clock, a heartbeat's brother,

having stopped this side of the sea, still tock-tocks to show

time at the other.

'

December in Florence

''He has not returned to his old Florence,

even after having died . . .''--Anna Akhmatova There are cities one won't see again. The sun

throws its gold at their frozen windows. But all the same

there is no entry, no proper sum.

There are always six bridges spanning the sluggish river.

There are places where lips touched lips for the first time ever,

or pen pressed paper with real fervor.

There are arcades, colonnades, iron idols that blur your lens.

There the streetcar's multitudes, jostling, dense,

speak in the tongue of a man who's departed thence.

;-

Both poems were translated by the author

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