A poet dies, far too soon with much left to say -- and thanks for your attentions

February 04, 1996|By MICHAEL PAKENHAM

"All literature is about what time does to people," the Swedish Academy's 1987 Nobel Prize citation of Joseph Aleksandrovich Brodsky said, referring to what it took to be "a main theme in his writing." The statement went on: "Parting, becoming deformed, growing old, dying are the work of time. Poetry helps us, gives us basically the only possibility of withstanding the pressure of existence."

Last week, time caught up with Brodsky, much too soon. He was 55 and at the top of his richness of spirit and expression. There were countless miracles of courage, celebration, insight left within his mind and heart.

There is now a run on his books, naturally enough. There will be countless tributes and readings and writing, and properly so. But there can be only one truly serious act to be undertaken in his name: Read poetry, make it part of your daily life.

One of his famous arguments, half ironic and yet entirely earnest, was that America should flood its supermarkets, motels, drug stores, airports, bus stations and the like with very inexpensive volumes of comprehensible poetry.

Much of his work is stunningly comprehensible. Snippets taken from longer poems somehow don't work for me, so I will spare you that here. But even if you have never read a word written by Joseph Brodsky, and not a line of poetry by anybody at all since your sophomore year, try wandering through the pages of his 1988 "To Urania," his last volume of verse, or his 1978 "A Part of Speech."

Time can be cruel and sometimes stupid. But, that said, it seems very likely that a century from now when serious people look for the best poetry of the last quarter of the 20th century, they will find that of Brodsky among a tiny small number.

Better yet, read him now and save yourself the tedium of 100 years' wait.

Thanks for your thoughts - and concerns

Two weeks ago, I noted that a year had passed since The Sun's coverage of books had been reconceived, and asked you for reactions.

Heartfelt thanks to everybody who responded. Many offered insights that will be useful as The Sun moves along. An undeservedly large number were very gratifyingly supportive. Those that found fault - some with wonderful enthusiasm - were genuine, attentive and instructive.

In balance, of all the letters and cards I received, 30 percent were critical of what we have been doing here, most of them hotly so; 70 percent said they do like it, many of those very warmly.

Among detractors, there was no single theme, except impressive strength of conviction. Several wrote of detesting the entertainments we publish above here, beneath the best seller lists. Several others bemoaned the scarcity of reviews or surveys of best-selling genre fiction.

One articulate critic asked "Why does The Argument so often strike me as something which, with rare exceptions, could more aptly be called The Waste of Space Which Could Be Used More Productively For Reviewing Books?" - and added that, in general "you have achieved a resounding mediocrity." Several indicted our reviews and my columns for "smugness" and "condescension."

Both supportive and critical letters contained suggestions. Overwhelmingly, the most prominent - almost half of all the writers - was a plea for more space devoted to books, both here on Sunday and in the daily pages of The Sun.

These and the other recommendations already have become part of an ongoing reconsideration of the content and distribution of space in the Sunday editions. That process will continue for several months before completion - probably this autumn. I hope the final decisions will include additional space for bookish matters.

Many letter-writers, both pro and con, asked for more coverage here of books, of authors, of the book trade, of the literary life, and such matters. One thoughtfully chastised The Sun for appraising Hillary Rodham Clinton's "It Takes a Village" on the Op-Ed Page and not on these pages.

Roles and virtues

That expression of interest is gratifying and exciting. The editors of The Sun are acutely aware of its importance. As a result, articles about books, authors and the contents of books are regularly published in virtually every section and department of this newspaper.

Among their many roles and virtues, books rise most insistently in my mind as the main source, and often the origin, of the enduringly important ideas at play in all of human affairs. Books, both current and dog-eared, hold truths and provocations about every area a newspaper concerns itself with.

Sometimes the most appropriate venue for examining a book on politics will be these pages. Sometimes it will be the opinion pages, sometimes the main news sections or Today. Sometimes different aspects of the same book or author will find useful places in several sections.

Something like 45,000 new books are being published each year in the United States. It is the nature of the industry that nobody is confident of a precise figure. But one certainty is that new books will keep on pouring out - beautiful and dreadful, exciting and mind-numbing, enduring and evanescent.

And we will go on trying to look at them - here and throughout The Sun - as interestingly and usefully as we can manage. With your help.

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