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Less Than One - Selected Essays , by Joseph Brodsky

Less Than One: Selected Essays - Joseph Brodsky


Man is what he reads, and poets even more so.



Joseph Brodsky, born Iosif Aleksandrovich Brodsky (1940-1996), was, as the name suggests, a Russian of Jewish descent, who emigrated to the USA in 1972. It is never a trivial matter to leave one's own country behind, but for a poet emigration to another language must be particularly wrenching. Nonetheless, Brodsky acclimated himself to the language of his new home well enough that he also became an accomplished poet in English, serving as the Poet Laureate of the United States in 1991 and 1992. But the topic of my discussion today is not Brodsky's poetry, rather it is his collection of essays, Less Than One (1986). 


Less Than One collects eighteen pieces of various origin and of necessarily varying interest, including an extended obituary of Nadezhda Mandelstam, a lecture from a literature course and a commencement address at Williams College. But most are genuine, very perceptive essays focused on poets and poetry. That fact will surely constrain the prospective audience in our benighted times, but for me it was a sweet lure taking me happily from one essay to the next. 


Though the topics of the texts in this collection include Anna Akhmatova (whom Brodsky calls "this century's poet"), W.H. Auden, C.P. Cavafy (whom Brodsky calls "my favorite poet" to my pleased surprise), Eugenio Montale, and post-WWII Russian fiction, I shall focus my discussion on just a few of the essays in order to keep the length of this review within bounds. Somewhat exceptional in their nature are "Flight From Byzantium" and "A Guide to a Renamed City." The latter is a funny and poignant evocation of Brodsky's birthplace, St. Petersburg/Leningrad, from the massive efforts on an Egyptian scale to found it in the swamps and islands of the Neva delta on the very outskirts of the empire to Brodsky's dark present - still a few years before the, at the time, completely unanticipated sudden collapse of the Soviet empire - while the former looks at Constantinople/Istanbul from the perspective of one who recognizes that the "Second Rome" was the source of much of Russian high culture but whose respect for the place in no way prevents him from cracking wise, hilariously and self-deprecatingly. On the other hand, some of his generalizations about the East and Islam are unexpectedly crude.


The eponymous introductory essay gives the reader a glimpse into Brodsky's own life. Unlike all of the other Russian poets I have read, Brodsky was not born into the upper classes. He left school in his mid teens, worked in an armaments factory and landed in the infamous prison The Crosses not long thereafter. It is a wonder that he became a cultured poet, though he had some bookish influences from his mother and one of her brothers. Brodsky writes that the generation of Russians who came to age directly after the end of World War II was the most bookish in history, that his friends spent all their spare time reading books and talking about them passionately. That must surely have had some influence upon him. How ever he managed to do it, he did it, and my hat is off to him for it. 


In "The Child of Civilization" Brodsky looks at the work of Osip Mandelstam in a manner that has helped me to grasp Mandelstam's unique and elusive poetics a bit more firmly (which I shall be revisiting in a later review). In this essay he also admonishes most translators for their immaturity(*) and vociferously complains about the treatment of Russian poetry, particularly Mandelstam's, at the hands of translators into English, briefly suggesting some of the reasons for it. He writes in reference to Mandelstam: "the English speaking world has yet to hear this nervous, high-pitched, pure voice shot through with love, terror, memory, culture, faith - a voice trembling, perhaps, like a match burning in a high wind, yet utterly inextinguishable." But Brodsky did not merely castigate here; he also set an example by giving us in this essay a simply wonderful translation of Mandelstam's poem "Tristia," from which I quote only the first of four stanzas.


I've mastered the great craft of separation
amidst the bare unbraided pleas of night,
those lingerings while oxen chew their ration,
the watchful town's last eyelid shutting tight.
And I revere that midnight rooster's descant
when shouldering the wayfarer's sack of wrong,
eyes stained with tears were peering at the distance
and women's wailings were the Muses' song.


Not only does Brodsky nearly reproduce the structure of the rhymes in the original, but he also provides a rhythmic structure that hints at the original's poetic nature. What a shame that Brodsky did not translate more for us than he did!


At more than seventy pages, "Footnote to a Poem" is a very close reading of Marina Tsvetaeva's 1927 poem "New Year's Greetings," which Brodsky considered "in many respects a landmark not only in her own work but in Russian poetry as a whole." Tsvetaeva, who grew up with the German language as much as the Russian, had a brief, intense and rather one-sided correspondence with Rainer Maria Rilke during 1926 until his sudden death in December. "New Year's Greeting" is a kind of elegy for Rilke, a cry of anguish in which, as Brodsky puts it, "in the dead Rilke Tsvetaeva found what every poet seeks: the supreme listener." In this essay Brodsky turns every aspect of the poetics of this elegy inside out for examination, including - particularly welcome to this reader, who has no grasp of the aural aspects of Russian poetry - how the poem's sounds come about. Thus sensitized, I am ready for another voyage through Tsvetaeva's world.


In a prose style inclined to value brilliance more than precision, to throw off eminently quotable epigrams(**) in all directions without concerning itself much with constructing an argument, Brodsky's uniquely Russian combination of cynicism and high idealism, of bitter satire and vestiges of romanticism kept me off guard and attentive. As for precision and construction, let me give Brodsky the last word:


Because, for all its beauty, a distinct concept always means a shrinkage of meaning, cutting off loose ends. While the loose ends are what matter most in the phenomenal world, for they interweave.




(*) He writes: "This happens primarily because such translators are themselves usually poets, and their own individuality is dearest of all to them. Their conception of individuality simply precludes the possibility of sacrifice, which is the primary feature of mature individuality (and also the primary requirement of any - even a technical - translation)." Like a medium at a seance, Brodsky's ideal translator yields all control to the possessing poet. That is difficult and rarely achieved.


(**) An example of the sort of remark Brodsky seems to generate effortlessly, in view of their density per page:


After all, there are only so many adequate manifestations for truly strong sentiments; which, in the end, is what explains rituals.