Great American Disaster
- To Urania: Selected Poems 1965-1985 by Joseph Brodsky
Penguin, 174 pp, £4.99, September 1988, ISBN 0 14 058580 X
Joseph Brodsky’s new selection, To Urania, gets off to a troubled start with a 20-line poem that contains at least one grammatical slip and a sentence of baffling absurdity. The slip occurs in line four, where we meet the construction ‘dined with the-devil-knows-whom’ – an accusative that seems to me justified by neither the rule-book nor colloquial usage. The absurd sentence follows two lines later. ‘Twice have drowned,’ we read (the first person being understood), ‘thrice let knives rake my nitty-gritty.’ Eh? ‘Twice have drowned, thrice let knives rake my nitty-gritty.’ I see.
Vol. 11 No. 2 · 19 January 1989
As a freelance editor who has worked extensively with the English translation of Joesph Brodsky’s poems, I take issue with the contention – which forms the backbone of Christopher Reid’s recent review (LRB, 8 December 1988) of Mr Brodsky’s book, To Urania – that whatever jarring, unconventional or surprising verbal effects the reader may encounter in these poems results from their inadequate transition into English, rather than a conscious aesthetic choice on the part of the poet/translator. Throughout the five years this volume spent in production, every possible care was taken that it be true not only to the density and technical complexity of Mr Brodsky’s Russian originals (written well before Mr Brodsky achieved the ‘status of literary idol’ to which Mr Reid alludes), but also to his own living sensibility, which has entered our language to innoculate us against the comfortable simplicities that translation might otherwise introduce. If English must be bent and stretched a bit to accommodate the highly condensed and nuanced forms available to the writer in Russian – forms which are as intrinsic to his sensibility as his subject-matter or imagery – then, I feel, this is a development we should only applaud in a language that is in danger of falling asleep in the well-worn furniture of its rules. If Mr Reid finds absurdity, restlessness and abrasiveness unpalatable presences in literature, then I tremble to think how many of our modern masters must be excluded from his pantheon. In any case, such dark intimations cannot be wished away by appealing to the innocent technicalities of translation and publication.
It comes as no surprise that Messrs Reid and Brodsky to do not see eye to eye on matters of poetic judgment, but the quaintness of a nation that returns to the dicta of its schoolmasters to legitimise its literary tastes never ceases to amaze and amuse.
Vol. 11 No. 5 · 2 March 1989
Ann Kjellberg and Christopher Reid may not see eye to eye regarding the use and abuse of the English language (Letters, 19 January), but what they are arguing over seems of minor importance when the real problem of poetry translation, into or out of whatever languages, is the fate of the poetry. If poetry is indeed ‘what gets lost in translation’ what happens to it when the poet translates his own poem? Obviously the ‘poetry’ remains in the original language as, in a sense, it is the language. What happens, then, if the poet (in this case Joseph Brodsky) writes in his second language and then translates it back into his own? As for the English language being ‘bent and stretched’ to accommodate Brodsky’s translation, I don’t think that worries anyone, but Mr Reid is surely right to object to grammatical errors and even more to ‘lack of sense’.
Christopher Reid’s peevish attack on Joseph Brodsky’s To Urania is more concerned with propriety than with poetry and suggests some sort of misconduct (if not ‘deliberate charlantanry’) on Brodsky’s part in translating himself or writing directly in English. The review is willing to make ‘allowances’ provided Brodsky has the good manners to stay in his own language – that way he will be no bother to those of us who do not know Russian. The slender hope he offers the poet is to acquire ‘proficiency’ in the English language. (If Mr Reid’s hobby is the pursuit of grammatical slips on the part of ‘disturbing’ writers, what a field day he could have with that other masterly writer from Eastern Europe, Joseph Conrad!) Then Brodsky may be authorised to ‘become … someone we can read with admiration and pleasure’.
Let us hope that Brodsky’s poetry never becomes ‘pleasurable’ and ‘admirable’, evidently the opertive adjectives for the kind of poetry that is sufficiently anodyne for Reid’s approval. (Indeed the reviewer allows Brodsky an ‘engaging’ quality provided he avoids the passion of themes that are anything but ‘reach-me-down’.) For poetry’s sake, let us hope that Brodsky continues to be eloquent, slangy, flamboyant, swaggering, and even thrasonic, if need be. May he continue to ‘mix the heroic and the ludicrous’, a bold effect that survives translation. And may he never cease being intellectually impatient, surely one of the particular strengths of poetry. Fortunately for us, Brodsky showns no sign of forgetting the exalted nature of his vocation. And let Brodsky continue to be un-English, the very reason we read him or anyone else in translation. Now that he has started writing in English as well, what a lucky chance for us to hear his voice that much nearer.