Great American Disaster

Christopher Reid

  • 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.

Or rather, I don’t. In common with most likely buyers of this book, I cannot read Russian, and am therefore under some obligation to make allowances at moments like this. But how generous should such allowances be? ‘May 24, 1980’ is a translation from the Russian into rhyming, or assonantally chiming, quatrains. It is conceivable that the word ‘nitty-gritty’ was chosen here, not just as a companion-in-rhyme for ‘city’, but because it is the ideal counterpart to some Russian expression; that the entire sentence, indeed, with its disconcerting mixture of the heroic and the ludicrous, corresponds to some bold effect in the original. Yes, it is conceivable. But what is there to guarantee it?

We look to the foot of the page and note that the translator is the poet himself. Given some of the ingenious and pleasing English rhymes (‘warty’ with ‘forty’) and near-rhymes (‘transparence’ with ‘larynx’), we should be churlish to begrudge all applause. The poem as a whole transmits an air of flamboyance that is hard to resist, even when the claims the poet appears to be making for himself (‘I have braved, for want of wild beasts, steel cages ... I beheld half a world ... I waded the steppes ...’) verge on the thrasonical. There are, too, some individual lines of genuine eloquence: ‘Those who forgot me would make a city.’ To have achieved even so much may be counted a remarkable feat. But a feat of what? Of poetry? Or clay?

Brodsky’s status as a literary idol is now so generally taken for granted, that it may seem late for a sceptical enquiry into its foundations. Something of the kind should, however, be attempted. About Brodsky’s Russian verse I am not qualified to say a word, but where his English is concerned, even those of us for whom the Cyrillic alphabet is as the jagged bottle-glass along the top of a high brick wall may be entitled to our opinions. Certainly, that sort of ignorance has not deterred the blurb-writers or big-name eulogists.

Among the extreme claims made on his behalf, Michael Hofmann’s recent hailing of Brodsky as the true successor to Robert Lowell and great American poet of our age has at least the virtue of unambivalence. We may not agree with it, but the terms are clear. Hitherto, through no fault of his own, the poet has seemed to occupy a position of statelessness somewhere between Russian and English, in the neutral zone called Translationese; and while the stateless person is always vulnerable and never to be envied, the stateless poem enjoys privileges peculiar to the culture of our time, especially when it is attached to an interesting personal history. Of late, however, with his growing self-assurance, Brodsky has dared to dispense with these privileges, and in the course of the past decade has been writing poems in English that demand to be judged purely on their own merits. I assume that these are the poems on which Hofmann bases his high estimate.

To Urania includes 12 original English poems. Of the translated pieces that complete the book, more than half have been turned into English verse, with rhymes and the rest of it, by the author alone. The crew of distinguished pen-men who helped him in the past – Richard Wilbur, Howard Moss, Derek Walcott and others – has for the most part been laid off. It is understandable why, after all these years, Brodsky should wish to tackle the job single-handed: poets are seldom natural collaborators, and praise for his command of English, impressive in many respects, has perhaps encouraged him to take sole charge. The question is whether he has been wise to do so.

If the grosser solecisms in ‘May 24, 1980’ are not enough to explain my own strong doubts on the matter, then a few further words need to be said about the generally ‘unEnglish’ quality of Brodsky’s performance. This is something which can occasionally be located in touches of grammatical unorthodoxy, as when he mishandles the future tense in the last line of the same poem. ‘Yet until brown clay has been crammed down my larynx,’ he declares, ‘only gratitude will be gushing from it.’ Although a case could be made for this usage, as emphasising continuity, similar instances in relation to the present tense –

Either cartwheels are craving an oval shape
or the mare’s hoof, hitting the cow-moon, shimmies

(‘Polonaise: A Variation’) –

or the past –

I, too, once lived in a city ...
                where a local penseur ...
                  was mopping
avenues; and an infinite quay was rendering life myopic

(‘In Italy’) –

would suggest that the oddity was not so deliberate.

Elementary errors, of the kind that the long-suffering Mr Parkhill spent hours trying to correct in Hyman Kaplan and his classmates, abound on these pages. Brodsky clearly has trouble, not just with tenses, but with prepositions, with conjunctions, with word order, with the formation of the genitive, and with many other small matters that may not fit neatly under the headings of the grammar-book, but that nonetheless serve in practice to indicate the level of proficiency attained by the speaker or writer. He appears to have cultivated a taste for slang and colourful verbal arcana, and his texts bristle with those thought-saving devices that are supposed to lend the language a colloquial swagger – ‘for sure’, ‘I bet’, ‘say’, ‘frankly’, ‘and such’, ‘or, better yet’, ‘etc’, et cetera – but the problem of idiomatic articulation frustrates him in line after line, stanza after stanza, poem after poem.

It would be tedious to cite as many instances as are available but it is also necessary at this stage to counter the notion that something fresh, healthy, rich in artistic potential and urgently needed is being introduced into the poetic repertoire through this exotic treatment of the language. Milton, Keats and Hopkins may, in their turn, have perplexed readers with their foreignisms, but the most Latinate of Milton’s periods, the most convulsive and startling of Hopkins’s syntactical experiments, get their strength from a secure and organic understanding of English idiom. This is not, I should add, something to which native English-speakers alone have access. It can be learned, as Vladimir Nabokov, for one, gloriously demonstrated. Brodsky, however, has yet to achieve that mastery and, from the evidence here, would appear to have a long way to go before he does so.

The first thing he needs to acquire, if he is to make progress, is an ear. The poet who thinks that ‘like seraphs and silence do’ (‘Lithuanian Nocturne’) is a proper or melodious adverbial clause, who can construct a stanza upon the formula ‘That’s whence that ... It is thence also its ...’ (same poem), who can say of a murderous dog that ‘its shanks ain’t so sweet anymore, alas’ (‘Kellomäki’), and who can break lines thus –

the bloated breams (sic) that warm
up their aquarium

(‘Café Trieste; San Francisco’) –

and thus –

     the people crushed
not so much by tanks
or by submachine
guns as by the banks
we deposit in

(‘A Martial Law Carol’) –

and thus –

You would envy, I think,
me

(‘Lithuanian Nocturne’) –

cannot have been listening very carefully either to the English-speakers around him or to himself. This sort of tone-deafness afflicts both self-translations and original poems, a number of which bear titles – ‘A Martial Law Carol’, ‘The Berlin Wall Tune’ – that poignantly signal musical aspirations destined to be cruelly thwarted. Is there a cure for it? Well, that remains to be heard.

If I am not entirely hopeful for the future, this is to a large extent because the emotional habit most often displayed in the pages of this book is not one that belongs to the conventional post-Romantic repertoire and would be likely to foster sustained poetic growth, but a foible that is strictly germane to Brodsky’s own unresolved artistic predicament: namely, impatience. It shows both in his reckless shrugging-off of co-translators and in his rushing, without adequate preparation, into original English composition. It accounts, too, presumably, for the hastily-packed look his unaided translations have, their contents stuffed any-old-how into once square-cornered, but now travel-worn, English verse forms – and never mind if a cuff here or a hem there still protrudes after the author has brought his backside down on the lid and pressed the locks home.

Would a collaborator worth his salt have allowed Brodsky to get away with this, for instance, from ‘Kellomäki’:

Flat, lapping swells of the sea starting with B, in curves,
resembling bleak thoughts about oneself, ran course
onto the empty beach and froze
into wrinkles there. The twitching gauze
of the hawthorn twigs at times would compel one’s stark-
naked eye to develop a rippling bark ...?

The question is academic. It is perhaps too late now for anyone – collaborator, editor or humble hack – to help the man, or alert him to the risks he is running. This weird jumble of mannerisms has become a fixed style, his very stock-in-trade, and he’s not likely to let go of it in a hurry.

Intellectual impatience, too, can be traced all over Brodsky’s work. His fondness for the aphorism, that form of utterance which relieves the speaker of the obligation to explain himself, is telling. Some of his aphorisms do have real point and pungency:

                         A ruin’s a rather stubborn
architectural style.

(‘Elegy’)

Or:

Things, in one’s absence, gain
permanence, stain by stain.

(‘Café Trieste: San Francisco’)

Others, however, are apt to self-destruct, whether through impenetrability – ‘Only fire can grasp a winter!’ (‘Tsushima Screen’) – or because they aren’t true: ‘A windowpane stalls a stare’ (‘To Urania’). Brodsky’s gift for delivering the most questionable pronouncements in a portentously authoritative manner is, in fact, a constantly worrying trait. ‘What kills us out there, in orbit,’ he tells us at one point (‘Eclogue IV: Winter’),

                      isn’t
the lack of oxygen but the abundance
of time in its purest (with no addition
of your life) form.

To which an appropriate reply might be ‘Tell that to the marines!’

As soon as this tendency has been spotted, one finds oneself automatically braced against a number of other favourite rhetorical devices. Brodsky’s use of the ‘Hence ...’ or ‘That’s why ...’ formula, to fudge a transition, is particularly common. In ‘Belfast Tune’ we are given this account of ‘a girl from a dangerous town’:

Ah, there’s more sky in these parts than, say,
    ground. Hence her voice’s pitch ...

But since there’s no way of knowing whether her voice is high or low, the entire conceit collapses. Similarly, when, in ‘To Urania’, we allow ourselves to be drawn into this passage of metaphysical speculation –

And what is space anyway if not the
body’s absence at every given
point? That’s why Urania’s older than sister Clio! –

we feel we might just as well be listening to a man in a pub proving the existence of God with an empty matchbox.

It would be unfair to accuse the poet of deliberate charlatanry in cases like this. No doubt he really believes he is the vessel of incontrovertible truths, and the fact that they are not wholly apparent to us may be due largely to his impatience: eager to speed on to the next piece of poetic business, he cannot be bothered to stop and consider whether everything is as clear as it might be. The very texture and movement of his verse, with its cacophony, its makeshift enjambments, its disconcerting switches between the prolix and the half-stated, and its general waywardness of tone, would seem to support that interpretation. What Brodsky himself refers to as his ‘free-flapping tongue’ (‘The Fifth Anniversary’), which we can picture as a not-so-distant cousin of Gogol’s Nose, proceeds ahead of its owner and his brain with alarming impetuosity. Brodsky also calls that organ ‘a glutton for clear lyric’, but this, I fear, merely prompts me to wonder if it ever gets a square meal.

Is it all as bad as this? Of course not. When the poet is able to forget the exalted nature of his vocation, when he allows himself to relax from his duties as global witness and to stop sounding bossy and oracular, he can be engaging. Not all his comic moments are unintentional. ‘The New Jules Verne’ is an elaborate frolic that certainly outstays its welcome, but it does at least offer flashes of genuine humour. ‘Lithuanian Nocturne’ sustains an imaginative conceit – the poet as nocturnal revenant addressing a distant colleague – with what one might call virtuoso deftness if one were able to enjoy the Russian text. The original English poems, too, even those on rather reach-me-down political themes, show less of the stress and strain, the melodramatic earnestness, that make so much of the translated work intolerable. They may even offer the glimmer of a hope that, if Brodsky can overcome his natural impatience and settle down to learning his craft, he may become, not the great American poet of our time, but at least someone we can read with admiration and pleasure.