Brodsky: poet and teacher of conscience

Less Than One: Selected Essays, by Joseph Brodsky. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 501 pp. $25. Joseph Brodsky's talent for aphorism shines in his statement ``man is what he reads.'' As the new video culture gradually replaces the old book culture, man's substance is increasingly at risk. To keep it strong we must learn to read again. We can learn how from Brodsky's essays on poetry.

In one of the essays included in this generous sample of the exiled Russian poet's prose, we read: ``At certain periods of history it is only poetry that is capable of dealing with reality by condensing it into something graspable, something that otherwise couldn't be retained in the mind.''

The impression left on the reader by this impressive collection of essays is of a mind at once serious and unpedantic, a mind that has been trained for a long time on what is truly important, a mind singularly ``capable of dealing with reality.''

Gathering essays first published in periodicals -- The New York Review of Books, Vanity Fair, Vogue, and The New Yorker, to name a few -- this volume makes more widely available the work of a man who has been as much honored in the West as he was dishonored in the Soviet Union (considered by many the pivotal figure in contemporary Russian poetry, he was asked to leave Russia in 1972). An honorary degree of doctor of letters from Yale, membership in the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, a MacArthur Fellowship, teaching stints at Columbia, New York University, the University of Michigan, and Mt. Holyoke College -- all this and the man can still write from the heart.

For a man once convicted of ``social parasitism'' by the Soviet authorities and sentenced to five years of hard labor (he served 20 months of that sentence), such recognition must have its ironies. Indeed, here and there the author's voice cracks under the strain of prophecy, especially when the topic is general, as in the essay ``On Tyranny.'' But when Brodsky talks about poetry, he is peerless.

When Brodsky talks about poetry, he talks as a poet about what concerns him most, and it is not always poetry proper.

When serving his sentence in the Arkhangelsk region of northern Russia, he taught himself English by poring over some poems by W. H. Auden in an anthology of English poetry that has since been banned in Russia. He was deeply affected by Auden's scrupulous poetic ``conscience.'' Now, his own views are stated with a burning clarity that at times has a kind of moral grandeur.

Brodsky's vision of poetry goes beyond what many literary people feel to be appropriate. In an obituary on Nadezhda Mandelstam (the heroic wife of Osip and author of two volumes of memoirs about her husband), Brodsky writes: ``There is something in the consciousness of literati that cannot stand the notion of someone's moral authority.'' Indeed. The technical aspect of that point of view is made clear in his critique of a translation of Osip Mandelstam's verse: ``. . . these versions bear the imprint of self-assured, insufferable stylistic provincialism.''

How to win friends . . . ! But then, to a degree rare among the ``literati,'' Brodsky takes his teaching duties seriously. His sacred responsibility is not to the dramatis personae of the literary demimonde, but to the substance he is pledged to pass down to us.

Some of these essays are lectures -- literally ``readings'' delivered to special audiences. The passion Brodsky brings to the occasion of such lectures is essentially religious. He writes: ``The seemingly most artificial forms for organizing poetic language -- terza rima, sestinas, decimas, and so forth -- are in fact nothing more than a natural, reiterative, fully detailed elaboration of the echo that followed the original Word.''

Brodsky's sense of himself as a poet charges him with a general burden of responsibility. We've seen it discharged in various ways. In 1978, Brodsky addressed the graduating class of Williams College. He talked to the seniors and assembled guests about evil and turning the other cheek. He pointed out that the biblical text had often been quoted out of context, and that this had led to trouble for leaders of nonviolent movements in India, Russia, and the United States.

Then he told a story out of the Gulag. The prisoners had been invited to a capitalist-type competition to see how well they chopped wood. Everyone went along with the joke. The one who won the competition, however, made it impossible for that joke to be repeated. He not only turned the other cheek, he gave them his cloak along with his coat, then went two miles when they had only asked him to go one. That is: He chopped wood continuously, through the lunch hour and past quitting time.

Quoting the full text to those assembled at Williams, Brodsky notes: ``The meaning of these lines is anything but passive, for it suggests that evil can be made absurd through excess; it suggests rendering evil absurd through dwarfing its demands with the volume of your compliance, which devalues the harm. This sort of thinking puts a victim into a very active position, into the position of a mental aggressor.''

Joseph Brodsky, like all good teachers, inculcates in us an invaluable restlessness, a divine discontent, for which we can only be grateful.

Thomas D'Evelyn is the Monitor's book editor. Excerpt from `Less Than One'

There is something in the consciousness of literati that cannot stand the notion of someone's moral authority. They resign themselves to the existence of a First Party Secretary, or of a F"uhrer, as to a necessary evil, but they would eagerly question a prophet. This is so, presumably, because being told that you are a slave is less disheartening news than being told that morally you are a zero. After all, a fallen dog shouldn't be kicked. However, a prophet kicks the fallen dog not to finish it off but to get it back on its feet. The resistance to those kicks, the questioning of a writer's assertions and charges, come not from the desire for truth but from the intellectual smugness of slavery. All the worse, then, for the literati when the authority is not only moral but also cultural -- as it was in Nadezhda Mandelstam's case.

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