Between 2003 and 2004, Valentina Polukhina conducted a series of interviews about Nobel Prize in Literature recipient Joseph Brodsky. She spoke with former Brodsky student and executive director of The Academy of American Poets (from 1989 to 2001) William Wadsworth; respected American essayist Susan Sontag; and prolific poet, playwright, essayist and fellow Nobel laureate Derek Walcott. The following is a synthesis of those interviews compiled by Cheryl Olsen, a Bay Area writer and associate publisher of BrightCity Books.
1) Valentina Polukhina: You are perhaps in a unique position to give . . . readers an empirical account of New York literary life at the time of Brodsky's arrival on the American poetic scene. Was it difficult for him to fit in?
Susan Sontag (first met Brodsky in January 1976 throughh their mutual publisher, Farrar, Straus & Giroux): I think people were very open to Joseph. First of all, he made a stunning impression. He was so authoritative personally. That would register here as supreme confidence; and people are—I want to say in America, because I think it's more so than in New York—Americans are rather disposed to admire, if they are given grounds to do so, unlike the English, whom I find quite spiteful and malicious. If [the English] see that somebody who is presented to them is very important, their first impulse is to try to cut that person down, undermine that person quite maliciously. It's absolutely the opposite here. If people are given grounds to admire, they like to do so. I think Joseph was admired from the start. There was of course also a small body of readers and alert people for whom his reputation preceded him. The transcript of his trial with those wonderfully quotable sentences was printed in New York magazine. I remember reading it myself and cutting it out. It was . . . the first time I ever heard of Joseph. He made a great impression here from the beginning. People were very open to his self-confident, peremptory manner.
William Wadsworth: I met Joseph in the fall of 1984 when I was a graduate student at Columbia University and attended his seminar. He was unlike any other professor or teacher of poetry I had had, and I think everyone in the class recognized that he was remarkably different from the other teachers, most of whom were poets themselves. Joseph projected a kind of mental energy and a kind of rigorousness that was not common. He challenged the students in ways that they were not used to being challenged, and he treated poetry as a more serious endeavor than most American students ever dreamed it could be. Some students reacted strongly against his attitude, while others, like myself, thought he was the most stimulating embodiment of poetry they had ever encountered.
Joseph was tremendously charismatic, but he also came across in many ways as an absolutist, and was frequently given to outrageous statements, even insults. If you couldn't roll with the punches, if you disagreed with him and your skin was thin, Joseph's manner could seem overbearing. When asked by a student about the repression of leftists in Central America and whether this wasn't comparable to Soviet repression in Eastern Europe (this was in the 1980s when the violence in El Salvador and Nicaragua was at its height), Joseph dismissed the question with one sentence: “I don't give a damn about that part of the world.” On the other hand, one could see Joseph's tendency to be outrageous as evidence of his uncompromising honesty, as a necessary expression of his iconoclasm, his refusal to bow to any shibboleth. He had a terrific sense of humor: irreverent, sardonic, self-mocking. He was expert at seeing through the emperor's new clothes. One day at Columbia he charged into the classroom, cup of coffee in one hand, cigarette in the other, puffing like a locomotive, and said, “You won't believe what happened to me last night . . . I met a god.” He proceeded to recount the story of having attended a reception the previous evening for the Dalai Lama, and made the observation that the most remarkable thing about the “god”'s appearance was the vaccination mark on his arm. Nevertheless, it turned out that Joseph and the god got along well, and at the end of the event, the god gave Joseph a special farewell. As Joseph put it, “And would you believe it, at the end he came over to me—my humble self!—and embraced me.” A particularly worshipful female student exclaimed, “Joseph, it must have been your aura!” Without missing a beat, Joseph responded, “No, I think it was my tie. You see, my tie was the same color as his robe.”
Derek Walcott: Joseph was somebody who lived poetry. He proclaimed it every time I met him. That's why I admired him. He didn't do the English or American thing, you know, of being shy and saying, “I am not really a poet” or, “I don't like to be called a poet”—any of that nonsense. He was very proud of being called that. He was Brodsky. He was the best example I know of someone who proclaimed that he was a poet; that's what he did. He was industrious and you can't separate the industry of Joseph Brodsky from Joseph Brodsky. I think there's a kind of attitude in biographies, literary biographies, that can say, “Well, you know, W.H. Auden was this, he was a homosexual but he was also . . .” whatever. So that there are two lives, a literary life and a personal life. Joseph didn't make a distinction between his calling and his life . . .
He saw being a poet as being a sacred calling. I share that view. He never exploited his Jewishness. He never played the victim. He detested people who played the victim and whoever wrote as a victim. I think he thought that was too easy. A clear description of Brodsky is of someone who has an almost medieval devotion to his craft and everything that goes with that, in terms of architecture of the craft, the design of the craft. A lot of the poems are designed like cathedral interiors, the font, the arches, the whole thing the whole concept of the poem as cathedral. That devotion is to poetry as the hermetic craft and it's what you'd find in Donne too. And what he kept going was the concept of perception as a part of intellect, not merely an emotional reaction.
2) Polukhina: How do you rate Brodsky as a friend?
Sontag: . . . I became very attached to Joseph emotionally, as many women did . . . Naturally at the end it was quite frustrating, as it always was. And there was something in his character that I didn't like. I didn't like how mean he was sometimes to people. He could be very cruel, especially to young people. I remember one time we really had a fight. I was at his house, here on Morton Street, before Maria's time, and there were other people. One was a young woman of twenty-five. It was spring or summer and we were sitting in the garden, and he turned to this young woman and said, “So what do you do?” And she said, “Well, I am a writer.” And he said, “Who told you that you have any talent?” It was a very cruel thing to say; he didn't know anything about her. And she started to cry. If somebody had said something like that to him he would have replied, “God!” This young woman couldn't say anything; she just felt beaten up by this man. After they left, we had a fight. I said to him, “How could you be so mean to this woman? You are going to win the Nobel Prize and you get pleasure out of torturing some kid.” What I wanted to say was you are so big, so big, you should be kinder. But of course in that quarrel I was playing the classic female role, telling the big, brutal man to be kind. So, he was that big, brutal guy. That was a side of Joseph. No one, least of all Joseph himself, could claim that he had a good character. He liked to say sometimes that he had a rather bad character. Surely, I am not the first person to tell you this. And if you have a bad character, I suppose, you have to display it from time to time, exemplify and illustrate it.
3) Polukhina: What do you think gave Joseph such moral authority to write a poem like “I have braved, for want of wild beasts, steel cages” with the concluding lines: “Yet until brown clay has been crammed down my larynx, / only gratitude will be gushing from it?” Am I right to assume that such lines are unthinkable in the context of contemporary American poetry?
Wadsworth: Not to take anything away from Joseph's originality, not to take anything away from his innate vision and power as a poet, but I did attend a reading once where Joseph was introduced by the poet Charles Simic, who recounted the story of Joseph's childhood, persecution, and exile, and concluded, “No poet could ever wish for more.” Miroslav Holub once said that when things were really bad in Eastern Europe, “it is a very poetic situation.” It is a terrible thing to say, but Joseph was blessed with “a very poetic situation.” No American poet has had the opportunity to enjoy such terrible historical circumstances. Consequently, Joseph could speak with a moral authority, the authority of one who defied institutionalized evil and suffered the consequences, an air of authority that would hardly be possible for an America contemporary.
4) Polukhina: This echoes Akhmatova's famous reaction to Brodsky's trial, “what a biography they are creating for our ginger-haired boy!” But Joseph was very much against biography as such; he would insist that a poet's biography is in his vowels and consonants. Isn't there some contradiction here?
Wadsworth: Contradiction is the essence of poetry. Yeats said that it is out of the “quarrel with ourselves” that we make poetry. Frost said that contradiction is fundamental even to prosody, that if the rhythm doesn't contradict the meter you don't have a good poem. If Joseph had been the sort of poet who said “Look at my life, look at what I've done and experienced, that's why I am a great poet,” the actions and experiences and their significance would have been rendered nil by the egoism of the statement. The very fact that he led the life he led, and believed what he believed, demanded that he make language the absolute priority, one that negates the incidentals of biography. Poets deal in paradoxes, and this was Joseph's paradox, just as his insistence to the Soviet judge that poetry had nothing to do with politics or social responsibility was in itself a political act with social consequences.
Sontag: Joseph said a lot of things because he was terrified of dying. He was obsessed with death. He knew he was dying. I was told I was dying, so I know what it is to think you are going to die. And he liked to be contradictory; he liked to say things you didn't think he was going to say.
5) Polukhina: Did Brodsky achieve any kind of harmony between his Jewish origin and his Christian outlook?
Sontag: I can't pronounce on that. I never felt that Joseph was a Jewish author. We never talked about religious matters. I am completely secular, and I also felt that he was completely secular. I never sensed any allusion to his Jewishness. He was interested in Christianity because of its domination of European culture. I feel the same way. When I saw him laid out in the Catholic funeral home in downtown Manhattan and buried in a Protestant Cemetery in Venice—I was at both funerals—I was surprised. People, when they die, are at the mercy of their relatives.
Polukhina: So, you wouldn't consider him to be a religious poet?
Sontag: I don't feel him as a religious poet and I don't feel him as someone who particularly identified with Judaism or being Jewish, just as I don't. He was a poet of world culture, in the European sense. I never brought it into our relationship. I just felt what seems to me his secular point of view that took in more than two thousand years of European and new-European culture. This was his material: there was Horace, there was Ovid and there was Auden, there was Akhmatova and Tsvetaeva. Why does Judaism have to come into it? Why does Christianity come into it?
Wadsworth: In an interview once Joseph called himself a Calvinist, which not incidentally alludes to a New England sensibility. He also added that there was a great deal in Protestantism he disliked, and that he wasn't sure that he was even a religious person. But what drew him to Calvinism was the emphasis on individual responsibility, which was at the core of Joseph's moral outlook and at the core of New England values— Emerson's “self-reliance,” the toughness one finds in Frost. There's also a good deal of the Old Testament in Calvinism, which must have appealed to Joseph's Judaism. But Joseph's attitude, his morality, was certainly Christian, and he clearly considered the Christian West culturally and ethically superior to Byzantium and the East, whether Near or Far. But I would say he was not a Christian, not in the theological sense, but morally and existentially. Typically, I think his mind was divided on the question of God. If anything, the subject and object of his theology was language. He was a logotheist.
Polukhina: Do you agree that there is a Jewish quality in some of Joseph's statements?
Wadsworth: I suppose; I never thought of it that way, but Joseph's ferocity of temperament, his tendency to moral and aesthetic absolutism, could be considered Old Testament. Job, the prophets, Jehovah Himself: they had a lot of Joseph in them. Also his mystical regard for language, for the shapes of the alphabet itself, is reminiscent of Jewish mysticism.
6) Polukhina: Derek, like Joseph, you too rhyme, which is against the mainstream of American poetry. What drives you to rhyme?
Walcott: But I am not an American poet. I think it's the opposite, not to rhyme, the opposite instinct. It doesn't have to be actual rhyme. You can feel that this might have rhymed, that it's going in the same direction. A lot of it was like that. I didn't rhyme, but that was where the thing was heading. There is a whole generation that has no instinct for rhyme. It is something that has vanished.
Polukhina: In Russian a good rhyme still constitutes a metaphor. Take two rhymes out of context and you can see the connection, the similarity or the opposition—some metonymical connection. It would be a really profound rhyme, a semantic rhyme or even conceptual rhyme. The language just lends itself to this wonderful kind of rhyming. Do you think Joseph was influenced by, say, Ogden Nash? Did he read him?
Walcott: Oh, yes. I think he took a great delight in musicals. He loved Cole Porter, for instance. He took a lot of delight in English rhyme. I don't know much about Russian rhyme, but it seems it is easier.
7) Polukhina: Do you have any idea how Joseph would arrive at a line, how he would go from line to line or even more, how he would progress from the beginning to the end of a poem? When you have worked on the translation of his poems you've almost re-written them.
Walcott: Once I was living at Christina Armstrong's house. She was away and Barry Ruben and I were there and Joseph and I were working one day on a poem. So we worked on it together and at the end of three or four hours the outcome was not successful. At one point he said, “Fuck me, fuck you, and fuck everybody.” He just stopped because it was so agonizing. But what we tried to do and what he respected (I tried to do it as well) was to keep the shape and the meter, everything, structurally as close as possible to the Russian text. You can't really do it but you can try hard . . . And, in fact he didn't mind—and this really was astonishing—he didn't mind if you changed a metaphor . . . But I think what one was trying to do was to follow his intent as much as to copy him. In other words if you're coming across with a certain metaphor and for the sake of the rhyme you have to change it, that was OK with him, if the intent was the same, so long as you found a parallel equivalent . . . And he would do that himself or suggest it. I think he wanted to get an English poem. Joseph had tremendous admiration for English poetry. I think that, poet for poet, he didn't think it was richer, but as a language to work in he found it very exciting. And the people who criticized the results are not fair in the sense that even the distortion of syntax of a Russian poet writing in English has to be taken into account.
8) Polukhina: Did Brodsky ever feel displaced in the USA?
Sontag: He has written so magnificently about “the condition we call exile”.1 Those reflections are his most serious and considered thoughts on the matter. What I observed was that he reveled in those situations. Joseph was supremely ambitious and saw this as a fantastic opportunity to occupy more space. I felt that it was precisely being displaced that was the great advantage. He could say what Thomas Mann said in exile in Southern California in the 1940s: “Where I am German literature is;” so Joseph could say: “Where I am Russian poetry is.” He could feel that he had in no way lost the place he thought was his as the Great Russian Poet. But he had a chance to exert influence in virgin territory among people, audiences and poets he both admired, enjoyed being with and felt superior to. He felt so superior that it was his privilege and pleasure to flatter Americans, and to flatter the United States, saying how wonderful the United States was. I don't think he thought that. I was always impressed by how he enjoyed impressing people, enjoyed knowing more than they did, enjoyed having higher standards than they had.
I think the bond between us, whatever emotional bond there was, as he told me early on, was that I was the one American he knew who had standards like his. So I wasn't typical at all. I am a self-Europeanized American. I am sure he saw exile as a tremendous opportunity to be a world poet, not just a Russian poet. But of course, his primary identity was as a Russian poet. But to change empires, as he put it, could only be to his advantage. I do remember his saying laughingly, some time in 1976-77, “Sometimes I find it so odd to realize that I can write anything I want and it will be published.” Almost as if something was missing! I think he enjoyed America, felt superior to America.
Wadsworth: The romance of exile is powerful and presents an easy, reductive definition. Joseph was not a man given to easy definition. He did not want to be put in the victim's box. The fact was that he was an exile, twice over: first to the Gulag, then from Russia altogether. But in both instances, the condition strangely suited him. Not to be glib, but one can say that for Joseph, though exile was an involuntary act, it was in a way liberating; it offered a kind of condition of existential freedom, at the very least a stoic's freedom, versus the imprisonment of the spirit in a repressive society. And the vehicle of this freedom, including the translations he did in the labor camp, was the English language. Joseph did not return to Russia when he could have, and he wanted his daughter to be raised in the U.S. with English as her first language. But his attitude towards exile contradicted the cliché.
9) Polukhina: I know a lot of people played a part in Brodsky's career in the USA, but who in particular?
Sontag: His publisher, but mostly it was Brodsky himself. He was immensely industrious and self-confident. As I already said somewhere, he landed among us like a missile from another empire, whose payload was not only his genius, but also his native literature's exalted, exacting sense of the poet's authority.
Polukhina: These are the qualities that helped him becoming a member of the “big league” poets, such as Seamus Heaney, Derek Walcott, Les Murray and a few others. Or were there other factors?
Sontag: It was his dream. It was Seamus, Derek and Les, and Joseph was the leader. Joseph always had to be the leader. According to Joseph, they were all going to get the Nobel Prize. And they did, as if it had been planned that way. Unfortunately, Les Murray has been delayed. How did Joseph do it? I think it was a number of things: the patronage of Auden was tremendously important. The one thing I haven't mentioned: to come with the imprimatur, the benediction rather, of Auden, who by that time was regarded as the greatest living poet in English, and now has been described as the greatest poet in English in the twentieth century, which is a big change from what his reputation was thirty years ago. I think to have Auden's benediction had already set him on an incredibly exalted plane.
Wadsworth: . . . there's the story of Brodsky arriving in Austria and saying, “Take me to my leader.” Auden played the midwife to Joseph's passage out of Mother Russia and into the New World. Auden also, like Joseph, was a virtuoso and a wunderkind, an extraordinary prodigy among his generation of English poets. And he, like Joseph, had made a similar, if uncoerced, transition to the New World, and likewise to New York City. But more than anything, I believe it was Auden's poetic stance, and its philosophical and political implications, that Joseph was most drawn to. First, Auden was a thoroughly modern poet who more or less rejected the modernist dispensation of vers libre, who disproved any presumption that to be modern required disposing with traditional verse forms. But there's a deeper reason than prosody [for his admiration of Auden]. The first day of class, the first thing Joseph did was to put a line from Yeats and a line from Auden next to each other on the blackboard. It soon became clear whom he thought to be the superior poet. Joseph had no patience for Yeats' sentimental nationalism and elaboration of occult systems, just as he detested Pound's Fascism, and, one suspects, Eliot's monarchism and anti-Semitism. The modern poets he most admired—Auden, Hardy, Frost—can be seen as coming out of a tradition of classic English liberalism, in which the highest value is placed not on myth, system, theology, or ideology, but on the individual, on the intrinsic value and truth of human subjectivity. For this reason he was drawn to Shestov, just as for Auden the key philosopher was Kierkegaard. I believe this is also one of the things that attracted Joseph to America: the American tradition of “rugged individualism,” which Frost, for instance, so perfectly embodied.
When Joseph arrived in this country, Auden was considered old-fashioned by many of my contemporaries, and was largely ignored. The Vietnam War was still on, the student Left was being hounded by the government, anti-American sentiment was running high, and the verse that was fashionable was mostly free verse. Traditional versification was seen by many as an expression of the academic establishment at a time when students mistrusted all “establishments.” On the one hand, Joseph was a heroic figure, the paradigm of the dissident writer, a tremendously romantic figure who had stood up to the Soviet “establishment,” paid the consequences, and prevailed nonetheless. On the other hand, he praised the culture that had adopted him, had no sympathy for the Left, and dogmatically rejected free verse as “wine without a bottle: a blot on the tablecloth.” To his detractors, he was arrogant, reactionary, and ignorant of the American modernist tradition. But to others, he was a breath—more like a hurricane—of fresh air. He did a great deal to bring attention to Eastern European poets, especially the Polish poets, and he catalyzed in a major way a resurgence of interest in traditional versification among the younger poets of the 1980s (my own generation). His disparagement of the modernism of Pound and William Carlos Williams, and more so his high regard for Auden and Frost, made an indelible mark on many younger poets. The moral seriousness he brought to the art form made a good deal of “postmodernist” verse look frivolous. Of course the endless dialectic of the strict and the free, of the ivory tower and the open road, is not new, and has driven American poetry since Dickinson and Whitman. But Joseph enlivened the debate.
10) Polukhina: Both Auden and Brodsky are reproached for being too cool, too intelligent, too thinking. Even Solzhenitsyn has reproached Joseph for that. Because Joseph was also, in a way, a didactic poet—as well as giving a lot of advice to everybody in real life—I was going to ask what you learned from Joseph's poetry?
Walcott: That's one thing I learned from Joseph that I respected him for. It was OK to drive along and write but if you're not thinking in the poem, you're not really working . . . That was his principle. One day I showed him a poem called “Hurricane” that got published in the New York Review of Books. And, I suppose I have to say, I did like it at first. It was well done. But then he read it and said, “There are no dead people in it!” So I thought about it and I think what he was saying was that the pitch of the poem was rhetorical, purely rhetorical and descriptive. In other words, to romanticize the fury of a hurricane without the reality of the disaster of the hurricane is simply to write a kind of poem of force. There should have been some section of the poem dealing with the human reality of the damage.
11) Polukhina: . . . [Joseph's] poems had to be translated into English and we are all aware of the controversy surrounding that, the problems with that. But despite that he managed to get into this big league of English language poets. How did he manage it?
Walcott: Well, the translations are his work. There are a lot of poets and all we know of them is through translation. I know Dante and Cavafy in translation. Milosz too. Everything I know that's not English, I know through translation. I can judge by reputation, by other poets and critics knowing how good Joseph was from very early, through Auden. Auden knew that Joseph was gifted only on the basis of the translations. In Russia they recognized, even very early, the talent that he had, the genius that he had.There are certain poets who, if you attempt to translate them you're in an awful lot of trouble. The quality just doesn't come through, particularly if in the original language they are very lyrical . . . I remember talking to Joseph when we were out walking and I asked him to recite some Pushkin to me. He said, “There's no point, because you just wouldn't understand how terrific it is in Russian. It'll just sound so banal.” And I think the same thing would happen if you tried to do certain poets, especially the Romantics, in Russian translation, particularly when the poems are short. Maybe the quality of Shelley would come across in Russian. I don't know. But in the case of Pushkin, it's like trying to translate water. Joseph didn't say that, but that's what he meant. But what drove him, what made for Joseph's genius, was not just the lyric quality. It was the intelligence. Because he was a poet of phenomenal intelligence. That is the principle at work. And it's not an English or an American quality.
Wadsworth: Of course the problem of Russian poetry in translation became particularly acute in his own work because he insisted the poems retain their prosodic structures. The result was that many American poets and critics found most of the poems in English mediocre at best. The poet and critic Robert Hass compared reading Brodsky's poems in translation to touring the ruins of a building one is told was once a beautiful edifice. On the other hand, his essays, which were written in English, have been generally acclaimed as works of genius in their own right, magnificently composed in spite of the fact that they were written in a second-hand language.
Polukhina: To what extent did Brodsky's poems written in English differ from his self-translations?
Wadsworth: I am not a Brodsky scholar, nor am I a critic or an expert on translation. That said, I would say that they don't seem so different, which is telling. Joseph had a turbulent affair with the English language. The very fact that he wrote poems in English at all is surprising, though maybe not so when one considers the active hand he took in the translations. In either case, he wanted to pay homage to his adoptive language, to the poets in that language who meant most to him (for instance the elegy to Lowell, which echoes Auden's famous elegy for Yeats). He wanted to test himself “to the max” against the language, he wanted to learn it inside out and, insofar as possible, to master it. Yet, at the same time, he was terribly insecure about his English, acutely aware that his Russian accent often made it difficult to understand what he was saying, especially when his mind went into overdrive and he began to speak very rapidly. The poems written in English are usually quite short, and often strive for the simplicity of a sung lyric—with titles like “Song,” “Tune,” “Blues,” etc. Nothing is more difficult to do well in English poetry, especially when the lines are short, say a rhymed dimeter or trimeter. The ear must be pitch-perfect, and Joseph's ear for English was, naturally enough, not. As a musician, he was more than equal to good English prose, but not to the purest form of lyric. He especially got in trouble when he tried for something idiomatic, for instance the poem “Blues,” which is truly embarrassingly bad. The same is too often true of his tendency to use English slang in his translations, to “rough them up,” as one translator put it. On the other hand, it was an approach that worked well for light verse, where the stakes are lower (his children's book, Discovery, is a delight), and his poems in English can be wonderful when the lines are longer and more relaxed. One of his loveliest poems of all is the poem to his daughter, but note the ironic last line: “Hence, these somewhat wooden lines in our common language.” This is a perfect instance of Joseph's flip side, his tendency to self-deprecation. I guess the fact that the poems in English don't sound much better than the Russian poems in translation (at least to me) says it all. And yet, remark the willingness to take great risks in even trying. Joseph wanted to do all he could to make his ear for English as fine as it could be.
12) Polukhina: What do you know about Brodsky's work as Poet Laureate of the USA and Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress?
Wadsworth: The consultant position had existed for decades as a temporary appointment and modest sinecure for eminent poets. Then, in the 1980s, Congress added the highfalutin title, “Poet Laureate,” which most poets considered pretentious, even though the apparent motive was to bring more public notice to the position, and consequently to the art form. Until Joseph was appointed, the poets who held the title continued to treat it as mostly a figurehead position. Joseph changed all that. His inaugural lecture, “An Immodest Proposal,” re-defined the laureateship as a position of public service and a platform for literary advocacy. His proposal was a mass distribution program that would put poetry anthologies, for free, into the hands of millions of Americans by all sorts of means—in hotels, on trains and planes, at post offices, etc. This happened when I was executive director of The Academy of American Poets, and it was a terrific project, one that perfectly suited the Academy's mission to promote poetry in American culture, and we soon formed a partnership. One of the remarkable statements Joseph made in the course of his speech was that the three greatest contributions that America has made to world culture are its jazz music, its cinema, and its modern poetry. For the Academy, and for poets all over the U.S., this was a heaven-sent validation of the importance of American poetry. Joseph had taken an obscure appointment and turned it suddenly into a highly visible public post. He had made poetry “news.” In the U.S., where poetry is generally considered an arcane art form at best, this was an extraordinary turn of events. Suddenly there was a great deal of excitement in the press over this Russian poet laureate. Very ironically, it had taken a Russian to affirm to the American people that their literature mattered, that Americans in the twentieth century had produced some of the finest poetry ever written. With that speech, Joseph initiated a transformation of the public perception of poetry's role in American culture.
13) Polukhina: Do you remember your last contact with Joseph?
Wadsworth: Yes. We spoke on the phone three days before he died. I was still at the Academy and we were continuing to work with Joseph on the project of distributing poetry anthologies around the country. Joseph called me at the Academy, and said, “Bill, do you know what American poetry is all about?” “No, Joseph, I don't. Please tell me.” He said, “American poetry is all about wheels, it's about the Open Road. It's all about wheels . . . So, you know what you have to do?” “No, Joseph, what do I have to do?” “You have to call up the Teamsters. We have to get poetry on the trucks. So when milk is delivered in the morning to the grocery stores, they deliver poetry with the milk.”
Now the Teamsters Union is the most notoriously corrupt union in the U.S. I said, “Joseph, are you telling me that The Academy of American Poets should collaborate with organized crime?” There was a pause. Then Joseph said, “Bill, one thing about organized crime: It's organized.” This was the last thing he said to me.
1 Joseph Brodsky, “The Condition We Call Exile,” The New York Review of Books, vol. 34, no. 21 (January 21, 1988), pp. 16–20.
Peers were enormously influenced by Joseph Brodsky. Asked to share work written with him in mind, Derek Walcott offered selections from The Prodigal.
Envy of status; this is how it grew: every day in Milan, en route to class, I passed my rigid, immortal friend, the General, on his morose green horse, still there on weekends. The wars were over but he would not dismount. Had he died, catapulted in some charge in some euphonious battle? The bronze charger was lathered, streaked with sweat, in the summer sun. We had no such memorials on the island. Our only cavalry were the charging waves, pluming with spume, and tossing plunging necks. Who knows what war he fought in and whose shot tumbled his whinnying steed? Envy of fountains. Poor hero on his island in the swirl of traffic, denied the solace of an umbrageous linden or chestnut with bright medals through its leaves. Envy of columns. Calm. Envy of bells. Peace widened the Sunday avenue in Milan.
Left-handed light at morning on the square, the Doumo with long shadows where clamoring bells shake exaltation from blue, virginal air, squaring off corners, de Chirico parallels— and where the soundlessly snorting, big-balled horse whose head, lowered and drooping, means the death of its rider, holds a far longer breath, longer than ours in our traffic island. The widening love of Italy growing stronger against my will with sunlight in Milan… For we still expect presences, no matter where– to sit again at table watching the luminous clatter of the great mall in Milan; there! Was that him, Joseph in an olive raincoat, like a leaf on a clear stream with a crowd of leaves from the edge to the center and sinking into them?
White walls set back amidst a mutter of birches the house kept its cold secret–it had been a cultural outpost in the old regime, when the East was a colony of Russia. But there was no partition in the sunshine of the small rusty garden that a crow cross with no permit; instead, the folded echo of interrogation, of conspiracy, surrounded it, although its open windows were steamed envelopes. This was another empire, though a cold, not a hot one, and its relic still gave me a November shudder. The shadow of a cane-factory wheel shed by the pines grew on the rough lawn. I sat on a plank bench by the wooden table and listened to the sound of papers being shuffled by an inquiry into the parasitism of poetry by the dry-lipped leaves. Then through the thinned trees I saw a wraith of smoke, which I believed came from the house, but every smoker carries his own wreath; then I saw that this morning wreath was yours. Another empire was finished. This time, Russia's. Between the sighs of leaves shone the bones of birches. I imagine your phantom in the alders, listening, or, as the green phrase went: unter den Linden. For History here is the covering-over of corpses, not only in trenches of quicklime, but also the dandruff of pigeon-drops in the stone-wings of statues composing minuets in the open, scoring sparrow-notes on the page of a cloud, the frecks of blossom on enameled meadows the pages of spring, a fusillade of skylarks in the smoking sky and the screams of lilies harvested into a vase, a sky composed of bandages and cotton and the needles of sick spires, it is the music heard in the cold March through the black bars of lindens by a remembering Jew, it is not only the cloud but what is hidden under the cloud, under the page, like the sinuous shadows of a sunken barge in a sparking canal, to the sound of a shovel scraping over and tapping a small mound of error which white flowers sprinkle to the sound of leaves turning over and over in libraries in a new spring.
William Wadsworth submitted “Bloom's Photograph”:
In Reykjavik that year the bomb talks failed, but we survived among the sweet dead leaves that lay along the esplanade before Grant's Tomb.
They spiraled into wind-banked heaps between the benches and the faded grass; the season escalated elsewhere, but here the clever hopes
blew lightly down. Safe beside each other, we were reading James Joyce when across the street a white Rolls Royce pulled up outside a church. A bride
walked out into the light, exalted— as if the future, gowned in white, had made a sudden promise in spite of Reykjavik. This vision, gilt
by autumn light, had interrupted Molly Bloom's adulteries, had stopped the fading of the leaves, until the newlyweds abruptly
went their way. That faded shot of Mrs. Bloom her husband keeps adulterates this bride: one sweep of the wind and the greenest leaf
does not survive. The scene must change. Ulysses Grant, in the heat of battle, was known to sit absorbed, cool as stone, composing letters home to Mrs.
Grant, to say all he privately believed was going up in smoke. Puffing on a cigar, he soaked the fields with blood in Tennessee,
buried his conscience in each glass of whiskey, and finally told Lee at Appomattox that victory was sad—he did not care to pass
humiliation on—he lived without illusions. So grant us all another cold and golden fall, and knowledge as to how to leave
the scene. The bride took off her dress that night as gangs of boys played ball against the mausoleum wall. We shut the book on Molly's Yes.
“Thirteen Ways of Looking at Joseph Brodsky” is reproduced by permission of the Academic Studies Press, Boston, Mass., which will publish Valenina Polukhina's collection of interviews on Brodsky in September 2008. Excerpts from The Prodigal by Derek Walcott. Copyright © 2004 by Derek Walcott. Used by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved. William Wadsworth's “Bloom's Photograph” appears by arrangement with the author. All rights reserved. Images: Photographs of Joseph Brodsky.