"The Poet and the Poem at the Library of Congress"
An interview with Joseph Brodsky by Grace Cavalieri
This interview by Grace Cavalieri was recorded at The Library of Congress in 1992 when Joseph Brodsky took office as U.S. POET LAUREATE.
Grace Cavalieri Interviews Joseph Brodsky
Joseph Brodsky is a native of Leningrad, now St. Petersburg. His poetry has been published in twelve languages. Joseph Brodsky has lived in the U.S. since 1972 when he was exiled from the Soviet Union. He is the recipient of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Award. His essay collection, Less Than One, was awarded the 1986 National Book Award for criticism. Winner of the 1987 Nobel Prize for Literature, he is one of only five Americans to win the award during the past thirty years.
Grace Cavalieri: Your initial address at the Library of Congress (October, 1991) was also published in The New Republic. Here you present yourself as an activist for poetry, an enthusiast: ďThe poetry consultant as the poetry activist.Ē Is that how you wanted to be received?
Joseph Brodsky: Itís fine if people feel that way but the main point is simply I honestly regard that this job, being paid by the Library of Congress in Washington, makes me the property of the public for this year. It is in the spirit of the public servant. My concern is the publicís access to poetry which I find very limited, idiotically so, and I would like to change it if I can.
Cavalieri: Do you think you can?
Brodsky: It takes more than a speech preaching to the converts here at the Library. It takes publishers, entrepreneurs to throw money into the idea.
Cavalieri: In addition to wanting more poetry published and distributed you bring a new view to American poetry. Would you tell us some of your feelings about this countryís poetry?
Brodsky: Basically, I think itís remarkable poetry, a tremendous poetry this nation has and doesnít touch. To my ear and my eye itís a nonstop sermon of human autonomy, of individualism, self-reliance. Itís a poetry hard to escape. It has its own faults and vices but it doesnít suffer malaise typical of the poetry of the continentó-Europeó-self aggrandizement on the part of the poem, where the poet regards himself as a public figure ... all those Promethean affinities and "grand- standing." Those things are alien to the generous spirit of American poetry, at least for the last century. The distinction of an American poet from his European counterpart, in the final analysis, is a poetry of responsibility ... a responsibility for his fellow human beings. This is a narrowing of the ethical application of poetry. What a European doesóFrench, German, Italian, Russianóis move his blamethirsty finger. It oscillates 360 degrees all the time, trying to indicate who is at fault, trying to explain his and societyís ills. An American, if his finger points at anything, itís most likely himself or the existential order of things.
Cavalieri: And you call this a sermon of resilience?
Brodsky: Yes if you like.
Cavalieri: You were exiled from Russia in 1972, having previously been sentenced to five years hard labor at an Arctic labor camp. Did the efforts of Russian intellectuals and writers win your release?
Brodsky: Not only those. People abroad too. One person who interceded in my behalf was the father of the H-bomb, Edward Teller.
Cavalieri: And you then accepted the invitation to come to this country?
Brodsky: I was put on a plane going only in one direction with no return ticket and a friend of mine from the University of Michigan, now dead, (Carl Proffer) a great man, a professor of Slavic languages, met me and asked how I would like to come to the University of Michigan as poet in residence.
Cavalieri: That young man, all those years ago . . .
Brodsky: Almost twenty.
Cavalieri: He was such a brave stubborn independent man. Do you feel that heís still with you? Do you know that man now?
Brodsky: He is still within me. Those years in Michigan are the only childhood I ever had.
Cavalieri: In reading the transcripts of your trial I was struck with how unafraid you sounded. How did you feel?
Brodsky: I donít really remember. I donít think 1 was afraid. No. I knew who runs the show. I knew I was on the receiving end so it didnít really matter; I knew what it would boil down to.
Cavalieri: I was wondering when watching the Thomas hearings recently how you might feel while watching them ... the way they were doing business ... having been on the hot seat once yourself, and watching something so vastly American and unwieldy as those hearings. In a way it could only happen in America.
Brodsky: I felt very upset with a bad taste in my mouth. It wasnít really a court case. I felt it was utterly ridiculous and people often find themselves in the predicament choosing between two things where neither one is good.
Cavalieri: I would have liked to see a poet as questioner. We would have gotten a different approach.
Brodsky: I wouldnít question Judge Thomas. I know enough about the transaction between the opposite sexes not to question him on that score.
Cavalieri: Do you write poetry primarily in English now?
Brodsky: Poetry I write primarily in Russian. Essays, and lectures, blurbs, reference letters, reviews, I write in English.
Cavalieri: How much are we missing? We see and hear English translations of your poems and some are called brilliant in any language.
Brodsky: You canít say you are missing much. You canít say you are missing the prosody of another language. You canít miss the acoustics of another language. The original is rooted in the euphony of the Russian language. That of course you canít have and youíre not missing it. You canít miss something that you donít know.
Cavalieri: We can get a good lyrical poem anyway that is matchless.
Brodsky: Thatís what it is if it works in English. You have to be a judge of solely how it is in English.
Cavalieri: We shouldnít feel weíre getting only ninety percent of something which is absolute.
Brodsky: You get a poem in English, good or bad. You canít fantasize about what itíd be like in the original.
Cavalieri: I was watching you recite recently without looking at the page. Can you recite every one of your poems in Russian?
Brodsky: By heart? I donít think so. Not any longer. Until I was forty I knew them all.
Cavalieri: Do the translations usually please you.
Brodsky: Itís a very peculiar sensation when you receive the translation of your own poem. On one hand youíre terribly pleased that something youíve done will interest the English. The initial sentiment is the pleasure. As you start to read it turns very quickly into horror and itís a tremendously interesting mixture of those two sentiments. There is no name for that in Russian or in English. Itís a highly schizophrenic sensation.
Cavalieri: There isnít a word for joy and terror.
Cavalieri: Your devotion to the craft as well as to the spirit of poetry is well known. Youíre famous for your reverence to the forms, the metrics, the structure. Since you are a man who champions individualism, I have to ask whether you believe there could be some poetís experience which would not fall within a formalistic structure?
Brodsky: Easily so. Iím not suggesting a strait jacket. Iím just thinking that when the poet resorts to a certain medium, whether it is metric verse or free verse, he should be at least aware of those differences. Poetry is of a very rich past. Thereís a great deal of family history to it. For instance when one resorts to free verse, one has to remember that everything prefaced with the epithet "free" means "free from what." Freedom is not an autonomous condition. It is a determined condition. In physics itís determined by the statics. In politics itís conditioned by slavery, and what kind of freedom can you talk of in transcendental terms. Free means not free but liberated, "free from"ófree from strict meters, so essentially itís a reaction to strict meters. Free verse. An individual who just resorts to it has to, in a miniature manner, go through the history of verse in English before liberating himself from it. Other than this you start with a borrowed mediumóhow should I say thisóa medium that is more not yours than are strict meters.
Cavalieri: Do you teach creative writing?
Brodsky: No, I donít. I teach creative reading. My course at Mt. Holyoke is described as teaching "the subject matter and strategy in lyric poetry"ó Whatís the poet after; Howís he doing it; Whatís he up to?
Cavalieri: Reviewers attribute all sorts of things to you regarding craft ... moral, social forces embodied in craft.
Brodsky: All those things are there.
Cavalieri: I am also very interested in your plays and I wonder if you think theyíre getting enough notice.
Brodsky: I donít think they are but I never expected them to get much.
Cavalieri: Marbles was produced just once?
Brodsky: Once or twice here, but all over the place in Europe.
Cavalieri: This reminds me of Howard Nemerov. His dramatic literature is among the best written in English, and it scarcely could get produced. When I read Marbles I thought I saw another side to your writing.
Brodsky: Itís actually the same.
Cavalieri: The themes are but you get a little wilder on the stage.
Brodsky: Itís very natural for someone who writes poetry to write plays. A poem, and especially the poem saddled with all those formal hurdles of rhyme and meter, is essentially a form of dialogue. Every monologue is a form of a dialogue because of the voices in it. What is "To be or not to be" but a dialogue. Itís a question and answer. Itís dialectical form, and, small wonder that a poet one day gets to write plays.
Cavalieri: Do you like the theater?
Brodsky: To read but not to go to. Often itís been an embarrassment.
Cavalieri: You start with an instinctive knowledge of the elements of theateróthe containment of the prisoners within a cell (Marbles).
Brodsky: The poet in a poem is a stage designer, a director, the characters, the body instructor, etcetera. Take for instance "Home Burial" by Robert Frost. Itís a perfect little drama. Itís also a ballet piece. Even Alfred Hitchcock would like it. Thereís a banister which plays a substantial role.
Cavalieri: And we should mention the compression of action of stage. The poem itself is compression of space. The word "Marbles" brings forth many meaningsóthe colloquialism, the game, the actual statues on stage, all those. What was the word in Russian which carried all those nuances?
Brodsky: The same. Marbles. But it carries less nuance in Russian than in English.
Cavalieri: You have in your poetry humor, irony, wryness. But in theater you do some high jinks. I think itís much more spirited and you have a chance to break free a little bit more.
Brodsky: Possibly but I donít think Iím freer in prose than in a poem.
Cavalieri: When you heard that you won the Nobel Prize for Literature that must have been quite a moment for you.
Brodsky: It was funny. I was in the company of John Le Carre in a restaurant in London and a friend ran in with the news.
Cavalieri: Your acceptance speech is one of the finest essays you have ever written. I thought it must have been a pleasure to be able to write thatóto be given the opportunityóthe chance to say everything that you stand for. It might even have been easy for you to write, because you had this one opportunity to say everything you believe and to tell who you are. What do you think is the one thing which resonates from that speech?
Brodsky: I donít really know what does. I would advise to a writer to prepare it beforehand for when it happens, when you are awarded the Nobel Prize, you have only a month to write it and all of a sudden you donít know what to say and youíre under the gun. I remember I was rushing to write it and it was darn difficult. I was never more nervous than then.
Cavalieri: So you think all writers should write an acceptance speech for the Nobel prize just to have on hand?
Brodsky: Yes, just in case.
Cavalieri: Well it isnít a bad idea to have a credo.
Brodsky: To begin with.
Cavalieri: Even if no one wants it.
Brodsky: You can use it for yourself.
Cavalieri: Are you pleased with the acceptance speech?
Brodsky: Yes Iím pleased with several points.
Cavalieri: You delivered it in Russian.
Brodsky: At the last moment. As I entered the room (I made up my mind.) I had two versions of A, the Russian and the English.
Cavalieri: And at the last moment you felt more comfortable with the Russian. It was then published in The New Republic. We should reprint that one.
Brodsky: That would be nice because itís a good speech.
Cavalieri: What it says is that poetry is the only thing that counts.
Brodsky: Perhaps the most valuable remark made there is that there are two or three modes of cognition available to our species: analysis, intuition, and the one which was available to the biblical prophetsórevelation. The virtue of poetry is that in the process of composition, you combine all three, if youíre lucky. At least you combine two: analysis and intuitionóa synthesis. The net result may be revelatory. If you take a rough look at the globe and who inhabits it. . . in the West we have the emphasis on the Russian now, on "reason." A premium is being put on it. And the East has reflexiveness and intuition. A poet, by default, is the healthiest possible specimenóa fusion of those two.
Cavalieri: Do you know VŠclav Havel?
Brodsky: No, Iíve seen him twice.
Cavalieri: Did you speak?
Brodsky: No. It took three quarters of a century for the Czech Declaration of Independence to wind up in the right hands.
Cavalieri: Have you received an invitation to return to your native land?
Brodsky: No I have not. Who cares?
Cavalieri: You havenít been back since Ď72. Last summer I concentrated on Russian history. But somewhere I stopped taking notes on current affairs simply from fatigue. You must feel that way.
Brodsky: For the first time Iím somewhat proud for the country I was born in. It finds itself in a tremendous predicament. Nobody knows what to do. Nobody knows how to live. Nobody knows what steps to take and, yet, for the first time in its long history, it doesnít act radically facing this confusion. In a sense that confusion reflects the human predicament par excellence, simply because nobody knows how to live. All forms of social and individual organization, like the political system, are simply ways to shield oneself and the nation from that confusion. And for the moment they donít shield themselves . . . their faces, Thomas Hardy once said the recipe for good poetry, I paraphrase badly here, "One should exact the full look at the worst" and thatís what takes place right now in Russia so maybe the results will be attractive. Iím not terribly hopeful here because there are 300 million people. No matter what you do, there are no happy solutions for that amount of people. One should be cognizant of that. if I were at the helm, near the radio, near the mic, thatís what Iíd tell people. Itís not going to be glorious for everybody. Freedom is no picnic. Itís a great deal of responsibility, a great deal of choices and a human being is bound to make some wrong choices sooner or later. So itís going to be quite difficult for quite a number of people. The entire nation, at this point, needs something like vocational training because lots of people have been put in jobs wrong for them. They relied on the stateóon the paternalistic structure. There is terrific inertia from always relying on somebody and not taking individual responsibility.
Cavalieri: How will the Russian poet reflect this?
Brodsky: I donít think we can say. Art depends on history or social reality. Itís a Marxist idea, or Aristotelian I think, that Art reflects life. Art has its own dynamics ... its own history ... its own velocity ... its own incomprehensible target. In a way itís like a runaway train upon which society boards or doesnít board. And when it boards, it doesnít know which direction itíll go. The train started a long time before. Literature (poetry) is older than any existing political system, any system of the government or any social organization. A song was there before any story. And so basically it evolves, develops, and continues along its own lines sometimes overlapping with the history of the state or the society or the reality of societyó sometimes not. One shouldnít subordinate Art to life. Art is different from life in that it doesnít resort to repetition and to the clichťs, whereas life always resorts to clichťs in spite of itself be¨cause it always has to start from scratch.
Cavalieri: One remark youíve made about the Augustan era, the Roman time on earth, is that the only record we have of human sensibilities is from the poets.
Brodsky: Yes I think the poets gave us quite a lot more than anything else, any other record.
Cavalieri: What do you think the future will know about us from what we say?
Brodsky: It will know pretty little about ourselves. It will judge us by what literature we leave.
Cavalieri: By what literature remains.
Brodsky: A millennium hence ... I donít know if people will still exist but if theyíre interested in the twentieth century theyíll read the books written in the twentieth century.
Cavalieri: Youíve taught at the University of Michigan. Youíve been a Visiting Professor at Queens College, Smith College, Columbia University, and Cambridge. Youíve been awarded honorary Doctorate degrees from Williams College and Yale University.
Brodsky: And some other places ... The University of Rochester, also from Oxford, England among others. We should just mention thoseónot that Iím shaking my medals.
Cavalieri: At each time do you make a speech?
Brodsky: Regretfully, yes.
Cavalieri: Should they be collected in a book?
Brodsky: Well, no.
Cavalieri: Does Joseph Brodsky have any poetry that is not published?
Cavalieri: Is there anyone whoíd reject a poem?
Brodsky: Yes, thatís healthy. Nothing changes that way.
Cavalieri: How do you write your poems? Do your poems gather themselves? Do you walk along collecting images until the time to release?
Brodsky: I donít deliberately or knowingly collect things. The poem always starts with the first line, or a line anyway, and from that you go. Itís something like a hum to which you try to fit the line and then it proceeds that way.
Cavalieri: Mystics say the very beginning of the human species came through sound, the vibration of sound.
Brodsky: Thatís nice of them.
Cavalieri: With the poet as well. With you the vibration is first?
Brodsky: Some tune ... some tune which has oddly enough some psychological weight, a diminution and you try to fit something into that. The only organic thing that is pertinent to poetry, is like the way you live. You exist and gradually you arrive at a certain tune in your head. The lines develop like wrinkles, like grey hair. They are wrinkles in a sense, especially with what goes into composing ... That gives you wrinkles! Itís in a sense the work of time upon the man. It chisels you or disfigures you or makes your skin parched.
Cavalieri: So itís eroding you and you carry it around?
Brodsky: You do with sentences what time has done to you.
Cavalieri: In the formation of it, are you carrying parts of the stanzas around with you also?
Brodsky: Of course you do, yes.
Cavalieri: And the mechanics ... You use longhand first?
Brodsky: Yes, I donít have a computer. Then I type with one finger. Computers have no use to me.
Cavalieri: Which finger?
Brodsky: Index finger, right hand.
Cavalieri: I saw a poem of yours in The New Yorker last January and I wondered how many poems you get published a year in periodicals.
Brodsky: It varies. For the last year I published about ten.
Cavalieri: Ten new poems in one year. Thatís quite a bit.
Brodsky. Yes if youíre lucky. I spent half the year in Ireland and published several poems in TLS (The Times Literary Supplement).
Cavalieri: It is said that when you were in a work camp at the time of Eliotís death you were able to write your verse to him in twenty-four hours.
Brodsky: Two or three days, yes.
Cavalieri: So you are extremely focused but he also meant a lot to you. That helps.
Brodsky: It did. Also, extraordinarily, under the circumstances, I had a form or shape for that poem. I borrowed from W.H. Audenís poem ďIn Memory of Yeats.Ē I made some changes. I made the first part a slightly different rhyme scheme.
Cavalieri: And you learned English by translating poetry?
Brodsky: By reading it and translating it.
Cavalieri: Line by line by line. How do you think your English is now?
Brodsky: I donít know. Sometimes even I am satisfied but often I donít know what to say. I am at a loss.
Cavalieri: Donít you think we are in any language?
Brodsky: With a mongrel like me itís perhaps more frequent.
Cavalieri: Do you think and dream in both languages?
Brodsky: People think in thoughts and dream in dreams. They collate these in language. When we grow up we become fluent in this and for that reason we believe that we think in languages.
Cavalieri: Do you ever use material from your dreams?
Brodsky: Frequently. Several times I composed poems when I just woke up. W.H. Auden suggested to keep a pad with a pencil to jot a few things, but mine came out as jibberish.
Cavalieri: Dreams are not always useful except for the feeling load.
Brodsky: The subconscious is a source but a composition is a highly rational enterprise in many ways. You may think of the dream as inspira¨tion but then you type it down and then you begin to correct it. You replace the words. It is an invasion of the reasoning. Poetry is an incurably semantic art and you canít really help it. You have to make sense. Thatís what distinguishes it from other arts ... from all other arts.
Cavalieri: You call it the highest point of human locution.
Brodsky: That’s what it is.
This interview was originally conducted at the Library of Congress, October 1991, and was broadcast on The Poet And The Poem, public radio station WPFW-FM. It was first published in the American Poetry Review in 1992. It has never been seen online.
Poet Grace Cavalieri produces and hosts The Poet And The Poem and is a frequent contributor to Beltway Poetry Quarterly.