The Generous Spirit of American
Interview with Joseph Brodsky
Joseph Brodsky was the fifth US Poet Laureate (serving
from 1991-1992 at the Library of Congress). This interview was originally
conducted at the Library of Congress on October 1991, and was broadcast
on "The Poet And The Poem," on public radio station WPFW-FM.
It was first published in the American Poetry Review in 1992.
It has never been seen online.
A native of Leningrad, now St. Petersburg, Joseph Brodsky's
poetry has been published in twelve languages. He lived in the US since
1972 when he was exiled from the Soviet Union. He was 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. He won the 1987 Nobel Prize for Literature.
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: “The
poetry consultant as the poetry activist.” Is that how you wanted
to be received?
Joseph Brodsky: It’s 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 public’s 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 country’s poetry?
Brodsky: Basically, I think it’s remarkable poetry,
a tremendous poetry this nation has and doesn’t touch. To my ear
and my eye it’s a nonstop sermon of human autonomy, of individualism,
self-reliance. It’s a poetry hard to escape. It has its own faults
and vices but it doesn’t suffer malaise typical of the poetry of
the continent—-Europe—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 does—French, German, Italian, Russian—is
move his blamethirsty finger. It oscillates 360 degrees all the time,
trying to indicate who is at fault, trying to explain his and society’s
ills. An American, if his finger points at anything, it’s 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
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 he’s still with you? Do you know that man
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 don’t really remember. I don’t
think I was afraid. No. I knew who runs the show. I knew I was on the
receiving end so it didn’t really matter; I knew what it would
boil down to.
Cavalieri: I was wondering when watching the [Clarence] 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 wasn’t 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 wouldn’t 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
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
Brodsky: You can’t say you are missing much. You
can’t say you are missing the prosody of another language. You
can’t miss the acoustics of another language. The original is rooted
in the euphony of the Russian language. That of course you can’t
have and you’re not missing it. You can’t miss something that
you don’t know.
Cavalieri: We can get a good lyrical poem anyway
that is matchless.
Brodsky: That’s what it is if it works in English.
You have to be a judge of solely how it is in English.
Cavalieri: We shouldn’t feel we’re getting
only ninety percent of something which is absolute.
Brodsky: You get a poem in English, good or bad. You
can’t fantasize about what it’d 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 don’t think so. Not any longer.
Until I was forty I knew them all.
Cavalieri: Do the translations usually please you?
Brodsky: It’s a very peculiar sensation when you
receive the translation of your own poem. On one hand you’re terribly
pleased that something you’ve done will interest the English. The
initial sentiment is the pleasure. As you start to read it turns very
quickly into horror and it’s a tremendously interesting mixture
of those two sentiments. There is no name for that in Russian or in
English. It’s a highly schizophrenic sensation.
Cavalieri: There isn’t a word for joy and terror.
Cavalieri: Your devotion to the craft as well as
to the spirit of poetry is well known. You’re 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
poet’s experience which would not fall within a formalistic structure?
Brodsky: Easily so. I’m not suggesting a strait
jacket. I’m 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. There’s
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
it’s determined by the statics. In politics it’s conditioned
by slavery, and what kind of freedom can you talk of in transcendental
terms. Free means not free but liberated, "free from"—free
from strict meters, so essentially it’s 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 medium—how
should I say this—a medium that is more not yours than are strict
Cavalieri: Do you teach creative writing?
Brodsky: No, I don’t. I teach creative reading.
My course at Mt. Holyoke is described as teaching "the subject
matter and strategy in lyric poetry"— What’s the poet
after; How’s he doing it; What’s 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 they’re getting enough notice.
Brodsky: I don’t think they are, but I never expected
them to get much.
Cavalieri: "Marbles" was produced just
Brodsky: Once or twice here, but all over the place
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: It’s actually the same.
Cavalieri: The themes are but you get a little wilder
on the stage.
Brodsky: It’s 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. It’s
a question and answer. It’s 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 it’s been
Cavalieri: You start with an instinctive knowledge
of the elements of theater—the containment of the prisoners within
a cell ("Marbles").
Brodsky: The poet in a poem is a stage designer, a director,
the charac¬ters, the body instructor, etcetera. Take for instance
"Home Burial" by Robert Frost. It’s
a perfect little drama. It’s also a ballet piece. Even Alfred Hitchcock
would like it. There’s 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 meanings—the 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 it’s much
more spirited and you have a chance to break free a little bit more.
Brodsky: Possibly but I don’t think I’m 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 Carré 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 that—to be given the opportunity—the 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 don’t 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 don’t know what to say and you’re 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 isn’t a bad idea to have
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 I’m 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 it, 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 it’s a good
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
prophets—revelation. The virtue of poetry is that in the process
of composition, you combine all three, if you’re lucky. At least
you combine two: analysis and intuition—a 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 specimen—a fusion
of those two.
Cavalieri: Do you know Václav Havel?
Brodsky: No, I’ve 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 haven’t been back since ‘72.
Last summer I concentrated on Russian history. But somewhere I stopped
taking notes on current affairs simply from fatigue. You must feel that
Brodsky: For the first time I’m 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 doesn’t
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 don’t 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 that’s what takes place right now in Russia so
maybe the results will be attractive. I’m 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, that’s
what I’d tell people. It’s not going to be glorious for everybody.
Freedom is no picnic. It’s 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 it’s 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 state—on the paternalistic structure.
There is terrific inertia from always relying on somebody and not taking
Cavalieri: How will the Russian poet reflect this?
Brodsky: I don’t think we can say. Art depends
on history or social reality. It’s 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 it’s like a runaway train upon which society boards or doesn’t
board. And when it boards, it doesn’t know which direction it’ll
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 society—
sometimes not. One shouldn’t subordinate Art to life. Art is different
from life in that it doesn’t resort to repetition and to the clichés,
whereas life always resorts to clichés in spite of itself because
it always has to start from scratch.
Cavalieri: One remark you’ve 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 don’t know if
people will still exist but if they’re interested in the twentieth
century they’ll read the books written in the twentieth century.
Cavalieri: You’ve taught at the University of
Michigan. You’ve been a Visiting Professor at Queens College, Smith
College, Columbia University, and Cambridge. You’ve 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
those—not that I’m 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 who’d reject a poem?
Brodsky: Yes, that’s healthy. Nothing changes that
Cavalieri: How do you write your poems? Do your poems
gather themselves? Do you walk along collecting images until the time
Brodsky: I don’t deliberately or knowingly collect
things. The poem always starts with the first line, or a line anyway,
and from that you go. It’s 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: That’s nice of them.
Cavalieri: With the poet as well. With you the vibration
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! It’s in a sense the work of time upon
the man. It chisels you or disfigures you or makes your skin parched.
Cavalieri: So it’s eroding you and you carry
Brodsky: You do with sentences what time has done to
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
Brodsky: Yes, I don’t 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
Brodsky: It varies. For the last year I published about
Cavalieri: Ten new poems in one year. That’s
quite a bit.
Brodsky. Yes if you’re lucky. I spent half the
year in Ireland and published several poems in The Times Literary
Cavalieri: It is said that when you were in a work
camp at the time of Eliot’s 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. Auden’s
poem “In Memory of Yeats.” I made some changes. I made the
first part a slightly different rhyme scheme.
Cavalieri: And you learned English by translating
Brodsky: By reading it and translating it.
Cavalieri: Line by line by line. How do you think
your English is now?
Brodsky: I don’t know. Sometimes even I am satisfied
but often I don’t know what to say. I am at a loss.
Cavalieri: Don’t you think we are in any language?
Brodsky: With a mongrel like me it’s perhaps more
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 inspiration 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 can’t really help it. You
have to make sense. That’s what distinguishes it from other arts
... from all other arts.
Cavalieri: You call it the highest point of human
Brodsky: That’s what it is.
Grace Cavalieri is the author of several
books, and 21 produced plays. Her latest book of poems, Anna Nicole:
Poems was released in 2008. She’s produced "The Poet
and the Poem" from the Library of Congress on public radio, now
in its 32nd year. Among her honors, Grace holds the Allen Ginsberg Award
for Poetry, A Paterson Prize for Poetry, the Pen- Syndicated Fiction
Award, the Bordighera Poetry Award, the Folger’s inaugural "Columbia
Award" and CPB’s Silver Medal. Her book What I Would do
For Love (Poems in the Voice of Mary Wollstonecraft, 1759-1797)
is the basis for her new play, "Hyena in Petticoats." Among
production awards, her play "Quilting the Sun" received a
key to the city of Greenville, SC in 2007.
Published in Volume 10.4, Fall 2009.
To read more by this author:
Grace Cavalieri's Intro to Vol. 5, No. 2 (Spring
Cavalieri on Roland Flint: Memorial Issue
Grace Cavalieri: Whitman Issue
Grace Cavalieri: Wartime Issue
Evolving City Issue
Split This Rock Issue
Cavalieri on Ann
Darr: Forebears Issue
Grace Cavalieri on Ahmos Zu-Bolton II: Poetic Ancestors Issue