Joseph Brodsky Less Than One Selected Essays

Joseph Brodsky Less Than One Selected Essays-81
The pieces in are arranged in the order of their writing, though they need not be read that way.Some were written as speeches or class lectures, such as “A Commencement Address” or “On ‘September 1, 1939,’ by W. (The entire section is 880 words.) Joseph Brodsky is considered by many contemporary critics to be not only the finest poet currently writing in Russian but also one of the preeminent living poets.

The pieces in are arranged in the order of their writing, though they need not be read that way.Some were written as speeches or class lectures, such as “A Commencement Address” or “On ‘September 1, 1939,’ by W. (The entire section is 880 words.) Joseph Brodsky is considered by many contemporary critics to be not only the finest poet currently writing in Russian but also one of the preeminent living poets.It would be tempting to say that Brodsky and Auden are the only really civilized great poets of their respective generations, and of the past few decades.

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A Soviet Jewish exile since 1972, Brodsky has been poet-in-residence at several American universities, notably the University of Michigan and Columbia University.

is a generous collection of his essays on such Russian poets as Anna Akhmatova, Marina Tsvetaeva, and Osip Mandelstam; the Russian prose writers Fyodor Dostoevski and Andrey Platonov; the Western poets W. Auden, Constantine Cavafy, Dante, Eugenio Montale, and Derek Walcott; the cities of Constantinople, Alexandria, and Saint Petersburg/Leningrad; and two largely autobiographical memoirs serving as opening and concluding chapters: “Less Than One” and “In a Room and a Half.” In “Less Than One,” Brodsky introduces two themes that he will weave through most of his work: his conviction that poetry is man’s supreme achievement (even a writer’s “biography is in his twists of language”), and his personal sense of estrangement, isolation, solitude (“the rest of my life can be viewed as a nonstop avoidance of its most importunate aspects”).

And Brodsky reminds us that twenty years after he wrote “September 1, 1939” Auden expressed a desire to “become, if possible, a minor Atlantic Goethe.” Brodsky calls this an extremely significant admission, and indeed there is Auden’s humor (and Brodsky’s own in the recognition of it) in the juxtaposition of “Goethe” with “Atlantic.” It is the comic apotheosis of civilization’s possibilities, and yet—like the best humor—expressing itself with no deliberate consciousness of itself.

Brodsky’s discussion of “September 1, 1939,” which appears midway in his collection of essays, is based on a class given at Columbia University, taped and transcribed by two of his students.

His tone is candidly intimate, self-confident, sometimes astringent, but never self-pitying.

His prose is energetic, incisive, often eloquent, occasionally grandiose.Stevens could never have written in a poem “We must love one another or die,” and then changed it to “We must love one another and die.” But possibly Goethe could: in fact on the evidence of the Roman Elegies and some of the poems in the Westöstlicher Divan he certainly could.For Goethe, surprisingly enough, was a poet of total humor, as of total civilization, despite all evidence to the contrary.Many poets, like other writers, can be skittish, or funny, or deeply and wisely comical; and they cultivate these qualities—as Robert Frost did, say, or as Robert Lowell did—in league with their personalities and poetic will.But humor only really exists as the spirit of civilization if it is everywhere inside it, and inside the poetry that can be its expression.Yet the reasons Brodsky himself gives are less flatly pragmatic: It was not out of necessity, as for Joseph Conrad, ambition, as for Vladimir Nabokov, or a wish for estrangement, as for Samuel Beckett, that he took to composing in a foreign language but out of the desire to bring himself closer to W. Auden—whom he considers “the finest mind of the twentieth century.” That is quite a claim both for Auden and his admirer, but it is typical of Brodsky—a combination of private modesty and intellectual audacity.Any imitation is a stage long since past, however, and what these essays show is an original and independent mind at work—at work on his fellow poets, on Russian literature and European culture, on his own past and his city’s.is a collection of essays, most of which were written in English.That in itself would be unremarkable, save that they were written by a major Russian poet, one who won the 1987 Nobel Prize in Literature, who, while continuing to write verse in his native language, switched to prose in a tongue he had learned only as an adult.The reason for Brodsky’s switch was in part geographical, which in modern terms has come to mean political as well; in 1972, he found himself exiled from his homeland, apparently forever.Moreover, he found himself in the United States and thus bound to earn a living in an English-speaking world.

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