… a past winner, 1987’s Joseph Brodsky.

A Russian poet tossed out of Russia for being a poet as well as a Jew, he lived in the States for many years until his early death (heart attack; he was a prodigious chain smoker) at 55. He loved the English language, and used it beautifully, but wrote most of his poems in Russian — and then turned around and translated many of them into English. He’s famous not just for his great poems and essays, but for the sass he gave a Soviet judge (“Who decided you’re a poet?” “Nobody. Who put me in the ranks of mankind?”).

In a review of a memoir about Susan Sontag, the reviewer cites a Brodsky anecdote:

[Joseph] Brodsky could outdo [Susan] Sontag both in heedless self-absorption and European-style imperturbability – though of course Brodsky, a Russian, was hardly more European than his paramour [Sontag]. Late in the book, [its author] reflects on something he had said over dinner: “You know in the end, none of it matters, what happens to you in your life. Not suffering. Not happiness or unhappiness. Not illness. Not prison. Nothing.”

So we can start here, with Brodsky’s nihilism (“I was a normal Soviet boy,” [Brodsky once] said. “I could have become a man of the system. But something turned me upside down: [Fyodor Dostoevsky’s] Notes from the Underground. I realized what I am. That I am bad.”), which of course wasn’t nihilism, or wasn’t thoroughgoing every blessed day nihilism… He’d been through enough horror and absurdity in his life to feel the pointless degradation of being human — at least in the corporate sense (“I think the world is capable of only one thing basically — proliferating its evils.”). Yet he insisted in his Nobel address that

Regardless of whether one is a writer or a reader, one’s task consists first of all in mastering a life that is one’s own, not imposed or prescribed from without, no matter how noble its appearance may be. For each of us is issued but one life, and we know full well how it all ends. It would be regrettable to squander this one chance on someone else’s appearance, someone else’s experience…

Personal salvation, if you will, was indeed possible, through the mutual misanthropy, the consciousness-equality, of aesthetic experience:

A novel or a poem is not a monologue, but the conversation of a writer with a reader, a conversation, I repeat, that is very private, excluding all others – if you will, mutually misanthropic. And in the moment of this conversation a writer is equal to a reader, as well as the other way around, regardless of whether the writer is a great one or not. This equality is the equality of consciousness. It remains with a person for the rest of his life in the form of memory, foggy or distinct; and, sooner or later, appropriately or not, it conditions a person’s conduct. [A] novel or a poem is the product of mutual loneliness – of a writer or a reader.

Take his poem, Seaward:



Darling, you think it’s love, it’s just a midnight journey.
Best are the dales and rivers removed by force,
as from the next compartment throttles “Oh, stop it, Bernie,”
yet the rhythm of those paroxysms is exactly yours.
Hook to the meat! Brush to the red-brick dentures,
alias cigars, smokeless like a driven nail!
Here the works are fewer than monkey wrenches,
and the phones are whining, dwarfed by to-no-avail.
Bark, then, with joy at Clancy, Fitzgibbon, Miller.
Dogs and block letters care how misfortune spells.
Still, you can tell yourself in the john by the spat-at mirror,
slamming the flush and emerging with clean lapels.
Only the liquid furniture cradles the dwindling figure.
Man shouldn’t grow in size once he’s been portrayed.
Look: what’s been left behind is about as meager
as what remains ahead. Hence the horizon’s blade.


A man takes a train journey, with his lover, to the coast. He reprimands her for her romanticism. Nothing like traveling on a swaying train late at night, the windows dark, muffled voices from other compartments, the natural world blurred by the force of the train’s onward rush… Or so you think, love. Really, we’re just traveling from Point A to Point B. The lovers in the next compartment? They’re as ridiculous as we are when we go at it.

The world of the train is in fact cramped and pitifully reduced to basic human needs, a place of hooks for the bags of food we’re carrying, and little toothbrushes for our smoke-stained teeth. Hook to this, and brush to that — the setting is ridiculously like a military camp, full of machines that want to be of service but are “dwarfed” by a sense of futility.

Be happy, then, for the busy, legible, utilitarian world that will reveal itself outside all this, when the sun comes up. We prefer that richly elaborated world, because losing ourselves in it means losing our sense of pointlessness.

Only trapped inside of places like trains, where our essential reduction reveals itself, do we recognize the truth. Only negotiating the narrow bathroom recalls us to our degraded condition.

In other words: Want to see yourself? Look at your piss dwindling in the flushed toilet bowl.

Man shouldn’t grow in size once he’s been portrayed.
Look: what’s been left behind is about as meager
as what remains ahead. Hence the horizon’s blade.

Not really in a holiday mood, is he? She thought they’d steal away for a romantic weekend at the shore; he’s brooding over the stinky, sicko, Toy World we all agree to live in… Only thing to do is be honest about it. Let’s not give ourselves airs. We’re just as stupid and embarrassing in our pretensions to a higher passion as the people in the next compartment. The cramped toy world of wrenches and nails hasn’t been left behind when we go to the majestic shore. On the contrary, the horizon over the ocean is just another machine — a blade — which makes clear, with infinite precision, the chopped up, meager nature of the earth.

The technique here is the same as Auden’s (a major influence on Brodsky) and the same as Elizabeth Bishop’s:

What interests me is [Auden’s] symptomatic technique of description. He never gives you the real . . . ulcer . . . he talks about its symptoms, ya? He keeps his eye all the time on civilization, on the human condition. But he doesn’t give you the direct description of it, he gives you the oblique way. …[I]f you really want your poem to work, the usage of adjectives should be minimal; but you should stuff it as much as you can with nouns — even the verbs should suffer. If you cast over a poem a certain magic veil that removes adjectives and verbs, when you remove the veil the paper still should be dark with nouns.

Language, using language in a certain way, turns out to be, for Brodsky, the one reliable non-nihilism:

A person sets out to write a poem for a variety of reasons: to win the heart of his beloved; to express his attitude toward the reality surrounding him, be it a landscape or a state; to capture his state of mind at a given instant; to leave – as he thinks at that moment – a trace on the earth. He resorts to this form – the poem – most likely for unconsciously mimetic reasons: the black vertical clot of words on the white sheet of paper presumably reminds him of his own situation in the world, of the balance between space and his body. … The one who writes a poem writes it above all because verse writing is an extraordinary accelerator of conscience, of thinking, of comprehending the universe. Having experienced this acceleration once, one is no longer capable of abandoning the chance to repeat this experience…

The train is a pathetic, jerry-built interior accelerating extraordinarily through an immense outer darkness. To this train the poet brings his train of thought, his wordkit. However dark the manifest content he derives from the meeting of mind and machine, consciousness and world, the poet will in fact be celebrating, scrunched up in his little compartment, his writing pad on his knees. For he has felt the ecstasy of comprehension. And that’s the ticket.

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2 Responses to “After Nobel Week, A Return Visit, If I May, To …”

  1. Spencer Says:

    Margaret, thank you for this.

    I wonder if you saw the wonderful (though fictionalized) A Room and a Half?

  2. Margaret Soltan Says:

    You’re welcome! And no – I didn’t know about A Room and a Half – but I’ve already found a trailer for it on YouTube, and I’m about to go there. Thanks.

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