Talk for Sarah Lawrence night honoring Joseph Brodsky


Joseph Brodsky was my teacher between 1984 and 1985 in the Columbia MFA program, I can't remember which semester—Sven Birkerts was also Brodsky's student, and described him as "at one and the same time the worst and the most vital and compelling teacher I've ever had." On the worst side, he mentions "a slightly bored contemptuous edge" which I recognized—on the vital side, he describes Brodsky as sharing "an expression of who he was and what he believed about poetry." 

Although Brodsky was fervent about being an American, the wisdoms he left me with were not American—he chided us for our American idea that poetry should be directly autobiographical, or about our feelings—and said instead that poetry is about the relationship between a poet and a language—a revelation whose implications are still unfolding for me, as poet, reader, and teacher, almost thirty years later. As he lectured meticulously on poems of Auden and Frost and his beloved Hardy—and most life-changingly for me, the poems of Zbigniew Herbert from Polish and CP Cavafy from Greek—he would ask not "What is this poem about?" and not "How does this poem make you feel?" but "For the sake of which word was this poem written?" He said once in an essay, "any more or less serious poet knows that he is not working for his audience, that he is writing because language is dictating to him. He is doing this for the sake of the music and the language."

Russian seems to me one of those languages from which it's hard to recognize a great poet in English translation—in Greek and Polish, for two examples, you can tell for yourself—but with Russian I at least have to be told, as his beloved Akhmatova told when she inscribed his first book, "To Joseph Brodsky, whose poems seem to me magical." I don't know that I would describe his poems in English as magical, unless directed—Seamus Heaney has a poem lovingly referring to this, describing his friend Joseph as "Nose in air, foot to floor/Revving English like a car." This poem I'm about to read was ostensibly translated by Derek Walcott, although Walcott has made it clear that Brodsky's was the guiding hand. It was one of the poet's favorites of his own poems translated into English—it's called "Letters from the Ming Dynasty." He says about it somewhere, "I was trying to combine two things, Beckett and Mozart," maybe akin to two things he describes elsewhere as grief and reason, and about which he taught me things I keep, gratefully. 


Letters from the Ming Dynasty


    Soon it will be thirteen years since the nightingale
    fluttered out of its cage and vanished.  And, at nightfall,
    the Emperor washes down his medicine with the blood
    of another tailor, then, propped on silk pillows, turns on a jeweled bird
    that lulls him with its level, identical song.
    It's this sort of anniversary, odd-numbered, wrong,
    that we celebrate these days in our "Land-under-Heaven."
    The special mirror that smooths wrinkles even
    costs more every year.  Our small garden is choked with weeds.
    The sky, too, is pierced by spires like pins in the shoulder blades
    of someone so sick that his back is all we're allowed to see,
    and whenever I talk about astronomy
    to the Emperor's son, he begins to joke. . .
    This letter to you, Beloved, from your Wild Duck
    is brushed onto scented rice paper given me by the Empress.
    Lately there is no rice but the flow of rice paper is endless.


    "A thousand-li-long road starts with the first step," as
    the proverb goes.  Pity the road home does
    not depend on that same step.  It exceeds ten times
    a thousand li, especially counting from zeros.
    One thousand li, two thousand li--
    a thousand means "Thou shalt not ever see
    thy native place."  And the meaninglessness, like a plague,
    leaps from words onto numbers, onto zeros especially.
    Wind blows us westward like the yellow tares
    from a dried pod, there where the Wall towers.
    Against it man's figure is ugly and stiff as a frightening hieroglyph,
    as any illegible scripture at which one stares.
    this pull in one direction only has made
    me something elongated, like a horse's head,
    and all the body should do is spent by its shadow
    rustling across the wild barley's withered blade.