Brodsky: The Last Poet In The Russian Heroic Tradition

Valentina Polukhina - David Bethea - An Interview

Valentina Polukhina: At what stage did you become responsive to Russian poetry?
David Bethea: I began to specialize in Russian poetry in graduate school; it was there, in the years 1974-77, that I decided to focus in my dissertation research on the poetry of Vladislav Khodasevich. As I steeped myself in Khodasevich I also read in some depth Pushkin, Derzhavin, Fet, and the other poets Khodasevich especially admired and to some extent modelled himself on.

Do you remember your first encounter with Brodsky's poetry?
- I recall my initial strong feelings about Brodsky arose in connection with his startling "blank verse" classicism in the early "Aeneas and Dido" (Enei i Didona) poem as well as with the moving equine parts of "There was a black horizon" (Byl chernyi nebosvod..."). It became clear to me as an advanced graduate student and young assistant professor that Brodsky brought something special to the issue of exile and emigration I had studied in connection with Khodasevich and Nabokov. However, it was at the time I reviewed Less Than One for the New York Times (July 1986), as I was finishing my big Apocalypse project (The Shape of Apocalypse in Modern Russian Fiction, 1989), that I decided to turn seriously to the study of Brodsky and his understanding, largely metaphysical, of exile. I proposed to Princeton University Press that a book on the recent (1987) Nobel laureate would be appealing and, fortunately, they (in particular my acquisitions editor there, Bob Brown), agreed.

Have you ever attended a Brodsky poetry reading?
- Three times: once in Middlebury (summer 1987, a few months before the Nobel), a second time in Milwaukee in the late 1980's or early 1990's, and a third time in Chicago in the 1990's. Each reading was magical, especially the way JB began to "take flight" (slowly) in connection with the audience response and his own feelings about his words and their infectiousness. He was like some huge 747 that needed a long runway to take off. The entire nexus of words, reader, and listener was nothing short of mesmerizing. JB's ways of muting his tone and lowering his register at the end of poetics lines struck me as being "cantor-like" (not the first time someone has drawn that analogy).

At what point did you become aware of Brodsky's greatness?
- When I read carefully, over and over again, and began to understand the John Donne elegy.

Can you recall where you met Brodsky for the first time?
- The first time I met JB was in the summer of 1987. He gave a reading at the Middlebury College Russian School, which I was directing at the time. His close friend Lev Loseff, poet and Russian professor at Dartmouth College, brought JB over from Hanover, New Hampshire. The three of us sat in a room in the Gifford Dormitory on campus and talked about Russian йmigrй literary politics and the current state of Russian letters. JB was in a good mood and laughed frequently but also seemed somewhat guarded and distracted - it may only have been that he was tired from the road. His poetry reading followed and it was a great success. I have a photo of myself, JB, and the late Michael Kreps, another poet and Russian professor (at Boston College), taken right after JB's poetry reading. Before saying goodbye, JB thanked me for my review in the NYT and then said he looked forward to more meetings, either in this world or the next (his way of joking about his heart problems).

You interviewed JB several times on the phone and personally in South Hadley in March 1991. What memory do you have of Joseph's house in South Hadley?
- I conducted my interview of JB in 1991 as I was researching my book. We met over a two-day period; on the first day we sat in JB's home in South Hadley - it was a typical college house in a New England college town: a small frame affair, probably rust colored, woods to the back, modest floor-plan, older kitchen (where we sat and drank during the interview), everything maintained I'm sure by the college work crew. I don't recall much about the furnishings except that reigned a kind of casual chaos. JB was generous with his time with me and, while he never seemed to answer a question directly (that was his way, he did not like to be "pinned down"), he did end up providing very interesting and far-reaching "takes" on my various questions' points of departure. We both were drinking hard liquor, it seems scotch or bourbon, out of glasses, and of course JB was constantly smoking. As strange as it sounds, the smoking, as bad as it was for him, was part of his breathing, and therefore thinking, process. We didn't get drunk, but the more we drank the broader and deeper his conversation ranged. The thing that impressed and stuck with me the most was the depth and intensity of his intellectual life: this was someone who lived with his ideas as though they were three-dimensional, palpable, "load-bearing" personalities. I came away exhausted and invigorated at the same time even though the alcohol should have had the effect of closing down my own "receptors."

Did you have regular contact with Joseph after that interview?
- Yes, I would call him, not often but probably 2-3 times a year after that, especially if I had specific questions about his work or his thinking about something. Again, he would always answer me something, but oftentimes after a conversation I wouldn't feel that I understood more about what I had been asking than before I contacted him.

Is it possible to detect a single theme in what Brodsky said to you during the several conversations you had with him?
- That genuine poetry does not come out of an identifiable biographical matrix (i.e. this set of circumstances "caused" that set of themes or that predisposition to form or genre), but rather it comes in an existential process where, despite the human suffering of the individual and those around him, the poetry is what is real life and life in the so-called real world is always and only "background." JB was consistently inspired by the lives of poets, say Mandelstam's or Akhmatova's or Frost's or Auden's, but he would never dare to explain how a moment of verse came to their tongues by referring to their individual biographical triumphs and tragedies. I thought that that principle was at one and the same time brave (or stoical), wrong-headed (or intentionally riddling), and in its own way deeply (needfully, vulnerably) true even if at some level it thwarted what I was trying to get at in my study.

Did Brodsky feel at home in America, or a foreigner?
- I suspect JB felt as at home in America, especially in NYC, as he did anywhere in the world. He realized he could "be himself" in America and that that was truly his choice. He also realized, and never took advantage of this fact, that the "mantle of exile" was not something that he could don in good conscience once he had earned his way to the top of the NYC (and USA) intelligentsia pecking order. By the last decade of his life, still more of a globe-trotter than any other Russian poet (with the possible exception of someone like Balmont), he knew he was more of an йmigrй traveller than a politically defined exiled writer. Indeed, works like Watermark attest to the fact that for JB his travels had from first to last more of a metaphysical than political cast to them. Yet, despite his travels, I still suspect JB came back to America, and NYC, more as to a "home" than to any other destination.

In what sense was Brodsky a troubled man?
- I don't think JB was a troubled man. To the extent that his poetry and his writing came first in his life, and to the extent that his personal relations were not always happy and suffered because of this, he had his troubles. An incredibly gifted individual, let's call him a genius, who is a practicing poet and man of letters, is not by definition going to have a personal life in ideal balance. Something has to give. Having said that, JB did a rather admirable job over his lifetime with his personal and professional responsibilities (there are of course exceptions, some relating to the gender divide, which could be argued until doomsday). JB could be impolite and abrupt if he felt he was in a somehow "false" (too much "nice talk") situation. He was also a dyed-in-the-wool contrarian and would almost never agree with the opening formulation in a discussion, as if out of principle. But that all goes back to his essential character vectors and to his almost congenital urge to wrestle with the existing world order. For me, JB was less "troubled" than on "a mission," and he was until the end of his life working to fulfil that mission.

Is Brodsky's character relevant to the quality of his poetry? 
- Absolutely. You can sense "JB" in his poetry, like a strong verbal scent or even body odor, as much as in any poet I know. His words almost always carry his signature.

In your book on Brodsky you introduced the concept of "triangular vision". What do you mean by this concept?
- I mean that JB, being a very "belated" poet and a very sophisticated reader of others, was one of the first, if not the first, in the Russian tradition, to consistently construct a persona for himself that is an amalgam of a great western forebear (say, Dante) and a great Russian precursor closer and in important ways more influential to him (say, Mandelstam), so that the speaker that emerges from these two exile exemplars and their "places" in history (corrupt medieval Florence, tragic Soviet Leningrad/St. Petersburg) is both a composite of them and something "third," something himself - the contemporary "man in a cape" (chelovek v plashche) of "December in Florence" (Dekabr' vo Florentsii").

When JB talks about Auden as 'new kind of metaphysical poet', his 'indirect speech', his 'clinical detachment and controlled lyricism', you said: 'All these qualities could be, in one form or another, be imputed to the speakers of Brodsky's mature works' (p. 137). Don't you think that Brodsky attributed his own poetic qualities to other poets, such as Rein. Kushner, or Novikov?
- I think JB would freely admit he learned a lot from contemporaries like Rein (he was generous that way, generous like Pushkin), but by the time he reached maturity, with some of the poems in Ostanovka v pustyne, he uses that learning in his own, very specific way. In works like "Bol'shaia elegiia Dzhonu Donnu" or "Isaak i Avraam" one might be able to tease out phrases that others could have invented, but the intonation, the sustained fierceness and forward momentum, is already only JB's.

You talk of Brodsky's authorizing tone. Where does this authority come from?
It comes from his version of God; something outside him, something that encourages and underpins his language but does not make his personal life easier, that speaks through him even when he might like to let it go.

How does Brodsky's stoicism (p. 19) reveal itself in his poetry?
- It reveals itself everywhere where the words add up to the final lines of his poem commemorating his 40th birthday: "Chto skazat' mne o zhizni? Chto okazalas' dlinnoi./ Tol'ko s gorem ia chuvstvuiu solidarnost'./ No poka mne rot ne zabili glinoi,/ iz nego razdavat'sia budet lish' blagodarnost'" (What should I say about life? That's it's long and abhors transparence./ Broken eggs make me grieve; the omelette, though, makes me vomit./ Yet until brown clay has been crammed down my larynx,/ only gratitude will be gushing from it). The "vomit" (not in the Russian by the way) is there to balance out the potential sentimentality of "gratitude." The psychological positioning also reminds one of what he said with regard to his father: "He was a proud man. When something reprehensible or horrendous was drawing near him, his face assumed a sour yet at the same time a challenging expression. It was as if he were saying 'Try me' to something that he knew from the threshold was mightier than he." That "vomit" is the son's version of "Try me."

What did Brodsky teach you that you couldn't have learnt from other poets?
That he found a way to make not only poetry per se but "poetic thinking" (especially in Less than One and On Grief and Reason) crucial, meaningful, at a time when poetry itself seems to be dying. His language, whatever its genre or "voice zone," is a powerful, won't-let-you-alone swan song to what can still be, even in our age.

Were do you see Brodsky's origin?
- Pushkin, Baratynsky, Dostoevsky, Mandelstam, Tsvetaeva, Auden, Polish metaphysicals (Herbert), Slutsky, Rein, the Bible.

What kind of challenge did the study of Brodsky's poetry present to you?
- His language is extremely difficult for a non-native (indeed, I can't imagine how it could be easy for natives), and my Russian is not bad after almost 40 years of living with it. There are poems, especially later ones, that I still have trouble fully "getting inside of" because the language has become so nuanced, so full of the syntactic and semantic equivalent of a high-rise. Sometimes I think JB becomes so complex that the deep emotional "choric" quality gets lost. On the other hand, the complexity of this thinking, his metaphysical striving, is one of the great joys of reading him. English-language critics who accuse him of charlatanism or poetic impostorship don't "get," or perhaps don't choose to get, the extent to which JB educated himself to a very high level and "lived" that learning in an almost physical, metabolic sense. 


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