In this month’s New Yorker, there is an interesting profile of Joseph Brodsky and the fortune of misfortunes.
If you aren’t familiar with Brodsky’s story and his exile from Russia, that piece is an excellent primer. I’ve previously profiled a conversation between Brodksy and a judge in this post (scroll down to the bottom), but this exchange (profiled in the New Yorker) was new to me:
Judge: Tell the court why in between jobs you didn’t work and led a parasitic life style?
Brodsky: I worked in between jobs. I did what I do now: I wrote poems.
Judge: You wrote your so-called poems? And what was useful about your frequent job changes?
Brodsky: I began working when I was 15 years old. Everything was interesting to me. I changed jobs because I wanted to learn more about life, about people.
Judge: What did you do for your motherland?
Brodsky: I wrote poems. That is my work. I am convinced. . . . I believe that what I wrote will be useful to people not only now but in future generations.
Judge: So you think your so-called poems are good for people?
Brodsky: Why do you say of the poems that they are “so-called”?
Judge: We say that because we don’t have any other idea about them.
Of note is this paragraph about Brosky’s loneliness when coming to the United States:
Brodsky’s poems during his first years in the States are filled with the most naked loneliness. “An autumn evening in a humble little town / proud of its appearance on the map,” one begins, and concludes with an image of a person whose reflection in the mirror disappears, bit by bit, like that of a street lamp in a drying puddle. The enterprising Proffer had persuaded the University of Michigan to make Brodsky a poet in residence; Brodsky wrote a poem about a college teacher. “In the country of dentists,” it begins, “whose daughters order clothes / from London catalogues, . . . / I, whose mouth houses ruins / more total than the Parthenon’s, / a spy, an interloper, / the fifth column of a rotten civilization,” teach literature. The narrator comes home at night, falls into bed with his clothes still on, and cries himself to sleep…
I also thought the author’s conviction on Brodsky’s grasp of the English language was profound (I am reminded of Nabokov in this instance):
His [Brodsky’s] English was able to grant his parents a measure of freedom. But there was one thing it could not do: transform his Russian poetry into English poetry. Inevitably, Brodsky tried, and he wasn’t shy about it. Almost as soon as his English was up to snuff he began to “collaborate” with his translators; eventually he supplanted them. The results were not so much bad as badly uneven. For every successful stanza, there were three or four gaffes—grammatical, or idiomatic, or just generally tin-eared. Worst of all, to readers accustomed to postwar Anglo-American poetry, Brodsky’s translations rhymed, no matter what obstacles stood in their way.
Hat Tip: @openculture.