Joseph Brodsky’s On Grief And Reason

When societies tip into totalitarianism, the poets and the comedians are always the first to go, for their very métiers involve them in the kind of criticism and encouragements to self-reflection that absolute power cannot tolerate. The Russian poet Joseph Brodsky was something of a prodigy of nonconformity, teaching himself English and Polish as a teenager, so that he might translate the verses of John Donne and the revolutionary anti-Stalinist poet Czesław Miłosz. By the age of 22, his verses had earned him the ire of Soviet apparatchiks, who sentenced him to five years of exile and hard labour, but the stubborn young Brodsky merely used his enforced solitude to catch up on the 20th century’s best English poetry, only lately available to him, strengthening his resolve about the inhumanity of his homeland. In 1972, in an acknowledgment of his recalcitrance, those same authorities opted to expel him from the country. Poets, it seems, had no place in the planned society, no more than in Plato’s Republic. As was so often the case, the U.S.S.R.’s loss was America’s gain, for Brodsky successfully emigrated to the United States, where he taught poetry for the rest of his life and became, in 1991, America’s Poet Laureate. On Grief And Reason appeared in 1995, one year before his premature death from a heart attack, collecting essays and literary criticism composed in the final decade of his life.

The opening essay, “Spoils of War,” positions Brodsky as a kind of proto-American, since so much of his childhood in the Soviet Union involved illicitly consuming American art – whether films or novels – or listening to American music (jazz, in particular), that he broke from communism’s collectivist diktats from a very young age. “The Tarzan series alone,” he tells us, “did more for de-Stalinization than all Krushchev’s speeches at the Twentieth Party Congress and after.” The very next essay, “The Condition We Call Exile,” undercuts this somewhat by pointing out the painful disorientation all new immigrants experience, artists in particular:

If one were to assign the life of an exiled writer a genre, it would have to be tragicomedy. Because of his previous incarnation, he is capable of appreciating the social and material advantages of democracy far more intensely than natives do. Yet for precisely the same reason (whose main by-product is the linguistic barrier), he finds himself unable to play any meaningful role in his new society. The democracy into which he has arrived provides him with physical safety but renders him socially insignificant. And the lack of significance is what no writer, exile or not, can take.

This same essay offers Brodsky an opportunity to outline for us his vision of literature’s function:

Since there is not much on which to rest our hopes for a better world, and since everything else seems to fail one way or another, we must somehow maintain that literature is the only form of moral insurance that a society has; that it is the permanent antidote to the dog-eat-dog principle; that it provides the best argument against any sort of bulldozer-type mass solution – if only because human diversity is literature’s lock and stock, as well as its raison d’être. We must talk because we must insist that literature is the greatest – surely greater than any creed – teacher of human subtlety, and that by interfering with literature’s natural existence and with people’s ability to learn literature’s lessons, a society reduces its own potential, slows down the pace of its evolution, ultimately, perhaps, puts its own fabric in peril.

This is an argument that mirrors that made by Lionel Trilling in the middle of the century: that literature pushes back against our narrow conceptions – social, political, even religious – of what it means to be human; that it alone insists on “human subtlety,” to the consternation of dictators and grandstanding politicians.

One common thread uniting this collection, encompassing acceptance and commencement speeches, literary criticism, personal essays and memorials, is precisely this staking out of a claim for literature’s purpose. Poets and politicians share nothing in common except, crucially, this: both are liable to produce manifestos justifying their work. And Brodsky is first and foremost a poet. In “Altra Ego,” about the role of the poet in history, we get this familiar vision of the poet as suffering outsider, capable of insight because he’s incapable of blending in:

What a poet has in common with his less articulate fellows is that his life is hostage to his métier, not the other way around. And it is not just that he gets paid for his words (seldom and meagerly): the point is that he also pays for them (often horrifically). It is the latter that creates confusion and spawns biographies, because this payment takes the form not only of indifference; ostracism, imprisonment, exile, oblivion, self-disgust, uncertainty, remorse, madness; a variety of addictions is also acceptable currency. These things are obviously describable. They are, however, not the cause of one’s penmanship but its effect. To put it crassly, in order to make his work sell, as well as to avoid cliché, our poet continually has to get where nobody has ever been before – mentally, psychologically, or lexically.

With his conception of the function of the poet in mind, we can better appreciate why he chooses poems from Robert Frost, Thomas Hardy and Rainer Maria Rilke to dissect at some length. The titular essay, “On Grief And Reason,” demonstrates a profound understanding of Robert Frost, whom Brodsky describes as a terrifying poet. “Tragedy, as you know, is always a fait accompli, whereas terror has to do with anticipation, with man’s recognition of his own negative potential – with his sense of what he is capable of. And it is the latter that was Frost’s forte, not the former.” We get a taste of Frost’s terror in poems like “Come In,” which is ostensibly a straightforward poem about nature but which conceals the most fundamental of metaphysical questions: is life worth living? “Home Burial,” the next poem analyzed, presents us with a young couple whose relationship is strained by the recent death of their child, and the two very different coping mechanisms employed by the father and the mother.

Something I’ve found to hold true: poets almost always make for impressive prose stylists, whereas good prose writers can seldom write verse. Brodsky provides the explanation, as well as the example: “Good style in prose is always hostage to the precision, speed, and laconic intensity of poetic diction. A child of epigraph and epigram, conceived, it appears, as a shortcut to any conceivable subject matter, poetry is a great disciplinarian to prose.”  In these essays, Brodsky demonstrates both his sensibilities as a poet, which make him an acutely perceptive reader, and his disciplined prose style, which makes it pleasurable to read him, even outside of his native language and medium.