It is a fact universally acknowledged, that Joseph Brodsky’s poetry in English, including his self-translations and the results of his browbeating others who tried to translate his poems under his supervision, is not that good. Understandably, Ann Kjellberg, his literary executor and the editor of his Collected Poems in English, disagrees, and she goes into her reasons in this essay for Stanford’s Book Haven. In the spirit of fairness, I link to her case for the defense and quote a few excerpts, with my rebuttals. After a cursory account of Russian poetry and Brodsky’s life, she says that “when Brodsky arrived in America in 1972, formal poetry was at a low ebb”:
This trend has reversed somewhat, or at least fragmented. […] Yet the legacy of that period of formal quiescence remains very much with us. Few American readers can read verse musically with any sophistication. The notion is still widespread that there is a binary division between “formal” and “free” verse—whereas much of the best of what is read as free verse is in fact deeply colored by forms (often shadows of iambic pentameter or echoes of the syllabic lines of Moore and Bishop), and there is a big difference, for example, between verse that follows a colloquial or spoken line and verse that treats language as a found object. Similarly, “formal” poetry is not just conservative poetry that adheres to old structures, but is an evolving medium that grows and develops and constantly makes new means available to the artist. The rhymes and meters of Muldoon alone should be sufficient to make the case that form can be modern.
Brodsky’s effort to enliven and expand the formal repertoire in English, which met with considerable resistance at the time, can surely now be judged a success.
The trend is undeniable; the idea that Brodsky is responsible for it is absurd. But let us continue. She points out that the English language “has been subject to external influences almost since its origin” — again, undeniably true. “The notion that to accuse a poet’s intonations of foreignness is sufficient to dismiss them seems unfounded, and unnecessarily to limit the potential resources available for the growth of our verse”: this is a straw man; nobody is saying that. Then comes the special pleading:
A master of an artistic medium comes to us from another language. He embraces our culture and our verse. He dedicates much of his short life to struggling mightily to rewrite his own work so that it can be read and understood by his compatriots. […] Should we reject this effort on the grounds of unfamiliarity alone? Or should we perhaps consider that Brodsky brings us important news that might enrich our tradition, which is currently suffering from an undeniable diminution of means? Should we consider whether the challenges that Brodsky’s English verse offer us may themselves be an indication of how our language and our receptivity have contracted? Might it be worth searching for the inner cadences and harmonies in what at first seems startling to us? Or asking ourselves how an apparent violation of convention might create a more muscular or versatile poetic medium?
Well, sure we can consider, search for, and ask ourselves those things. To preempt one obvious response, she says:
In this vein, it’s worth considering the frequent case against Brodsky that his English is “unidiomatic.” We should reflect on the prejudices embedded in this judgment. When did being “idiomatic” become a decisive attribute for poetry? Our own language has a particular history of returning to its colloquial roots. From Chaucer, to Shakespeare, to Wordsworth, to Auden, our great poets have recalled us to the spoken line. But other traditions have developed differently. Many poetries have a high or courtly style and a colloquial style that poets draw into strategic conflict. Brodsky himself was often accused by Soviet critics of mixing high and low. Other poets have innovated by disrupting or vexing expectation, creating a new or idiosyncratic rhetoric. By keeping the spoken and the colloquial so central to our tradition, we may have deafened ourselves to the beauty and value of innovations like these.
Indeed, Brodsky used to complain that the criticisms leveled against him for his work in English were precisely the same as those leveled against him by his Russian detractors. One difference may be that challenging orthodoxies goes down more easily in literary circles when the orthodoxies are Soviet.
This will not do at all. The last bit is plain bullying (“if you object to Brodsky, you’re just like the Soviets!”) and she or the editor should have thought better of it before letting it go public. But the problem with Brodsky’s English poetry is not that it’s unfamiliar, or challenging, or idiosyncratic. It’s that it doesn’t work as poetry in English. I am an American thoroughly steeped in formal poetry, from the Greeks and Romans through the great English tradition to the at least as great Russian tradition, including Brodsky’s own Russian poetry, and I love attempts to modernize formal poetry. If anyone is primed to accept his work in English, I am. But ever since I was first exposed to it I’ve found it alternately awkward and cutesy, with nothing that makes me feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, to quote Dickinson’s definition. It was not until I acquired enough Russian to read him in the original that I learned for myself that he was a great poet, rather than taking it on faith. I just opened my copy of To Urania at random and found his self-translation “Elegy”; it has lines like “Now the place is abuzz with trading in your ankles’ remnants” and “All’s overgrown with people. A ruin’s a rather stubborn/ architectural style.” I’m sorry, it simply doesn’t work. It isn’t poetry. It’s a brilliant and stubborn poet’s brave attempt to transfer his brilliance into another language; it was worth trying, but he should have listened to the people who told him to stick to Russian and leave the translating to his translators.