LOSEFF’S BRODSKY.

Having finished Joseph Brodsky: A Literary Life, by Brodsky’s friend and fellow poet Lev Loseff (thanks, Sven & Leslie!), I want to quote a passage from chapter 8 that will give an idea of the kind of thing you won’t find in most biographies, no matter how well researched and written:

Brodsky’s choices in prosody were no less important than his verbal choices and, in fact, preceded them. […] Prosody is the manipulation of speech within time. “[M]eters are simply different forms of distributing time. They’re seeds of time in the poem. Every song, even the bird’s, is a form of restructuring time.” Thus, for Brodsky, the choice of rhythmic structure is a philosophical one. No matter what the subject of the poem, the contrast between the metrical model and the rhythm introduced by the poet reminds the reader of the two contexts in which that subject is elaborated: one is the monotonous, indifferent beat of time marching on (meter), and the other is an attempt by an individual (the author, the lyric hero) to break that monotony—to slow time, to speed it up, to turn it back (rhythm). The dolniks that begin to dominate Brodsky’s verse in the 1970s allowed him far more leeway to work out his individual concept of time than classical meters could have. […]
But another direction was to prove more productive—dolniks written in longer lines. Of all that he wrote between 1972 and 1977, Brodsky was most fond of the cycle “A Part of Speech.” Fifteen of the twenty short poems that make it up begin with what seems to be an anapest[…] In Russian poetry, the anapest has a certain sentimental semantic aura to it, perhaps arising from its waltz-like three-beat rhythm. It is rarely found in Blok’s lyric verse, while for Mandelstam it was the rhythm of cheap, vulgar romance. […] Interestingly, Vladimir Nabokov, that scourge of vulgarity, never sensed this undertone. […]
Brodsky chose a different way to make the anapest the prosodic foundation of some of his most important texts, those on love and nostalgia. The lines in “A Part of Speech” are very long for anapests (five or six feet, as a rule), and in most of them the anapest is actually transformed into a dolnik by a minimal but decisive break in the meter: immediately before the last stress in the line, one unaccented syllable goes missing. Heretofore, such anapest-like dolnik lines were quite rare in Russian poetry.

Obviously that kind of detailed analysis isn’t for everyone, but if you like it, you’ll like this book.


Speaking of Nabokov, there’s an interesting passage later in the chapter in which Loseff quotes an interview in which David Bethea asks Brodsky which of his books he knew and liked:

I adore Invitation to a Beheading. I adore Gift. I adore parts of Pale Fire. I’ve read, I think, everything:The Luzhin Defense, Pnin. . . […] To answer your question, Nabokov, to his own mind, was first and foremost a poet. And he wanted to prove that to himself and everyone else. He did not understand that although he was a poet, he was not a great one. In a sense, his meeting Khodasevich was tragic perhaps for him, but this was [his] only tragedy. He recognized the distinction between a true poet and himself.

(I wrote about Nabokov and poetry here.)
And here is Isaiah Berlin on Brodsky: “How could anyone who had not read him in Russian understand him by his English poems? It’s utterly incomprehensible. Because there is no sense that they were written by a great poet. But in Russian . . . From the very beginning, as soon as it starts, you are in the presence of genius. And that is a unique sort of feeling—being in the presence of genius.” Truer words were never spoke.

Comments

  1. No matter what the subject of the poem, the contrast between the metrical model and the rhythm introduced by the poet reminds the reader of the two contexts in which that subject is elaborated: one is the monotonous, indifferent beat of time marching on (meter), and the other is an attempt by an individual (the author, the lyric hero) to break that monotony—to slow time, to speed it up, to turn it back (rhythm).
    I’m having trouble with this metaphor. It puts rhythm and meter at odds when, in fact (at least I think it’s a fact), one depends on the other. You don’t just pick a meter, as the metaphor seems to assume; you establish one, by repeating a regular rhythm. You can then deviate from that rhythm without breaking the meter, to great and various effects, but you’re still working within the boundaries you’ve set for yourself. If our hero (rhythm) wants to break its meter, all it has to do is behave like all language that isn’t metrical poetry and stop repeating itself. Am I missing something? Have I imbibed some fundamental misunderstanding? I’d ask if it makes more sense applied to Russian poetry, but given the definitions I’ve learned, I don’t see how that’s possible.

  2. To me dol’nik has a musical equivalent in accenting of weak beats (the main beats / the stressed syllables remain regularly spaced, but what happens in between is peculiar). The most extreme experimentation with unstressed syllables is in the poetry of the Futurists IMVHO.
    A close parallel exists in the traditional 8-syllable Spanish ballad where they use a special concept of a “poetic syllable” which consist of zero, one, 2, or 3 actual syllables – but if zero-syllable construct, a pause, is unstressed like in dol’nik, the multiple-syllable packs could be stressed too.
    BTW Nabokov is a great poet IMVHO.

  3. It puts rhythm and meter at odds when, in fact …, one depends on the other.
    Sure, one depends on the other, but that doesn’t mean they’re not at odds. (A child depends on its parents…) An iambic meter is based on this pattern:
    x ‘ x ‘ x ‘ x ‘ x ‘ …
    But if you make the rhythm of each line conform to that, you’ll have an extremely boring poem:
    If dum-de-dum is all you ever say,
    The reader soon is bored and turns away.
    So you need to shake it up, toss in some unstressed and inverted units, even (if you’re Shakespeare) invert every unit in the line:
    “Never, never, never, never, never.”
    Does that help?

  4. So you need to shake it up, toss in some unstressed and inverted units
    Yeah, I get that — it’s what I meant by, “You can then deviate from that rhythm without breaking the meter, to great and various effects, but you’re still working within the boundaries you’ve set for yourself.”
    Sure, one depends on the other, but that doesn’t mean they’re not at odds. (A child depends on its parents…)
    I get that, too, and even recognized that “at odds” might seem a bit too simplistic a phrase; I was hoping the rest of the paragraph would clarify what I meant: that the relationship between rhythm and meter was more intricate (like a child with its parents) than the metaphor made it out to be. I suppose that’s what I should have written. The metaphor, even the whole first paragraph, seemed loose and misleading, and though it might seem the very definition of churlish to blame poets for taking poetic license — the paragraph quotes Brodsky and then exposits the quotes — I do think that poets (and their biographers) should be as literal, or at least as lucid and careful as possible, in this one area especially; i.e., detailed analyses of their craft. Did you not find the metaphor a touch sloppy?

  5. Should have mentioned that the etymology is <= сильная / слабая доля, mus. main / secondary beat. It is a borrowing from musical terms into poetry terms.
    BTW the ideas that “anapest is vulgar” and “nobody played rythmical games with the unstressed syllables of anapest before” seem to be twin fallacies locked in a positive-feedback loop of circular proof. If one dismisses romance as un-poetry, then of course one would never notice how the romance verses kept shifting the secondary beats all along. Hmm, to cite something which does verge on vulgarity, how about early Vysotsky’s 🙂 ?
    Я был слесарь шестого разряда,
    Я получку на ветер метал,
    А получал я всегда сколько надо,
    И плюс премию в каждый квартал

  6. Did you not find the metaphor a touch sloppy?
    Not really; I guess I can see what you mean, but I think it’s clear enough in context. The “seeds of time” metaphor, though, is pretty opaque to me.

  7. I guess my biggest problem is that it implies rhythm to be more specific a term, and even a rarer phenomenon, than meter when obviously nothing could be further from the truth. Rhythm is not only ubiquitous — in language, music, biology, etc. — but also vague (the music courses I’m taking try to eschew the term entirely because it’s too general); and meter, at least linguistically speaking, only exists in metrical poetry.
    Take this part of the metaphor: “No matter what the subject of the poem, the contrast between the metrical model and the rhythm introduced by the poet reminds the reader of the two contexts in which that subject is elaborated.” Is the meter not introduced by the poet, too? Is that not more pertinent since everyone “introduces” a rhythm every time they speak? Would it not be clearer and more accurate to say, “No matter what the subject of the poem, the rhythmic departures from the meter established by the poet remind the the reader of the two contexts in which that subject is elaborated”? If the author had put it that way, I would have had no trouble following the heroic bit. The seeds of time didn’t help either. Nor did, “Thus, for Brodsky, the choice of rhythmic structure is a philosophical one.” That thus implies the writer is about to complete some interesting syllogism, but c’mon, I’ve read that about half the poets I’ve read about — that the choice of meter is “philosophical” (another vague, inaccurate word: it’s important to understanding the poem, which might just be philosophical, but the choice of meter isn’t philosophical itself).
    All that said, I’m probably just nitpicking because I can’t read Russian at all, let alone Brodsky’s poetry, so I can’t appreciate the post. I’m feeling left out 🙁

  8. Also, I still haven’t had time to see Lincoln 🙁

  9. Stand not upon the order of your going, but go at once!

  10. Lady M. would admire Spielberg, wouldn’t she? Birds of manipulative feathers!

  11. Ah, the Arch-Duchess Ana-Pest! “It is rarely found in Blok’s lyric verse…” Yes, but Blok used it in two well-known poems (“Превратила все в шутку сначала”, “О, весна без конца и без края!”) and in one less known (“Петроградское небо мутилось дождем”). “…while for Mandelstam it was the rhythm of cheap, vulgar romance.” Which is probably why he used it for his ill-fated attempt at streetwise versification.
    “In Russian poetry, the anapest has a certain sentimental semantic aura to it, perhaps arising from its waltz-like three-beat rhythm.” Perhaps; but why not the other trisyllables? Actually, some of the finest Russian poems are anapestic: see Baratynsky’s Prayer and Fet’s “Прозвучало над ясной рекою” and “Я тебе ничего не скажу”. Good for ballads, too – see Zhukovsky’s translation of Walter Scott’s Eve of St. John and A.K. Tolstoy’s of Byron’s Sennacherib, plus a whole drama in verse by Gumilev (“Гондла”).
    But yes indeed, it’s been tainted with bad-taste plaintiveness since Nekrasov or, rather, since Nadson. The trochaic pentameter easily lends itself to lamentation, too.

  12. Nabokov (as Godunov-Cherdyntsev) discusses Russian tri- vs. disyllabicals in the fourth chapter of Дар. Does Losev mention that in the Brodsky bio?

  13. John Emerson says:

    Two contexts in which that subject is elaborated: marching on (meter), and the other is an attempt by an individual (the author, the lyric hero) to break that monotony—to slow time, to speed it up, to turn it back (rhythm).
    I just read Charlie Mingus recalling a conversation with Elvin Jones on that very topic. The formal downbeat should be exactly hit only very occasionally, for emphasis.

  14. J.W. Brewer says:

    I love how the linked definition of “dolnik” (not a word I’d known) comes with a warning label: “Warning! The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.”

  15. Does Losev mention that in the Brodsky bio?
    No, but it’s a good thing to bring up. I look forward to rereading Дар [The Gift].

  16. Huh, my comment seems to have vanished. Here it is again, more or less.
    Stand not …
    I said that once as a kid during one of my parents’ parties (they didn’t have many), because I was tired of having them stand at the front door saying prolonged farewells and letting the cold air in.
    I guess my biggest problem is that it implies rhythm to be more specific a term, and even a rarer phenomenon, than meter when obviously nothing could be further from the truth. Rhythm is not only ubiquitous — in language, music, biology, etc. — but also vague (the music courses I’m taking try to eschew the term entirely because it’s too general); and meter, at least linguistically speaking, only exists in metrical poetry.
    Indeed. Rhythm has both a broader sense, which you give here, and a narrower sense confined to the criticism of verse, in which it means the particular stress or quantity alternations in a specific line. Meter (or equivalently scansion) is rather the prototypical pattern exhibited by the lines taken as a whole. In some meters, specific rhythmical variants are so entrenched that for a line to have none would seem eccentric, although where and when they occur remains unpredictable — otherwise they would not be variants but part of the meter.
    I should mention that most of what I’ve learned about English meter comes from Joseph Malof’s 1970 book A Manual Of English Meters. It’s written in just the style I like, too, that of a superior sort of technical reference manual: practical, with only as much theory as is needed to clarify actual practice, and yet well-written, easy to read, and concise without being telegraphic. Unfortunately, the cheapest copy I could find is more than $30 now; a number of libraries have it, however.

  17. John Emerson says:

    Mozart also told his sister (a pianist) the part of the beauty of music lies in NOT playing in strict time, and creating a tension between the two hands’ different relationships to the abstract meter.

  18. NOT playing in strict time
    although it really depends on a skill type and an individual … percussionsists tend to be extremely precise about their relationship with the meter, and even when it isn’t a relationship of equivalence, it still remains very precise.
    Also main beat-to-meter correspondence always demands greater precision; and getting behind the timing dictate by imagined meter is always more appropriate than getting even a tiny bit ahead of it.
    In terms of poetic play with the unstressed syllables, much depends on the natural rhytmical constraints of a specific language. Russian easily lends itself to flowing pauses and hesitations, but isn’t as amenable to doubletime / backbeat / stutter types of effects.

  19. marie-lucie says:

    NOT playing in strict time, and creating a tension between the two hands’ different relationships to the abstract meter
    I haven’t heard that about Mozart, and he may not have put it quite that way, but it is true of Chopin, the left hand being normally very steady while the right hand has more freedom doing tempo rubato. Roughly, the left hand behaves like a percussion instrument, holding the rhythm and meter while the right hand behaves like a voice.

  20. I should mention that most of what I’ve learned about English meter comes from Joseph Malof’s 1970 book A Manual Of English Meters. It’s written in just the style I like, too, that of a superior sort of technical reference manual: practical, with only as much theory as is needed to clarify actual practice, and yet well-written, easy to read, and concise without being telegraphic. Unfortunately, the cheapest copy I could find is more than $30 now; a number of libraries have it, however.
    That pretty well describes my prosody bible, Derek Attridge’s Poetic Rhythm. I also return every now and then to Paul Fussell’s Poetic Meter and Form. But I’ll stay on the lookout for a cheap copy Malof’s book. I like the subject.
    In case you missed it in the other thread, John, I finally read B.R. Myers’s manifesto in full, and I’m grateful you got me to do it. A few truly minor quibbles notwithstanding, you and Myers thoroughly changed my mind.

  21. John Emerson says:

    There have been a large number of formal and informal tests of percussionists’ precision in perceiving time, and the results have been amazing. In one case a drummer was, in effect, able to recalibrate a metronome by ear.

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