Interviews

Joseph Brodsky, The Art of Poetry No. 28

Interviewed by Sven Birkerts

Joseph Brodsky was interviewed in his Greenwich Village apartment in December, 1979. He was unshaven and looked harried. He was in the midst of correcting the galley proofs for his book—A Part of Speech—and he said that he had already missed every conceivable deadline. The floor of his living room was cluttered with papers. It was offered to do the interview at a more convenient time, but Brodsky would not hear of it.

The walls and free surfaces of his apartment were almost entirely obscured by books, postcards, and photographs. There were a number of pictures of a younger Brodsky, with Auden and Spender, with Octavio Paz, with various friends. Over the fireplace were two framed photographs, one of Anna Akhmatova, another of Brodsky with his son, who remains in Russia.

Brodsky made two cups of strong instant coffee. He sat in a chair stationed beside the fireplace and kept the same basic pose for three hours—head tilted, legs crossed, the fingers of his right hand either holding a cigarette or resting on his chest. The fireplace was littered with cigarette butts. Whenever he was tired of smoking he would fling his cigarette in that direction.

His answer to the first question did not please him. Several times he said: “Let’s start again.” But about five minutes into the interview he seemed to have forgotten that there was a tape recorder, or for that matter, an interviewer. He picked up speed and enthusiasm.

Brodsky’s voice, which Nadezhda Mandelstam once described as a “remarkable instrument,” is nasal and very resonant.

During a break Brodsky asked what kind of beer the interviewer would like and set out for the corner store. As he was returning through the back courtyard one of his neighbors called out: “How are you, Joseph? You look like you’re losing weight.” “I don’t know,” answered Brodsky’s voice. “Certainly I’m losing my hair.” A moment later he added: “And my mind.”

When the interview was finished Brodsky looked relaxed, not at all the same man who had opened the door four hours before. He seemed reluctant to stop talking. But then the papers on the floor began to claim his attention. “I’m awfully glad we did this,” he said. He saw the interviewer out the door with his favorite exclamation: “Kisses!”

 

INTERVIEWER

I wanted to start with a quotation from Nadezhda Mandelstam’s book, Hope Abandoned. She says of you, “He is . . . a remarkable young man who will come to a bad end, I fear.”

            JOSEPH BRODSKY

In a way I have come to a bad end. In terms of Russian literature—in terms of being published in Russia. However, I think she had in mind something of a worse denomination—namely, physical harm. Still, for a writer not to be published in his mother tongue is as bad as a bad end.

INTERVIEWER

Did Akhmatova have any predictions?

 BRODSKY

Perhaps she did, but they were nicer, I presume, and therefore I don’t remember them. Because you only remember bad things—you pay attention to them because they have more to do with you than your work. On the other hand, good things are originated by a kind of divine intervention. And there’s no point in worrying about divine intervention, because it’s either going to happen or it’s not. Those things are out of your control. What’s under your control is the possibility of the bad.

INTERVIEWER

To what extent are you using divine intervention as a kind of psychic metaphor?

BRODSKY

Actually to a large extent. What I mean actually is the intervention of language upon you or into you. That famous line of Auden’s about Yeats: “mad Ireland hurt you into poetry—” What “hurts” you into poetry or literature is language, your sense of language. Not your private philosophy or your politics, nor even the creative urge, or youth.

INTERVIEWER

So, if you’re making a cosmology you’re putting language at the apex?

BRODSKY

Well, it’s no small thing—it’s pretty grand. When they say “the poet hears the voice of the Muse,” it’s nonsense if the nature of the Muse is unspecified. But if you take a closer look, the voice of the Muse is the voice of the language. It’s a lot more mundane than the way I’m putting it. Basically, it’s one’s reaction to what one hears, what one reads.

INTERVIEWER

Your use of that language—it seems to me—is to relate a vision of history running down, coming to a dead end.

BRODSKY

That might be. Basically, it’s hard for me to assess myself, a hardship not only prompted by the immodesty of the enterprise, but because one is not capable of assessing himself, let alone his work. However, if I were to summarize, my main interest is the nature of time. That’s what interests me most of all. What time can do to a man. That’s one of the closest insights into the nature of time that we’re allowed to have.

INTERVIEWER

In your piece on St. Petersburg you speak of water as a “condened form of time.”

BRODSKY

Ya, it’s another form of time . . . it was kind of nice, that piece, except that I never got proofs to read and quite a lot of mistakes crept in, misspellings and all those things. It matters to me. Not because I’m a perfectionist, but because of my love affair with the English language.

INTERVIEWER

How do you think you fare as your own translator? Do you translate or rewrite?

BRODSKY

No, I certainly don’t rewrite. I may redo certain translations, which causes a lot of bad blood with translators, because I try to restore in translation even those things which I regard as weaknesses. It’s a maddening thing in itself to look at an old poem of yours. To translate it is even more maddening. So, before doing that you have to cool off a great deal, and when you start you are looking upon your work as the soul looks from its abode upon the abandoned body. The only thing the soul perceives is the slow smoking of decay.

So, you don’t really have any attachment to it. When you’re translating, you try to preserve the sheen, the paleness of those leaves. And you accept how some of them look ugly, but then perhaps when you were doing the original that was because of some kind of strategy. Weaknesses have a certain function in a poem . . . some strategy in order to pave the reader’s way to the impact of this or that line.

INTERVIEWER

Do you get very sensitive about the way someone renders you into English?

BRODSKY

My main argument with translators is that I care for accuracy and they’re very often inaccurate—which is perfectly understandable. It’s awfully hard to get these people to render the accuracy as you would want them to. So rather than brooding about it, I thought perhaps I would try to do it myself.

Besides, I have the poem in the original, that’s enough. I’ve done it and for better or worse it stays there. My Russian laurels—or lack of them—satisfy me enough. I’m not after a good seat on the American Parnassus. The thing that bothers me about many of those translations is that they are not very good English. It may have to do with the fact that my affair with the English language is fairly fresh, fairly new, and therefore perhaps I’m subject to some extra sensitivity. So what bothers me is not so much that the line of mine is bad—what bothers me is the bad line in English.

Some translators espouse certain poetics of their own. In many cases their understanding of modernism is extremely simple. Their idea, if I reduce it to the basics, is “staying loose.” I, for one, would rather sound trite than slack or loose. I would prefer to sound like a cliché . . . an ordered cliché, rather than a clever slackness.

INTERVIEWER

You’ve been translated by some impeccable craftsmen—

BRODSKY

I was quite lucky on several occasions. I was translated by both Richard Wilbur and Anthony Hecht—

INTERVIEWER

Well, I was at a reading recently where Wilbur was describing to the audience—quite tartly, I thought—how you and Derek Walcott were flying in a plane over Iowa, recorrecting his translation of one of your poems—which did not make him happy . . .

BRODSKY

True. The poem only profited out of that. I respect him enormously. Having asked him to do certain passages three, four, or more times, I merely felt that I had no human right to bother him with that one more time. I just didn’t have the guts. Even that uncorrected version was excellent. It’s more or less the same thing when I said no to Wystan Auden when he volunteered to translate some poems. I thought, “Who the hell am I to be translated by Wystan?”

INTERVIEWER

That’s an interesting reversal—the poet feeling inadequate to his translator.

BRODSKY

Ya, well, that’s the point. I had the same sentiment with respect to Dick Wilbur.

INTERVIEWER

When did you begin to write?

BRODSKY

I started to write when I was eighteen or nineteen. However, until I was about twenty-three, I didn’t take it that seriously. Sometimes people say, “The best things you have written were when you were nineteen.” But I don’t think I’m a Rimbaud.

INTERVIEWER

What was your poetic horizon then? Did you know of Frost, or Lowell?

BRODSKY

No. But eventually, I got to all of them, first in translation, then in the original. My first acquaintance with Robert Frost was when I was twenty-two. I got some of his translations, not in a book, again, from some friends of mine—well, this is the way you get things—and I was absolutely astonished at the sensibility, that kind of restraint, that hidden, controlled terror. I couldn’t believe what I’d read. I thought I ought to look into the matter closely, ought to check whether the translator was really translating, or whether we had on our hands a kind of genius in Russian. And so I did, and it was all there, as much as I could detect it. And with Frost it all started.

INTERVIEWER

What were you getting in school up until then—Goethe, Schiller?

BRODSKY

We got the whole thing. The English poets would be Byron and Longfellow, nineteenth-century-oriented. Classics, so to speak. You wouldn’t hear anything about Emily Dickinson, or Gerard Manley Hopkins or anyone else. They give you two or three foreign figures and that’s about it.

INTERVIEWER

Did you even know the name “Eliot”?

BRODSKY

We all knew the name Eliot. (laughs) For any Eastern European, Eliot is a kind of Anglo-Saxon brand name.

INTERVIEWER

Like Levi’s?

BRODSKY

Ya, like Levi’s. We all knew there was a poet Eliot, but it was very hard to get any stuff of his. The first attempt to translate him was made in 1936, 1937, in an anthology of English poetry; the translation was quite hapless. But since we knew his reputation we read more into the lines than there ever was—at least in Russian. So . . . immediately after the accomplishment the translators got executed or imprisoned, of course, and the book was out of circulation.

However, I managed to make my way through it gradually, picking up English by arming myself with a dictionary. I went through it line by line because, basically, at the age of twenty, twenty-three, I knew more or less all of the Russian poetry and had to look somewhere else. Not because Russian poetry ceased to satisfy me, but once you’ve read the texts you know them . . .

INTERVIEWER

Then you were translating too?

BRODSKY

That was the way of making a living. I was translating all kinds of nonsense. I was translating Poles, Czechs, brother Slavs, but then I ventured across the borders; I began to translate Spanish poetry. I was not doing it alone. In Russia there is a huge translating industry, and lots of things weren’t yet translated. In introductions or critical essays you would encounter the name of an obscure poet who had not been translated and you would begin to hunt for him.

Then I began to translate English poetry, Donne especially. When I was sent to that internal exile in the north, a friend of mine sent me two or three anthologies of American poetry . . . Oscar Williams, with the pictures, which would fire my imagination. With a foreign culture, a foreign realm that you think you are never going to see, your love affair is a lot more intense.

So I was doing those things, reading, translating, approximating rather than translating . . . until finally I came here to join the original (laughs) . . . came too close to the original.

INTERVIEWER

Have you lost any of the admirations you had? Do you still feel the same way about Donne, Frost?

BRODSKY

About Donne and Frost I feel the same way. I feel slightly less about Eliot, much less about e. e. cummings . . .

INTERVIEWER

There was a point, then, when cummings was a very impressive figure?

BRODSKY

Ya, because modernism is very high, the avant-garde thing, trickery and all that. And I used to think about it as a most desirable goal to achieve.

I lost a lot of idols, say, Lindsay, Edgar Lee Masters. However, some things got reinforced, like Marvell, Donne . . . I’m naming just a few but it deserves a much more thorough conversation . . . and Edwin Arlington Robinson, for instance. Not to speak of Thomas Hardy.

INTERVIEWER

When did you first run into an Auden poem?

BRODSKY

In 1965. I was in that village, in that internal exile I had been sent to. I’d written several poems, a couple of which I sent to the man who did the translations of Frost that had impressed me so much—I regard his opinion as the highest judgment, even though there is very little communication—and he told me, “This poem of yours”—he was talking about “Two Hours in the Empty Tank”—“really resembles Auden in its sense of humor.” I said, “Ya?” (laughs) The next thing, I was trying to get hold of Auden. And then I did and I began to read.

INTERVIEWER

What part of Auden’s work did you first encounter?

BRODSKY

I don’t really remember—certainly “In Memory of Yeats.” In the village I came across that poem . . . I kind of liked it, especially the third part, ya? That “Earth, receive an honored guest” kind of ballad-cum-Salvation Army hymn. And short meter. I showed it to a friend of mine and he said, “Is it possible that they write better than ourselves?” I said, “Looks like.”

The next thing, I decided to write a poem, largely aped from Auden’s structure in “In Memory of W. B. Yeats.” However, I didn’t look into Auden any closer at that point. And then I came to Moscow and showed that friend of mine, the translator, these poems. Once more, he said, “This resembles Auden.” So I went out and found Auden’s poems and began to read him more thoroughly.

What interests me is his symptomatic technique of description. He never gives you the real . . . ulcer . . . he talks about its symptoms, ya? He keeps his eye all the time on civilization, on the human condition. But he doesn’t give you the direct description of it, he gives you the oblique way. And then when you read a line like “The mercury sank in the mouth of the dying day”—well, things begin to change. (laughs)

INTERVIEWER

What about your younger years? How did you first come to think about writing poetry?

BRODSKY

At the ages of fifteen, sixteen, seventeen, I didn’t write much, not at all, actually. I was drifting from job to job, working. At sixteen I did a lot of traveling. I was working with a geological expedition. And those years were when Russians were extremely interested in finding uranium. So, every geological team was given some sort of Geiger device. I walked a lot. The whole thing was done on foot. So you’d cover about thirty kilometers daily through pretty thick swamps.

INTERVIEWER

Which part of Russia?

BRODSKY

Well, all parts, actually. I spent quite a lot of time in Irkutsk, north of the Amur River on the border of China. Once during a flood I even went to China. It’s not that I wanted to, but the raft with all our things on it drifted to the right bank of the Amur River. So I found myself in China briefly. And then I was in Central Asia, in deserts, as well as in the mountains—the Tien Shan mountains are pretty tall mountains, the northwest branch of the Hindu Kush. And, also, in the northern part of European Russia, that is, by the White Sea, near Arkhangelsk. Swamps, dreadful swamps. Not that the swamps themselves were dreadful, but the mosquitoes! So, I’ve done that. Also, in Central Asia I was doing a little bit of mountain climbing. I was pretty good at that, I must say. Well, I was young . . . so, I had covered a good deal of territory, with those geological teams and mountain-climbing groups. When they first arrested me, in 1959, I think, they tried to threaten me by saying, “We’re going to send you far away, where no human foot ever trod.” Well, I wasn’t terribly impressed because I had already been to many of the regions they were talking about. When they indeed sent me to one of those places, it turned out to be an area which I knew somewhat well, climatically anyhow. That was near the polar circle, near the same White Sea. So, to me it was some sort of déjà vu.

INTERVIEWER

Still, there must be a pretty strong thread leading from the top of the mountain to your meeting Akhmatova.

BRODSKY

In my third or fourth year doing geology I got into writing poems. I started because I saw a book of poems a colleague of mine had. The subject matter was the romantic appeal of all those spaces. At least that’s what it seemed to me. I thought that I could do better, so I started writing my own poetry. Which wasn’t really terribly good . . . well, some people kind of liked it, but then again everybody who writes finds himself an audience. Oddly enough, ya? All the literati keep at least one imaginary friend—and once you start to write you’re hooked. Still, all the same, at that time I had to make my living. So I kept partaking in those travels. It was not so much that they paid well, but in the field you spent much less; therefore your salary was just waiting for you.

I would get this money and return home and live on it for a while. Usually by Christmastime or New Year’s the money would run out and I would start to look for a job. A normal operation, I think. And in one of my last travels, which was again to the far eastern part of the country, I got a volume of a poet of Pushkin’s circle, though in ways much better than Pushkin—his name is Baratynsky. Reading him forced me to abandon the whole silly traveling thing and to get more seriously into writing. So this is what I started to do. I returned home prematurely and started to write a really quite good poem, the way I remember it.

INTERVIEWER

I read once in a book about Leningrad poets a description of your lair, the lampshade covered with Camel cigarette packs . . .

BRODSKY

That was the place where I lived with my parents. We had one big, huge room in the communal apartment, partitioned by two arches. I simply stuffed those arches with all kinds of bookshelves, furniture, in order to separate myself from my parents. I had my desk, my couch. To a stranger, to a foreigner especially, it looked really like a cave; you had to walk through a wooden wardrobe with no back, like a kind of a gate. I lived there quite a lot. However, I used every bit of money that I made to try to rent or sublet a place for myself, merely because at that age you would rather live someplace other than with your parents, ya? Girls, and so forth.

INTERVIEWER

How was it that you finally came to meet Akhmatova?

BRODSKY

It was in 1961, I think. By that time I’d befriended two or three people who later played a very big role in my life—what later came to be known as “the Petersburg circle.” There were about four of us. One of them is still, I think, the best poet Russia has today. His name is Evgeny Rein; the name comes from the Rhine River. He taught me a lot in terms of poetic know-how. Not that he taught. I would read his poems and he would read mine and we would sit around and have high-minded exchanges, pretending we knew a lot more than we did; he knew something more because he was five years senior to me. At that age it matters considerably. He once said the thing which I would normally say to any poet—that if you really want your poem to work, the usage of adjectives should be minimal; but you should stuff it as much as you can with nouns—even the verbs should suffer. If you cast over a poem a certain magic veil that removes adjectives and verbs, when you remove the veil the paper still should be dark with nouns. To a point I have followed that advice, though not exactly religiously. It did me a lot of good, I must say.

INTERVIEWER

You have a poem which says “Evgeny mine . . .”

BRODSKY

Ya, it is addressed to him, within that cycle “Mexican Divertimento.” But I’ve written several poems to him, and to a certain extent he remains . . . what’s Pound’s description: “il miglior fabbro.” One summer, Rein said: “Would you like to meet Akhmatova?” I said: “Well, why not?” without thinking much. At that time I didn’t care much for Akhmatova. I got a book and read through it, but at that time I was pretty much in my own idiotic world, wrapped up in my own kind of things. So . . . we went there, actually two or three times. I liked her very much. We talked about this and that, and I showed her some of my poems without really caring what she would say.

 But I remember one evening returning from her place—it was in the outskirts of Leningrad—in a filled-up train. Suddenly—it was like the seven veils let down—I realized who it was I was dealing with. And after that I saw her quite often.

Then in 1964 I got behind bars and didn’t see her; we exchanged some kind of correspondence. I got released because she was extremely active in trying to get me out. To a certain extent she had blamed herself for my arrest, basically because of the harassment; she was being followed, et cetera, et cetera. Everybody thinks that way about themselves; even I in my turn later on was trying to be kind of cautious with people, because my place was being watched.

INTERVIEWER

Does that phenomenon give you a strange sense of self-importance?

BRODSKY

It really doesn’t. It either scares you or it is a nuisance. You can’t derive any sense of self-importance because you understand a) how idiotic it is, and b) how dreadful it is. The dreadfulness dominates your thoughts. Once, I remember Akhmatova conversing with somebody, some naive woman, or perhaps not so naive, who asked, “Anna Andreyevna—how do you notice if you are being followed?” To which she replied: “My dear, it’s impossible not to notice such a thing.” It’s done to intimidate you. You don’t have to suffer persecution mania. You really are being followed.

INTERVIEWER

How long did it take you to get rid of that feeling once you landed in Austria?

BRODSKY

It’s still around, you’re cautious. In your writing, in your exchanges with people, meeting people who are in Russian affairs, Russian literature, et cetera. Because it’s all penetrated, not necessarily by the direct agents of State Security, but by those people who can be used for that.

INTERVIEWER

Were you familiar with Solzhenitsyn at that time?

BRODSKY

I don’t think at that time Solzhenitsyn was familiar with himself. No, later on. When One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich was put out, I read it instantly. I remember, speaking of Akhmatova, talking about One Day, and a friend of mine said “I don’t like this book.” Akhmatova said: “What kind of comment is that—‘I like it’ or ‘I don’t like it’? The point is that the book ought to be read by two hundred million of the Russian population.” And that’s it, ya?

I followed Solzhenitsyn’s output in the late sixties quite steadily. By 1971, there were about five or six books floating around in manuscript. Gulag wasn’t yet published. August 1914 surfaced at that time. Also his prose poems, which I found absolutely no good. But we like him not for his poetry, ya?

INTERVIEWER

Have you ever met him?

BRODSKY

No. We had one exchange in the mail . . . I really think that in him the Soviet rule got its Homer: what he managed to reveal, the way he kind of pulled the world a little bit around, ya?

INTERVIEWER

Insofar as any one person is able to do anything—

BRODSKY

That’s about it, ya? But then you have the millions of dead behind him. The force of the individual who is alive grows proportionately—it’s not him essentially, but them.

INTERVIEWER

When you were sent to the prison camp in 1965 . . .

BRODSKY

It was an internal exile, not a camp. It was a village, fourteen people, lost, completely lost in bogs up there in the north. With almost no access. First I went through transitory prisons: Crosses.* Then it was Vologda, then Arkhangelsk, and finally I ended up in that village. It was all under guard.

INTERVIEWER

Were you able to maintain an ongoing picture of yourself as someone who uses language?

BRODSKY

That’s a funny thing, but I did. Even sitting there between those walls, locked up, then being moved from place to place, I was writing poems. One of them was a very presumptuous poem—precisely about that, being a carrier of the language—extremely presumptuous as I say, but I was in the height of the tragic mood and I could say something like that about myself, to myself even.

INTERVIEWER

Did you have any sense at that time that what had happened at the trial had already put you in the international spotlight?

BRODSKY

No, I knew nothing about the international echo of that trial, nothing at all. I realized that I got a great deal of shit on my palate—on my plate—on my palate as well (laughs). I had to do my stretch . . . What’s more, that was the time which coincided in an unfortunate way—but then again it was fortunate for me—with my greatest personal trouble, with a girl, et cetera, et cetera . . . and a kind of triangle overlapped severely with the squares of the solitary confinements, ya? It was a kind of geometry—with vicious circles.

I was more fired up by that personal situation than by what was happening to my body. The displacement from one cell to another, one prison to another, interrogation, all that, I didn’t really pay much attention to it.

INTERVIEWER

Were you able to stay in some sort of communication with the literati once you were sent into internal exile?

BRODSKY

I was trying. Mailing things in a kind of roundabout fashion, or directly. Sometimes I even called. I was living in a “village.” Fourteen little shacks. Certainly it was obvious that some letters were not read by my eyes alone. But, you know that you are up against it; you know who is the master of your house. It’s not you. So therefore you’re resigned to trying to ridicule the system—but that’s about as much as can be done. You feel like a serf bitching about the gentry, which has its own entertaining aspects.

INTERVIEWER

But still a situation in which you must have been under extreme duress—

BRODSKY

No, I wasn’t. In the first place I was young. Secondly, the work was agriculture. My old joke is that agriculture is like public transportation in the U.S. It’s a sporadic operation, poorly organized. So therefore you have enough time, ya? Sometimes it was pretty taxing, physically, that is; and also, it was unpleasant. I didn’t have the right to leave. I was confined. Perhaps because of some turn in my character, I decided to get the most out of it. I kind of liked it. I associated it with Robert Frost. You think about the environment, the surroundings, what you’re doing: you start to play at being almost a gentleman farmer. Other Russian writers, I think, had it much harder than me, much harder.

INTERVIEWER

Did this life give you the rural sense that you have?

BRODSKY

I love it. It gives you more than the rural sense . . . because you get up in the morning in the village, or wherever, and you go to get your daily load, you walk through the field and you know that at the same time most of the nation is doing the same. It gives you some exhilarating sense of being with the rest. If you look from the height of a dove, or a hawk, across the nation you would see it. In that sense it was nice. It gives you a certain insight into the basics of life.

INTERVIEWER

Was there anyone with whom you could talk literature?

BRODSKY

No—but I didn’t need it, really. You don’t really need it, frankly. Or at least I’m not one of that kind of literary person. Although I love to talk about those things. But once shorn of that opportunity, it’s okay. Your democratic traits get set in motion. You talk to the people and try to appreciate what they’re saying, et cetera. It pays psychologically.

INTERVIEWER

Did you have many classics at that point?

BRODSKY

Not really. Nothing, in fact. When I needed references I had to write letters to ask people’s help. But I operate on a very basic level with the classics. That is, there’s nothing very esoteric. You can find all of it in Bullfinch, ya? I’d read Suetonius and somebody else—Tacitus. But I don’t remember, frankly.

INTERVIEWER

At some point the classics must have been quite important. I don’t mean specifically the classics, as much as the historical reach . . .

BRODSKY

Whenever you get in trouble you’re automatically forced to regard yourself—unless you are self-indulgent—as a kind of archetypal character. So, who else could I think of being but Ovid? That would be the most natural thing . . .

Well, that was a wonderful time, I must say. I’d written quite a lot and I think I had written rather well. I remember one breakthrough I made with poetry. I wrote the line “here on the hills, under the empty sky, on the roads leading on into the woods, life steps aside from itself and peers at itself in a state of bewilderment.” This is perhaps not much, but to me it was important . . . it’s not exactly a new way of looking, but being able to say that unleashes certain other things. You are then invincible.

INTERVIEWER

You had no intimation that you would ever reach the West?

BRODSKY

Oh, no. No Russian has that intimation. You’re born to a very confined realm. The rest of the world is just pure geography, an academic discipline, not the reality.

INTERVIEWER

When you left Russia you were going to Israel.

BRODSKY

I had to go to Israel! I was given the walking papers to Israel. But I had no intention to go anywhere. I landed in Vienna and Carl Proffer from the University of Michigan, from Ardis, met me there. The first thing I saw when I looked out of the plane was his tall figure on the balustrade. We waved to each other. And the first thing he asked me as I walked up was, “Well, Joseph, where would you like to go?”

I said: “Jesus, I haven’t the slightest idea.” And I really didn’t. I knew I was leaving my country for good, but for where, I had no idea whatsoever. One thing which was quite clear was that I didn’t want to go to Israel. I didn’t know Hebrew, though I knew a little English.

Besides, I didn’t have much time to think about that. I never even believed that they’d allow me to go. I never believed they would put me on a plane, and when they did I didn’t know whether the plane would go east or west.

INTERVIEWER

Was Carl Proffer trying to get you to come to the U.S.?

BRODSKY

When I told him that I had no plans whatsoever, he asked, “Well, how would you like to come to the University of Michigan?” Other proposals came from London and from the Sorbonne, I believe. But I decided, “It’s a big change, let’s make it really big.” At that time they had expelled about 150 spies from England and I thought, “That’s not all of them, ya?” (laughs) I didn’t want to be hounded by what was left of the Soviet Security Service in England. So I came to the States.

INTERVIEWER

Was Auden actually in Vienna at the time?

BRODSKY

Auden wasn’t in Vienna, but I knew that he was in Austria. He usually spent his summertimes in Kirchstetten. I had a gift for him. All I took out of Russia was my typewriter, which they unscrewed bolt by bolt at the airport—that was their way of saying good-bye—a small Modern Library volume of Donne’s poems, and a bottle of vodka, which I thought that if I got to Austria I’d give to Auden. If I didn’t get to Austria I’d drink it myself. I also had a second bottle from a friend, a Lithuanian poet, Tomas Venclova—a remarkable poet, I think—who gave me a bottle of Lithuanian booze. He said, “Give this thing to Wystan if you see him.” So, I had two bottles, that typewriter, and Donne, along with a change of clothes, that is, underwear, and that was it.

On the third or fourth day in Vienna I said to Carl, “Wystan Auden may be in Austria—why don’t we try to find him?” Since we had nothing to do except go to the opera and restaurants, we hired an Avis car, a VW, got a map of Austria, and went to look for him. The trouble was there are three Kirchstettens. We went through all of them, I think—miles and miles between them—and finally we discovered the Auden-Strasse, and found him there.

He began to take immense care of me immediately. All of a sudden the telegrams in my name began to arrive in care of Auden, ya? He was trying to kind of set me up. He told me about whom to meet here and there, et cetera. He called Charles Osborne in London and got me invited to the Poetry International, 1972. I stayed two weeks in London, with Wystan at Stephen Spender’s place.

In general, because in those eight years I was as well read in English poetry as in Russian, I knew the scene rather well. Except that, for instance, I didn’t know that Wystan was gay. It somehow escaped me. Not that I care much about that. However, I was emerging from Russia and Russia being quite a Victorian country, that could have tinged my attitude toward Wystan. But I don’t think it did.

I stayed two weeks in London, and then I flew to the States.

INTERVIEWER

Your connections in the world of poetry have proliferated. You’re friends with Hecht, Wilbur, Walcott—

BRODSKY

I met Derek [Walcott] at Lowell’s funeral. Lowell had told me about Derek and showed me some poems which impressed me a great deal. I read them and I thought, “Well, another good poet.” Then his editor gave me that collection Another Life. That blew my mind completely. I realized that we have a giant on our hands. He is the figure in English poetry comparable to, well, should I say Milton? (laughs) Well, more accurately, I’d put him somewhere between Marlowe and Milton, especially because of his tendency to write verse plays, and his vigor. He’s astonishing. The critics want to make him a regional poet from the West Indies, and it’s a crime. Because he’s the grandest thing around.

INTERVIEWER

How about Russian writers?

BRODSKY

I don’t know really quite whom I react to most. I remember the great impact Mandelstam’s poetry had on me when I was nineteen or twenty. He was unpublished. He’s still largely unpublished and unheeded—in criticism and even in private conversations, except for the friends, except for my circle, so to speak. General knowledge of him is extremely limited, if any. I remember the impact of his poetry on me. It’s still there. As I read it I’m sometimes flabbergasted. Another poet who really changed not only my idea of poetry, but also my perception of the world—which is what it’s all about, ya?—is Tsvetayeva. I personally feel closer to Tsvetayeva—to her poetics, to her techniques, which I was never capable of. This is an extremely immodest thing to say, but, I always thought, “Can I do the Mandelstam thing?” I thought on several occasions that I succeeded at a kind of pastiche.

But Tsvetayeva. I don’t think I ever managed to approximate her voice. She was the only poet—and if you’re a professional that’s what’s going on in your mind—with whom I decided not to compete.

INTERVIEWER

What was the distinctive element that attracted you but also frustrated you?

BRODSKY

Well, it never frustrated me. She’s a woman in the first place. But hers is the most tragic voice of all Russian poetry. It’s impossible to say she’s the greatest because other people create comparisons—Cavafy, Auden—but I personally feel tremendously attracted to her.

It is a very simple thing. Hers is extremely tragic poetry, not only in subject matter—this is not big news, especially in the Russian realm—but in her language, her prosody. Her voice, her poetry, gives you almost the idea or sense that the tragedy is within the language itself. The reason I decided—it was almost a conscious decision not to compete with her—well, for one thing, I knew I would fail. After all, I’m a different person, a man what’s more, and it’s almost unseemly for a man to speak at the highest pitch of his voice, by which I don’t mean she was just a kind of romantic, raving . . . she was a very dark poet.

INTERVIEWER

She can hold more without breaking?

BRODSKY

Ya. Akhmatova used to say about her: “Marina starts her poem on the upper do, that edge of the octave.” Well, it’s awfully hard to sustain a poem on the highest possible pitch. She’s capable of that. A human being has a very limited capacity for discomfort or tragedy. Limited, technically speaking, like a cow that can’t produce more than two gallons of milk. You can’t squeeze more tragedy out of a man. So, in that respect, her reading of the human drama, her inconsolable voice, her poetic technique, are absolutely astonishing. I think nobody wrote better, in Russian, anyway. The tone with which she was speaking, that kind of tragic vibrato, that tremolo.

INTERVIEWER

Did you have to come to her gradually or did you discover her overnight?

BRODSKY

No, it was from the very threshold. I was given her poems by a friend of mine. That was it.

INTERVIEWER

In your own poems the speaking voice is so terribly solitary, without benefit of a single human interaction.

BRODSKY

            Ya, that’s what it is. Akhmatova said this about the first batch of poems I brought her in 1962. That’s exactly what she said, verbatim. I presume that’s the characteristic of it.

INTERVIEWER

As poems emerge are you conscious of the extent to which—for someone looking at them from the outside—they have a discernible line of development and movement?

BRODSKY

No—the only thing I’m conscious of is that I’m trying to make them different from the previous stuff I’ve written. Because one reacts not only to what he’s read, but what he wrote as well, ya? So every preceding thing is the point of departure. There should be a small surprise that there is some kind of detectable linear development.

INTERVIEWER

You seem to write about places that don’t appear to be the places where you’ve spent most of your time. Has there been anything on New York, or Venice?

BRODSKY

I don’t think I’ve written anything about New York. You can’t do much about New York. Whereas Venice—I’ve done quite a lot. But places like New England or Mexico, or England, old England—basically when you find yourself in a strange place, and the stranger the place it is, to a certain extent, the better—it somehow sharpens your notion of your individuality, say a place like Brighton (laughs) or York in England. You see yourself better against a strange background. It’s to be living outside your own context, like being in exile. One of the advantages is that you shed lots of illusions. Not illusions about the world, but illusions about yourself. You kind of winnow yourself. I never had as clear a notion of what I am than I acquired when I came to the States—the solitary situation. I like the idea of isolation. I like the reality of it. You realize what you are . . . not that the knowledge is inevitably rewarding. Nietzsche put it in so many words: “A man who’s left by himself is left with his own pig.”

INTERVIEWER

I’ll pay you the compliment of saying my immediate sensation of any place you’ve described in a poem is to never want to go there.

BRODSKY

Terrific! (laughs) If you put it in writing I’ll never be hired for an advertising job.

INTERVIEWER

Is it deliberate that you’ve waited so long between books?

BRODSKY

Not really. I’m not very professional as a writer. I’m not really interested in book after book. There’s something ignoble about it, ya?

INTERVIEWER

Does your family in the USSR have any sense of what you’re doing?

BRODSKY

They have the basic idea, that I’m teaching and that I’m, if not financially, somehow psychologically, well off. They appreciate that I’m a poet. They didn’t like it at the very beginning. For a good fifteen years they hated every bit of it, ya? (laughs)—but then why shouldn’t they have? I don’t think I’m so excited about it myself. Akhmatova told me that when her father learned that she was about to publish a book, he said, “Well, do please one thing. Please take care to not malign my name. If you’re going to be in this business, please assume a pen name.”

Personally, I’d much prefer to fly small planes, to be a bush pilot somewhere in Africa, than do this.

INTERVIEWER

How do you feel about writing prose?

BRODSKY

I love it, in English. To me it’s a challenge.

INTERVIEWER

Is it sweat?

BRODSKY

I don’t regard it as sweat. It’s certainly labor. Yet it’s almost a labor of love. If asked to write prose in Russian I wouldn’t be so keen. But in English it’s a tremendous satisfaction. As I write I think about Auden, what he would say—would he find it rubbish, or kind of entertaining?

INTERVIEWER

Is he your invisible reader?

BRODSKY

Auden and Orwell.

INTERVIEWER

Have you ever tried writing fiction in any form?

BRODSKY

No. Well, when I was young, I tried to write a novel. I wrote what I considered one of the breakthroughs in modern Russian writing . . . I’m awfully glad I never saw it again.

INTERVIEWER

Does anything shock or surprise you? How do you face the world when you get up—with what idea in mind? “Here we go again,” or what?

BRODSKY

It certainly doesn’t surprise me. I think the world is capable of only one thing basically—proliferating its evils. That’s what time seems to be for.

INTERVIEWER

You don’t have a corresponding idea that at some point people will advance a quantum leap in consciousness?

BRODSKY

A quantum leap in consciousness is something I rule out.

INTERVIEWER

Just deterioration—is that the picture?

BRODSKY

Well, dilapidation rather than deterioration. Well, not exactly dilapidation. If we look at things in a linear fashion, it certainly doesn’t look any good, ya? The only thing that surprises me is the frequency, under the present circumstances, of instances of human decency, of sophistication, if you will. Because basically the situation—on the whole—is extremely uncongenial for being decent or right.

INTERVIEWER

Are you, finally, a thoroughly godless man? It seems contradictory. In some of your poetry I sense an opening.

BRODSKY

I don’t believe in the infinite ability of the reason, or the rational. I believe in it only insofar as it takes me to the irrational—and this is what I need it for, to take me as far as I can get toward the irrational. There it abandons you. For a little while it creates a state of panic. But this is where the revelations are dwelling—not that you may fish them out. But at least I have been given two or three revelations, or at least they have landed on the edge of reason and left their mark.

This all has very little to do with any ordered religious enterprise. On the whole, I’d rather not resort to any formal religious rite or service. If I have any notion of a supreme being I invest it with absolutely arbitrary will. I’m a little bit opposed to that kind of grocery-store psychology which underlies Christianity. You do this and you’ll get that, ya? Or even better still: that God has infinite mercy. Well, it’s basically anthropomorphism. I would go for the Old Testament God who punishes you—

INTERVIEWER

Irrationally—

BRODSKY

No, arbitrarily. Even more I would go for the Zoroastrian version of deity, which is perhaps the cruelest possible. I kind of like it better when we are dealing with arbitrariness. In that respect I think I’m more of a Jew than any Jew in Israel. Merely because I believe, if I believe in anything, in the arbitrary God.

INTERVIEWER

I suspect you’ve probably meditated a great deal about Eliot and Auden, the way they made these . . .

BRODSKY

Flings . . .

INTERVIEWER

Well, flings or final decisions.

BRODSKY

Yes, I certainly did. I must say I stand by Auden’s more readily than Eliot’s. Although it would take somebody much smarter than I am to explain the distinction between the two.

INTERVIEWER

From all the pictures you get, though, Eliot in his last days was a wonderfully happy man, whereas Auden . . .

BRODSKY

Certainly he wasn’t. I don’t know. It denotes a lot of things. Basically, to arrange your life in such a way that you arrive at a happy conclusion is—well, perhaps I’m too romantic, or too young to respect this kind of thing, or take it seriously. Again, I wasn’t fortunate enough to have had the structure laid out for me in childhood, as was the case with the both of them. So I’ve been doing the whole thing essentially on my own. For instance, I read the Bible for the first time when I was twenty-three. It leaves me somewhat shepherdless, you see. I wouldn’t really know what to return to. I don’t have any notion of paradise. I don’t have one that I derived from childhood which, first of all, is the happiest time, and is also the first time you hear about paradise. I went through the severe, antireligious schooling in Russia which doesn’t leave any kind of notion about afterlife. So, what I’m trying to say, what interests me is the degree—the graspable degree of arbitrariness.

INTERVIEWER

What are your highest moments then—when you are working in the depths of language?

BRODSKY

This is what we begin with. Because if there is any deity to me, it’s language.

INTERVIEWER

Are there moments when you are writing when you are almost an onlooker?

BRODSKY

It’s awfully hard for me to answer. During the process of writing—I think these are the better hours—of deepening, of furthering the thing. You’re kind of entitled to things you didn’t know were out there. That’s what language brings you to, perhaps.

INTERVIEWER

What’s that Karl Kraus line: “Language is the divining rod that discovers wells of thought”?

BRODSKY

It’s an incredible accelerator of the cognitive process. This is why I cherish it. It’s kind of funny, because I feel in talking about language I sound like a bloody French structuralist. Since you mention Karl Kraus at least it gives it kind of a continental thing to reckon with. Well, they have culture, we have guts, we Russians and Americans.

INTERVIEWER

Tell me about your love affair with Venice.

BRODSKY

In many ways it resembles my hometown, St. Petersburg. But the main thing is that the place is so beautiful that you can live there without being in love. It’s so beautiful that you know that nothing in your life you can come up with or produce—especially in terms of pure existence—would have a corresponding beauty. It’s so superior. If I had to live a different incarnation, I’d rather live in Venice as a cat, or anything, but in Venice. Or even as a rat. By 1970 I had an idée fixe to get to Venice. I even had an idea of moving there and renting a ground floor in some palazzo on the water, and sit there and write, and drop my cigarette butts so they would hiss in the water. And when the money would be through, finished, I would go to the store and buy a Saturday special with what was left and blow my mind [puts his finger to temple and gestures].

So, the first thing I did when I became free to travel, that is, in 1972, after teaching a semester in Ann Arbor, I got a round-trip ticket for Venice and went there for Christmas. It is interesting to watch the tourists who arrive there. The beauty is such that they get somewhat dumbfounded. What they do initially is to hit the stores to dress themselves—Venice has the best boutiques in Europe—but when they emerge with all those things on, still there is an unbearable incongruity between the people, the crowd, and what’s around. Because no matter how well they’re dressed and how well they’re endowed by nature, they lack the dignity, which is partially the dignity of decay, of that artifice around them. It makes you realize that what people can make with their hands is a lot better than they are themselves.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have a sense when you’re there of history winding down? Is that part of the ambience?

BRODSKY

Yes, more or less. What I like about it apart from the beauty is the decay. It’s the beauty in decay. It’s not going to be repeated, ever. As Dante said: “One of the primary traits of any work of art is that it is impossible to repeat.”

INTERVIEWER

What do you think of Anthony Hecht’s Venetian Vespers?

BRODSKY

It’s an awfully good book. It’s not so much about Venice—it’s about the American sensibility. I think Hecht is a superb poet. I think there are three of them in America, Wilbur, Hecht, and—I don’t really know how to allocate that third palm.

INTERVIEWER

I’m interested to know why you put Wilbur up as high as you do.

BRODSKY

I like perfection. It’s true that you don’t hear the throbbings of the spheres, or whatever. However, the magnificence with which he uses the material compensates. Because—there is poetry and poetry. There are poets and poets. And Dick performs his function better than anyone else.

I think that if I were born here I would end up with qualities similar to Hecht’s. One thing I would like to be is as perfect as Hecht and Wilbur are. There should be something else, I presume, of my own, but insofar as the craftsmanship is concerned one couldn’t wish for more.

INTERVIEWER

Is the communication between kindred spirits pretty close? Do you watch each other carefully? Walcott, Milosz, Herbert, yourself—poets sharing a certain terrain?

BRODSKY

Not exactly that I watch Derek, but, for instance, I got two poems of his quite recently, scheduled to appear in The New Yorker—an editor sent me the Xeroxes—and I thought, “Well, Joseph—.” I thought, “This is something to reckon with the next time you write a poem.” (laughs)

INTERVIEWER

Who else is there to reckon with?

BRODSKY

Oh, there are lots of shadows and lots of real people. Eugenio Montale would be one of the living ones. There is a German, a very good German, Peter Huchel. Nobody in France, to my knowledge. I don’t really take that poetry seriously. Akhmatova has remarked, very wisely, that in the twentieth century, French painting swallowed French poetry. As for England, I’m certainly a great fan of Philip Larkin. I like him very much. The only complaint is the usual one—that Larkin writes so little. Also, Douglas Dunn—and there is a magnificent man in Australia, Les Murray.

INTERVIEWER

What do you read?

BRODSKY

Some books on disciplines with which I wasn’t well acquainted, like Orientalism. Encyclopedias. I almost don’t have time for such things. Please don’t detect snobbery in this; it’s merely a very grand fatigue.

INTERVIEWER

And what do you teach? Does that affect your reading?

BRODSKY

Only insofar as I have to read the poem before the class does (laughs). I’m teaching Hardy and Auden and Cavafy—those three: it rather reflects my tastes and attachments. And Mandelstam, a bit of Pasternak.

INTERVIEWER

Are you aware that you are on a required reading list at Boston University for a course entitled “Modern Jewish Writing”?

BRODSKY

Well, congratulations to Boston University! Very good. I don’t really know. I’m a very bad Jew. I used to be reproached by Jewish circles for not supporting the cause, the Jewish cause, and for having a great deal of the New Testament themes in my writing. Which I find absolutely silly. It’s nothing to do with the cultural heritage. It’s merely on my part the effect paying homage to its cause. It’s as simple as that.

INTERVIEWER

You are also listed in a book called Famous Jews

BRODSKY

Boy! Oh, boy! Well, Famous Jews—so I’m a famous Jew—that’s how I’m going to regard myself from now on—

INTERVIEWER

What about some of the people you most admire? We’ve touched on some of the ones who have died. How about the living, people whose existence is important to you, if only to know they are there.

BRODSKY

Dick Wilbur, Tony Hecht, Galway Kinnell, Mark Strand. Those are just a few whom I know personally, and I’m extremely lucky in that sense. Montale, as I mentioned, would certainly be one; Walcott is another. And there are other people I like very much personally, and as writers. Susan Sontag, for instance. She is the best mind there is. That is on both sides of the Atlantic. Because, for her, the argument starts precisely where it ends for everyone else. I can’t think of anything in modern literature that can parallel the mental music of her essays. Somehow, I can’t separate people and writing. It just hasn’t happened as yet that I like the writing and not the person. I would say that even if I know a person is dreadful I would be the first to find justifications for that dreadfulness if the writing is good. After all, it is hard to master both life and work equally well. So if you are bound to fake one of them, it had better be life.

INTERVIEWER

Tell me what it was like to meet Lowell for the first time.

BRODSKY

I’d met Lowell in 1972 at the Poetry International. He simply volunteered to read my poems in English as I read them in Russian, an extremely kind and moving gesture. So we both went onstage.

He invited me to come to Kent. I was somewhat perplexed—my English wasn’t good enough. Also, I was somewhat worried about the railroad system in England—I couldn’t make heads nor tails out of it. And the third, perhaps the primary reason why I didn’t go, was that I thought it would be an imposition. Because, well, who the hell am I? And so, I just didn’t do it.

Then in 1975 I was in the Five Colleges in Massachusetts, living in Northampton, and he called and invited me to come to Brookline. By that time my English was somewhat better and I went. The time we spent was in many ways the best time I can recall having while here in the States. We talked about this and that, and finally we settled on Dante. It was the first conversation about Dante since Russia which really made sense to me. He knew Dante inside out, I think, in an absolutely obsessive way. He was especially good on Inferno. I think he had lived for a while in Florence, or stayed there, so he felt more about Inferno than the other parts; at least the conversation revolved around those things.

We spent about five or six hours, more, and then we went for dinner. He said some very pleasant things to me. The only thing casting a shadow was that I knew that during Auden’s last years they had had a row, kind of a lasting row. Wystan didn’t like Lowell’s extramoral situation, whereas Lowell was thinking that it was none of his business and was quite caustic about him as a poet.

INTERVIEWER

That doesn’t sound like something Auden would worry about very much—

BRODSKY

In the sense that Wystan was a proper son of England, he would mind someone else’s morality. I remember a remark he made. I asked him “What do you think of Lowell?” It was on the first day I saw Wystan. I sat down and started to grill him in my absolutely mindless way. He said something like, “I don’t like men who leave a smoking tail of weeping women behind them.” Or maybe it was the other way around: “A weeping tail of smoking women”—

INTERVIEWER

Either way—

BRODSKY

Ya, either way. He didn’t criticize Lowell as a poet. It was simply kind of a commonplace morality at which I think he, Auden, enjoyed playing.

INTERVIEWER

But it was Auden, after all, who would have God pardoning various people for writing well—

BRODSKY

Ya, but he said that in 1939. I think, in a sense, that the reason behind all of this was that he insisted on faithfulness—in his own affairs as well as in a broader sense. Besides, he tended to become less flexible. When you live long you see that little things end up in big damages. Therefore, you get more personalized in your attitudes. Again, I also think it was kind of a game with him. He wanted to play schoolmaster and for that, in this world, he was fully qualified.

INTERVIEWER

If you could get either or both of them back, what kinds of things do you think you’d talk about now?

BRODSKY

Lots of things. In the first place—well, it’s an odd question—perhaps about the arbitrariness of God. Well, that conversation wouldn’t go far with Auden, merely because I don’t think he’d like to talk about that heavy Thomas Mannish stuff. And yet, he became a kind of formal churchgoer, so to speak. I’m somewhat worried about that—because the poetic notion of infinity is far greater than that which is sponsored by any creed—and I wonder about the way he would reconcile that. I’d like to ask him whether he believes in the church, or simply the creed’s notion of infinity, or paradise, or church doctrine—which are normally points of one’s spiritual arrival. For the poet they are springboards, or points of departure for metaphysical journeys. Well, things like that. But mostly I would like to find out certain things about the poems, what he meant here and there. Whether, for instance, in “In Praise of Limestone” he really lists the temptations, or kind of translates the temptations as they are found in the Holy Book, or if they simply came out like a poem, ya? [Long pause.] I wish he were here. More than anyone else. Well, that’s kind of a cruel thing to say, but—I wish three or four people were alive to talk to. Him, Akhmatova, Tsvetayeva, Mandelstam—which already makes four. Thomas Hardy.

INTERVIEWER

Is there anyone you’d want to pull out from the ages?

BRODSKY

Oh, that would be a big crowd. This room wouldn’t hold them.

INTERVIEWER

How did Lowell feel with respect to religion, finally?

BRODSKY

We never talked about it, except ironically, mentioning it en passant. He was absolutely astonishing talking about politics, or writers’ weaknesses. Or human weaknesses. He was extremely generous, but what I liked in him was the viciousness of tongue. Both Lowell and Auden were monologuists. In a sense, you shouldn’t talk to people like them, you should listen to them—which is kind of an ultimate existential equivalent for reading poetry. It’s a kind of spinoff. And I was all ears, partly because of my English.

He was a lovely man, really lovely—Lowell, that is. The age difference wasn’t that big between us—well, some twenty years, so I felt in a sense somewhat more comfortable with him than with Auden. But then again, I felt most comfortable with Akhmatova.

INTERVIEWER

Did either one of them interrogate you in the way you wanted to be interrogated about yourself and your writing?

BRODSKY

Lowell did. Akhmatova asked me several questions . . . But while they were alive, you see, I felt as a young boy. They were the elders, so to speak, the masters. Now that they are gone I think of myself as terribly old all of a sudden. And . . . this is what civilization means, carrying on. Well, I don’t think Auden would like rock music, nor do I. Nor Lowell, I think.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have any close friends who are artists, painters, musicians, composers?

BRODSKY

Here I don’t. In Russia I had. Here the only person close to that is Baryshnikov. Composers, none at all. No, it’s empty. The category of people I used to like most of all were graphic artists and musicians.

INTERVIEWER

But you draw a lot of sustenance from those realms.

BRODSKY

From music, yes. I don’t really know how it is reflected in what I’m doing, but I certainly do.

INTERVIEWER

What do you listen to? I notice that Billie Holiday is on the turntable now—

BRODSKY

Billie Holiday’s “Sophisticated Lady” is a magnificent piece. I like Haydn. Music is actually the best teacher of composition, I think, even for literature. If only because—well, the principle, for instance, of the concerto grosso: three parts, one quick, two slow, or vice versa. You know that you have to pour whatever you have into this twenty-minute thing. Also, what can follow in music: the alternation of lyricism with mindless pizzicato, et cetera . . . they’re like the shifts, counterpoints, the fluid character of an argument, a fluid montage. When I first began to listen to classical music, the thing that haunted me was the way it moves, the unpredictability. So in that sense Haydn is terrific stuff because he’s so absolutely unpredictable. [Long pause.] It’s so silly . . . I think how meaningless everything is, except for two or three things—writing itself, listening to music, perhaps a little bit of thinking. But the rest—

INTERVIEWER

How about friendship?

BRODSKY

Friendship is a nice thing. I’d include food then (laughs) . . . But other things that you’re forced to do—paying taxes, counting the numbers, writing references, doing your chores—don’t all those things strike you as utterly meaningless? It’s like when we sat in that café. The girl was doing something with the pies, or whatever—they were in that refrigerator with the glass. And she stuck her head in and she was doing all those things, the rest of her out of the refrigerator. She was in that position for about two minutes. And once you see it there’s no point in existing anymore. (laughs) Simple point, ya?

INTERVIEWER

Except that the minute you translate that into an image or a thought you’ve already taken it out of uselessness.

BRODSKY

But once you’ve seen it the whole of existence is compromised.

INTERVIEWER

It’s coming back to time again—here because you’re seeing the container with nothing in it.

BRODSKY

More or less, ya. Actually I read in the front of Penn Warren’s recent book (gets up and rummages at his desk): “Time is the dimension in which God strives to define his own being.” Well, “strives” is a little bit kindergartenish. But there is another quote, this one from the encyclopedia: “There is, in short, no absolute time standard.”

INTERVIEWER

The last time I talked with you two things hadn’t happened. How much of your time is filled with being preoccupied with Afghanistan and the hostage situation?

BRODSKY

When I’m not writing or reading, I’m thinking about both. Of the two I think the Afghan situation is the most—tragic. When I saw the first footage from Afghanistan on the TV screen a year ago, it was very short. It was tanks rolling on the plateau. For thirty-two hours nonstop I was climbing the walls. Well, it’s not that I’m ashamed of being Russian. I have felt that already twice in my life: in 1956 because of Hungary and in 1968 because of Czechoslovakia. In those days my attitude was aggravated by immediate fear, for my friends if not for myself—merely because I knew that whenever the international situation worsens, it’s automatically followed by the internal crackdown.

But this is not what really blew my mind in Afghanistan. What I saw was basically a violation of the elements—because that plateau never saw a plough before, let alone a tank. So, it was a kind of existential nightmare. And it still sits on my retina. Since then I have been thinking about soldiers who are, well, about twenty years younger than me, so that some of them could be, technically speaking, my children. I even wrote a poem that said “glory to those that in the Sixties went marching into the abortion clinics, thereby saving the Motherland the disgrace.”

What drives me absolutely wild is not the pollution—it’s something much more dreadful. It’s something I think when they’re breaking ground to the foundation of a building. It’s usurpation of land, violation of the elements. It’s not that I am of a pastoral bent. No, I think, on the contrary, the nuclear power stations should be there—it’s cheaper than oil, in the end.

But a tank rolling onto the plateau demeans space. This is absolutely meaningless, like subtracting from zero. And it is vile in a primordial sense, partly because of tanks’ resemblance to dinosaurs. It simply shouldn’t be.

INTERVIEWER

Are your feelings about these things very separate from what you write?

BRODSKY

I don’t believe in writing it—I believe in action. I think it’s time to create some sort of International Brigade. It was done in 1936, why not now? Except that in 1936 the International Brigade was financed by the GPU—that is, Soviet State Security. I just wonder if there’s anybody with the money . . . somebody in Texas who could financially back the thing.

INTERVIEWER

What would you imagine the International Brigade doing?

BRODSKY

Well, the International Brigade can do essentially what it did in 1936 in Spain, that is, fight back, help the locals. Or at least give some sort of medical assistance—food, shelter. If there is a noble cause, it is this—not some Amnesty International . . . I wouldn’t mind driving a Red Cross jeep . . .

INTERVIEWER

It’s hard to identify clear moral sides sometimes—

BRODSKY

I don’t really know what kind of moral sides you are looking for, especially in a place like Afghanistan. It’s quite obvious. They’ve been invaded; they’ve been subjugated. They may be just backward tribesmen but slavery isn’t my idea of revolution either.

INTERVIEWER

I’m talking more in terms of countries.

BRODSKY

Russia versus the U.S.? I don’t think there is any question. If there were no other distinction between those two, it would be enough for me to have the system of a jury of twelve versus the system of one judge as a basis for preferring the U.S. to the Soviet Union. Or, to make it less complicated—because even that perplexes most people—I would prefer the country you can leave to the country you cannot.

INTERVIEWER

You’ve said that you are fairly satisfied with your Lowell poem which you wrote in English. Is there any reason why you didn’t just continue writing in English?

BRODSKY

There are several reasons. In the first place, I have enough to do in Russian. And in English you have lots of terrific people alive. There is no point in my doing that. I wrote an elegy in English simply because I wanted to please the shadow. And when I finished Lowell, I had another poem coming in English. There were wonderful rhymes coming my way, and yet I told myself to stop. Because I don’t want to create for myself an extra reality. Also, I would have to compete with the people for whom English is the mother tongue, ya? And, lastly, which is the most important, I don’t have that aspiration. I’m pleased enough with what I’m doing in Russian, which sometimes goes and sometimes doesn’t. When it doesn’t, I can’t think of trying it in English. I don’t want to be penalized twice (laughs). And, as for English, I write my essays, which gives me enough sense of confidence. The thing is—I don’t really know how to put it—technically speaking, English is the only interesting thing that’s left in my life. It’s not an exaggeration and not a brooding statement. That’s what it is, ya?

INTERVIEWER

Did you read Updike’s piece on Kundera in The New York Times Book Review? He finished by referring to you, citing you as one who has dealt with exile by becoming an American poet—

BRODSKY

That’s flattering, but that’s rubbish.

INTERVIEWER

I imagine that he was referring not only to the fact that you have written a few things in English, but also to the fact that you were beginning to deal with American landscapes, Cape Cod—

BRODSKY

Could be—in that case, what can I say? Certainly one becomes the land one lives in, especially at the end. In that sense I’m quite American.

INTERVIEWER

How do you feel about writing something full of American associations in the Russian language?

BRODSKY

In many cases you don’t have the Russian word for that, or you have a Russian word which is kind of cumbersome; then you look for ways around the problem.

INTERVIEWER

Well, you’re writing about squad cars and Ray Charles’s jazz—

BRODSKY

Ya, that you can do—because Ray Charles is a name, and “squad car” has an expression in Russian, and so does the hoop on the basketball pole. But the most difficult thing I had to deal with in that poem had to do with Coca-Cola, to convey the sensation that it reminded me of Mene, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin, that line Belshazzar sees on the wall that foretold the end of his kingdom. That’s where the expression “writing on the wall” comes from. You can’t say “Coca-Cola sign” because there’s no idiom for that. So, I had to describe it in a rather roundabout way—because of which the image rather profited. I said not “a sign,” but something to the effect of the cuneiform or the hieroglyphics of Coca-Cola, ya? So that it reinforced the image of “the writing on the wall.”

INTERVIEWER

What do you think happens psychically when you’ve brought the poem to a sort of dead point, to get beyond which you would have to go in a direction that you can’t yet imagine?

BRODSKY

The thing is that you can always go on, even when you have the most terrific ending. For the poet the credo or doctrine is not the point of arrival but is, on the contrary, the point of departure for the metaphysical journey. For instance, you write a poem about the crucifixion. You have decided to go ten stanzas—and yet it’s the third stanza and you’ve already dealt with the crucifixion. You have to go beyond that and add something—to develop it into something which is not there yet. Basically what I’m saying is that the poetic notion of infinity is far greater, and it’s almost self-propelled by the form. Once in a conversation with Tony Hecht at Breadloaf we were talking about the usage of the Bible, and he said, “Joseph, wouldn’t you agree that what a poet does is to try to make more sense out of these things?” And that’s what it is—there’s more sense, ya? In the works of the better poets you get the sensation that they’re not talking to people anymore, or to some seraphical creature. What they’re doing is simply talking back to the language itself—as beauty, sensuality, wisdom, irony—those aspects of language of which the poet is a clear mirror. Poetry is not an art or a branch of art, it’s something more. If what distinguishes us from other species is speech, then poetry, which is the supreme linguistic operation, is our anthropological, indeed genetic, goal. Anyone who regards poetry as an entertainment, as a “read,” commits an anthropological crime, in the first place, against himself.


* Crosses is a prison in Leningrad.


Author photograph by Nancy Crampton.