‘The birds of paradise sing without a needing a supple branch’: Joseph Brodsky and the Poetics of Exile

By | 1 August 2016

And then there are times when the poet turns from being indifferent towards space to openly despising it for its bareness: ‘the space, in star’s telescope / looking over its catch, / bursting with emptiness / and the sum of four corners / darkens (…)’1. At the same time, he is at awe with time, because, as he explains, poetry is ‘restructured time, toward which mute space is inherently hostile’2. In this hierarchic binary of space-time, time is infinitely better than space. Take another example of an exiled poet – Osip Mandelstam – who, in Brodsky’s words, ‘ran till there was space. When the space ended, he hit time’3, with time being as close to immortality as a mortal can get.

This immortality, however, cannot be achieved without language. Language is the element that turns the binary of space-time into a full-fledged hierarchy, where language is the solution to the onslaught of time over space. Language comes in as an overarching leitmotif in any theorising of dualities or hierarchies (be it space / time, imprisonment / freedom) that Brodsky engages in. In his analysis of Auden’s In Memory of W.B. Yeats, Brodsky concludes that ‘time (…) worships language’4. Though these poetic mathematics, Brodsky arrives at a formula: time is always greater than space, but language is always greater than time because language conquers time and space both. And so language conquers exile also.

Russian has remained the language of poetic choice for Brodsky while in exile. The poet avoided writing poetry in English as memory, he feared, ‘becomes even more diminished by being recollected in English’5 or any other language that is not one’s native tongue. He did not shun English, however, relying on it for essays and self-translation of his poetry6.

Upon contemplating the reason of his fellow exiled writers for switching to write in a language other than their mother tongue, Brodsky came to think that they ‘resorted’ to other languages out of necessity (like Conrad), ambition (like Nabokov) or ‘for the sake of greater estrangement’ (like Becket)7. When it came, however, to defining his own reasons to write essays in English, Brodsky placed himself in a ‘different league’. As he assured in Less Than One, his desire to write in English had nothing to do with ambition or confidence or seeking comfort, but rather it was ‘a desire to please a shadow’, that is to feel closer to his hero and, later, friend – Wystan Auden8. Brodsky’s admiration for Auden stemmed from the fact that Auden’s writing kept the poet company while in his first exile, when he was ‘doing (his) own time in the North, in a small village lost among swamps and forests, near the polar circle’9. It was Auden’s In Memory of W.B. Yeats that Brodsky first discovered in an anthology of poetry gifted by a friend that has led to Brodsky’s enduring fascination with Auden’s art. And so Brodsky wrote in English because this language was his bridge to Auden while at the same time Russian became both his shield, protecting him from both the realities of the exile and the bitterness it had spawn and his connection to his past and imagined future. With memory of the circumstances of his exile always a dark haunting shadow over him, Brodsky uses his native tongue to sarcastically declare his ‘gratitude’ for his hardship as an act of defiance: ‘I have braved, for want of wild beasts, steel cages (…) Yet until brown clay has been crammed down my larynx /only gratitude will be gushing from it’10.

Despite his laughter and bravado in the face of exile, Brodsky’s take on the trauma the state of exile provoked presents yet another binary. On one hand, imagined as a landscape, exile is an inhospitable environment where an exiled artist’s chances of survival are like those of ‘a fish in the sand’11. On another hand, exile is darkness that ‘restores what light cannot repair’12. And yet Brodsky did endure and while the duality of these metaphors of ‘fish in the sand’ and ‘restoring darkness’ might seem confusing in regards to Brodsky’s stance on the ‘artist in exile’ phenomenon, it is important to remember that Brodsky also sneered at the idea that suffering makes for great art. If anything, he accused this suffering of blinding, deafening, ruining and killing its victims. As his evidence, Brodsky spoke of fates and art of his fellow artists-in-exile: Anna Akhmatova, Marina Tsvetaeva and Osip Mandelstam. Referring to their body of work as a proof of their talent, he promises that ‘they would have become what they became even if none of the historical events that befell Russia in this century had taken place: because they were gifted.’ He then reiterated that ‘basically, talent doesn’t need history’13. This chasm between exile-that-harms and exile-that-empowers can be reconciled by envisaging the state of exile as a healing kind of darkness, where the exiled artist, empowered by the distance between him/her and the evil that caused the exile, can create art, undisturbed.

  1. Brodsky, ‘The Child of Civilization’ in Less Than One: Selected Essays, p. 137
  2. Brodsky, ‘The Child of Civilization’ in Less Than One: Selected Essays, p. 137
  3. Brodsky, ‘The Child of Civilization’ in Less Than One: Selected Essays, p. 137
  4. Joseph Brodsky, ‘To Please a Shadow’ in Less Than One: Selected Essays, p. 363
  5. Brodsky, ‘Less Than One’, in Less Than One: Selected Essays, p. 4
  6. Important to point out here that Brodsky’s self-translation drew controversy. His last self-curated collection of poems published shortly before his death, So Forth, in particular, had a negative reception from the critics, and was ‘judged inferior to (his) best work’ and being described as ‘more failure than success’, poetryfoundation.org
  7. Brodsky, ‘To Please a Shadow’, in Less Than One: Selected Essays, p. 357
  8. Brodsky, ‘Less Than One’, in Less Than One: Selected Essays, pp. 357-358
  9. Brodsky, ‘To Please a Shadow’, in Less Than One: Selected Essays, p. 361
  10. Joseph Brodsky’s ‘To Urania’, in David Patterson, Exile: The Sense of Alienation in Modern Russian Letters, The University Press of Kentucky: Lexington, KY, p. 172
  11. ‘Joseph Brodsky: Biography’, poetryfoundation.org
  12. ‘The Poetry of Joseph Brodsky’, Wilson Quarterly
  13. Joseph Brodsky, ‘Nadezhda Mandelstam (1899-1980: An Obituary’, in Less Than One: Selected Essays, p. 153
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