Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Joseph Brodsky - Part III (Respect for W.H. Auden)

W.H. Auden

Somewhere in Less Than One Brodsky refers to Cavafy as his favorite poet; but it was W.H. Auden whom Brodsky almost likens to a god. In "To Please a Shadow," an essay on Auden, Brodsky writes: "While in the flesh, this man did so much that belief in the immortality of his soul becomes somehow unavoidable. What he left us with amounts to a gospel which is both brought about by and filled with love that's anything but finite -- with love, that is, which can in no way all be harbored by human flesh and which therefore needs words. If there were no churches, one could easily have built one upon this poet, and its main precept would run something like this:

If equal affection cannot be
Let the more loving one be me.

After studying Auden's poem "In Memory of W.B. Yeats" the young Brodsky pondered the words "Time ... worships language."

"... the train of thought that statement set in motion in me is still trundling to this day. For 'worship' is an attitude of the lesser toward the greater. If time worships language, it means that language is greater, or older, than time, which is, in its turn, older and greater than space. That was how I was taught, and I indeed felt that way. So if time -- which is synonymous with, nay, even absorbs deity -- worships language, where then does language come from? For the gift is always smaller than the giver. And then isn't language a repository of time? And isn't this why time worships it? And isn't a song, or a poem, or indeed a speech itself, with its caesuras, pauses, spondees, and so forth, a game language plays to restructure time? And aren't those by whom language 'lives' those by whom time does too? And if time 'forgives' them, does it do so out of generosity or out of necessity? And isn't generosity a necessity anyhow?

"Short and horizontal as those lines were, they seemed to me incredibly vertical. They were also very much offhand, almost chatty: metaphysics disguised as common sense, common sense disguised as nursery-rhyme couplets. These layers of disguise alone were telling me what language is, and I realized that I was reading a poet who spoke the truth -- or through whom the truth made itself audible."

A few paragraphs later, Brodsky sees Auden as the nurse of humanity: "The most frequent charge that's been leveled against him was that he didn't offer a cure. I guess in a way he asked for that by resorting to Freudian, then Marxist, then ecclesiastical terminology. The cure, though, lay precisely in his employing other terminologies, for they are simply different dialects in which one can speak about one and the same thing, which is love. It is the intonation with which one talks to the sick that cures. This poet went among the worlds graver, often terminal cases not as a surgeon but as a nurse, and every patient knows that it's nurses and not incisions that eventually put one back on one's feet."
Another of the essays in Less Than None is comprised of 36 pages devoted to Auden's poem "September 1, 1939".
Okay, I'm done with the great Brodsky for the time being.


  1. "Less than One", not None:)

  2. My shelf of verse is gone to fire,
    My time with Brodsky, Auden, Kees
    I now remember sketchily.
    I'd like to go where that shelf went
    The wanting of their words before me.