Uncle Grisha Was Right

Cynthia L. Haven

Brodsky: A Personal Memoir. By Ludmila Shtern. Fort Worth: Baskerville, 2004. 386 pp. $25.95

From Russian with Love: Joseph Brodsky in English. By Daniel Weissbort. London: Anvil Press Poetry, 2004. 254 pp. $18.95

In Ludmila Shtern’s amiable, often aimless memoir, she recalls the uneducated peasant “Uncle Grisha” listening to a very young Joseph Brodsky read one night at Shtern’s Leningrad home. Uncle Grisha crossed himself repeatedly during the reading, whispering to himself after each of the poet’s incantatory lines. He abruptly left the gathering afterwards, returning the next morning and insisting, “Brodsky is, in fact, not like us. He is cut from a different cloth.

“I don’t understand poetry. I’ve only had four years of school. But the issue isn’t the poetry, it’s the thoughts,” he explained, “your Joseph spoke so many thoughts last night, most of them wouldn’t have even occurred to another person even if they lived to be a hundred. And the way he read, it was as though he was praying.” Uncle Grisha then asked if Brodsky was a believer, and was undeterred by the indifferent replies. “Naw, he ain’t a simple person. But he’s gotta believe because God made him special and blessed him with thoughts. It seems to me, He gave him a mission to preach His thoughts. If only he doesn’t take the wrong path.” (76-78).

Preach his thoughts he did, in poems, essays, and interviews-with an unprecedented degree of success. Brodsky was the first of the major-league intellectuals to be exiled after Krushchev’s “thaw.” He was the first to break the insular émigré pack and take a university appointment in the West. He was the first to swim the shark-infested waters of the New York literary scene. Brodsky was also the first to make a major sweep of honors—the Guggenheim, the MacArthur “genius” grant, and finally the Nobel Prize for Literature. He was the first foreign poet laureate our nation has had. Yet a decade after his death, his legacy in the West is curiously uncertain. In a way, the Uncle Grisha story prefigures the curious polarization that was to occur between the Western literati and Brodsky’s enthusiastic audiences.

So what, exactly, is the Brodsky legacy? In Russia, he is the greatest poet of his generation, heir to the Silver Age giants of Akhmatova, Pasternak, Mandelstam, and Tsvetaeva. But was he important to us here, despite the frequently mangled translations and self-translations? If so, how? We are still sorting out our thoughts, trying to separate a billboard-size personality from a complicated oeuvre.

We’re getting a little help. Within a few months, two groundbreaking memoirs were published on opposite sides of the Atlantic—Shtern’s Brodsky: A Personal Memoir and Daniel Weissbort’s From Russian with Love, the latter ambivalent about its status as memoir, alternately denying and embracing the label. The two books—rambling, digressive, self-indulgent, each in its own way—couldn’t be more different in method and message. Fellow émigré Shtern was a friend, going back to Leningrad of the 1950s; the English Weissbort was a translator as well, and Brodsky’s rancorous relationships with his translators have been gossip for years. Brodsky tended to relegate even the most accomplished translators—Richard Wilbur and Anthony Hecht, for example—to providing trots for him to rework.

Brodsky was as controlling with other people’s memories as he was with translations—hence, the groundbreaking nature of these memoirs. For years, friends were afraid to write about him, and critics hesitated to disparage. He had pull, and could visit consequences upon those who had a negative word—or even those who didn’t. Shtern, among others, recalls a casual slam about the popular Russian novelist Vassily Aksyonov that torpedoed the author’s chances with premier publisher Farrar, Straus & Giroux; it created bitter reverberations within the Russian community for years.

Shtern notes that Brodsky asked friends not to help researchers. I’m not surprised. I was dissuaded from getting dates for a simple chronology as part of the front-matter for Joseph Brodsky: Conversations. I, too, was told that Brodsky wouldn’t have wanted these “personal” details known—years after his death in 1996. Mind, we’re not talking about prying loose bedroom secrets, we’re talking the basic biographical dates that can be found in any Who’s Who for any other Nobel laureate, part of the burden attendant upon being an eminent person.

His reaction to probing and information-gathering was “Soviet.” Brodsky’s rationale for the secrecy was Auden’s axiom that the oeuvre of a poet is his biography—the rest is superfluous and distracting. Others say Brodsky had lots to hide—he could be cruel and cavalier as well as generous and kind, and he wanted to cover his tracks. Beyond all that, however, he had a deeply ingrained Soviet suspicion of being known. He needn’t have worried. Despite the encomiums, he was little understood, with extra psychological bells and whistles most of his Western audiences couldn’t hope to understand.

His blithe arrogance often concealed a white-hot anger. His Western targets couldn’t understand that anger was part of the toolkit that enabled him to survive arrest, imprisonment, trial, internal exile, and finally expulsion from the USSR. Shtern tiptoes around this in her memories—Brodsky was “different” (138), “independent” in a way that “added to his KGB file” (166). The twenty-three-year-old Brodsky punched one of the KGB agents who had come to arrest him. Eventually, he would have been killed if he hadn’t been exiled.

He came from a culture that had bypassed Freud and his heirs, where an enemy was an enemy and not just a projection of an inner landscape. He was not, to put it mildly, a man crippled with a sense of his own contradictions. Hence, his attacks could be unambiguous and fierce. As sycophants multiplied exponentially, it became hard, some of his friends say, to tell him the truth—for example, the truth about his abilities to write English verse and translate into it.

What compensated for these sizeable shortcomings—other than the formidable intelligence everyone noticed, and the personal warmth and generosity recorded by his friends—was an enormous sense of what Czeslaw Milosz called his “piety,” a reverential sense of aesthetic hierarchy. That quality gave him the humility, gratitude, and gravitas that formed the flip side of his nature. It was an intriguing, potent blend—and may be part of his lasting contribution to us. Wilbur once said of Brodsky’s demanding standards and perfectionism that resulted: “A little scorn can be a precious thing in a slack age.” 1

Both memoirs contain errors, some of them rather startling: Weissbort records that Brodsky left behind a son and two daughters. Unless he’s privy to something no one else knows, there’s only one daughter. Shtern says Brodsky’s persecution began in 1963—but he was first arrested and jailed without charges in 1959. (She also says no one called him Joseph before he was forty; this University of Michigan student remembers him asking us to call him Joseph years before that.)

Shtern’s colorful tales are bound to become standard additions to Brodsky lore: she recalls trying to get the poet a job with her boss after Brodsky’s exile to the Far North ended in 1965—both previously participated on geological expeditions in the distant reaches of the Soviet Empire. The interview was not a success; the comrade’s questions met with characteristic Brodsky boredom and indifference. Where did he want to go? “Couldn’t care less,” he replied. “Anything to get out of here.” As question after question dead-ended, the employer finally asked in frustration if there was anything in life that interested him.

“But of course!” Brodsky replied. “More than anything I’m interested in the metaphysical essence of poetry . . . All the tercets, sestets, and decasyllables that make it deeper and richer expand the understanding of the echo that is the Word. They only seem to be artificial constructs of the poetic form. Am I explaining it clearly? . . . I’m very interested in Latin. I’m exploring the different genres of Latin poetry, especially the iambic and lyric . . .” He went on and on.

Brodsky didn’t get the gig. The comrade signaled to Shtern as Brodsky left, “with an insane look in his eyes and twirling his finger at his temple” (66-68).

Shtern gives us some context on Brodsky’s Leningrad world—including, for the inquisitive, details about the mysterious “M. B.,” the pale, green-eyed, dark-haired Marina Basmanova, Brodsky’s own Dark Lady, the mother of his son, who haunts even his American poems. (Brodsky’s father was disapproving: “It’s as if, instead of blood, she has diluted milk flowing in her veins” (121).

Brodsky always insisted that the Leningrad crowd he came from was more “free” than anything in the West—because they knew what freedom was, and valued it. In their cramped flats, they read John Donne and Portnoy’s Complaint, listened to Vivaldi and jazz, studied Sassetta and Dufy. Shtern, Brodsky, Evgeny Rein, Anatoly Naiman, Dmitri Bobyshev, and others formed a world-within-a-world before emigration and fame divided them.

Shtern is someone who might have understood the extra bells and whistles. But her book prefers anecdote to analysis, including pages of her own short stories. Shtern’s memoir is brisk, readable, generous, and self-indulgent towards herself and those she has loved, who get ample coverage often at the expense of Brodsky. She overlooks important friendships with W. H. Auden, Derek Walcott, Seamus Heaney, Czeslaw Milosz, and others in favor of “our” people—that is, fellow émigrés. She is unlikely to draw new fans or throw new light onto Brodsky’s work. She is preaching to the converted, to those with a pre-existing interest in Brodsky.

How different from Weissbort’s complicated agonizings! Weissbort’s book—the book of a friend hamstrung by self-doubt and vacillation, especially faced with Brodsky’s tough, unbending certainty—documents his own personal war, his own wavering assessment of Brodsky’s contribution to English. And how he lets us know his suffering! There’s more than a little of “watch me watching the sun set” here. From Russian with Love desperately needs tightening and an uncompromising editorial pencil. Perhaps that might be why it was a year or so over schedule in publication, something that may explain some of the critical neglect.

In part, Weissbort’s troubles lie in this: the history of Russia in the twentieth century insulated it from free verse. Lively experimentation occurred within more traditional forms, however, Tsvetaeva, Mandelstam, Pasternak, and Mayakovsky come to mind, with their slant-rhymes and compound slant-rhymes. The great poets of the century—including Akhmatova, Brodsky’s mentor—were superb stylists in form. The structure of the language lent itself to it.

Hence, when Brodsky burst upon the American scene in 1972, he seemed to have emerged from a time capsule. It was long before the advent of any “New Formalist” movement. The era marked the high-tide of confessional, rambling verse. And Brodsky offended with comments like this: “[W]e should recognize that only content can be innovative and that formal innovation can occur only within the limits of form. Rejection of form is a rejection of innovation. . . . More than a crime against language or a betrayal of the reader, the rejection of meter is an act of self-castration by the author.” 2

Brodsky insisted that the translation of a poem must match it in form—rhyme for rhyme, dactyl for dactyl. He attempted to reproduce “the whole body, the feel, movement, as well as the shape of the poem” (195), says Weissbort. Brodsky’s enormous facility for invention and rhyme—Milosz said it was the work of a daimon—made it feasible. It didn’t always make it verse, let alone poetry.

He never quite acquired an English ear, despite his love affair with our language. Often he wrote English, as Robert Hass puts it, “like an eighteenth-century hack rewriting Shakespeare.” Or more often, given Brodsky’s unlimited admiration for Auden, like one of those “clever young Englishmen of indeterminate age down from the university and set to make a splash.” 3 In the New Republic, Hass lamented egregiously awful translations and “fatal miscalculations of tone,” citing this one from “Lullaby of Cape Cod”: “Therefore, sleep well. Sweet dreams. Knit up that sleeve. / Sleep as those only do who have gone pee-pee.” 4

He finally concludes that reading Brodsky’s poetry “is like wandering through the ruins of what has been reported to be a noble building.” 5 Hass wasn’t the only one to deliver such a verdict—though many waited till after the funeral. There was good reason for some of the Western literati’s resentment, anger, and silences—besides jealousy. Brodsky was a bit of a bully.

He was also a genius, whose life and thought transformed many he touched, including hundreds of students. The genius was refracted through a now-vanished cultural prism—the small enclave of intellectuals, living under the Soviet thumb—which only added to the uniqueness of his mind and his art. The circumstances that created him were unique. Who he was comprised part of his legacy, like it or not—and clearly Brodsky did not. He will be remembered as a staunch defender of poetry (“literature—and poetry in particular, being the highest form of locution—is, to put it bluntly, the goal of our species . . .” 6), and an equally staunch foe of the commonplace and the vulgar. He did everything he could to avoid cliché—in life and in art.

Facile journalistic questions, so often spotlighting the “vulgarity of the human heart,” occasionally evoked his out-of-the-box thinking, when one could get beyond the breezy or brush-off answers. Repeatedly asked about when he realized he had a call to write poetry, Shtern recalls him answering, “I still don’t know if it’s my calling,” or “since last Saturday” (64).

Yet this is the high-school dropout who, when his vocation was questioned in a kangaroo court, a few months after he slugged the KGB thug, responded in a way that was “not frightened, nor hunted, nor bewildered,” Shtern recalls. “His face, rather, expressed the perplexity of a civilized man present at a show staged by Neanderthals” (144).

Other pushy questions revolved, inevitably and insistently, around religion, given the Christian themes and flavors in his writing—Uncle Grisha’s question, again. He was stigmatized in the USSR as a Jew, then flogged by Western Jews for “denying” his roots (“with my sense of the divine, [I] am closer to God than any Orthodox Jew,” Shtern recalls him saying [213]). His answers varied—he usually said he felt more connected to the Old Testament or Calvinism—yet his burial rites were read in Episcopalian and Russian Orthodox churches, says Stern, and, in his coffin, he had a “Catholic cross” (she means a crucifix, presumably) in his hand. (213).

The plot thickens with Weissbort, who notes with typical offhandedness that “evidently” Brodsky was secretly baptized by a woman looking after him during the evacuation to Cherepovets during the Siege of Leningrad (82). “What significance he attached to this, I simply do not know.” There is no attribution for this statement, apparently unknown to Shtern, who discusses these questions in detail (212).

He seemed to dislike questions, especially, that caricatured him as a victim of Soviet oppression—a catch-all label he insistently rejected. “I don’t really like talking about all this,” he said in a 1991 interview. “It’s really like dropping names. It’s melodramatic stuff. All my life, I was trying to avoid melodrama.”7 Shtern takes him to task when, on Dick Cavett’s TV show, he dismisses the hardship he experienced in the Soviet psychiatric institutions where dissidents were punished: in the “nuthouse,” he said, the food wasn’t bad, and the company interesting. (In fact, he had been given “tranquilizing” shots and otherwise tortured.) He didn’t realize the clout he had, she scolded, and the enormous responsibility he carried.

But, as always, there was method in his madness: At a commencement address years later, he spoke of “those who will try to make life miserable for you,” and added: “Above all, try to avoid telling stories about the unjust treatment you received at their hands; avoid it no matter how receptive your audience may be. Tales of this sort extend the existence of your antagonists. . . .” 8

That’s the legacy of the man. But the poetry? Weissbort seesaws and perseverates for pages and pages, and there is much repetition and confusing back-and-forth in time—as in fact there is in Shtern’s memoir; both seem a bit like patchwork quilts, assembled from various pieces. Weissbort’s extended essay lurches into life when he moves into narrative mode, when situations appear, other people move and are quoted. Action, at last. Weissbort is like a guest who will not sit down in one chair.

Yet despite the waffling and self-deprecation, he makes a central, remarkable contention: Weissbort argues that Brodsky “was trying to Russianize English, not respecting the genius of the English language, . . . he wanted the transfer between the languages to take place without drastic changes, this being achievable only if English itself was changed” (195).

In short, Weissbort invites us to listen to Brodsky’s poetry on its own terms. As he tells a workshop: “It’s like a new kind of music. You may not like it, may find it absurd, outrageous even, but admit, if only for the sake of argument, that this may be due to its unfamiliarity. Give it a chance, listen!” (110). Well, Brodsky certainly had the hubris to demand to be heard on his own terms—to invent “his English” (221). If he failed, it was because of the Herculean nature of the undertaking, and the fact that Brodsky was, as always, the linguistic lone wolf, playing by his own rules, without giving others his decoder ring.

Brodsky’s galumphing self-translations—and he interfered with his translators so much that one might extend “self-translation” to many poems that give official credit to others—were universally deprecated, and did much to damage his literary reputation, perhaps fatally. Yet, in one of the chapters, Weissbort compares Brodsky’s own translation against his own, and comes out definitively for the former. Despite a few infelicities, Brodsky at his best could make a persuasive rendering:

I was born and grew up in the Baltic marshland

by zinc-gray breakers that always marched on
in twos. Hence all rhymes, hence that wan flat voice
that ripples between them like hair still moist,
if it ripples at all. Propped on a pallid elbow,
the helix picks out of them no sea rumble
but a clap of canvas, of shutters, of hands, a kettle
on the burner, boiling—lastly, the seagull’s metal
cry. What keeps the heart from falseness in this flat region
is that there is nowhere to hide and plenty of room for vision.
Only sound needs echo and dreads its lack.
A glance is accustomed to no glance back. (226-27)

In the years to come, when time has forgiven, if not forgotten, the forced and clumsy rhymes, the annoying affectations in tone—we will still be left with an off-the-scale metaphorical inventiveness and delight in wordplay and conceits that are perhaps unmatched in our time, and hint at what the Russian poems offer. That’s one reason why he’s important.

Perhaps Uncle Grisha was right. It’s not the poetry—at least not only—it’s the thoughts. And the wrong path? Time will tell. Weissbort suggests that the legacy might be a Chinese box we will be opening in the years to come. Both memoirs may have an important role in continuing the conversation.


1 Peter Dale, Richard Wilbur in Conversation with Peter Dale (London: Between the Lines, 2000) 49.

2 J. Kates, ed., In the Grip of Strange Thoughts (Brookline, Mass.: Zephyr, 1999) 417.

3 Robert Hass, “Lost in Translation,” New Republic, 20 Dec. 1980. np.

4 Joseph Brodsky, “Lullaby of Cape Cod,” trans. Anthony Hecht, A Part of Speech (New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1980) 117.

5 Hass np.

6 Joseph Brodsky, “Uncommon Visage: The Nobel Lecture,” On Grief and Reason: Essays (New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1995) 50.

7 Mike Hammer and Christina Daub, “Joseph Brodsky: An Interview.” Joseph Brodsky: Conversations, ed. Cynthia L. Haven (Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 2002) 155.

8 Joseph Brodsky, “Speech at the Stadium,” On Grief and Reason: Essays (New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1995) 146.

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