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Valentina Polukhina - David Bethea
An Interview

about Valentina Polukhina and David Bethea

Valentina Polukhina: At what stage did you become responsive to Russian poetry?
David Bethea: I began to specialize in Russian poetry in graduate school; it was there, in the years 1974-77, that I decided to focus in my dissertation research on the poetry of Vladislav Khodasevich. As I steeped myself in Khodasevich I also read in some depth Pushkin, Derzhavin, Fet, and the other poets Khodasevich especially admired and to some extent modelled himself on.

- Do you remember your first encounter with Brodsky's poetry?
- I recall my initial strong feelings about Brodsky arose in connection with his startling "blank verse" classicism in the early "Aeneas and Dido" (Enei i Didona) poem as well as with the moving equine parts of "There was a black horizon" (Byl chernyi nebosvod..."). It became clear to me as an advanced graduate student and young assistant professor that Brodsky brought something special to the issue of exile and emigration I had studied in connection with Khodasevich and Nabokov. However, it was at the time I reviewed Less Than One for the New York Times (July 1986), as I was finishing my big Apocalypse project (The Shape of Apocalypse in Modern Russian Fiction, 1989), that I decided to turn seriously to the study of Brodsky and his understanding, largely metaphysical, of exile. I proposed to Princeton University Press that a book on the recent (1987) Nobel laureate would be appealing and, fortunately, they (in particular my acquisitions editor there, Bob Brown), agreed.

Have you ever attended a Brodsky poetry reading?
- Three times: once in Middlebury (summer 1987, a few months before the Nobel), a second time in Milwaukee in the late 1980's or early 1990's, and a third time in Chicago in the 1990's. Each reading was magical, especially the way JB began to "take flight" (slowly) in connection with the audience response and his own feelings about his words and their infectiousness. He was like some huge 747 that needed a long runway to take off. The entire nexus of words, reader, and listener was nothing short of mesmerizing. JB's ways of muting his tone and lowering his register at the end of poetics lines struck me as being "cantor-like" (not the first time someone has drawn that analogy).

At what point did you become aware of Brodsky's greatness?
- When I read carefully, over and over again, and began to understand the John Donne elegy.

Can you recall where you met Brodsky for the first time?
- The first time I met JB was in the summer of 1987. He gave a reading at the Middlebury College Russian School, which I was directing at the time. His close friend Lev Loseff, poet and Russian professor at Dartmouth College, brought JB over from Hanover, New Hampshire. The three of us sat in a room in the Gifford Dormitory on campus and talked about Russian émigré literary politics and the current state of Russian letters. JB was in a good mood and laughed frequently but also seemed somewhat guarded and distracted - it may only have been that he was tired from the road. His poetry reading followed and it was a great success. I have a photo of myself, JB, and the late Michael Kreps, another poet and Russian professor (at Boston College), taken right after JB's poetry reading. Before saying goodbye, JB thanked me for my review in the NYT and then said he looked forward to more meetings, either in this world or the next (his way of joking about his heart problems).

- You interviewed JB several times on the phone and personally in South Hadley in March 1991. What memory do you have of Joseph's house in South Hadley?
- I conducted my interview of JB in 1991 as I was researching my book. We met over a two-day period; on the first day we sat in JB's home in South Hadley - it was a typical college house in a New England college town: a small frame affair, probably rust colored, woods to the back, modest floor-plan, older kitchen (where we sat and drank during the interview), everything maintained I'm sure by the college work crew. I don't recall much about the furnishings except that reigned a kind of casual chaos. JB was generous with his time with me and, while he never seemed to answer a question directly (that was his way, he did not like to be "pinned down"), he did end up providing very interesting and far-reaching "takes" on my various questions' points of departure. We both were drinking hard liquor, it seems scotch or bourbon, out of glasses, and of course JB was constantly smoking. As strange as it sounds, the smoking, as bad as it was for him, was part of his breathing, and therefore thinking, process. We didn't get drunk, but the more we drank the broader and deeper his conversation ranged. The thing that impressed and stuck with me the most was the depth and intensity of his intellectual life: this was someone who lived with his ideas as though they were three-dimensional, palpable, "load-bearing" personalities. I came away exhausted and invigorated at the same time even though the alcohol should have had the effect of closing down my own "receptors."

Did you have regular contact with Joseph after that interview?
- Yes, I would call him, not often but probably 2-3 times a year after that, especially if I had specific questions about his work or his thinking about something. Again, he would always answer me something, but oftentimes after a conversation I wouldn't feel that I understood more about what I had been asking than before I contacted him.

Is it possible to detect a single theme in what Brodsky said to you during the several conversations you had with him?
- That genuine poetry does not come out of an identifiable biographical matrix (i.e. this set of circumstances "caused" that set of themes or that predisposition to form or genre), but rather it comes in an existential process where, despite the human suffering of the individual and those around him, the poetry is what is real life and life in the so-called real world is always and only "background." JB was consistently inspired by the lives of poets, say Mandelstam's or Akhmatova's or Frost's or Auden's, but he would never dare to explain how a moment of verse came to their tongues by referring to their individual biographical triumphs and tragedies. I thought that that principle was at one and the same time brave (or stoical), wrong-headed (or intentionally riddling), and in its own way deeply (needfully, vulnerably) true even if at some level it thwarted what I was trying to get at in my study.

Did Brodsky feel at home in America, or a foreigner?
- I suspect JB felt as at home in America, especially in NYC, as he did anywhere in the world. He realized he could "be himself" in America and that that was truly his choice. He also realized, and never took advantage of this fact, that the "mantle of exile" was not something that he could don in good conscience once he had earned his way to the top of the NYC (and USA) intelligentsia pecking order. By the last decade of his life, still more of a globe-trotter than any other Russian poet (with the possible exception of someone like Balmont), he knew he was more of an émigré traveller than a politically defined exiled writer. Indeed, works like Watermark attest to the fact that for JB his travels had from first to last more of a metaphysical than political cast to them. Yet, despite his travels, I still suspect JB came back to America, and NYC, more as to a "home" than to any other destination.

In what sense was Brodsky a troubled man?
- I don't think JB was a troubled man. To the extent that his poetry and his writing came first in his life, and to the extent that his personal relations were not always happy and suffered because of this, he had his troubles. An incredibly gifted individual, let's call him a genius, who is a practicing poet and man of letters, is not by definition going to have a personal life in ideal balance. Something has to give. Having said that, JB did a rather admirable job over his lifetime with his personal and professional responsibilities (there are of course exceptions, some relating to the gender divide, which could be argued until doomsday). JB could be impolite and abrupt if he felt he was in a somehow "false" (too much "nice talk") situation. He was also a dyed-in-the-wool contrarian and would almost never agree with the opening formulation in a discussion, as if out of principle. But that all goes back to his essential character vectors and to his almost congenital urge to wrestle with the existing world order. For me, JB was less "troubled" than on "a mission," and he was until the end of his life working to fulfil that mission.

Is Brodsky's character relevant to the quality of his poetry?
- Absolutely. You can sense "JB" in his poetry, like a strong verbal scent or even body odor, as much as in any poet I know. His words almost always carry his signature.

- In your book on Brodsky you introduced the concept of "triangular vision". What do you mean by this concept?
- I mean that JB, being a very "belated" poet and a very sophisticated reader of others, was one of the first, if not the first, in the Russian tradition, to consistently construct a persona for himself that is an amalgam of a great western forebear (say, Dante) and a great Russian precursor closer and in important ways more influential to him (say, Mandelstam), so that the speaker that emerges from these two exile exemplars and their "places" in history (corrupt medieval Florence, tragic Soviet Leningrad/St. Petersburg) is both a composite of them and something "third," something himself - the contemporary "man in a cape" (chelovek v plashche) of "December in Florence" (Dekabr' vo Florentsii").

- When JB talks about Auden as 'new kind of metaphysical poet', his 'indirect speech', his 'clinical detachment and controlled lyricism', you said: 'All these qualities could be, in one form or another, be imputed to the speakers of Brodsky's mature works' (p. 137). Don't you think that Brodsky attributed his own poetic qualities to other poets, such as Rein. Kushner, or Novikov?
- I think JB would freely admit he learned a lot from contemporaries like Rein (he was generous that way, generous like Pushkin), but by the time he reached maturity, with some of the poems in Ostanovka v pustyne, he uses that learning in his own, very specific way. In works like "Bol'shaia elegiia Dzhonu Donnu" or "Isaak i Avraam" one might be able to tease out phrases that others could have invented, but the intonation, the sustained fierceness and forward momentum, is already only JB's.

You talk of Brodsky's authorizing tone. Where does this authority come from?
It comes from his version of God; something outside him, something that encourages and underpins his language but does not make his personal life easier, that speaks through him even when he might like to let it go.

How does Brodsky's stoicism (p. 19) reveal itself in his poetry?
- It reveals itself everywhere where the words add up to the final lines of his poem commemorating his 40th birthday: "Chto skazat' mne o zhizni? Chto okazalas' dlinnoi./ Tol'ko s gorem ia chuvstvuiu solidarnost'./ No poka mne rot ne zabili glinoi,/ iz nego razdavat'sia budet lish' blagodarnost'" (What should I say about life? That's it's long and abhors transparence./ Broken eggs make me grieve; the omelette, though, makes me vomit./ Yet until brown clay has been crammed down my larynx,/ only gratitude will be gushing from it). The "vomit" (not in the Russian by the way) is there to balance out the potential sentimentality of "gratitude." The psychological positioning also reminds one of what he said with regard to his father: "He was a proud man. When something reprehensible or horrendous was drawing near him, his face assumed a sour yet at the same time a challenging expression. It was as if he were saying 'Try me' to something that he knew from the threshold was mightier than he." That "vomit" is the son's version of "Try me."

What did Brodsky teach you that you couldn't have learnt from other poets?
That he found a way to make not only poetry per se but "poetic thinking" (especially in Less than One and On Grief and Reason) crucial, meaningful, at a time when poetry itself seems to be dying. His language, whatever its genre or "voice zone," is a powerful, won't-let-you-alone swan song to what can still be, even in our age.

- Were do you see Brodsky's origin?
- Pushkin, Baratynsky, Dostoevsky, Mandelstam, Tsvetaeva, Auden, Polish metaphysicals (Herbert), Slutsky, Rein, the Bible.

- What kind of challenge did the study of Brodsky's poetry present to you?
- His language is extremely difficult for a non-native (indeed, I can't imagine how it could be easy for natives), and my Russian is not bad after almost 40 years of living with it. There are poems, especially later ones, that I still have trouble fully "getting inside of" because the language has become so nuanced, so full of the syntactic and semantic equivalent of a high-rise. Sometimes I think JB becomes so complex that the deep emotional "choric" quality gets lost. On the other hand, the complexity of this thinking, his metaphysical striving, is one of the great joys of reading him. English-language critics who accuse him of charlatanism or poetic impostorship don't "get," or perhaps don't choose to get, the extent to which JB educated himself to a very high level and "lived" that learning in an almost physical, metabolic sense.

You also discussed the very important topic of Judaism and Christianity in Brodsky's writings. Could you briefly summarise your finding?
- I believe there is a deep "Jewish" core to JB's thinking which assigns more significance to Old Testament sacrifice and suffering (the "Isaak i Avraam" theme played out many times over) than to New Testament grace and second chances. Any Christianity in JB is existential and shares more with Kierkegaard's largely absurdist leap of faith with doses of Dostoevsky's Shatov and Ivan Karamazov and Shestov's paradoxicalism thrown in. There is nothing resurrected about the suffering son in "Natiurmort" (Nature Morte); if he has any meaning for us in our time-space it is through language, through the effort to express life where all seems dead: "On govorit v otvet:/ --Mertvoi ili zhivoi,/ raznitsy, zheno, net./ Syn ili Bog, ia tvoi" (Christ speaks to her in turn:/ "Whether dead or alive,/ woman, it's all the same --/ son or God, I am thine"). As Lev Loseff so astutely pointed out, the copula, the necessary connecting tissue of "am" in "I am thine," is not uttered in Russian. On the other hand, JB did not want his ethnic Jewishness to overdetermine him; he never denied his Jewish roots but he also did not want them to be the primary explanatory matrix for who he was and what he became. Frankly, if I see a "Christian" element in JB it is really quite close to what others identify as "stoic": my gift of speech is the greatest gift of all, the greatest "good news" and "god-spell" (gospel), despite any personal misfortunes I may suffer. To live under a death sentence and yet to be moved to write. To become, to metamorphose into, a part of speech. It was that transformation, always tragic on a human level, that bridged the Jewish and the Christian in JB's background and worldview.

- Do you know that Joseph was baptized as a child?
- Yes, I did, but I never really put much stock in it.

- Why did Brodsky not like or write about American modernism?
- Good question. There was something about the Eliot-Pound nexus that was perhaps too dry and academic, while other representatives of high modernism were either too grounded in innovation and breaking away from the past (say, William Carlos Williams) or too luxuriantly self-absorbed (Stevens). JB needed for there to be an ethical dimension, a struggle against the existing order of things, in a poet's best work: that's why he liked poets such as Auden, Frost, Hardy, and Lowell.

- To what extent can Brodsky's bilingual aesthetics be compared and contrasted with Nabokov's?
- I wrote about that at some length in my Brodsky and the Creation of Exile book. In my opinion their approaches are at base diametrically opposed. JB has a poetic sensibility through and through and "processes" a poem not in terms of individual words or phrases per se, although he certainly pays great attention to them, but in terms of the sound-sense impact of the whole, or at least the larger unit - the line, the stanza, the "choric" seat that gives a work its special signature. "Pis'ma rimskomu drugu" (Letters to a Roman Friend), one of my favorite JB poems, could only have been written by him; the impact of each stanza is felt by the reader as an entire "Brodskian" unit. The trochaic beat (not that common and here very tongue in cheek), the ingenious rhymes worthy of Mayakovsky ("s perekhlestom" and "trogatel'nei, Postum"), the cynicism that is even greater than the supposed model Martial, the notion of exile that is very present and yet downplayed through the ironic delivery, etc., etc., all create a unique impression of a whole that is greater than the sum of otherwise terrific parts. This is precisely why JB doesn't translate well into English, because the "choric" quality of the whole can't be transferred to a second, learned language; it really has to be one's native language. Nabokov, as I tried to explain while parsing some of his verse in Pale Fire, has a great eye for the correct individual word or phrase (his is an essentially pictorial imagination like Tolstoi's) but, because he is tone-deaf to the musical/melodic body/seat of the poem, the best of his verse comes across as something not bad yet still Victorian, artificial, parts that don't add up to a compelling whole. His prose could certainly be "poetic," but his poetry couldn't. And this is why Nabokov could be successfully translated into English - what mattered was not lost in translation.

- Nabokov believed that he was born a painter. He had a gift for drawing, so did Brodsky. Why, in you view, Brodsky dislikes Nabokov?
- I suspect "dislike" may too strong here. I realize Nabokov didn't recognize JB's poetic gift when JB's poems were sent to him, but JB was strong enough as a poet and confident enough of his own abilities not to have carried any hurt here indefinitely. I would rather think of these two as just opposites who didn't attract. Perhaps JB had too many "Soviet" scars for the Olympian Nabokov, and perhaps Nabokov just didn't "get" where Russian poetry had migrated to in the latter decades of the twentieth century. JB says somewhere that Nabokov's novelistic doubles are his prosaic response to the need to have his poetic itch (rhyme pairs) scratched. It's an interesting speculation, but it sounds rather far-fetched.

- Does Brodsky's prose impress you as much as his poetry?
- Absolutely, in some ways more, because he can continue a conversation on an equally high level (he would not agree to this) where in his poetry he would have to cut discussion off (the logic would become too attenuated - always a potential problem with JB).

- How did Brodsky become an American Poet Laureate? How was Brodsky election to the post Poet Laureate received by American poets and critics? Did Brodsky have do deal with envy and personal resentments in America?
- Brodsky had the credentials and honors to become the American Poet Laureate; what was held against him, and one can understand the resentment from certain quarters, was that he was not as accomplished as an English-language poet as he was as a Russian-language one, and those who wrote poetry and taught poetry felt that there may have been more worthy candidates for the honor. On the other hand, JB was a tireless advocate for "poetic" values and for that reason in hindsight it was probably a good thing that he was chosen. After all, it is difficult to accuse a Nobel laureate of not being competent in his specialty. Also on the other hand, JB's books of essays about poets were among his greatest achievements; he had passion, taste, rigorous standards, and a desire to "spread the word" - these qualities alone should count for a lot. That JB became the Poet Laureate of his adoptive country, the country that prides itself on its melting-pot character, seems to me finally as more of a poetic justice than injustice.

- What in your view did America meant to Brodsky?
- America for JB was the country whose system, given the givens, allowed the greatest measure of personal freedom and the greatest opportunity for personal achievement and fulfilment.

- Brodsky was accused of being too American, or Western to be called a Russian poet. What is Brodsky for you?
- Brodsky will always be for me the greatest Russian poet of the last half of the twentieth century and the last poet in the Russian heroic tradition going back to Pushkin. That he was more responsible than any other Russian poet for introducing his native readers to the Anglo-American tradition and then, in time, becoming himself a powerful voice in that tradition, does not make him "less" anything. Pushkin's great-grandfather came from Africa, Mandelstam's parents were Jewish - are these any longer really categories that define "ours" versus "theirs."

- What kind of major difficulties did JB encounter in his move from Russian poems to English poems and in self-translation?
- I think the inflected aspect of Russian ultimately made JB's transition to English-language poetry very challenging. He "heard" wordplay in English that was too "Russian," too heavy-handed. For me his English-language verse sounds either too burlesque (the speaker overplays the acoustic devices as a kind of ironic cover) or too matter-of-fact and flat. In any event it rarely rises to the level of his best Russian works.

- Why, in your view, Brodsky downplays the importance of biography?
- Primarily because he doesn't want the scholar/critic to explain his creativity, which as he said to Judge Savel'eva comes "from God," by referring to something located in the realm of the non-creative. He didn't like Freud presumably for the same reason Nabokov didn't: the good doctor intruded into an area where he didn't have authority (how to write a poem) and asserted his authority at the expense of the authoring subject. According to JB, Shakespeare should be read to interpret Freud, not the other way around.

- Why did you switch from Brodsky to Pushkin?
- I didn't really switch. I just had been studying Pushkin for many years, even while I was working on JB, and once I finished Brodsky and the Creation of Exile I simply returned to already existing interests and projects. I still teach JB regularly, however, try to keep up with work in the field, and remain keenly interested in his life and work.

- How important was Pushkin in Brodsky's development as a poet? Do you consider Brodsky as the rightful heir to the Pushkinian legacy?
- JB always said Baratynsky was more of an influence on him than Pushkin. However, I have argued that JB was very aware of the Pushkinian "fatidic" element in his life and work: the birthdays, what turned out to be the times of their deaths in January (JB was thinking about Pushkin in the last month of his life), their exiles, their focus on empire, their intense but haphazard ways of educating themselves, their early and numerous unhappy love affairs and then December marriages, etc. I do think that JB is the last and rightful heir to Pushkin in the Russian poetic tradition.

- Does a reader have to be a Russian to enjoy Brodsky's poetry?
- No, but he or she better have very sophisticated Russian to gain entry into JB's poetic world. You have to know all the books on the poet's bookshelf, so to speak.

- What is the essence of Brodsky's poetry?
- Courage, resilience, verbal somersaults, erudition made personal and problematic.

- Is Brodsky's poetry still read in America? What kind of audience is interested in his work?
- Probably not his English-language poetry, but his Russian-language poetry is still taught and read.

- At present Brodsky's books have disappeared from British bookshops. Why? Is it because the estate does not allow the new translations? Or is it the fate of every great poet after his death? How secure is Brodsky's reputation in the USA?
- Even though JB was widely read by the intelligentsia in the USA and Britain, he was never widely read in an absolute sense. Frankly, I don't know what role the JB estate is now playing in helping or hindering (probably the latter) the publication of his works. As an essayist I would say JB's reputation in the States is secure. Will he become a classic and be read a century or two centuries from now? Hard to say. The way education and society is moving away from written texts and in general making literary traditions more and more ephemeral it will be difficult to predict what survives in whole or in part. I certainly think JB deserves to be among the writers and thinkers of the last hundred years who are "major" enough to have a place in some virtual pantheon, but then I am presumably not typical.

- In the last few years you have travelled to Russia quite frequently. Do people over there ask you about Brodsky's life in America?
- Not really. It seems to me that people over there who are interested in JB are fairly well informed about his life after 1972.

- Does "political correctness" has a real impact on American scholarship's choice of research subjects or does encourage self-censorship?
- One of the main reasons scholarship has shifted toward "cultural studies" is that the very idea of "greatness" is implicitly under attack. Culture is being thoroughly and constantly "democratised." JB was unique because he insisted that art (or the god-term behind art) is elitist in terms of its desire for quality but democratic in terms of who is "entitled" to try to realize that desire. He was an outsider from the Soviet academic establishment and yet he rose to the pinnacle of international intellectual prestige and honor. What JB wouldn't do was politicise the category of quality. There was something "snobby" about him, but it had nothing to do with class, race, or sexual orientation. It had to do with the combination of existential and aesthetic and ethical authenticity.

© Copyright  Valentina Polukhina - David Bethea
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