“The Voice of the Muse Is the Voice of the Language”: On Joseph Brodsky’s “Selected Poems, 1968–1996”

August 9, 2020   •   By Tyler Dunston

Selected Poems, 1968–1996

Joseph Brodsky

SVEN BIRKERTS, a student of Joseph Brodsky’s at the University of Michigan, wrote that he first gained Brodsky’s respect by accident. They were at a café, and, when asked how he wanted his coffee, he mumbled “black.” Brodsky, hearing it as “dreck,” laughed, saying, “Wonderful, ya. Dreck.” Though Brodsky once said in a conversation with Solomon Volkov that what matters “is not which language a person speaks but what he says,” it’s clear that he himself was a poet driven by a love of words — for, as he put it elsewhere, “the voice of the Muse is the voice of the language.” What, then, do we make of his journey between languages, as a translator and a poet in Russian and English? The new Selected Poems, 1968–1996 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux is sequenced so that it tracks the development of Brodsky’s poems in English — from those translated by others, to collaborative translations, to those translated by Brodsky alone, and finally, to Brodsky’s English poems.

Reflecting on his time as a student of Brodsky, Birkerts wrote that much of what he learned came from the poet’s “impatience” with his students, and that Brodsky’s questions for the class were accompanied by the implicit challenge: “astonish me.” As a teacher and as a poet, Brodsky had no patience for compromise, yet much of his poetry in English is characterized by the delicate compromises necessitated by writing in form and working as a translator. Early on — both in Brodsky’s American poetic career and in this book — Brodsky accepted the work of translator-poets such as Derek Walcott, Anthony Hecht, and George L. Kline to render his poems, leaving as much of their formal characteristics intact as possible in English. The first poem in this collection, “Six Years Later,” features Richard Wilbur’s precise hand — agile pentameter and full rhyme:

So long had life together been that now
the second of January fell again
on Tuesday, making her astonished brow
lift like a windshield wiper in the rain,
    so that her misty sadness cleared, and showed
    a cloudless distance waiting up the road.

Later on, we encounter the glowing “Nunc Dimittis,” in which Kline strives to preserve the original’s amphibrachic tetrameter in English and fashions something incantatory and ceremonial.

As an artist, Brodsky never liked to compromise, but, like all translators, he had no choice, whether he entrusted his poems entirely to translators, collaborated with them, or translated his poems himself. By virtue of Ann Kjellberg’s sequencing, we have the opportunity to observe the poet’s compromises, to see what he holds on to and what he leaves behind. Translating into English, Brodsky rejects many conventions of English prosody. Scanning goes from difficult to nearly impossible as we leave behind translations by the likes of Wilbur and Kline. Yet Brodsky exhibits a poignant devotion to rhyme, even as he stretches English rhyme to its very limits — at times it’s scarcely audible, only visual. Far from Wilbur’s rendition of “Six Years Later,” poems like “Vertumnus,” or even collaborations like “A Part of Speech,” are rarely elegant, often dense and rocky — as far from the plain style of English prosody embraced by George Gascoigne or Thomas Wyatt as can be. And yet, though they’re anything but fluid, these poems are often a joy to read for the surprises they hold in store. Through Brodsky’s translations we have the rare opportunity, as with the French poems of Rainer Maria Rilke or T. S. Eliot, to see a great poetic mind at work in a second language — that is, to witness the process, not the finished product, of discovery on the page.

Poems are artifacts of discovery; usually, we can tell that discovery happened somewhere in the past, but we have to intuit it through the poem. Only the writer is witness to it in the moment of creation. However, Brodsky’s engagement with English was, until the last years of his life, a process of discovery, as he acknowledges in the English poem to his daughter, placed thoughtfully near the end of the collection: “Hence, these somewhat wooden lines in our common language.” As a result, despite their lack of technical polish, Brodsky’s self-translations best reflect the yearning in his process of exploration.

When Brodsky said, in a 1982 interview with Birkerts in The Paris Review, that “the voice of the Muse is the voice of the language,” he was speaking to his own experience of poetry. However, the statement takes on a different meaning when the language in question is one acquired in adulthood rather than in childhood. The English-speaking muse was not the same muse to Brodsky that it was to his friend and mentor W. H. Auden. Rather than a muse of homeland, it was a muse of exile, and, accordingly, rather than a muse of tradition or convention, it was one of discovery and astonishment.

In the 16th century, English lyric as we understand it today was in the process of being formed. Poets like Thomas Wyatt or, later, Philip Sidney sought to justify English poetry alongside its classical antecedents as well as its “vulgar” contemporaries. Greek and Latin were inherently suitable for literature, while Italian had staked its claim through Petrarch, Dante, and Ariosto. Chaucer was one of the few writers that English poets frequently claimed, yet a lyric tradition in English was still nascent. We see this anxiety in Sidney’s The Defence of Poesy (1595). He tells of how Chaucer and John Gower paved the way for other English writers to “beautify our mother-tongue” and argues for English’s superiority among other languages in both ancient and modern formal styles. This insecurity with regard to the language’s capacity for poetry, exhibited in Sidney’s criticism of so-called “defects” in other languages, is unimaginable in the language today.

The flip side of this anxiety, this unmooredness with regard to language, is that we are witness to the moments of discovery arising from uncertainty in real time. So much were these poets taken up with the task of showing off the capacities of English that many of their poems are characterized by fervent experimentation with craft, rhetoric, form, and ornament. In 20th-century English literature, the rise of translingual writing provided a similar occasion for the rush of discovery — not on a national scale but on a personal one. For multilingual writers, each language can have profound and varied personal significance.

If, as Walter Benjamin says, the goal of a translation is not to read “as if it had originally been written in that language” but to allow the original language to shine through in its longing for an echo, then perhaps there is something lost in the pristine prosody of Wilbur. In her introduction to Selected Poems, 1968–1996, Ann Kjellberg advises readers to “dispel the enforcer within,” going on to say that “Brodsky’s English may challenge the reader’s ear in ways that invoke unfamiliar powers in poetry and reward the challenge.” And indeed, although many lines from poems like “Vertumnus” — Brodsky’s towering, digressive elegy that conjures the god of seasons and change — are jarringly clunky, they also offer captivating examples of Brodsky’s own brand of linguistic play.

“Vertumnus” is filled with moments of extraordinary strangeness, which highlight Brodsky’s interest in the sounds of words: “the absence of greens and money, leapfrogging seasons.” There is a tension in the heavily stressed “leapfrogging” against a line which drives toward iambic but isn’t. One of Brodsky’s early poems in Russian was an elegy for John Donne, and there is an element of Donne’s rockiness, his clogged density of syllables, in Brodsky’s translations of his own work. And by virtue of the flouting of metrical norms, there is a touch of those blue notes — those moments where the stress falls precisely where it shouldn’t, by the conventions of English prosody — one sometimes finds in Wyatt’s translations of Petrarch.

“A Part of Speech” is particularly interesting, a monumental work of collaboration between Daniel Weissbort, Brodsky, and others. In the poem, we see Brodsky’s voice as a translator taking on a more important role, foreshadowing developments later in the collection. Pairs like “dwelt on”/“skeleton” and “inklike”/“blinking” stretch at the limits of English rhyme and are certainly far from the resonant echoes of Wilbur. There is a recklessness and fragmentation to the translation. Yet for a poem like “A Part of Speech,” which documents the psychological effects of displacement and explores their impact on language, voice, and self, the jagged nature of Brodsky’s form in English is surprisingly appropriate. This quality doesn’t always work as well as it does in “A Part of Speech,” but when it does, it productively shocks the English ear out of its complacency.

Roughly a third of the way through the collection, “A Part of Speech” is miles away from Wilbur’s translation of “Six Years Later,” which opens Selected Poems, 1968–1996. Whether or not Joseph Brodsky’s versions give us a better glimpse of Brodsky as a Russian poet, they do give us a better glimpse of his concerns as an English poet. In many ways, this is the project of Farrar, Straus and Giroux’s book. We are given the opportunity to observe Brodsky’s path of experimentation and discovery. It’s not a clean journey, and the full scope of Brodsky’s work still eludes English readers, but the collection provides a new opportunity to understand his aesthetic concerns through his aesthetic decisions — to get a better handle on an uncompromising poet through the compromises he makes.


Tyler Dunston is a writer from Chattanooga, Tennessee. He received his MFA in poetry from Boston University and is currently an incoming PhD student in English Language and Literature at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.