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Brodsky on Donne: 'The Poet Is Engaged In The Translation Of One Thing Into Another'

  • Igor Pomeranzev

The poet Joseph Brodsky in an undated photograph

The poet Joseph Brodsky in an undated photograph

Today marks the 70th anniversary of the birth in Leningrad of poet Joseph Brodsky. In 1981, I interviewed Brodsky in London on the occasion of another anniversary -- 350 years since the death of poet John Donne. The event was widely marked in England.

In our time, John Donne is one of the most popular classic poets in the English-speaking world. It is often said of great poets that they are ahead of their time. If you take the saying literally, you can calculate how many years one or another classic was, actually, in advance. Judging by literary critics and readers, Donne was 200 years before his time. His greatness was definitively confirmed in the 19th century.

The interview with Brodsky was only broadcast many years after it was done. It was my fault. In 1981 I had not as yet mastered the art of tape editing. Only a very select group of colleagues, who have also had the task of editing a Brodsky interview or reading, will understand what that means. The poet suffered from several speech defects simultaneously, which did not, however, detract from his other qualities.

John Donne
Igor Pomerantsev: Your poem "Great Elegy to John Donne" began circulating in samizdat in the Soviet Union in the mid-1960s. Donne was virtually unknown in the Soviet Union at that time. How did you discover him?

Joseph Brodsky:
I stumbled across him the same way most people did: in the epigraph of the [Hemingway] novel "For Whom The Bell Tolls." [The epigraph is taken from Donne's "Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions" -- Eds) For some reason I felt this came from a line of verse and so I tried to find a translation of Donne. It was futile. Only later did I guess it was a fragment from a sermon. In some sense, Donne began for me the same way as he did for his English contemporaries. He was much better known in his day as a preacher than a poet.

The most interesting aspect was how I obtained a book of his. I had searched through the anthologies. In 1964 I was given five years [sentence for social parasitism], arrested, and sent to Arkhangelsk Oblast, and for my birthday [writer] Lidiya Korneyevna Chukovskaya sent me, probably from her father's library, a "Modern Library" edition of Donne. This was when I first read all of Donne's poetry, read it seriously.

Pomerantsev: When you wrote "Great Elegy to John Donne," what influenced you more, his image or his poetry?

I wrote it, I think, in '62, when I knew remarkably little about Donne -- in other words practically nothing, except a few fragments from his sermons and poems that I had found in anthologies. The main circumstance that moved me to undertake this poem was the possibility that it seemed to me existed at that period, the possibility of the centrifugal movement of a poem…well, not so much centrifugal… like a stone falling into a pond… and the gradual ripple outwards… a device more from cinematography, yes, when the camera moves back from the center.

So, in answer to your question, I would say it was more the image of the poet. Not so much the image even as the image of a body in space. Donne is English, he lives on an island. And starting with his bedroom, the perspective steadily widens. First the room, then his neighborhood, then London, the whole island, the sea, then his place in the world. At that time, this didn't so much, I would say, interest me as gripped me at the moment when I was composing it.

Secondly, when I had written the first half of the elegy, I stopped dead in my tracks because I couldn't go any further. I’d come to the point where it wasn't simply the world but looking at the world from outside…This was the realm, the spheres of the seraphim. He is a preacher, so heaven, all this heavenly hierarchy, these are also the spheres of his attention.

At this point I stopped, not knowing what to do next. The thing is, the whole first half consists of questions. The hero of the poem asks: "Who is this who addresses me? You, the city? You, space? You, the island? You, the heavens? You, the angels? Which angels? You, Gabriel?" I did not know the answer. I understood that somebody could hear the questions asked of him in a dream or from a dream in his bedroom at night. But I did not understand who they were coming from. Suddenly it came to me – and it fitted perfectly into five-foot iambics, one line: "No, it is I, your soul, John Donne." The second half of the poem begins at this point.

Pomerantsev: My next question is more to you as a translator than a poet. You've translated several of Donne's poems. They say a translator is always in competition with the author he translates. How did you feel translating Donne -- like a competitor, ally, pupil, or colleague?

Well, absolutely not as a competitor. Competition with Donne is absolutely out of the question thanks to Donne's qualities as a poet. He is one of the greatest figures in world literature…A translator, simply a translator, not an ally…Perhaps more of an ally, since a translator is always to some extent an ally. A pupil, yes, because I learned an awful lot by translating him.

The thing is that Russian poetry is overwhelmingly strophic; that is, it operates through extraordinarily simple strophic units -- four-line stanzas. While in Donne's verse I encountered a much more interesting and thrilling structure. He creates extraordinarily complex strophic constructions. I found it very interesting, and very instructive. So, consciously or unconsciously, I began doing the same but not as a competitor -- as a pupil. That was probably the main lesson. And then again, when you read or translate Donne you learn from his view of things. What I really liked about Donne was the translation of the heavenly to the earthly -- i.e., the translation of the eternal to the transient… Is this too long?

Pomerantsev: No.

It's quite interesting, because there's an awful lot to be said about this. In fact, it's like Tsvetaeva said: "The voice of heavenly truth against earthly truth." Except it isn't so much "against" as the translation of heavenly truth into the language of earthly truth, i.e. of eternal phenomena into transient language. And both win as a result. It is merely the bringing nearer…how to put it…the expression of the seraphic order. Once it is spoken of, the seraphic order becomes more real. And this wonderful interaction is actually the essence, the bread of poetry.

Pomerantsev: Soviet literary historians reproached John Donne as a retrograde, for retreating from the life-affirming Renaissance spirit. To what extent do "retrograde" or "progressive" have any bearing on poetry?

This is kindergarten stuff…It's not clear what we mean when we say "Renaissance." As a rule, what comes into mind are paintings with naked bodies, artist's models, a mass of movement, richness, excess. Something full of joy. But the Renaissance was a period that was far from joyful. It was a time of colossal spiritual, ideological, whatever, conflict -- political, first of all. In principle, the Renaissance was a time when dogma…ecclesiastical, theological dogma ceased to satisfy people, and it became the object of all kinds of challenge and interrogation and questioning. It was connected with the flourishing of purely secular science.

Donne lived at a time when, to give one example, the heliocentric system acquired the right to citizenship. It was when Earth ceased to be at the center of the universe. The center became the sun, and this made a big impression on the public at large. The effect was roughly the same as the splitting of the atom in our time.

The Renaissance was marked by a huge information explosion, which was reflected in Donne's work. He refers to developments in science, astronomy, all sorts of things, all the time. However one should not reduce Donne to content, to his scientific and didactic baggage. The poet is engaged, in general, in the translation of one thing into another. He is curious about everything -- it is, after all, material. It is not that language is his instrument, it's that he is the instrument of language. Language itself relates to material with a certain indifference, while the poet is the servant of language. A hierarchy of realities does not, on the whole, exist. And this is one of the most extraordinary sensations when reading Donne: the poet is not an individual, not a person…it's not he that imposes or expounds his views on the world; it as though language speaks through him.

How to explain to a Russian what Donne is? I would put it this way: Stylistically it is a combination of Lomonosov, Derzhavin and, I would also add, Hryhoriy Skovoroda with his sayings from some poem, his translation of the psalms maybe: "Ascend not into Copernicus' spheres, gaze into the caverns of the spirit," yes, or "caverns of the soul," which is even better. The one difference being that Donne was a greater poet, I fear, than all three of them put together.

And for him there was no such thing as antagonism. I mean that antagonism for him existed as an expression of antagonism generally, in the world, in nature, but not as a specific antagonism…There's so much that could be said about him. As a poet, he was fairly uneven stylistically. Coleridge said something remarkable about him. He said that when you read Donne's successors, the poets of around a century later, Dryden, Pope and so on, everything comes down to counting syllables and feet, while reading Donne you measure not the number of syllables but time. That's exactly what Donne was doing in his verse. It's akin to Mandelstam's drawing out the caesura, yes, holding back an instant, stopping…for something which seems wonderful to the poet for one or another reason. Or the other way around, like in his “Voronezh Notebooks," there you have unevenness, jumps, and truncated feet, truncated meter, feverish haste -- so as to hasten or eliminate the instant which seems terrible.

These qualities of Donne's at once attracted and repelled people. His style had, naturally, a somewhat repellent effect on readers who were attuned to Spenser and the previous poetics, which had arisen in reaction to Italian poetics, to all sonnet forms, to Petrarch and so on. Even Shakespeare was smooth in comparison with Donne. And what came after Donne was also…how to put it…a result of harmonious progress in the language. To a modern English reader or a 19th- or 18th-century one, reading Donne is also difficult and not very pleasant, like reading Kantemir or Trediakovsky is for us. Because we perceive these poets through the prism of the successes of the harmonious school of Aleksandr Sergeyevich [Pushkin] and all the others. Do we not?

Pomerantsev: And yet the poets of the '20s and '30s, like Eliot, managed to see in Donne…


Pomerantsev: …the spirit of their time.

Certainly. Because Donne, with the themes that he raised, with his uncertainty, with the fragmentation or duality of his consciousness is, of course, a poet of our times. The problems he raises are those of mankind as a whole, and especially of man living at a time of excess information, population…

translation by Frank Williams