Home 9 Blog Posts 9 Rhyme, Russian, Revolution, and Reason

Rhyme, Russian, Revolution, and Reason

by | Jun 22, 2022 | 0 comments


by Donna Jacobs, Retired, Medical University of South Carolina

Editor’s Note: This post is taken from Donna’s “Booklover” column in the April 2022 issue of Against the Grain, v 34 #2, pg. 34.

This Booklover has been in word heaven lately;  so many provocative books have shown themselves to me.  It is inspiring.  While diligently and thoughtfully working through the pile, there is always space for the next Nobel titles:  “Collected Poems in English” and “Less Than One: Selected Essays” by Joseph Brodsky.  (Couldn’t make a choice.)

“Brodsky” Photo by Sofiia Smirnova on Unsplash

Brodsky was awarded the 1987 Nobel Prize in Literature “for an all-embracing authorship, imbued with clarity of thought and poetic intensity.”  The forward to the “Collected Poems in English” describes Brodsky as a “world poet.”  Expelled from Russia in 1972 after serving a hard labor sentence for a 1964 “social parasitism” conviction;  struggling with persecution for his poetry and Jewish heritage;  enduring evaluations for the state of his mental health;  he came to settle in America with the help of dedicated colleagues.  By 1991 he had etched his literary mark in this country and that year was honored with the title Poet Laureate of the United States.

Sidebar: After reading this about Brodsky and adding the information to the column I had to stop and look up “social parasitism.”  In direct reference to Brodsky, social parasitism was a political crime in the Soviet Union.  One could be accused and/or convicted of allegedly living off of others or society.  Brodsky was called a “pseudo-poet” and admonished for failure in his “constitutional duty to work for the good of the motherland.” 

The Merriam Webster definition is: “a mixobiotic and dependent relation specifically:  the relation of various ants that lack a worker caste to other kinds of ants within whose nests they dwell and upon whom they depend for all the services normally performed by a species’ own workers.”

Now we know.

“The Keening Muse” is the second essay in “Less Than One: Selected Essays” and reads like a love story to Anna Akhmatova. Brodsky met Akhmatova, the renowned Russian poet of the Silver Age, in 1960.  She would become his mentor. Brodsky begins with the explanation of how she acquired her pseudonym. Her father didn’t want the family name, Gorenko, associated with the discipline of poetry.  Akhmatova reached into her maternal ancestry, “which could be traced back to the last Khan of the Golden Horde…and for a Russian ear ‘Akhmatova’ has a distinct Oriental, Tatar to be precise, flavor.  She didn’t mean to be exotic, though, if only because in Russia a name with a Tatar overtone meets not curiosity but prejudice.”

“All the same, the five open a’s of Anna Akhmatova had a hypnotic effect and put this name’s carrier firmly at the top of the alphabet of Russian poetry.  In a sense, it was her first successful line; memorable in its acoustic inevitability, with its Ah sponsored less by sentiment than by history.  This tells you a lot about the intuition and quality of the ear of this seventeen-year-old girl who soon after her first publication began to sign her letters and legal papers Anna Akhmatova.  In its suggestion of identity derived from the fusion of sound and time, the choice of the pseudonym turned out to be prophetic.”  He ended his lovely poetic essay tribute speaking of how her poems would stand the tests of time.  “They will survive because language is older than state and because prosody always survives history. In fact, it hardly needs history;  all it needs is a poet, and Akhmatova was just that.”

In addition to his work as an essayist and a poet, Brodsky became fluent in Polish and English with the intention of translating the works of celebrated authors.  Because of this refined skill, we have the privilege of enjoying the poet’s own translation as opposed to the skilled effort given by professional translators.

Section X and XI from “The Butterfly”


Living too brief an hour
for fear or trembling,
you spin, motelike, ascending
above this bed of flowers,
beyond the prison space
where past and future
combine to break, or batter,
our lives, and thus
when your path leads you far
to open meadows,
your pulsing wings bring shadows
and shapes to air.


So, too, the sliding pen
which inks a surface
has no sense of the purpose
of any line
or that the whole will end 
as an amalgam
of heresy and wisdom;
it therefore trusts the hand
whose silent speech incites
fingers to throbbing –
whose spasm reaps no pollen,
but eases hearts. 


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