Seamus Heaney in converstion with Valentina Polukhina
For the book Joseph Brodsky Through the Eyes of his
Contemporaries (St Petersburg.: Zvezda, 2005).
– You knew Joseph almost from the day he arrived in England (June
1972) to the day he died. Could you tell me about your first and last meeting
– What happened first was more a sighting than a meeting. He
arrived at Poetry International in London, where I was due to give a reading
and we were all conscious of him as the man of the moment, ever since he’d
landed in Austria as the guest of Auden. Now here he was, en route for
America. The Festival ran for at least three or four days, different readers
every night, and I believe Auden may have been reading also. I can’t remember
whether Joseph and I were on the same programme, but I have a distinct
image of him, with his reddish hair and his red shirt, looking at me and
I at him. I had a feeling at the time that my Belfast address may have
been of interest to him, since the bombing and shooting were by then in
full swing. But it was six months or so later, round about February 1973,
when I really met him. We were at another poetry festival, this time in
Massachusetts, in Amherst, and Joseph had come from Michigan. I can’t remember
what we talked about, but there was certainly a recognition that we were
on the same wave-length, probably because we both had a lot of canonical
poetry – English poetry, that is – in our heads and talked more about that
than about the contemporary Americans. I would meet him soon again, on
a couple of occasions in Ann Arbor, where I knew Bert Hornback and Donald
Hall in the English Department – so by the mid-seventies we were on familiar
terms. The relationship was also helped by the fact that Joseph had got
to know a friend of mine, Tom MacIntyre, who was then writer-in-resident
in Ann Arbor, and had been to Ireland in Tom’s company.
The last meeting was about three weeks before he died, in January
1996. In New York, on a lousy, sleety day when he came from his apartment
in Brooklyn across to the Union Square café where Marie and I were
having lunch with Roger Straus and Jonathan Galassi. We’d come to New York
to see Brian Friel’s play, Molly Sweeney, on one of the worst weekends
ever – a blizzard so unrelenting the traffic stopped on the avenues. But
by that lunchtime it had eased a bit and Joseph made the valiant trek to
Manhattan. He was white-faced and didn’t join us for the meal. He arrived
instead halfway through, talked, went out for a cigarette, came in again,
talked and was clearly not in the best of physical shape, went out for
another cigarette – and then off home. Dear, undaunted and endangered Joseph.
I had been to Stockholm the previous month and I suppose he felt it was
the courteous thing to join us, at whatever inconvenience.
But you know, having said all that, perhaps the last meeting
really occurred after his death, in his parents’ apartment in St. Petersburg,
in the company of his old friends, in that bare room-and-a-half where the
only furnishings were photos on the wall – the ones taken on the day of
Joseph’s departure by his friend, Misha Milchik, who was also present.
It was Sunday morning in June 2003. We stood in a circle, ate sweet cake
and drank vodka, and I read a poem ‘Audenesque’ that I’d written in his
memory. An utterly solemn, sweet, sorrowful, unforgettable moment.
– You shared several readings with Joseph in the USA, UK, Ireland,
even Finland. Which one do you remember best and why?
– I remember a lot of them. In the Gate Theatre in Dublin, for
example, where he appeared one Sunday night in the early 1980s. I was reading
his translations and urged him to finish before ten o’clock, which in those
days was when the pubs closed on Sundays – but of course Joseph paid no
attention. He flailed on in his magnificent way until after time for the
last drinks. Then there was an occasion when we did a Mandelstam commemoration
together in London, with Isaiah Berlin in the audience, and a marvellous
feeling that Joseph was standing up there with the shade of Mandelstam
one shoulder and Akhmatova at the other. I think, all the same, the one
in Finland, in Turku, was the most vivid and typical, because after each
of us had done his bit – I was reading my own poems on that occasion –
and the question time arrived, Joseph simply started to lecture the audience
on what and whom they should be reading. Zbigniew Herbert, Robert Frost,
Thomas Hardy. Laying down the law, joyfully and unrepentantly.
– You wrote an introduction in verse for ‘An Evening with Joseph
Brodsky’ at the American Repertory Theatre at Harvard in February 1988.
Did you ever publish this introduction? Do you recall the occasion?
– Clearly. Joseph had been at the Nobel ceremony a couple of months
before that and was more the hero than ever. And we’d became faster friends
than ever, because the previous summer he’d come to Dublin for a couple
of days and we’d spent time on our own. There was a heat wave and in order
to keep cool we walked in the sea breeze on the South Wall, the long arm
of Dublin Port stretching out to where the shipping comes and goes at the
mouth of the River Liffey. It reminded Joseph a lot of the quays of St.
Petersburg, and he spoke more intimately than he’d done before about his
family and his first life in Russia. I don’t mean he shared secrets, just
that his tenderness and loss were more evident, readier to reveal themselves
because of the lonely stone jetty and the wash of the ships’ wakes. Anyhow,
I felt very sure of our friendship after that and consequently very free,
and in a way the verse introduction in Cambridge was a symptom – and celebration
– of that insouciance. I remember that the lines Joseph liked best of all
were ones where I suggested that his verse was essentially a lie-detector.
There was a submerged reference also to Kafka’s image of a book needing
to be an axe that could break up the frozen sea within us. And Joseph,
as you know, wasn’t a bit shy in that kind of literary company:
Yet Joseph’s tool is not the spade.
The axe with ice upon its blade
Is more his thing.
It splits the frozen sea inside
And the, You lie! You lied! You lied!
The echoes ring.
I don’t think the introduction has been published. It contains verses
about Derek Walcott too, and about Wallace Shawn, who performed a bit of
Joseph’s play – the one about two astronauts, I think. And they also read
translations of the poems.
– You said in one of your interviews that it was Joseph who made
you buy a Mercedes. How come?
– Well, he didn’t exactly make me buy one. But he was important in removing
my inhibition. I’d been driving a car for 43 years and for my sixtieth
birthday I was going to treat myself to a good one. At the time, my motor
was an old 1989 Nissan, a diesel banger and whoozer, well and truly past
its sell-by date. And I had this friend, a businessman, who was used to
a higher-grade of vehicle and knew a dealer and was forever urging me to
make the upwardly mobile move, if only in the second hand range. But there’s
a commandment we all learn early on that a poet shouldn’t be susceptible
to that kind of sumptuous bourgeois temptation. I felt a Mercedes was sort
of taboo, but then I remembered that Joseph arrived in Cambridge one evening
from South Hadley, smiling broadly, behind the wheel of his ample, ancient,
mighty Merc saloon. And I thought, if Brodsky, why not Heaney? Which is
how I became a member of the homo mercus species.
– Like Joseph, you have a tremendous sense of humor and self-irony.
Did it help cement your friendship?
– It certainly didn’t hinder it. There was a lot of laughter.
– You have at least two common grounds with Brodsky – English metaphysical
poetry and Dante. Do you feel a bond between yours and Joseph’s poetics?
– I felt, as I’ve said, on the same wave-length. It had to do with a
belief that poetry should be guaranteed by some inner rule and that its
survival depended first of all upon those people whose poems proved the
ongoing virtue and workability of that rule, and after that upon those
who recognized work where the rule was being obeyed. I know that sounds
both vague and haughty, but Joseph’s haughtiness was infectious. Discussion
of poets with him often entailed nothing more than a fast roll-call and
an immediate thumbs up thumbs down. But just as often it entailed listening
to Joseph going into critical orbit and running with an insight until it
had been turned into a dogma. Exhilarating, extreme, unfair, incomparable.
The young poet in him never aged. But at the same time there was a veteran’s
awareness of what was required of the art. A disrespect for poets who didn’t
know enough, who weren’t sufficiently read in the canonical poetry of the
past and present, for a start, but – worse – who didn’t know what being
a servant of the muse demanded. As far as Joseph was concerned, you were
down on the rowing bench with Horace and Hardy: there was no two-tier system,
no handicapping, just the shoulder-to-shoulder striving of the whole poetry
crew. Although this didn’t mean that he equated himself with the great
ones, just that he knew they had set the standards by which he must judge
– Speaking of great ones, did you ever discuss Yeats with Brodsky?
Do you know what his attitude was to Yeats’ poetry?
– There was a bit of blind sport there, I think. He told me once that
Yeats’s rhymes left something to be desired and at that stage I felt he
was too far gone in certitude to be educable. If ever there was a poet
who should have gained Joseph’s admiration, it was Yeats. His faith in
poetry, his capacity to break the lyric barrier, the sheer bodily wham
of his meter. I suspect Joseph just never dwelt with Yeats enough. He rated
him, certainly, as a real presence, an Olympian, but he wasn’t possessed
by him. Both of them, come to think of it, had the kind of implacable excellence
that made them like two strong magnets set wrong end to end.
– For some Russians Brodsky was not sufficiently Russian. How did
you perceive him as a Russian, a Jew or an American?
– As a Russian. Because of the language. His speech reminded you that
English was not his mother tongue. The higher he bounced in the new language
the harder he was hitting off the old one. As ever with him, the defiance
and the delight were inextricable. Yet when he began to speak about Russian
poetry – and even, speak it aloud – you knew he was in his element. It
was as if some underground cable had started to carry the full voltage
and the whole grid was sizzling.
– Was Brodsky trying to russify English in his self-translation?
– He couldn’t help it. I remember opening The New Yorker and coming
across one of those poems he calls eclogues, big slabs of stanzaic verse,
full of matter and metaphoric moves, opaque to begin with and never in
the end entirely unclogged: burly enough to discomfit and then outface
the reader. I admired the inner necessity that constituted them in this
way, the intellectual and imaginative overdrive in the original action,
but I still balked at what I took to be certain metrical oddity, especially
in the matter of enjambment. The word suggests that one line steps ahead
into the next, so it should be a long stride, not so much a heavy foot
as a hurdler’s heft. Anyhow, I marked a few places where I thought the
heavy foot was falling and was bold enough to bring up the question with
Joseph the next time I saw him. But there was no concession. He began to
read the lines with a metrical emphasis that forced the natural stress
and cadence of his English words to march to what must have been a Russian
tune. So I left it. The best commentary on all this, as you know, has been
written by Danny Weissbort, a wonderful stereophonic response because Danny’s
ear is like a scale that can weigh to the nth degree the Slavic against
the Anglophonic without getting all heated up about what’s going on.
– How would you explain the contrast between the perception of Brodsky’s
English versions in the UK and the USA? In America Brodsky never received
such scathing reviews as in England (via Craig Raine, Christopher Reid,
Donald Davie and Peter Porter). In the USA Brodsky was widely regarded
as one of the preeminent poets of our time.
– Well, for a start, there’s a tendency for reviewing in English
to be more trenchant anyway. In many cases the forensic style has been
honed in the Oxbridge seminar. And besides, there’s the simple cultural
fact that until fairly recently on this side of the Atlantic, the ear was
more tuned to the traditional iambic melodies. From Ireland to Australia
there was a certain historical component in the syllabus, the schooling
that even an average student received meant that certain registers were
normative. Tee-tum, tee-tum, tee-tum was taken as read. When it came to
aural matters there was a consensus of sort, based on the conventions.
Call it, if you like, what Shabine calls it bitterly in Derek Walcott’s
poem ‘The Schooner Flight’, ‘a sound colonial education,’ but it still
had its effect. There’s a form mistress, if you’ll excuse the pun, in the
English ear, one who insists that the poetry class should be able to sing
the scale perfectly. But the one in charge of the American ear is more
permissive. Something happened to her ear in the nineteenth century that
created a new acoustic for her. The Bible gained on Shakespeare and the
result was Whitman. So nowadays she’s readier than her English counterpart
to listen to the modes and scales that poets for multi-culturalism before
she knew there was such a thing. Carlos Williams, for example. OK, the
American muse thinks, Carols, there’s something Spanish in the background
there so there’ll probably be something different, maybe a Hispanic note
in his performance. And Brodsky? Interesting, there’ll be a Russian turn
to his tune. But true to her own form, the English mistress thinks, Brodsky?
The boy must be taught that he can’t get away with that. It’s against the
genius of our language. He may be great in Russian, but I’m afraid he’ll
have to try harder if he’s to get full marks in my singing school. She’s
jealous and exacting because she feels she’s guarding something she’s been
entrusted with – that, at least, is a generous way of seeing it.
– Did Joseph’s insistence on formal poetry have a good or bad effect
in English language poets who came under his influence?
– I’d say the influence was ultimately as institutional as it
was personal. Maybe more so. I mean, Joseph’s hard drive for formal discipline
was felt throughout the creative writing departments of the American universities
the way a powered-up propeller is felt by passengers in a small plane on
the tarmac. And it was salutary for them to be reminded
of the deep culture of poetry, its historical dimension – which constitutes,
in a paradoxical way, its eternal present. But tradition, as T.S. Eliot
once maintained, can only be acquired through great labour. You can’t tune
a poetic ear, graduate or undergraduate, inside a couple of late teenage
years. Students in workshops might learn the shapes and see how rhyme schemes
fit and perceive that a poem is ‘a verbal contraption’, but that deep bodily
feel for the inner rule of verse will elude them unless they hear
and hear and hear the music of what’s there in the language already. So,
dare I say it, insofar as Joseph contributed to the smugness of what they
call in America the ‘new formalists’, his influence wasn’t entirely for
the good. On the other hand, in every good sense and no bad sense Joseph’s
own poems are always winging it, and for those who could learn art of flying
in verse, the initiation was wonderful. Gertrude Schnackenburg, for example,
achieved real lift off thanks to his example.
– Brodsky believed that the XX century had exhausted the possibilities
of salvation and had come into conflict with the New Testament. Do you
– I hadn’t heard that he had put it like that, but there you have the
real Brodsky: upping the ante, offering a proposition so boldly and simply
uttered that it could be printed in a school primer and yet containing
enough challenge to keep the scholastic or rabbinical schools in dispute
for a lifetime. But I wonder… If the possibilities of salvation are or
were exhaustible, should they not have run out before the message of the
New Testament took in the first place, in the age of the Roman Empire?
St. Paul’s epistle to the Romans tells them they’re not living in nature
any more but in the spirit, in other words that they’re not to quail no
matter how devastating the historical onslaught proves to be.
– What do you make of Brodsky’s statement: “I have the conviction
that what I’m doing, in the final analysis, is to the glory of God…No matter
what drastic statements I can make here and there, even those should be
to His liking in one way or another’?
– I find the statement entirely convincing. God has to be as magnanimous
and principled in his being as the man who wrote ‘May 24, 1980’: ‘Yet until
brown clay has been crammed down my larynx, / only gratitude will be gushing
– Once you gave me a present – your poem ‘Lauds and Gauds for a Laureate’
written as an Introduction to a reading by Brodsky at American Repertory
Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts, 15 February 1988. May I include this
poem in my collection of interviews about Brodsky?
– Please do.
Valentina Polukhina, London
Lauds and Gauds for a
30 March, September 2004