I've gotten into a tussle over Joseph Brodsky with Ron Silliman. This happens now and then in my life. I wrote a long letter to American Poetry Review back in the 80s, answering a particularly jaundiced attack on Brodsky in that magazine.

Here's the paragraph of Ron's with which I took issue:

"One of the great ironies of this sort of dismissal is that a Joseph Brodsky, whose solution was a return to the formal precision of pre-Soviet poetics & to abstain from collaborating with the aesthetic bureaucrats of his time, easily fell into the hands of the same sort of apparatchiks once he was able to come west. An even greater irony – the new critical roots behind Brodsky’s later School o’ Quietude friends could be traced back¹ to the Russian Formalists & their principle source of inspiration, old “Cloud in Trousers” Mayakovsky himself. Now that the old Soviet Union is no more, of course, they are constructing a monument to Brodsky in St. Petersburg."

(The "dismissal" referred to is Ron's notion that Mayakovsky is not given his critical due because of his affiliation with official Soviet literature.)

Let's have another look at this fascinating paragraph. First, Ron says that Brodsky's "solution" to soviet repression was a "return to the formal precision of pre-Soviet poetics". As I understand this, Ron is applying a familiar template from American poetry - i.e., that there is some sort of parallel between literary experimentalism and political engagement - to the Russian situation. But this does not hold up. The poets responsible for experiments in early 20th-cent. poetry in Russia cover the political spectrum, from Tsvetaeva's White-Russian royalism, to Mandelstam's gradual separation from the regime, to the otherworldliness of Khlebnikov, to Mayakovsky's revolutionary commitment (I don't know enough about Kruchenyk's politics to speak about him). To argue that Brodsky returned to a pre-soviet formalism as a political move, simply does not jibe with the facts. The Brodskian model was neither literary conservatism nor political withdrawal. He did not "abstain" from collaborating : he was sent to a labor camp at the age of 24 for "social parasitism", and his case became a Russian cause celebre when the bizarre transcript of his trial was written down by Nadezhda Mandelstam and published in samizdat. He was eventually released after a storm of public protest, and forced into exile in the West.

Brodsky's poetry developed gradually, and draws on many, many sources. To describe its development as a "return" to pre-soviet aesthetics is a myth. As I wrote earlier in Ron's comment box, Brodsky's most immediate mentors were soviet-era poets (Akhmatova, Tsvetaeva), one of whom (Tsvetaeva) was a tremendous innovator and literary experimentalist.

But let's move on to the next part of Ron's statement : [Brodsky] "easily fell into the hands of the same sort of apparatchiks once he was able to come west". Ron bases the supposed irony at play here on the notion that the established poets who helped him on his arrival in the West (most prominently, Auden) were somehow similar in social position and function to the officials in the Soviet government who deemed him "social parasite" and sent him to prison. Now it helps to have some knowledge of the particulars of Brodsky's trial & conviction in order to understand the full absurdity of Ron's comparison. There are a number of web sources available on that trial : here's one. But what he is implying is that literary figures & publishing organs of the West - those which helped Brodsky find a job, translated his work, helped make it known - were in fact equivalent in some way to the punitive organs of soviet repression : the ministers of propaganda, the censors, the jailers, etc. Without such an equivalence, there is no "irony".

This claim is a reading of literary history and politics which is so extreme, as to represent a kind of absurd, anachronistic soviet propaganda.

But let's move on to the next sentence: "An even greater irony – the new critical roots behind Brodsky’s later School o’ Quietude friends could be traced back¹ to the Russian Formalists & their principle source of inspiration, old “Cloud in Trousers” Mayakovsky himself."

Here we get into some inner workings of Ron's literary genealogy. It goes something like this : Brodsky's new Western friends were part of the School of Quietude camp; the SoQ has its roots in the New Criticism; NC has its roots in Russian Formalism; RF's principle source of "inspiration" was Mayakovsky. QED : the "father" of SoQ is really Mayakovsky! Brodsky's new "apparatchik" pals were really descended from the poet they reject (for his soviet affiliations)! Oh my, how ironic!

This is an example of a sort of idee fixe, which obsessively threads its pseudo-logical needle, without seeing the pattern of facts which contradict it.
What if:
1) Mayakovsky did not "inspire" the literary scholars who called themselves Russian Formalists - but that, rather, he was one among many of their literary objects of study?
2) The New Criticism was not some kind of genetic outgrowth of Russian Formalism, but rather a set of American critical theories & practices, which drew on RF among many other sources?
3) Ron's "School of Quietude" is not descended genetically from NC, but is rather a polemical grab-bag label applied to many kinds of contemporary poetry - including, for example, vast amounts of verse modelled on Lowell and the Confessionals - a poetics developed in direct opposition to the precepts of New Criticism?
4) Brodsky's main friends and mentors - Auden, Lowell, Walcott - practiced various modes and styles deeply at variance with the supposedly a-political, aesthetically self-contained modes promoted by the New Criticism? And, for that matter, deeply at odds with the practices Ron impugns as SoQ?

The fact is, all these "what ifs" are well-founded. There is a lot of evidence to support the historical truth of each one of them. Thus, Ron's interpretation of Brodsky's & Mayakovsky's literary-historical meaning for us seems to be based more on theory than on fact, on fantasy than on history. Thus the rationale for these "ironies" evaporates. We are left with a tendentious, mean-spirited complaint about a new statue for Brodsky, a quintessential Petersburg poet, being erected in his home town - from which he was exiled for life. After his forced removal to the West, he never saw his homeland (or his parents) again.

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