Brodsky's Immodest Proposal


An immodest proposal. ( New Republic ) About an hour ago, the stage where I stand now, as well as your seats, were quite empty. An hour hence, they will be empty again. For most of the day, I imagine, this place stays empty; emptiness is its natural state. Had it been endowed with consciousness, it would regard our presence as a nuisance. This is as good an illustration as any of one's significance in any case; certainly of the significance of our gathering. No matter what brings us here, the ratios are not in our favor. Pleased as we may be with our number, in spatial terms it is of infinitesimal consequence.

This is true, I think, of any human assembly; but when it comes to poetry, it rings a special bell. For one thing, poetry, the writing or the reading of it, is an atomizing art; it is far less social than music or painting. Also, poetry has a certain appetite for emptiness, starting, say, with that of infinity. Mainly, though, because historically speaking the ratio of poetry's audience to the rest of society is not in the former's favor. So we should be pleased with one another, if only because our being here, for all its seeming insignificance, is a continuation of that history which, by some accounts floating around this town, has ended.

Throughout what we call recorded history, the audience for poetry does not appear to have exceeded 1 percent of the entire population. The basis for this estimate is not any particular research, but the mental climate of the world that we live in. In fact, the weather has been such that, at times, the quoted figure seems a bit generous. Neither Greek nor Roman antiquity, nor the glorious Renaissance, nor the Enlightenment provides us with an impression of poetry commanding huge audiences, let alone legions or battalions, or of its readership being vast.

It never was. Those whom we call the classics owe their reputations not to their contemporaries, but to their posterity. This is not to say that posterity is the quantitative expression of their worth. It just supplies them, albeit retroactively and with some effort, with the size of readership to which they were entitled from the beginning. As it was, their actual circumstances were by and large fairly narrow; they courted patrons or flocked to the courts pretty much in the same way poets today go to the universities. Obviously that had to do with the hope of largess; but it was also the quest for an audience. Literacy being the privilege of the few, where else could a poet find a sympathetic ear or an attentive eye for his lines? The seat of power was often the seat of culture; and its diet was better, the company was less monochrome and more tender than elsewhere, including the monastery.

Centuries passed. Seats of power and seats of culture parted ways, it seems for good. That, of course, is the price you pay for democracy, for the rule of the people, by the people, and for the people, of whom still only 1 percent reads poetry. If a modern poet has anything in common with his Renaissance colleague, it is in the first place the paltry distribution of his work. Depending on one' s temperament, one may relish the archetypal aspects of this predicament -- pride oneself in being the means of carrying on the hallowed tradition, or derive a similar degree of comfort from one's so well-precedented resignation. There is nothing more psychologically rewarding than linking oneself to the glories of the past, if only because the past is more articulate than the present, not to mention the future.

A poet can always talk himself out of a jam; after all, that' s his metier. But I am here to speak not about the predicament of the poet, who is never, in the final analysis, a victim. I am here to speak about the plight of his audience: about your plight, as it were. Since I am paid this year by the Library of Congress, I take this job in the spirit of a public servant, not in any other. So it is the audience for poetry in this country that is my concern; and it is the public servant in me who finds the existing ratio of 1 percent appalling and scandalous, not to say tragic. Neither my temperament, nor the chagrin of an author over his own dismal sales, has anything to do with this appraisal.

The standard number of copies of a first or second collection by any poet in this country is something between 2,000 and 10,000 (and I speak of the commercial houses only). The latest census that I've seen gives the population of the United States as approximately 250 million. This means that a standard commercial publishing house, printing this or that author's first or second volume, aims at only 0.001 percent of the entire population. To me, this is absurd.

hat stood for centuries in the way of the public's access to poetry was the absence of press and the limitation of literacy. Now both are practically universal, and the aforementioned ratio is no longer justifiable. Actually, even if we are to go by that 1 percent, it should result in publishers printing not 2,000 to 10,000 copies of a poet's collection, but 2.5 million. Do we have that many readers of poetry in this country? I believe that we do; in fact, I believe that we have a lot more than that. Just how many could be determined, of course, through market research, but that is precisely what should be avoided.

For market research is restrictive by definition. So is any sociological breakdown of census figures into groups, classes, and categories. They presuppose certain binding characteristics pertaining to each social group, ushering in their prescribed treatment. This leads, plain and simple, to a reduction of people's mental diet, to their intellectual segregation. The market for poetry is believed to be those with a college education, and that's whom a publisher targets. The blue-collar crowd is not supposed to read Horace, nor the farmer in his overalls Montale or Marvell. Nor, for that matter, is the politician expected to know by heart Gerard Manley Hopkins or Elizabeth Bishop.

This is dumb as well as dangerous. More about that later. For the moment I'd like to assert only that the distribution of poetry should not be based on market criteria, since any such estimate, by definition, shortchanges the existing potential. When it comes to poetry, the net result of market research, for all its computers, is distinctly medieval. We are all literate, therefore everybody is a potential reader of poetry: it is on this assumption that the distribution of books should be based, not on some claustrophobic notion of demand. For in cultural matters, it is not demand that creates supply, it is the other way around. You read Dante because he wrote the Divine Comedy, not because you felt the need for him: you would not have been able to conjure either the man or the poem.

Poetry must be available to the public in far greater volume than it is. It should be as ubiquitous as the nature that surrounds us, and from which poetry derives many of its similes; or as ubiquitous as gas stations, if not as cars themselves. Bookstores should be located not only on campuses or main drags, but at the assembly plant's gates also. Paperbacks of those we deem classics should be cheap and sold at supermarkets. This is, after all, a country of mass production, and I don't see why what's done for cars can't be done for books of poetry, which take you quite a bit further. Because you don't want to go a bit further? Perhaps; but if this is so, it's because you are deprived of the means of transportation, not because the distances and the destinations that I have in mind don't exist.

ven to sympathetic ears, I suppose, all this may sound a bit loony. Well, it isn't; it also makes perfect economic sense. A book of poetry printed in 2.5 million copies and priced at, say, $2, will in the end bring in more than 10,000 copies of the same edition priced at $20. You may encounter, of course, a problem of storage, but then you'll be compelled to distribute as far and wide as the country. Moreover, if the government would recognize that the construction of your library is as essential to your inner vocation as business lunches are to your outer vocation, tax breaks could be made available to those who read, write, or publish poetry. The main loser, of course, would be the Brazilian rain forest. But I believe that a tree facing the choice between becoming a book of poems or a bunch of memos may well opt for the former.

A book goes a long way. Overkill in cultural matters is not an optional strategy, it is a necessity, since selective cultural targeting spells defeat no matter how well one's aim is taken. Fittingly, then, without having any idea who it is in particular that I am addressing at the moment, I would like to suggest that with the low-cost technology currently available, there is now a discernible opportunity to turn this nation into an enlightened democracy. And I think this opportunity should be risen to before literacy is replaced with videocy.

I recommend that we begin with poetry not only because this way we would echo the development of our civilization -- the song was there before the story -- but also because it is cheaper to produce. A dozen titles would be a decent beginning. The average poetry reader' s bookshelf contains, I believe, somewhere between thirty and fifty collections by various authors. It's possible to put half of it on a single shelf, or a mantelpiece -- or if worse comes to worst, on the windowsill -- of every American household. The cost of a dozen poetry paperbacks, even at their current price, would amount at most to one-fourth the price of a television set. That this is not done has to do not with the absence of a popular appetite for poetry, but with the near impossibility of whetting this appetite: with the unavailability of books. In my view, books should be brought to the doorstep like electricity, or like milk in England: they should be considered utilities, and their cost should be appropriately minimal. Barring that, poetry could be sold in drugstores (not least because it might reduce the bill from your shrink). At the very least, an anthology of American poetry should be found in the drawer in every room in every motel in the land, next to the Bible, which will surely not object to this proximity, since it does not object to the proximity of the phone book.

If this is doable, in this country especially. For, apart from anything else, American poetry is this country's greatest patrimony. It takes a stranger to see some things clearly. This is one of them, and I am that stranger. The quantity of verse that has been penned on these shores in the last century and a half dwarfs the similar enterprise of any literature, and for that matter, both our jazz and our cinema, rightly adored throughout the world. The same goes, I dare say, for its quality, for this is a poetry informed by the spirit of personal responsibility. There is nothing more alien to American poetry than those great continental specialities: the sensibility of the victim with its wildly oscillating, blamethirsty finger; the incoherence of elevation; the Promethean affectations and special pleading. To be sure, American verse has its vices -- too many a parochial visionary, a verbose neurotic. But it is extremely tempering stuff, and sticking with the 1 percent distribution method robs this nation of a natural resource of endurance, not to mention a source of pride.

It is a truly remarkable phenomenon, American poetry. Many years ago I showed Anna Akhmatova, a great Russian poet, several poems by Robert Frost, from his North of Boston. A few days later I returned and asked her what she thought. "What kind of poet is this?" she asked, in mock indignation. "He talks all the time about what people sell and buy! About getting insurance and all that!" (I suppose she was referring to his "Star Splitter.") And after a pause she added, "What a terrifying poet." The epithet was well chosen. It bespoke the distinction of Frost's posture vis-a-vis the traditional "tragic" posture of the poet in European and Russian literature. For tragedy, even self-inflicted tragedy, is always a fait accompli, a backward look; whereas terror is future-bound, and has to do with apprehension or, more accurately, with the recognition of one's own negative potential.

I am sorely tempted to suggest that this terrifying aspect is indeed Frost's -- and with him, all American poetry's -- forte. Poetry, by definition, is a highly individualistic art; in a sense, this country is its logical abode. At any rate, it is only logical that in this country this individualistic tendency has gone to its idiosyncratic extreme, in modernists and traditionalists alike. (In fact, this is what gave birth to modernists.) To my eye as well as my ear, American poetry is a relentless non-stop sermon on human autonomy; the song of the atom, if you will, defying the chain reaction. Its general tone is that of resilience and fortitude, of exacting the full look at the worst and not blinking. It certainly keeps its eyes wide open, not so much in wonderment, or poised for a revelation, as on the lookout for danger. It is short on consolation (the diversion of so much European poetry, especially Russian); rich and extremely lucid in detail; free of nostalgia for some Golden Age; big on hardihood and escape. If one looked for its motto, I would suggest Frost's line from "A Servant to Servants": "The best way out is always through. "

If I permit myself to speak about American poetry in such a wholesale manner, it is not because of its body's strength and vastness, but because my subject is the public's access to it. And in this context it must be pointed out that the old adage about a poet's role in, or his duty to, his society puts the entire issue upside-down. If one can speak of the social function of somebody who is essentially self-employed, then the social function of a poet is writing, which he does not by society's appointment but by his own volition. His only duty is to his language, that is, to write well. By writing, especially by writing well, in the language of his society, a poet takes a large step toward it. It is society's job to meet him half way, that is, to open his book and to read it.

If one can speak of any dereliction of duty here, it's not on the part of the poet, for he keeps writing. Now, poetry is the supreme form of human locution in any culture. By failing to read or listen to poets, a society dooms itself to inferior modes of articulation -- of the politician, or the salesman, or the charlatan -- in short, to its own. It forfeits, in other words, its own evolutionary potential, for what distinguishes us from the rest of the animal kingdom is precisely the gift of speech. The charge frequently leveled against poetry -- that it is difficult, obscure, hermetic, and whatnot -- indicates not the state of poetry, but, frankly, the rung of the evolutionary ladder on which society is stuck.

For poetic discourse is continuous; it also avoids cliche and repetition. The absence of those things is what distinguishes art from life, whose chief stylistic device, if one may say so, is precisely cliche and repetition, since it always starts from scratch. It is no wonder that society today, chancing on this continuing poetic discourse, finds itself at a loss, as if opening a book in the middle. I have remarked elsewhere that poetry is not a form of entertainment, and in a certain sense not even a form of art, but our anthropological, genetic goal, our linguistic, evolutionary beacon. We seem to sense this as children, when we absorb and remember verses in order to master language. As adults, however, we abandon this pursuit, convinced that we have mastered it. Yet what we've mastered is but an idiom, good enough perhaps to outfox an enemy, to sell a product, to get laid, to earn a promotion, but certainly not good enough to cure anguish or cause joy. Until one learns to pack one's sentences with meanings like a van or to discern and love in the beloved's features a "pilgrim soul," until one becomes aware that "no memory of having starred/atones for later disregard/or keeps the end from being hard" -- until things like that are in one's bloodstream, one still belongs among the sublinguals. Who are the majority, if that's a comfort.

If nothing else, reading poetry is a process of terrific linguistic osmosis. It is also a highly economical form of mental acceleration. Within a very short space a good poem covers enormous mental ground, and often, toward its finale, provides one with an epiphany or a revelation. As a tool of cognition, poetry beats any existing form of analysis (a) because it pares down our reality to its linguistic essentials, whose interplay, be it clash or fusion, yields that epiphany or that revelation, and (b) because it exploits the rhythmic and euphonic properties of the language that in themselves are revelatory. In other words, what a poem, or more accurately the language itself, tells you is "be like me." It tells you that your soul has got a long way to go. For at the moment of reading you become what you read, you become the state of the language which is a poem, and its epiphany or its revelation is yours. They are still yours once you shut the book, since you can't revert to not having had them. That's what evolution is all about.

Now the purpose of evolution is the survival neither of the fittest nor of the defeatist. Were it the former, we would have to settle for Arnold Schwarzenegger; were it the latter, which ethically is a more sound proposition, we'd have to make do with Woody Allen. The purpose of evolution, believe it or not, is beauty, which survives it all and generates truth simply by being a fusion of the mental and the sensual. As it is always in the eye of the beholder, it can' t be wholly embodied save in words: that's what ushers in a poem, which is as incurably semantic as it is incurably euphonic.

No other language accumulates so much of this as does English. To be born into it or to arrive in it is the best boon that can befall a man. To prevent its keepers from full access to it is an anthropological crime, and that's what the present system of the distribution of poetry boils down to. I don't rightly know what's worse, burning books or not reading them. I think, though, that token publishing falls somewhere in between. I am sorry to put this so drastically, but when I think of the great works by the poets of this language bulldozed into neglect on the one hand, and then consider the mind-boggling demographic vista on the other, I feel that we are on the verge of a tremendous cultural backslide. And it is not the culture I am worried about, nor the fate of the great or not-so-great poets' works. What concerns me is that man, unable to articulate, to express himself adequately, reverts to action. Since the vocabulary of action is limited, as it were, to his body, he is bound to act violently, extending his vocabulary with a weapon where there should have been an adjective.

In short, the good old quaint ways should be abandoned. There should be a nationwide distribution of poetry, classic and contemporary. It should be handled privately, I suppose, but supported by the state. The age group it should be aiming at is 15 and up. The emphasis should be on the American classics; and as to who or what should be printed, that should be decided by a body of two or three people in the know, that is, by the poets. The academics, with their ideological bickering, should be kept out of it, for nobody has the authority to prescribe in this field on any grounds other than taste. Beauty and its attendant truth are not to be subordinated to any philosophical, political, or even ethical doctrine, since aesthetics is the mother of ethics and not the other way around. If you think otherwise, try to recall the circumstances in which you fall in love.

What should be kept in mind, however, is that there is a tendency in society to appoint one great poet per period, often per century. This is done in order to avoid the responsibility of reading others, or for that matter the chosen one, should you find his or her temperament uncongenial. The fact is that at any given moment in any literature there are several poets of equal gravity and significance by whose lights you can go. In any case, whatever their number, in the end it corresponds to the known temperaments, for it can't be otherwise: hence their differences. By grace of language, they are there to provide society with a hierarchy or a spectrum of aesthetic standards to emulate, to ignore, to acknowledge. They are not so much role models as mental shepherds, whether they are cognizant of it or not -- and it's better if they are not. Society needs all of them; and should the project I am speaking of ever be embarked upon, no preferences should be shown to any one of them. Since on these heights there is no hierarchy, the fanfare should be equal.

For a poet to sink into oblivion is not such an extraordinary drama; it comes with the territory, he can afford it. As I said, he is never a loser; he knows that others will come in his stead and pick up the trail where he left it. (In fact, it's the swelling number of others, energetic and vocal, clamoring for attention, that drive him into oblivion.) He can take this, as well as being regarded as a sissy. It is society that cannot afford to be oblivious, and it is society that -- compared with the mental toughness of practically any poet -- comes out a sissy and a loser. For society, whose main strength is that of reproducing itself, to lose a poet is like having a brain cell busted. This impairs one's speech, makes one draw a blank where an ethical choice is to be made; or it barnacles speech with qualifiers, turns one into an eager receptacle for demagoguery or just pure noise. The organs of reproduction, however, are not affected.

There are few cures for hereditary disorders (undetectable, perhaps, in an individual, but striking in a crowd), and what I'm suggesting here is not one of them. I just hope that this idea, if it catches on, may slow down somewhat the spread of our cultural malaise to the next generation. As I said, I took this job in the spirit of public service, and maybe being paid by the Library of Congress in Washington has gone to my head. Perhaps I fancy myself as a sort of surgeon general slapping a label onto the current packaging of poetry. Something like "This Way of Doing Business is Dangerous to the National Health." The fact that we are alive does not mean that we are not sick.

It's often been said -- first, I think, by Santayana -- that those who don't remember history are bound to repeat it. Poetry doesn' t make such claims. Still, it has some things in common with history: it employs memory, and it is of use for the future, not to mention the present. It certainly cannot reduce poverty, but it can do something for ignorance. Also, it is the only insurance available against the vulgarity of the human heart. Therefore it should be available to everyone in this country and at a low cost.

Fifty million copies of an anthology of American poetry for $2 a copy can be sold in a country of 250 million. Perhaps not at once, but gradually, over a decade or so, they will sell. Books find their readers. And if they will not sell, well, let them lie around, absorb dust, rot, and disintegrate. There is always going to be a child who will fish a book out of the garbage heap. I was such a child, for what it's worth; so, perhaps, were some of you.

A quarter of a century ago, in a previous incarnation in Russia, I knew a man who was translating Robert Frost into Russian. I got to know him because I saw his translations: they were stunning poems in Russian, and I wanted to become acquainted with the man as much as I wanted to see the originals. He showed me a hardcover edition (I think it was by Holt and Rinehart), which fell open onto the page with "Happiness Makes Up in Height for What It Lacks in Length." Across the page went a huge, size twelve imprint of a soldier's boot. The front page of the book bore the stamp "stalag #3b," which was a World War II concentration camp for Allied pows somewhere in France.

Now there is a case of a book of poems finding its reader. All it had to do was be around. Otherwise it couldn't be stepped on, let alone picked up.

  • See How Proposal Has Become Reality

    By JOSEPH BRODSKY Joseph Brodsky is the Poet Laureate/ Consultant in Poetry at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., where a slightly different version of this essay was delivered as a lecture in October. His new book, Watermark, will be published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux this spring.

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