Joseph Brodsky On Reading


A new collection of essays by the late Joseph Brodsky has just appeared -- ON GRIEF AND REASON (Farrar Straus Giroux, 1995). The collection includes essays on Marcus Aurelius, Hardy, Rilke, Frost, Horace, Stephen Spender, World War II, Brazil, boredom, history, exile, and spies. It also contains Brodsky's Nobel speech, two commencement addresses, and his open letter to Vaclav Havel.

Here are some selections from "How to Read a Book":

Since we are all moribund, and since reading books is time-consuming, we must devise a system that allows us a semblance of economy. Of course, there is no denying the pleasure of holing up with a fat, slow-moving mediocre novel; still, we all know that we can indulge ourselves in this fashion only so much. In the end, we read not for reading's sake but to learn. hence the need for concision, condensation, fusion--for the works that bring the human predicament, in all its diversity, into its sharpest possible focus; in other words, the need for a shortcut. . . . the need for some compass in the ocean of available printed matter. . . .

The way to develop good taste in literature is to read poetry. If you think that I am speaking out of professional partisanship, that I am trying to advance my own guild interests, you are mistaken: I am no union man. The point is that being the supreme form of human locution, poetry is not only the most concise, the most condensed way of conveying the human experience; it also offers the highest possible standards for any linguistic operation -- especially one on paper.

The more one reads poetry, the less tolerant one becomes of any sort of verbosity, be it in political or philosophical discourse, in history, social studies, or the art of fiction. . . . poetry is a great disciplinarian to prose. It teaches the latter not only the value of each word but also the mercurial mental patterns of the species, alternatives to linear composition, the knack of omitting the self-evident, emphasis on detail, the technique of anticlimax. Above all, poetry develops in prose that appetite for metaphysics which distinguishes a work of art from mere belles lettres. It must be admitted, however, that in this particular regard, prose has proven to be a rather lazy pupil.

Please, don't get me wrong: I am not trying to debunk prose. . . . All I am trying to do is be practical and spare your eyesight and brain cells a lot of useless printed matter. Poetry, one might say, has been invented for just this purpose--for it is synonymous with economy. What one should do, therefore, is recapitulate, albeit in miniature, the process that took place in our civilization over the course of two millennia. It is easier than you might think, for the body of poetry is far less voluminous than that of prose. What's more, if you are concerned mainly with contemporary literature, then your job is indeed a piece of cake. All you have to do is arm yourself for a couple of months with the works of poets in your mother tongue, preferably from the first half of this century. I suppose you'll end up with a dozen rather slim books, and by the end of the summer you will be in great shape.

If your mother tongue is English, I might recommend to you Robert Frost, Thomas Hardy, W. B. Yeats, W. H. Auden, Marianne Moore, and Elizabeth Bishop. If the language is German, Rainer Maria Rilke, Georg Trakl, Peter Huchel, and Gottfried Benn. If it is Spanish, Antonio Machado, Federico Garcia Lorca, Luis Cernuda, Rafael Alberti, Juan Ramon Jiminez, and Octavio Paz will do. If the language is Polish -- or if you know Polish (which would be to your great advantage, because the most extraordinary poetry of this century is written in that language) -- I'd like to mention to you the names of Leopold Staff, Czeslaw Milosz, Zbigniew Herbert, and Wislawa Szymborska. If it is French, then of course Guillaume Apollinaire, Jules Supervielle, Pierre Reverdy, Blaise Cendrars, some of Paul Eluard, a bit of Aragon, Victor Segalen, and Henri Michaux. If it is Greek, then you should read Constantin Cavafy, George Seferis, Yannis Ritsos. If it is Dutch, then it should be Martinus Nijhoff, particularly his stunning "Awater." If it is Portugese, you should read Fernando Pessoa and perhaps Carlos Drummond be Andrade. If the language is Swedish, read Gunnar Ekelof, Harry Martinson, Tomas Transtromer. If it is Russian, it should be, to say the least, Marina Tsevaeva, Osip Mandelstam, Anna Akhmatova, Boris Pasternak, Vladislav Khodasevish, Velemir Khlebnikov, Nikolai Klyuev. . . .

If after going through the works of any of these, you drop a book of prose picked up from the shelf, it won't be your fault. If you continue to read it, that will be to the author's credit; that will mean that this author has indeed something to add to the truth about our existence as it was known to these few poets just mentioned; this would prove at least that this author is not redundant, that his language has independent energy and grace. Or else, it would mean that reading is your incurable addiction. As addictions go, it is not the worst.