30 January 2008

Joseph Brodsky

[from Joseph Brodsky's Less Than One: Selected Essays, 1986]

art, especially poetry, differs from any other form of psychological activity precisely because in it everything -- form, content, and the very spirit of the work -- is picked out by ear. . . . verse meter is the equivalent of a certain psychological state, at times not of just one state but of several. The poet "picks" his way toward the spirit of a work by means of the meter.

The above by no means signifies intellectual irresponsibility. Exactly the opposite is the case: rational enterprise -- choice, selection -- is entrusted to hearing, or (putting it more clumsily but more accurately) is focused into hearing.

. . . it is the second, and not the first, line that shows where your poem is to go metrically. It also informs an experienced reader as to the identity of the author, i.e., whether he is American or British (an American second line, normally, is quite bold: it violates the preconceived music of the meter with its linguistic content; a Briton, normally, tends to sustain the tonal predictability of the second line, introducing his own diction only in the third, or, more likely, in the fourth line. Compare the tetrametric -- or even pentametric -- jobs of Thomas Hardy with E. A. Robinson, or better still, with Robert Frost). More importantly, though, the second line is the line that introduces the rhyme scheme.

. . . in a poem, you should try to reduce the number of adjectives to a minimum. So that if somebody covers your poem with a magic cloth that removes adjectives, the page will still be black enough because of nouns, adverbs, and verbs. When that cloth is little, your best friends are nouns. Also, never rhyme the same parts of speech. Nouns you can, verbs you shouldn't, and rhyming adjectives is taboo.

. . . Whenever you are going to use something pejorative, try to apply it to yourself to get the full measure of the word. Otherwise your criticism may amount simply to getting unpleasant things out of your system.

. . . A stanza, you see, is a self-generating device: the end of one spells the necessity of another. This necessity is first of all purely acoustical and, only then, didactical (although one shouldn't try to divorce them, especially for the sake of analysis). The danger here is that the preconceived music of a recurrent stanzaic pattern tends to dominate or even determine the content. And it's extremely hard for a poet to fight the dictates of the tune.

The eleven-line-long stanza of "September 1, 1939," is, as far as I can tell, Auden's own invention, and the irregularity of its rhyme pattern functions as an anti-fatigue device. Note that. All the same, the quantitative effect of an eleven-line-long stanza is such that the first thing on the writer's mind as he starts a new one is to escape from the musical predicament of the preceding lines.

Less Than One: Selected Essays

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