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The Observer (UK)
December 2, 2001
Emigré areas
Collections from Joseph Brodsky and Czeslaw Milosz lose some of their subtlety

By John Kinsella

Collected Poems in English
Joseph Brodsky
Carcanet £14.95, pp554

New and Collected Poems 1931-2001
Czeslaw Milosz
Allen Lane £30, pp776

The packaging of poetic greatness is a fallible art. To gather all someone's poems available in a specific language, or that which a poet 'wishes' or 'wished' preserved, is not straightforward. Even less straightforward when the poet had a hand in the translation of his own work. What you end up with is a 'take' on the poet's oeuvre - a combination of the personal and commercial.

Joseph Brodsky, despite his Nobel prize, will last the distance. His skill at creating poetry in his own Russian tongue, and transforming it into English, often when working with fine English-language poets, is beyond dispute.

Brodsky's ability to craft a poem transcended the language he worked in. Though increasingly acclaimed and reclaimed as one of the great Russian poets within Russia, and though immured in the beauty and complexities of his native language, Brodsky wielded words as an extension of a way of perceiving, of a conceptual fused with technical brilliance that makes even a translation soar on the level of language. With his apparently controlled tones, his often 'neutral' and erudite voice, this poet who left school at 15 explores those rare zones where language and idea conjoin.

His absorption of both cultures of Russia and America, where he settled and even became poet laureate, are absorbed into 'literature' as a world in itself. One gets the feeling that, for Brodsky, to be a poet was an absolute, a total necessity. It required no excuses. It's the confidence, and even the masculine flexing of the verse, that is most striking: scintillating deployment of language, and always tangential or odd ways of interpreting ideas, events or other literature. Brodsky produced a large body of work in Russian (he was exiled in 1972) and the Collected Poems in English contains roughly a third of his oeuvre. Other translations are in preparation.

What we get from this volume is a sense of Brodsky's range and diversity. From his literary-conscious constructs of 'nature', that despite its self-awareness and poetic staginess, is also quite 'sensitive' and beautiful, if always cased in terms of the human and society - fundamental building blocks in the world of Brodsky

I hear you again, mosquito hymn of summer! In the dogwood tepee, ants sweat in slumber. A botfly slides off the burdock's crumpled epaulet, showing us that it always ranked just a private. And caterpillars show us the meaning of 'lower than grass'...

through to an immediacy of familial and colloquial language, consistently interesting prosody, dense and complex, even in 'translation'. The conversation also looms large. There is movement, the restlessness of the exile, and of mapping through signatures of art and myth, as well as the referents of art, mythology, techno-data, and history.

Often, despite set form and poetic artifice, there's a deeply controlled passion just below the surface. People have called Brodsky a cold poet. I can't see it myself. Brodsky has also been seen as a power broker, as a figure of convenience for America in its Cold War with the Soviet Union. Much of the work demands to be read in this sometimes bitter and dark context, but it also belongs to larger movements in history and culture.

Milosz too has been used as a 'pawn' in East-West Cold War debates. Born in Lithuania in 1911, though living in Poland until his departure for the US and elsewhere in 1951, Milosz's work figures against a background of resistance to Nazism, the horrors of the Second World War.

Some have said that his poetic development stalls in a prewar sensibility of form and expression, and though there is a consistency in voice and technique, noticeable even through translation, his cumulative project works on a micro rather than macro level. Slow accumulations of change and adaptation.

A robust poetry in terms of its absolute control over language, especially on the level of the sentence, it is also strangely delicate, never going beyond territories in which it retains complete mastery. But this is also a packaging problem. The impact of smaller, discrete individual volumes, that are a knockout for the first-time reader because of their insights into the single moment, is not felt in this massive tome.

Fellow Nobel laureates, and two of many 'exile/emigré' poets in the United States, there are strong connections between Brodsky and Milosz. There's a cross-fertilisation of Nobels, at one time a semi-common 'enemy', and the hopes of the New World working constantly as subtext. But the link on a poetic level stops there. Milosz, least effective when didactic or rhetorical, is a stunning observer of the incidental. The first Milosz poem I ever read, 'Encounter', remains, for me, one of his most remarkable, and in a sense an ars poetica of one strand of his work.

One might superficially observe that ideas and language are welded in Brodsky, opening new ground for development, while in Milosz the poetic impulse is lyrical and touching the edge of human comprehension, almost 'tragic' in its gestures and sincerity: 'Or perhaps we'll say nothing of earthly civilisation./ For nobody really knows what it is.' But there is more crossover between the two than is at first obvious, and this comes out of confrontations with the unrelenting surges of history. As with Brodsky, Milosz, who wrote in Polish, has had a strong hand in the translation of his verse into English.

These are significant volumes by two major poets, though I can't help feeling a sense of loss. Individual volumes are lost in the welter of verse, and none of the subtlety and illumination of subtexts and connections that come out of a selected poems is apparent. You have to extract and construct them. Maybe this suits publishers? Certainly not most poets. Milosz notes: 'A poet at 90 should be wise enough not to write introductions... Yet my publisher insists...'

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