The late Russian poet
Joseph Brodsky hailed Czesaw Miosz as the greatest living poet,
praising ³a severe and relentless mind of such intensity that
the only parallel one is able to think of is that of the biblical
characters, most likely Job.² That intensity has drawn journalists,
scholars, and fans to the hills above Berkeley, where the Nobel
laureate poet lived for decades in his Grizzly Peak home, a
secluded Tudor-style cottage buried amid ivy and trees. I too
was drawn to his home in February and March 2000.
The dates are significant:
Miosz was to leave for Krakow a few months later, and these
may possibly be his last American interviews. Arranging a meeting
with the Polish poet, then eighty-nine years old, was as carefully
planned as a satellite launch; the poetıs health had been precarious,
and it took months of negotiation to schedule a suitable time
for an interview. It was worth the wait.
Mioszıs face is softer, paler,
rounder than it appears in the photos that have made his face
a literary icon, though the trademark bushy eyebrows still give
him a slightly forbidding look. But if his replies seemed hesitant,
whimsical, or elliptical, his edge was as sharp as ever as he
continued to prepare poems, articles, and manuscripts for the
tenth decade of his astonishing life.
In the past, you
delivered some strong words about the state of poetry today.
For example, ³behind the interplay of phenomena there is a meaningful
world structure to which our hearts and minds are allied. Everything,
however, conspires to destroy that supposition, as if it were
a remnant of our faith in the miraculous.² Also: ³A glass wall
of conventions rises between a poet and reality² and you warned
against poetry becoming ³a heap of broken images, where the
sun beats.² Have you changed your mind about what you said in
the Norton lectures at Harvard, twenty years ago?
No, I donıt have any
reason to change my mind.
from those lectures: ³Poets in the twentieth century are by
nature isolated, deprived of a public, unrecognized, while the
great soul of the people is asleep, unaware of itself and learns
of itself only in the poetry of the past.²
This is true‹because
the history of poetry of the twentieth century is the history
of revolutions in techniques, in language, in forms. Itıs analogous
to the history of painting. This is a question of estrangements
from the large public. I maintain that. But I observe that the
situation of poetry is stable.
And yet weıve experienced
what many have termed a ³poetry renaissance.²
Joseph Brodsky used
to say that if only one percent of the American people read
poetry, we would have an audience of two-and-a-half million.
He wanted to create an anthology of great American poetry at
a very low cost. He wanted to leave the anthology in hotels‹like
You have said, ³Perhaps
in order to write poetry in our twentieth century you need to
believe in God . . .²
As to belief in God,
I believe in God out of gratitude‹because I am still alive,
and through an extraordinary series of coincidences.
You and Joseph Brodsky
shared ³a sacred vision of the world,² in your words. Can you
elaborate a little?
I guess that our point
of common ground was reading the philosophy of Lev Shestov.
Shestov was very good, especially his Athens and Jerusalem.
He was for the Jerusalem as opposed to the Greek tradition.
You seem to have
a few more acres of common ground. You said in an interview
that ³Brodsky and myself stand together and choose to differ
from certain Modernist poets. . . . [G]iven the state of Western
poetry at present, Brodsky and I may well be considered to be
lingering in the rear guard, but really we may be the avant-garde.
Thatıs something you just never know, because if we poets work
hard at it then we can change the direction in which poetry
is headed.² What direction do you think poetry is headed‹and
how would you change that?
I donıt know. It seems
to me a question of a certain resistance to changing fashions.
Maintaining oneıs own vision, oneıs own taste, let us say, against
the current fashion of the day. Brodsky was very much his own.
I have lived a long time in the West and tried to remain faithful
to a line of Polish poetry. The same applies to Brodsky and
Russia. The history of poetry is the history of language. Thatıs
why Joseph Brodsky wrote that we write to please our predecessors,
not our contemporaries. I felt rooted in the whole tradition
of Polish poetry. It explains my immunity to the fashions of
the day‹which doesnıt mean I wasnıt influenced by many American
poets. Itıs interesting that Joseph Brodsky was immune to the
whole Whitman tradition of poetry. For him, Frost was the greatest
Do you see that
this resistance to fashion, this love of tradition, has had
any influence here in the West?
We never know whether
we influence our readers. But there is something like a Polish
school of poetry‹there is a line through [Zbigniew] Herbert,
[Wisawa] Szymborska, [Tadeusz] Rozewicz, myself, to give an
example of the influence of that school. Seamus Heaney, who
wrote several essays about Polish literature, was trying to
cope with the Irish problem of civil war. He found in the Polish
poets a way of dealing with the historical situation in an oblique
way‹a way to integrate the historical situation into a body
of poetry. He found encouragement to deal with the historical
Irish problems in a roundabout way. I have said about Szymborska
that, through a peculiar distillation, she deals with the historical-political
situation. Itıs behind what she writes.
The grafting of
sensibilities, East and West: where has it succeeded and where
has it failed?
I should say it goes
to the credit of Americans that they are open to things coming
from the outside‹that openness is not characteristic of all
the countries of Western Europe.
Are they? You have
often cited Simone Weilıs comment, ³An essential feature of
the first half of the twentieth century consists in the weakening
and near disappearance of the notion of value.² Sometimes I
wonder if this openness is just a lack of rootedness in any
There was at a given
moment a stable world where we could see, hold on to values
that were a reflection of the eternal order of things. Now we
are in a flux. This is a very peculiar way of life.
And this is connected
with tradition. With traditional forms, traditional values.
With a respect for tradition. If we cannot return to the stable
world of the past, at least we can have some respect for some
stable points. Brodsky would write every Christmas a poem‹on
that event, on the birth of Jesus. This is a sort of piety,
I should say, for the past, for some crucial points in our history.
There is no such
thing as Eastern and Western sensibilities‹Joseph Brodsky and
I belonged to different cultures. This may reflect the history
of Eastern Christianity and Western Christianity.
is in flux, revision, it is healthy to have some poets who preserve
the feeling of respect. In a way, Brodsky was a conservative
voice in that sense‹he had a lot of sense.
And yet, both of
you do have a common viewpoint. One example: a sense of the
scale of man against the larger canvas of events. That puts
you decidedly against a strong current in contemporary poetry.
Maybe what I said about
the Polish school is true. Itıs true about Szymborska‹precisely
because behind her writing you feel that historical scope.
Have you read Anna
I translated a volume
of hers‹Talking to My Body‹published by Copper Canyon
Press. [Goes to bookshelves.] I cannot find it. Iıve done so
many books‹it can be hard to find a particular one. [Finally
finds it, brings it back to the living room.] What a guest we
Yes. What an extraordinary
person she was! As a poet, she was underestimated‹because she
was a feminist, because she wrote about the fate of woman in
her poems. Her erotic poems shocked people. She loved men, and
depicted it brutally. She wrote calligraphically about males
and females‹with great detachment. She tried after the war to
grasp her experiences. She worked as a nurse in the Warsaw of
1944. She couldnıt find a language for it. Finally, she wrote
³Building the Barricade.²
We were contemporaries‹never
lovers. Rather distant colleagues. This is my postmortem after
her death. [He hands me a book of essays about her in Polish,
along with another book.]
Levertov in Polish?
Yes. In her old age.
We knew each other before. Very revolutionary. We were friends.
You have also translated
portions of the Bible into Polish. Why did you choose St. Mark
out of the four Gospels?
was the earliest. I intended to translate the Bible as a result
of my friendship with Father [Jozef] Sadzik. He brought me to
translate the Psalms first. I told him I cannot translate from
the Latin. He would have to give me time to learn Hebrew. So
I learned enough Hebrew to translate. That was a project of
several years. Through a translation of the original text, sometimes
we had a big discussion. The Book of Job, for example, has no
definite text‹in the original, itıs very enigmatic. You can
translate it various ways.
But Sadzik died
suddenly from a heart attack, taking my translation of Job to
the printer. After his death, I found no one to take his place.
Dog you have a section called ³Subject to Let²; near the
end of it you wrote, ³Blessed be classicism and let us hope
it did not pass away forever.²
Because the so-called
³objective-style² description of reality‹with a normal syntax,
and in the third person‹is now no more practiced in novels.
Prose has become extremely subjective, extremely subjective.
A kind of internal monologue, which is not closer to reality
than an objective description in third person.
For instance, if
you take Samuel Beckett, in his novel Molloy, he creates
a figure of an old man deranged, who tells his story as a monologue.
But it is not more probable than a dialogue in third person.
By classicism, I mean the good prose of the nineteenth century.
And in poetry?
Poetry is something
else. It has different rules. Well, if poets today write in
the old style using rhyme and meter, itıs sort of camp. I have
written the best of my poems about the war in Warsaw in 1943
in the language of childrenıs primer, childrenıs fairy stories.
But otherwise, you
think itıs camp?
To a large extent,
yes. Doesnıt mean youıre against it.
And yet Joseph Brodsky
wrote that ³a regular meter and the exact rhymes shaping an
uncomfortable thought are far more functional than any form
of free verse. Because in the former case the reader gets a
sense of chaos being organized, while in the latter a sense
of dependence on and being determined by chaos.²
[Looking up sharply.]
Yes. Yes. Exactly.
Is that a difference
between your two outlooks, then?
Thatıs the problem
of language. He was in the tradition of Russian verse. The language
dictates the evolution of poetry. I was not in that tradition
at all. The Russian language dictates this, with its moving
accent, while the Polish and Italian languages have stable accents.
Itıs moving in the
sense that a word has an accent on the first or second or final
syllable. In Polish, it is always the penultimate syllable that
And where would
you rank English in that spectrum?
English? The laws of
English are so different from the laws of such languages, I
donıt know how to answer. French has a stable accent‹but itıs
very different from Russian.
How would you describe
Brodskyıs legacy to the West, as man and poet?
I wonder whether his
legacy is more his English essays rather than his poems. I am
not sure his poetry is translatable. Because itıs all the element
of language, the elemental force of the language. I have heard
the opinions of some people who read him in translation who
do not think that much of him as a poet. In my opinion, Osip
Mandelstam is untranslatable. You lose the intonations of the
We should say something
about enemies of Brodsky, because there has been a hostile undercurrent,
those who consider that his fame has been blown up for political
reasons. Yes? There was such an undercurrent, and I wonder.
I donıt know how it looks at the present moment in Russia. I
In Russia, heıs
spoken about in the same breath with Pushkin, without laughter.
A huge vacuum has been left by his death in Russian literature.
Yet thereıs also been a typically Russian attempt to whitewash
him‹make him saintly, smooth out his rather sharply etched character.
I know Russian poets‹but
they are friends of Brodsky, and they wouldnıt say a word against
him. They are admirers. So I donıt know his reception in Russia.
Which poets are
[Yevgeny] Rein, [Alexander]
Kushner, and a third. I forgot the name, in any case. I know,
but I cannot remember it now. It seems to me every poet after
death goes through a purgatory, so to say. T. S. Eliot is still
Surely the literatiıs
prayers should have brought Eliot out by now. But you think
he is still in purgatory?
Yes. So he must go
through that moment of revision after death.
It seems to me that
Brodsky had a tremendous amount to say to Western poets, and
somehow itıs been shrugged off. What he said was often idiosyncratic,
cranky, but much of it was very true. A younger generation,
particularly, has tended to throw out the baby with the bathwater.
It seems to me that
people who read him‹in English‹somehow miss many things, because
his poetry doesnıt translate well.
And he interfered
with his own translations . . .
He translated himself,
and he wrote poems in English, but I didnıt favor that change
Yes, but he wrote
some remarkable essays in English.
His essays are fantastic.
But his poetry in English, written in English or translated
into English, is not faithful to himself.
I agreed with him
in this whole attitude of‹he is much more sober than his contemporary
poets in America. Sober. You said that he is cranky, but he
is sober. And because of that he had a different perspective.
Thatıs one aspect
that has been somewhat discarded.
First of all, he lived
in that period‹the sixties‹that had a great impact in America,
and people were more or less leftist. He had those experiences
in Russia, and he had absolutely no illusions in this respect.
Fortunately, he lived in America, where political correctness
was not absolutely obligatory‹so there were some zones where
political incorrectness could operate. Fortunately for him,
he was not in France, where he wouldnıt have been able to breathe
even, yes? Because everything there was submitted to a leftist
political correctness. But certainly his attitude toward history
was influenced by his knowledge of the Soviet Union.
You and Brodsky
had some apparent disagreements about the role of language.
He had said, ³If thereıs any deity for me, itıs language.² Did
you ever have any discussions about that?
I donıt remember‹but
in any case, he attached enormous importance to the language.
Itıs very strange. Iıll tell you why itıs strange. Because the
new fashion in the theory of literature‹and those ismıs
succeeding each other, structuralism, deconstructionalism, and
so on‹attaches enormous importance to the language. We have
some linguistic poets‹for instance, people like Ashbery. The
approach of Brodsky to the language is completely different.
It has nothing to do with those fashions. You understand? This
is very striking, because . . . I define it as follows: all
those fashions [that] come to America from France are reductionist.
Reductionist, which means they are part of the big philosophy
the suspicion that everything is the result of economic factors.
Freud introduced the idea that everything is the result of the
libido. Nietzsche introduced the notion of the will to power.
The followers of Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche applied various
kinds of suspicion to literature. You can follow all those movements
and their suspicion consists of this: It is not what it seems.
Because there is underneath a hidden mortar which should be
revealed. Thereıs no such reductionism in Brodsky. Absolutely
How would you characterize
him, as opposed to this philosophy of suspicion?
I characterize him
as a pious man‹and piety is the reverse of suspicion.
You had some differences
on poetics. He was a big stickler on form and the role of form
in poetry. Since coming to America, you changed your thinking
on some of that.
All his life he wrote
metrical poetry and rhymed poetry. This is the influence of
the Russian language. In Russian poetry of the nineteenth and
twentieth centuries, there were many new currents, but contrary
to what happened, let us say in France or in England, all those
transformations‹I mean, relying on metaphor, extremely daring
metaphor, and so on‹took place within certain metrical forms,
which is due to the Russian language. The Russian language in
poetry never released, let us say, its attachment to meter,
especially. Russian is an iambic language‹very strongly iambic.
Frost. He didnıt seem to appreciate Whitmanesque verse. As you
know, American poetry is largely influenced by Whitman and William
Carlos Williams. And that verse is based on breathing.
You were initially
a metrical poet in Poland‹even Treatise on Poetry is
mostly in a kind of blank verse, an eleven-syllable line with
four or five stresses.
In Poland, the change
occurred in the period between the two wars. Poets largely abandoned
metrical poetry, because the nature of language is very different.
I have written some metrical poetry, but mostly not.
You said something
about piety. I return to the quote I mentioned earlier: ³Perhaps
to write poetry in our twentieth century, you need to believe
Ah. [Pauses, sighs.]
Poets in Poland are mostly agnostic‹or atheists. But there is
a poet by the name of Tadeusz Rozewicz whose thoughts are focused
on God. He says life with God is impossible, life without God
is impossible. In one breath‹yes? So he thinks constantly about
that problem. My feeling is that itıs better to believe in God
in a positive way, or negative way, like Rozewicz does‹hmmm?
Brodsky was very
sensitive to the sacredness of being. Yes. Thatıs why I call
him pious. I didnıt ask him if he believes in God‹you felt in
him that openness to the sacred.
We had a point
of friction, I should say. I learned not to press that pedal.
What was that?
He was extremely patriotic
about Russia. He wrote a poem about Marshal Zhukov, ³On the
Death of Zhukov.² I like Russians very much and like to talk
Russian, but I donıt like Russia. I donıt like the imperial
Russia‹Brodsky was a Russian patriot, if not chauvinist, I donıt
know. I knew that it was a very sensitive point.
You pressed that
I touched, I knew that I shouldnıt. And this is paradoxical‹he
did not want to go back to Russia. But he went to Poland and
he was very happy there.
With the reforms
in Russia, so many people were expecting him to go back.
Precisely. Yes. He
would be greeted like Solzhenitsyn. But he didnıt want. And
when he was in Poland, he praised Poland for contributing to
the demise of Communism in Russia‹and the whole Solidarity movement,
and so on. He was very moved listening to actors reciting his
poems in Polish translations. But to Russia? No.
For me, the value
of Brodsky was his sobering effect, and his enormous feeling
of hierarchy. He had a great feeling of hierarchy of value in
works of art and works of literature.
You once said, ³I
havenıt learned to speak as I should‹calmly.²
Yes. I didnıt learn
to speak as I should‹calmly. Helen Vendler once wrote in a letter
to me, ³you speak of the most horrible things but in a voice
of nearly superhuman calm.² So I tried to learn that very sober
voice‹without exaltation, without exaggeration. Besides, all
the poetry of the twentieth century is mostly using irony as
a counterbalance for affection.
Kind of a tepid
You said Brodsky
had learned that lesson, to speak calmly. How?
Well, there was in
Brodsky a side of the shaman.
In his readings
you can hear that.
Yes. But his way of
writing was to a large extent shamanlike. I envied him that
enormous ingenuity in finding metaphor and rhymes. His
There is a Polish
poet, Stanisaw Baranczak, a professor at Harvard. He was a virtuoso
of translation‹he translated practically all of Shakespeare,
the metaphysical English poets, Emily Dickinson also, and so
on. But his own poetry, also, is . . . equalibristics. He writes
rhymed poetry, because his inventiveness in this respect is
I envy the inventiveness
of Brodsky in this aspect of poetry. Nobody used before him
such rhymes in Russian as he did. Thatıs why I say that he was
a shaman, because he was under an influence of poetic inspiration.
Those things were not contrived, not done in accord with reflection.
Iım sure itıs received as a gift of a daimon. [With certainty.]
You once said that
writers in the twentieth century might well wish to look to
the Gospel According to St. Luke for their model.
Who said that?
You said that.
No, I donıt remember.
I donıt remember. Why St. Luke especially?
Yes, thatıs what
[Laughter.] No. I donıt