Two decades ago, the general managers of professional football teams discovered that the highly specialized jobs of placekicking could be done by sometime soccer players, most of them born and raised abroad. The placekicker, we remember, is often called upon to deliver a field goal whose three points, especially in the game’s concluding moments, can tilt the final score from one side to another. This placekicker would then be mobbed by his teammates; newspaper headlines could proclaim that he had “won the game,” discounting the performance of the other players who did most of the work. It was Alex Karras, then a star tackle, now a television star, who charged that it was a degradation of a great American game to allow players who were only on the field a few seconds and who could hardly speak English, to scream, “I vin it, I keek it.”

This bit of ancient history comes to mind with Joseph Brodsky’s new book of essays. Within less than 15 years in this country, he has become the most successful poet of his generation (which is also mine). He took an early MacArthur Prize. In 1979 he became the youngest poet in our National Institute of Arts and Letters. His new books get reviewed on the front page of the New York Times Book Review. He received an honorary degree from Yale. Etc., etc. Brodsky is a good poet, accomplished in undistinguished ways, but somewhat obvious and bombastic. He is by no account better than a hundred others his age, a generation that (at least in America) has produced an abundance of good poets, though none commonly recognized as great; but since a lot more worldly success has come his way, some examination is in order.

The truth is that he is admired by people who understand biography better than poetry, and the former is easier to merchandise, especially in America. The immigrant, especially from an Iron Curtain country, has an instant autobiography unavailable to the native-born; and it would seem that the major purpose of this new book is to contribute to that self-myth of the young Russian who learned literary English, translated some of it, was imprisoned for independent literary activities until he was kicked out of Russia and, at the Vienna airport, rescued by a generous American professor-publisher who got him a Midwestern university teaching job for the fall. Soon afterwards, he befriended native literary powerhouses able to give him not just encouragement but substantial rewards.

If Brodsky has actually written any classic poems, I cannot find them in the English translations I have read. (Much reportedly remains untranslated.) I notice that his admirers here are no more sure. While reviewers quote passages from individual poems as illustrative of something or other, they are reluctant to identify any one of them as great. Brodsky’s poems do not appear in anthologies of American poetry, not even Helen Vendler’s Harvard (1985), which strives to be a compendium of received opinion.

I know of only one American poet colleague who reads his work with pleasure and have thus concluded that it ultimately is no more written for us than for the common reader. émigré literati I know tell me that his reputation here is based upon tokenism, our publicity machinery rewarding one and only one member of every identifiable minority (e.g., black, Midwestern, etc.); and if Solzhenitsyn is to be America’s favorite émigré novelist, so Brodsky has become our token Russian poet, even though other émigrés are equally consequential.

The occasional essays collected in this new book are no more substantial. They range from perfunctory backslapping appreciations of older poets (Derek Walcott, Eugenio Montale) to extended analyses of two poems (one in Russian by Tsvetaeva, the other by W.H. Auden). There is one memoir of his native city, Leningrad, and another of an awful trip to Constantino pie. There are brushes at political commentary, but nothing like the political prose of another émigré poet—Czeslaw Milosz’s The Captive Mind (1953). If Brodsky has read any American poets younger than Robert Lowell, he does not say; it is probably safer for his self-myth (and specialized position) not to. In the end, Less Than One has no cohesive subject, other than his own celebrity.

Most of these essays were originally written in English. Those initially in Russian were put into English by Barry Rubin, an otherwise unidentified figure whom Brodsky credits with “editorial counsel” in his last poetry collection, A Part of Speech (1980). The principal distinguishing mark of Brodsky’s prose is a grandiosity that comes largely from exaggeration and from taking poetry, and language, too seriously. It is a kind of “grand manner” I associate first with poets generations older than himself, especially in Europe (and perhaps accounts for the publicist’s image of Brodsky as “cosmopolitan”) and then with the illusion that from a grand style necessarily follow great ideas. Consider the book’s opening paragraph:

As failures go, attempting to recall the past is like trying to grasp the meaning of existence. Both make one feel like a baby clutching at a basketball: one’s palms keep sliding off.

This last metaphor is a confection inconceivable to me, who has never seen (and cannot imagine) infants ever having the opportunity to clutch inflated baskethalls. (A baseball would be more appropriate.) Now, of course, to impressionable minds, what seems an unnecessary affectation can become more acceptable in those who also can say “I keek it, I vin it.” However, in English, such inflated phrasing is indicative of the limited specialist; and within the world of American poetry, Brodsky has never been more than a placekicker, a sideshow import whose praise-winning books appeal particularly to those inclined, alas, to appreciate flashiness over substance.


[Less Than One: Selected Essays, by Joseph Brodsky (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux) $25.00]