Josif Brodskij's "Osennij krik jastreba": Elegy, Self-Elegy, and the Anxiety of Influence

Andrew Reynolds, Selwyn College, Cambridge

Josif Brodskij's poem "Osennij krik jastreba" ("The Hawk's Cry in Autumn", 1975), widely regarded as one of his greatest achievements, has not received the detailed critical attention it deserves. The present paper has two main aims: to provide a reading of this modern self-elegy's meditation on poetic belatedness and the problem of synthesizing different cultural traditions, and to use this reading to suggest that Harold Bloom's theory of influence provides a suitable framework not only for the study of Brodskij, but of other Russian writers too. Although Bloom's theories have been put to good use in a few studies by Slavists (Clare Cavanagh, Sarah Pratt) and indeed applied to Brodskij's work (Leon Burnett, John Givens), there is a danger that the criticisms of Bloom contained in David Bethea's Joseph Brodsky and the Creation of Exile and Michael Wachtel's Russian Symbolism and Literary Tradition may encourage Slavists to be more dismissive of Bloom's work than is warranted or his supporters to be over-defensive. (This is not an implied criticism of these excellent books: it is precisely because they are such major studies that critics may prefer Bethea or Wachtel to Bloom.)

The poem explores and embodies the difficulties faced by Brodskij in trying to combine various influences to establish a new "composite precursor," to synthesize very different conceptions of poetry and the poet. A chain of covert or "transumptive" allusions to a range of poets (Pushkin, Baratynskij, Mandel'shtam, Axmatova, Cvetaeva, Whitman, Hardy, Yeats, Auden et al.) produces an intertextual, cross-cultural dialogue in which, broadly speaking, allusions linked with autumn and winter represent the Russian tradition where "Poetry is power" and the hawk symbolizes the more impersonal, skeptical Anglo-American view that "poetry makes nothing happen." The poem thereby epitomizes the challenge facing Brodskij, as analyzed brilliantly by Bethea: how to combine Auden's anti-heroic position with the stance of the Russian bard. A Bloomian perspective on this poem not only provides a more complete interpretation of its themes than has been offered thus far, but also sheds new light on a whole range of issues in the study of Brodskij: on his main themes, such as time, exile, the death of the poet, and poetic immortality; on his intertextuality; on the importance of Auden for his life and art.

It is argued that, pace Bethea and indeed Brodskij, the evidence of this and other poems supports Bloom's notion that a poet's best elegies center on his own creative anxieties. Many of Brodskij's statements in his essays are shown to be Bloomian in both letter and spirit. Issue is taken with some of Bethea's claims: for example, he exaggerates the extent to which the anxiety of influence is parodic or polemic, and repeats the common misreading in which Bloom's theory describes a Freudian Oedipal rivalry. As Pratt rightly notes, more study is needed before one can decide whether Bloom can be of particular use to the Slavist; it would be wrong at this stage to make huge claims for either the universality of the anxiety of influence or the immunity of Russian literature (or individual authors or particular movements) to poetic influenza. But it seems unlikely that one of the most influential theorists and most insightful readers of our century would not have something valuable to offer the study of Russian literature, and there is no strong evidence to suggest that the Bloomian approach, properly understood and applied, is somehow not applicable to Russian culture. Some of the ways in which a revised Bloomian approach may assist the study of Russian literature will be suggested, illustrated primarily with examples from the Mandel'shtam-Pushkin relationship. The paper concludes with some reflections on how Pushkin is likely to be the litmus test for any Bloomian study of Russian literature. Bloom's increasing interest in and emphasis on Shakespeare as a writer practically synonymous with the anxiety of influence may provide useful analogies for Slavists to develop, although they would need revising in the light of existing studies of Pushkin's influence (notably those in Boris Gasparov et al., Cultural Mythologies of Russian Modernism).