Speech and Verse: Brodskij's Experiments with Metrical Elision

Nila Friedberg, University of Toronto

In his interview with David MacFadyen (2000), Jakov Gordin stated that Brodskij "followed his voice, even when he wrote; he knew to a large degree how it should sound aloud--just like a composer hearing notes, he heard that music...." In what way did Brodskij "follow his voice"? And how was he different from other Russian poets in connecting speech with verse? Moreover, how can one reconcile the claim that Brodskij is close to speech with the claim that his versification has been influenced by English metrics (Scherr 1990)?

In this paper, I provide linguistic support to Gordin's claim, and show that one factor that makes Brodskij uniquely close to speech is his use of metrical elision. This device was never employed in Russian iambic verse before Brodskij (Zhirmunsky 1966), even though elision is widely attested in spoken Russian.

In iambic meter, a weak position typically corresponds to an unstressed syllable, whereas a strong position corresponds to a stressed syllable. A Russian example is shown in (1). W and S refer to weak and strong metrical positions, respectively, whereas capitalization marks stress:

Moj DJA- dja SA- myx ChEST- nyx PRA- vil
Pushkin, Eugene Onegin

As illustrated by (1), in Russian verse each metrical position, whether W or S, is associated with one and only one syllable. On the other hand, in English verse, two syllables can sometimes be "counted" as one. For example, Milton often scans the word never as a monosyllable ne'er. This phenomenon is called "elision." The innovative aspect of Brodskij's poetry is that he sometimes uses elision in Russian iambic verse. Line (2) occurs in Brodskij's iambic poem "New Stanzas to Augusta."

DOZhD' STJA g(i)-va- et pro- SVET
Brodskij, "New Stanzas to Augusta"

The only way to make (2) metrical is to elide the vowel /i/ and pronounce the word "stjagivaet" ("squeezes, congests on") as "stjag'vaet". If no deletion of /i/ applied, one would end up scanning the line as in (3) and associating the word pro-SVET with a SW scansion. According to Zhirmunsky (1966), the stressed syllable of a polysyllabic word (such as "-SVET" in "prosvet") is not allowed to occupy a weak position in Russian verse.

(3) An ill-formed scansion:
DOZhD' STJA g(i)- va- et pro- SVET

Hence elision is absolutely necessary to maintain the uniform iambic analysis of the poem. Of course, one might claim that the exceptional line in (2) is not supposed to be iambic. However, elision in the word "stjag(i)vaet" seems to be intended since it creates a pun: the squeezing of two syllables into one position literally represents the meaning of the word.

I have scanned 10,258 lines of Brodskij's iambic verse, and found 12 instances where elision is necessary. All examples of elision conform to at least two generalizations: (a) the vowel is always elided in the first post-stressed syllable within a word; (b) the vowel is always elided before sonorant consonants /m, l, j/ or /v/. Condition (a) is directly borrowed from conversational Russian. In Russian vowels undergo the largest degree of reduction exactly in the first post-stressed syllable (Matusevich 1976). Moreover, in conversational Russian vowels are often completely deleted in this position, as in "sxod(i)te" or "komn(a)ta" (Zemskaja 1973). On the other hand, condition (b) is likely to have been borrowed from English verse, which imposes a similar restriction on elision (Halle and Keyser 1971). Brodskij's experiment with elision reveals that he does not simply 'follow speech'. Rather, he introduces a unique rule, which exhibits properties of English and Russian prosody at the same time, and yet sounds perfectly native to Russian speakers.