Modernizing the Poet/Prophet: Iosif Brodskij and the Poet's Position of Power

Rebecca Pyatkevich, Columbia University

The famed Pushkinian "poet/prophet" formulation of the task of the poet, so characteristic of Russian poetry in the nineteenth and the twentieth century, can be seen to be the literary counterpart to the tendencies toward poetic canonization and Romantic mythologization of the poet. More precisely, the literary self-identification of the poet as somehow also a "prophet" exists in a symbiotic relationship with his extraliterary canonization. The"poet/prophet" stance is, thus, intimately connected to the interrelation between the poet's life and his work, his text and his cultural context--a relation usefully examined, in part, by Svetlana Boym in her book Death in Quotation Marks: Cultural Mythologies of the Modern Poet.

Though the "poet/prophet" literary pose is, by origin, a Romantic one, it has remained malleable enough, in the context of Russia's peculiar political and cultural history, to provide for a continually feasible myth of what it means to be a poet (as opposed to the Western development of the Mallarmean model of the writer without a biography). The poet/prophet position proved to be particularly workable under the literary conditions imposed by the Soviet, and particularly the Stalinist, state, where the poet's speech was executed, necessarily, as part of the larger discursive streams of the time. In the political situation created by the Stalinist regime, where all actions and statements were unambiguously politicized, the poet was read, alternately, either as spokesperson for the values propagated by the State, or as spokesperson for those oppressed and deprived of voice, if not life, by the State. The easing of political pressures on the flow of literary discourses that occurred with the end of the Stalinist era created a complex literary situation where aspects of literary modernism that had been in use by the official literature began to interact with aspect of literary modernism that had been artificially surpressed, but had remained in underground currents or had made their way from abroad. Together with the fact that the easing of political pressures on literary processes made possible, and even necessary, the revision of a number of literary positions, these changes resulted in the emergence, in the 1960s, of the need for a modernization of the "poet/prophet" motif.

Such a modernization was convincingly and elaborately executed by Iosif Brodskij. Though, more so than perhaps any other poet of his time, Brodskij's poetic fate was influenced by the political events surrounding his life, he consciously addressed the applicability of the "poet/prophet" position to his own literary, and extraliterary, position in Russian literature. I will show how Brodskij, rather than fully reject the poet/prophet model, revises it instead to reflect a more intertextual and modernist approach, whereby the poet has revelatory power not because he is the spokesman for God, but because his position is an inherently democratic one, his experiences are potentially available to all, and the poet lacks the essential chosenness that is a central aspect of the Romantic consciousness of the poet. On the evidence of several poems, notably "Litovskij noktjurn: Tomasu Venclova" and "Pis'mo v Akademiju", I will analyze the terms in which Brodskij frames the revision of the poet/prophet motif. I will then contrast this analysis with the poems--mostly later ones--where he practices the position of the "poet/prophet," and will note the extent to which his practiced position coincides with his theoretically stated one, as opposed to the traditional understanding of the poet/prophet. Through close analysis, I will show how several of Brodskij's key poetic preoccupations--his attempt at a monumental picture of the world, presented simultaneously from several points of view, and the disappearance of overt marks of the lyrical "I" in the poet's texts--works with the existing structure of the idea of the poet/prophet to create a position of power of the poet vis-à-vis the reader, but updates the now-unconvincing Romantic elements of that position in favor of more Modernist ones.