Sunday, April 18, 2010

Poets as Parasites; World without Words

A loyal subject of these second-rate years,
I proudly admit that my finest ideas
are second-rate, and may the future take them
as trophies of my struggle against suffocation.
      I sit in the dark.  And it would be hard to figure out
      which is worse:  the dark inside, or the darkness out.

--Joseph Brodsky
   an excerpt from “I Sit by the Window” (1971)  [for Lev Loseff], translated by
   Howard Moss  in A Part of Speech  (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1977).

Joseph Brodsky was arrested in 1963, and in 1964 charged with parasitism by the Soviet authorities. A famous excerpt from the transcript of his trial made by journalist Frida Vigdorova was smuggled to the West.

Judge: And what is your profession, in general?
Brodsky: I am a poet and a literary translator.
Judge: Who recognizes you as a poet? Who enrolled you in the ranks of poets?
Brodsky: No one. Who enrolled me in the ranks of humankind?
Judge:Did you study this?
Brodsky: This?
Judge: How to become a poet. You did not even try to finish high school where they prepare, where they teach?
Brodsky:I didn’t think you could get this from school.
Judge: How then?
Brodsky:I think that it ... comes from God, yes God.

For his "parasitism" Brodsky was sentenced to five years of internal exile with obligatory engagement in physical work and served 18 months in the Archangelsk region. [1]

In February of 1996, I attended "An Evening in Memory of Joseph Brodsky" on the campus of Harvard University, where they showed a film of Brodsky reading some of his poems in Russian:    Colleagues, friends, acquaintances, and students, in turn rose to read his poems and prose or speak about him and share their memories. The thing I most remember, though, and which I carry with me to this day, is a short sentence said to have been uttered by him, consisting of only two words:

"Words matter."

In translating, in editing, in writing, in speaking--in how you create them, how you string them together, where you find them, when you sing them, manipulate or omit them; when you hide them, when you distort, censor, or destroy them—in every interaction with them, whether accidental or intentional--they matter.

They are not "just" words.  They are equally capable of bringing ecstacy or inflicting madness.  They bring people together; they tear them apart.  They impart both joy and pain.  They can bore or annoy beyond endurance—or change someone's life forever.

You can love them, hate them, tweak them, murder them or happily play with them. You can ignore, or become obsessed by them.

Without them one is reduced to mere gestures for communication.  Comprehension disappears, connections are lost,  insights never arrived at.  An overwhelming emptiness would prevail.  A world of raw sound and images and symbols but no more written text, no more spoken, intelligible words.  I’m trying to imagine a universe absent the written and spoken word, where all of them are ... suddenly, completely GONE.  Civilization, as we know it, would grind to a halt.

The ultimate regression:  "A World Without Words". It would make a terrific science fiction story. 

No comments: