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75 at 75: Mark Strand on Joseph Brodsky

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A special project for 92Y Unterberg Poetry Center’s 75th anniversary and beyond, 75 at 75 invites authors to listen to recordings from our archive and write a personal response. Here, Mark Strand writes about an evening he shared with Joseph Brodsky, reading Brodsky’s poems in English translation alongside Brodsky’s recitations of the Russian originals. It was recorded live at 92Y on November 20, 1978. Strand, who died last week, first appeared at the Poetry Center in 1965, a winner of our “Discovery” poetry contest.

Posted on Dec 3, 2014

Strand_Brodsky_Paris_Review_Thumb copyI was there on the evening of November 20, 1978. I read aloud the English versions of Joseph Brodsky’s poems. But it seems extraordinary to me that I should remember so little of what was by any standard a brilliant performance by the Russian poet. I was probably too concerned with my part in the program, not wanting to trip over lines or mispronounce words, to pay much attention to Joseph. Listening to myself now, some thirty-six years later, it is obvious that I was paying close attention to syntax and hoping to project as much clarity as possible. I wanted to read as if I understood what I was reading. Joseph’s reading of his poems was of a different order. For one thing he was their author and knew them well enough to recite them from memory. His voice was slightly nasal, but formidably resonant. Meter overrode syntax, creating climax after climax. Vowels were elongated, assonance was everywhere audible, a nameless urgency filled the air. It didn’t matter that I didn’t know Russian, I was moved in a way that no reading by an American poet could move me. The nervous desire to please, the intrusive commentary that American poets provide in an attempt to normalize their poems, played no part in Joseph’s reading. He seemed more committed to the world of his imagination than to the audience. And the audience, judging from the frequency and duration of their applause, loved what they witnessed. Joseph’s readings cast a spell, they were inescapably uplifting and if they tended at times to grandiosity it was a measure of how seriously he took his calling as poet. After all, his poems were headed for eternity, far beyond the reach of a single reading on a particular night in November 1978.

Mark Strand’s Collected Poems was published this fall. He died on November 29, 2014.