introducing readers to writers since 1995

October 02, 2004

"What gets left of a man amounts
to a part. To his spoken part. To a part of speech."

by Ron Hogan

jbrodsky.jpgDavid Remnick began the New Yorker festival's tribute to Joseph Brodsky by describing how the Russian expatriate poet used to show his disdain for the "vulgarity" of journalistic questions about his political views by making "them" hold his cat in "their" lap, producing much sniffling as allergies kicked in. (Somehow, I think the sample pool here might be rather narrow...) After offering some additional insights into Brodsky's verse and his stature in his homeland, Remnick turned the microphone over to the writers, beginning with Mark Strand, who recalled of Brodsky's readings, "he seemed to chant, and American poets tend to mumble." Nicole Krauss was next, and though she's best known as a novelist these days, she has written some poetry--with, she told us, a bit of mentorship from Brodsky that began her freshman year of college. She read a letter he'd written with advice on specific poems; his reaction to one titled "Sleeping With Baryshnikov" was that "sex is something that is easier done than said, and this poem proves it."

Gary Shtenygart revealed that, unlike the other panelists, he'd never met Brodsky, but as a Russian emigré in New York in the 1980s, he was acutely aware of him; a declaration by Shtenygart's mother that she'd seen the poet crossing the street in Manhattan and looking pale could set off all manner of hoopla in the household, and the teenage boy came to the poems because he wanted to know who could generate such a fuss. Tatyana Tolstaya talked about the time she came to America and met Brodsky, then recalled how she dreamed about his death at, apparently, the very hour it was happening; she also read from three of his poems in Russian, which many audience members in the darkened auditorium appreciated, if the murmuring was any indication. Finally, Derek Walcott shared his memories of meeting Brodsky at Robert Lowell's funeral, where his uncrying demeanor was "a model of reticence," and eventually working together on translations of his Russian verse, including "Letter from the Ming Dynasty."

Photos of Brodsky at various stages of his life were projected on a large screen behind the podium, and occasionally one could hear recordings of Brodsky reading his poems as one guest sat down and another prepared to stand. As Walcott walked away, the final picture was the portrait by Richard Avedon (which you can see in reduced size here), a fitting--and I assume witting--tribute to the recently deceased photographer whose work had done so much to transform the magazine over the last twelve years.

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