Presentation Speech by Professor Sture Allén, of the Swedish Academy, December 10, 1987
Translation from the Swedish text
Your Majesties, Your Royal Highnesses, Ladies and Gentlemen,
A characteristic feature of the Nobel prizewinner Joseph Brodsky is a magnificent joy of discovery. He sees connections, words them pithily, sees new connections. Not seldom they are contradictory and ambiguous, often caught in a flash like this: “Memory, I think, is a substitute for the tail we lost for good in the happy process of evolution. It directs our movements …”.
In the remarkable writings to which the Swedish Academy has drawn attention this year, poetry as the highest manifestation of life is a theme throughout. It is developed with a poetic brilliance combined with both intellectual beauty and linguistic mastery.
Brodsky is nowadays an American citizen but he was born and grew up in Leningrad, or Peter as he calls the city after its old name of Petersburg. It is a setting in which Pushkin, Gogol and Dostoyevsky worked, and it is a setting whose architecture and ornaments – even in the war-damaged state of the 1940s and 1950s – relate an essential part of the history of our world.
The poet belongs to the classical Russian tradition with names such as Osip Mandelstam, Anna Akhmatova and the Nobel prizewinner Boris Pasternak. At the same time he is a virtuoso renewer of the poetical means of expression. Inspiration comes also from the West, especially the English-language poetry from the metaphysician John Donne to Robert Frost and Wystan Auden.
Latterly Brodsky has begun also to write in English. For him Russian and English are two attitudes to the world. Having both languages at one’s disposal is like sitting on the top of an existential hill with a view over two slopes, over humanity’s two tendencies of development, he has declared. The east-west background has given him an unusual thematic richness and a multitude of perspectives. Together with the writer’s thorough insight into the culture of former epochs it has also conjured up a grand historical vision.
Brodsky has experienced what it means to live. “Life … / bares its teeth in a grin at each / encounter.” Through all hardships – trial, internal banishment, exile – he has retained his integrity and his faith in literature and language. There are criteria for human behaviour, he says, which come not from society but from literature.
The poet plays a key part as examiner, tester and questioner. Poetry becomes the decisive counterweight against time, the principle of deformation. The poet also becomes the spokesman in the totalitarian society’s apparent silence and the open society’s stupefying flood of information.
Although Brodsky has defined his standpoint distinctly, political disputes are not prominent in him. The problem is raised to a more general level: man’s duty is to live his own life, not a life determined by the categories and norms of others. “Freedom / is when you forget the spelling of the tyrant’s name …”
What could be more natural for a writer than to wrestle with the phenomenon of language? This struggle with his own tool is very intense in Brodsky’s case. It marks his view of poetry and the poet: “Reading [Dostoyevsky] simply makes one realize that stream of consciousness springs not from consciousness but from a word which alters or redirects one’s consciousness”. The ultimate power, he maintains, is “the omnivorousness of his language which eventually comes to a point where it cannot be satisfied with God, man, reality, guilt, death, infinity, salvation … and then it takes on itself.”
Brodsky’s view of language also characterizes his view of states and societies: “For empires are held together by neither political nor military forces but by languages. – Empires are, first and foremost, cultural entities; and it’s language that does the job, not legions.”
Language of course provides material for metaphors in poetry: “Late evening in Lithuania. / People drift home from mass, hiding the commas / of candles in parentheses of hands”.
For Brodsky poetry stands out as a divine gift. The religious dimension that undeniably is to be found in his writings adheres, however, to no particular creed. Metaphysical and ethical questions are paramount, not doctrines.
Style and mood alternate in this richly orchestrated poetry. Here is the profound cultural analysis in the essays side by side with the rollicking ironies in the poem History of the Twentieth Century. Yet, for Joseph Brodsky poetry, even in its mirthful moments, is deadly earnest.
Dear Mr. Brodsky,
It has been my privilege and pleasure to introduce you to the audience in my native tongue. The gist of what I have said is contained, as it were, in a line from one of your recent poems: “Let me tell you: you are okay”. In fact, you yourself belong to the history of the Twentieth Century alluded to. On behalf of the Swedish Academy I congratulate you on your remarkable achievements. May I ask you to step forward to receive, from the hands of His Majesty the King, the Nobel Prize for Literature 1987.