Sunday, April 8, 2018

Joseph Brodsky's idea of free poetry

by George J. Dance

I have no problems with people immigrating here to escape bad stuff in their native countries; but a sore point with me is the few who try to bring some of that bad stuff with them. That sore got poked this weekend while I was working on my poetry wiki, formatting the article on Nobel laureate Joseph Brodsky.

Brodsky was born and grew up in Leningrad in the then Soviet Union (U.S.S.R.). At age 15 he began writing and translating poetry, which he would circulate in samizdat ("self-published") manuscripts or typescripts among his friends. He would also join other poets in giving free, impromptu streetcorner readings, further adding to his reputation.

However, Brodsky was not able to have his work published. From 1955 to 1972 (when he was exiled from the U.S.S.R.) he had just a handful of poems appear in Soviet anthologies. He had no poetry collections published in the country. Nor did he ever appear at any organized poetry performances. Why not? Because the government controlled all of the book publishing, and all of the performance events, and the government did not want his work read or heard. Brodsky could not get around that prohibition by taking his work to a competitor, because there were no competitors.

Brodsky was not the only poet frozen out by the state; Anna Akhmatova, Osip Mandelstam, and Osip's wife Nadezhda, all had their careers warped in the same way. For Brodsky, though, the Soviets found a way to compound the injury: because he was not being published, he was arrested, tried, and briefly imprisoned in a labor camp for "parasitism".

Fortunately for Brodsky, enough of his work had been smuggled out to the capitalist west that his books were being published there; so that when he was forced into exile, he found a reputation and funds waiting for him. He quickly got a professorship in the United States, where he settled, eventually becoming U.S. Poet Laureate in 1991.

Besides his ceremonial duties, the U.S. Poet Laureate traditionally creates his own public project. What was Brodsky's? "During his term as the Poet Laureate, Brodsky promoted the idea of bringing the Anglo-American poetic heritage to a wider American audience by distributing free poetry anthologies to the public through a government-sponsored program." That program never materialized; but what if it had?

Poetry, as Brodsky noted, is not widely read in the U.S. Few if any poetry anthologies turn a profit on sales to the public. What makes them profitable to publishers is the sales to educational institutions that assign them to their students. Now imagine that the government enters the field with an anthology that it gives away free; whether one it prints itself, or a privately published one that it selects, makes no difference. How many schools and universites, faced with the choice of buying 100's of expensive books or getting similar ones for free, would choose the first option? Very few; but that would be the only market left for every competitor to the program. Even sales to the public would be cut for those competitors, if readers could simply pick up a free anthology instead. The result would be the government anthology monopolizing the market.

Anthologies are a way for readers to read a poet's work before buying, and therefore for new poets to reach and build an audience. Under Brodsky's plan, only those selected by the government program would have that opportunity; the rest would have their careers shut down, just as his was shut down by his native government's control of the means of publication.

Of course Brodsky would never be excluded from the government anthology today. Who would? Well, that is the problem: we would never know. Those prevented from publishing, due to the government monopoly, might be free to launch limited careers; but many of them would simply not be heard at all: and we would have no way to even know who they were.

I find it amazing that someone like Brodsky, victimized for years because of a state-monopolized press, would propose taking even the tiniest step to instantiating a similar monopoly in his adopted country.

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