Monday, June 2, 2014

Poem Review: "Homage To Yalta" by Joseph Brodsky

Joseph Brodsky did not hold back any punches. The best way to describe Brodsky and his knack for writing was that there was no boundaries... okay, I guess there were if you considered his motherland, but Brodsky did not give a damn. As a Russian poet, he was active during the reign of Nikita Khrushchev and Leonid Brezhnev. While the Khrushchev era provided a bit of flexibility for writers to come out and speak their mind such as that of Solzhenitsyn and his pieces about the Gulag, Brezhnev was much more hesitant about straying away from the denunciation of Joseph Stalin. Brezhnev's reign portrayed the writers as if they were rebels turning against their country and in Brodsky's case, he just did not care. His work exposed the faults of the Soviet Union and touched on graphic areas (politically and sexually). In 1972, after being put away on a handful of occasions, Brodsky was expelled from his country. Perhaps this was the best thing that could have ever happened to him, for he started a new life in America. In America, he became a college professor, he started writing essays and continued to write new poetry while translating his older poems, and would go on to win a Nobel Prize in Literature in 1987 and serve as the United States Poet Laureate in 1991 and 1992.

"Homage to Yalta" is a poem Brodsky wrote in 1969, so he was still in his days as a rebel from the Soviet Union. The initial impression to anybody reading a poem about Yalta would be FDR, Churchill, and Stalin sitting together and having a conversation during World War II. This is surprisingly (or not surprisingly) NOT what this poem is about. There were brief references to the war through discussion with his Granny and Pop and through a scene of scattered dead men during Kosice in 1944, but it does not explore this segment of history. Instead, it explores the situation in a "day in the life" scenario, through various subjects in everyday situations.

The first portion of the poem is clearly an attempt to show the Soviet government as altering the meaning of truth and how the citizens are feeding in quite obediently to the Communist society. In the ninth and tenth lines of the poem, the speaker states that, "but now what's said is 'I agree,' not 'I believe.'" Brodsky is bringing into light that there is a big difference to settle for a preexisting opinion and actually creating the opinions through a process of picking and choosing. He is clearly not fond of the fact that people are starting to settle for less when he feels they are entitled to more leeway. While he brings up the growing opportunity for individuals to take things for what they are, in an act of breaking something down to what it really is, he also feels that some things should just be left to be as they are. He feels that both should and will rely on one another as he provides his analysis.

The first analysis involves two friends and their discussion about chess. Yes, this is where the "day in the life" kind of feeling takes place. It's a thirteen-page poem as well, so you are going to need patience in order to clearly understand the art behind this poetry. The first portion involves the need to study Chigorin's defense, which is a chess strategy that may prove to be dominant unless one is very much aware of what is bound to come. The speaker builds off on this belief and moves on to how one communicates via telephone and the emotion that comes about in this action.

The challenge in grasping the poem does not necessarily have to do with the material, but what lies within the material. Brodsky is describing events going on around him, but it takes the exploration of the world around him to confirm judgments. The second part of the poem involves ideas of struggle, suffering, and disconnection, before transitioning into a third portion that provides a view of intensity. We also learn about a subject being more middle-aged as oppose to a younger individual such as Brodsky. Doing this provides a bit more neutrality to this person and in turn making judgments a bit more challenging. It is assumed that the subject in the fourth portion of the poem is younger. He is staying with his grandparents, no need of doing homework on a Saturday night, and being scolded by his Granny when he goes out to bundle up. His evening walk is cut short by the presence of a suspicious looking man. The only thing we know is that the man is smoking and nothing more. The last portion of the poem brings to view a meaning of the environment around them, which is this case involves an investigation involving a murder. Ideas of inevitability are touched upon, before an exploration of seeing this society as Yalta and seeing Yalta within the world view.

"Homage to Yalta" is NOT for beginners. It may take a 20th Century Russian Literature class to properly probe into the work deeper and deeper, for the idea of its study is quite vague. One will definitely enjoy this poem if they can concur to the idea that Brodsky was a conversational poet. His poetry is equivalent to an educated discussion one may have with a stranger in a coffee shop. In this particular poem, Brodsky starts with an idea, probes into specific points, before slowly zoning back to the point that Yalta is seen as Yalta. The story about the two gentlemen interested in chess and the boy (who I would picture as being a preteen or young teenager) living with his grandparents would be ideas readers can relate most to, but the ideas of sickness and being suspect of murder fall along the same lines. Different types of citizens live in Russia (and in this case Soviet Russia) and this is their story. Brodsky achieves an ability to provide them with a voice.

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