Akhmatova and Brodsky's Use of Dissemination and Ironic Sensibilities
by Shauna Osborn
Dissemination is a semantical weapon that is effective in situations where political circumstance does not allow for open dissent, when hegemonic ideals are questioned and in circumstances where hostile energy is channeled directly toward those individuals participating in intellectual artistic creation. The above is also true of the use of irony. Poets in particular can gain much from the use of these two techniques. Not only can a surreptitious voice of dissention be created but also an added depth and vastness in the work becomes apparent. Therefore, it is not hard to explain why dissemination (dispersing meanings among many alternatives or negating any specific meaning) and irony (the act of concealing true meaning within a literal one), are both prevalent within the poetic works of Anna Akhmatova and Joseph Brodsky. The sense of depth and vastness in both poets' work expands exponentially with their use of the previously mentioned techniques.
Living and working during some of the most politically turbulent years in Russian history, a time where anything considered bourgeois or counterrevolutionary would bring definite harm to a person or the people closest to them, Akhmatova and Brodsky created poetry in a time where the wrong words could be a death sentence. Brodsky declares that during his time in Russia
Books became the first and only reality, whereas reality
itself was regarded as either nonsense or nuisance... The
instinctive preference was to read rather than act.
In a place where books became the reality, what could be considered more dangerous and counterrevolutionary than prose or poetry that refused to spout the propaganda as prescribed under Bolshevik rule? Poetry not under complete ideological control of the government was a very dangerous thing as far as Trotsky, Lenin, and Stalin were concerned. Dissemination and irony became a shield under which authors could survive without compromising their sensibilities. Brodsky and Akhmatova both used these techniques; however, each author utilizes them in diverse ways resulting in two distinct variants of dissemination and irony.
Much of Akhmatova's work is grounded in a stable verbal irony made apparent either in the juxtaposition of the title to the poem (such as "Festive Song") or within the images or descriptions found within the body of the work. For example, in the second section "Epilogue," Akhmatova writes
And if ever in this country
They decide to erect a monument to me,
I consent to that honor
Under these conditions--that it stand
Neither by the sea, where I was born:
My last tie with the sea is broken,
Nor in the tsar's garden near the cherished pine stump,
Where an inconsolable shade looks for me,
But here, where I stood for three hundred hours,
And where they never unbolted the doors for me. (lines 17-26)
Monuments built to celebrate a person's life or work are conventionally put in a positive scenery favored by the person being memorialized—such as the tsar's garden mentioned in line 23—or in a significant place for the person like where they were born (in Akhmatova's case by the sea). This refusal of a monument in any other spot than where she stood for so many hours trying to gain access to her son not only emphasizes how she and many other people were treated. It also illustrates the complete disdain for Akhmatova's work by the governing body under the Bolsheviks and creates an ironic tension in the poem. The image of a monument dedicated to Akhmatova right in front of the administrative offices or prison building to which she never received access serves as a great visual symbol. It is a reminder of what her work does in language and the purpose of her Requiem—remembrance, documentation, and proof of the emotional distress Russian citizens suffered due to their country's bureaucracy and silence. As Brodsky states, "[A] poem is not a news report, and often a poem’s tragic music alone informs us of what is happening more precisely than a detailed description can.”
In his poetic work, Brodsky uses a more noticeably unstable structural irony, cutting his previous ironic contributions with more irony. Not accustomed to using his titles to create an ironic tension themselves, Brodsky's irony comes entirely from within the body of the poem either through the language of the piece or through the premise or characters (and in many cases both the language and premise/characters) of the poem. One of the best examples of Brodsky's form of irony can be found in his work Gorbunov and Gorchakov. Notes to the sequence given by Brodsky tell us that Gorbunov (a derivative of the Russian word for hunched) and Gorchakov (a derivative of the Russian word for bitter) are patients in a "psychiatric hospital" on the outskirts of Leningrad. Throughout the entire series of poems in Gorbunov and Gorchakov, we are not given much indication of who is speaking from one line of dialogue to the next. Quotation marks indicate the changing of who is speaking, but we are not given many tags or markers to show distinct breaks from one speaker to another. Compounded by the fact that the names are similar in spelling and pronunciation, this leaves the reader grasping to make a distinction between the two characters. This ambiguity serves to distort the logical act of compartmentalization by the reader—it is almost impossible for her to know who is speaking once the poem gets to a certain point in its run.
This uncertainty about who is speaking is only one layer of Gorbunov and Gorchakov. The premise that both characters are patients in a psychiatric hospital makes us question the ethos and logos of both characters immediately. The instability of each narrator’s character adds another element in the ironic tension of the poem. So, not only does the reader not know who is speaking through most of the series, we do not know how reliable the two speakers are from the beginning. The chosen dialogue in the series of poems thickens this layered effect yet again. The discussions which Brodsky chooses to portray in the poems are disjunctive, non sequitur, and circular. Many topics of discussion are brought up again in other poems in the series or returned to at intervals in the same poem. This unstable movement in the discussions on the page creates an ironic tension in that we do not know which way the statements and topics are meant by the speakers or by Brodsky. Elements within the discussions can be taken as either being ironic or literal. For example, the second stanza of Canto I states
are all you Leningraders dreaming then?"
"Well, it depends. Of concerts forested
with bows. Of avenues and alleys. Men—
just faces. (All in all they're fragmented.)
The Neva, bridges. Or a page I can
discern—although the nurse collects, come bed-
time, all our specs—without my glasses on!"
"That dream's too much for these dull eyes to read!"
"And then I dream myself back here again." (lines 11-20)
The entire exchange could be taken as either a literal description of "Leningraders dreaming" or just as easily can be seen as an ironic portrayal of conversations which discuss the elements of dreams. The interpretation chosen would depend on the individual reader. Since Brodsky is a rather careful and purposeful author, we can assume that he wanted this confusion to be prevalent in this work to add realism to the portrayal as well as to make the reader hyper-aware of his intended irony. The reader has no choice but to empathize with the characters.
Gorbunov and Gorchakov is also a great example of Brodsky’s use of dissemination. By adding all the layers, critics of his work would find it harder to accuse him of dissention from the government by writing the series—Is it a critic of the government’s policies or is it an argument for the necessity of those policies? Of course, this dissemination did not last long for Brodsky because the ambiguity can be seen in much of his work which resulted in his removal from Russian.
Again, Akhmatova uses dissemination but in a different way than Brodsky. Akhmatova’s dissemination can be found in her refusal to outright lay blame or name the causes of her grief and frustrations. Readers infer from her images and use of description what it is exactly that might be the narrative of her poem, the occasion for writing it or what circumstances and people it might be alluding to if not directly stated by the author herself. This thinly veiled ambiguity allows her work to seem universal and, when paired with her refusal to take a side publicly with the new or older government regimes, afforded her enough space to survive and write longer.
Brodsky wrote, “Russian poetry on the whole is not very topical. Its basic technique is one of beating around the bush, approaching the theme from various angles.” The use of irony and dissemination by Brodsky and Akhmatova would indeed favor this statement.
Shauna Osborn is a Comanche/German mestiza who works as an instructor, wordsmith, and community organizer in Albuquerque, New Mexico. She received her Master of Fine Arts from New Mexico State University in 2005. Shauna has won various awards for her academic research, photography, and poetry. Her first collection of creative nonfiction is currently being considered for publication.