Friday, May 06, 2011

Prime Passage from On Grief & Reason by Joseph Brodsky: "You become what you read"

Found in "An Immodest Proposal," a speech delivered at the Library of Congress in 1991:

“In the process of composition a poet employs—by and large unwittingly—the two main modes of cognition available to our species: Occidental and Oriental. (Of course both modes are available whenever you find frontal lobes, but different traditions have employed them with different degrees of prejudice.) The first puts a high premium on the rational, on analysis. In social terms, it is accompanied by man’s self-assertion and generally is exemplified by Descartes’s “Cogito ergo sum.” The second relies mainly on intuitive synthesis, calls for self-negation, and is best represented by the Buddha. In other words, a poem offers you a sample of complete, not slanted, human intelligence at work. This is what constitutes the chief appeal of poetry, quite apart from its exploiting rhythmic and euphonic properties of the language which are in themselves quite revelatory. A poem, as it were, tells its reader, “Be like me.” And at the moment of reading you become what you read, you become the state of the language which is a poem, and its epiphany or its revelation is yours. They are still yours once you shut the book, since you can’t revert to not having had them. That’s what evolution is all about. … The purpose of evolution, believe it or not, is beauty, which survives it all and generates truth simply by being a fusion of the mental and the sensual. As it is always in the eye of the beholder, it can’t be wholly embodied save in words: that’s what ushers in a poem.”
(On Grief & Reason, p.206)