Either nothing thermal
Is stirring in the core of his brain's furnace
Or its trembling shafts and veins,
Connecting head to hands, are clogged.
-- Louis Daniel Brodsky
On a regular workday morning, Louis Daniel Brodsky arrives at Coco's restaurant on South Lindbergh Boulevard at about 6:30 a.m. He orders the usual: three egg whites, a bagel and decaf. Then, if he hasn't already done so, Brodsky unsheathes his Bic fine-point pen, opens his blue-covered ledger book and gets down to business. It is a daily accounting regimen that has more to do with the last stanza than with the bottom line.
Amid the din of diners, Brodsky's creative juices are having a hard time flowing. "You don't get an inspiration and jot it," he says. "That doesn't happen." After a 10-minute lull, he starts writing about not being able to write. Before long, Brodsky has transformed himself into a volcano, right there in the middle of Coco's. He takes the next hour or so to complete the poem. By the end verse, Brodsky has conjured up a mystical lava and buried himself in it, following the flow of a metaphor about a medieval Jewish cabalist and alluding to the destruction of ancient Pompeii along the way.
After smothering himself, in a matter of words, Brodsky drives over to his office at Le Chateau on Clayton Road in Frontenac and begins revising his draft into a final version with his editorial staff. Each revision is kept for future reference. It's all part of a normal workday in the life of poet Brodsky.
Brodsky is one of the most prolific poets in the history of American literature. Although much of his work has languished as a result of the neglect or rebuke of literary pundits, there is no debate over his single-minded dedication to his discipline. So far he's written nearly 40 books of verse. Moreover, at 58 years of age, he appears to be just now reaching his stride, meeting a self-imposed quota of one poem every 24 hours.
The first volume of Brodsky's complete poems, which Brodsky self-published in 1996, exceeds 600 pages and covers the years 1963-65. Vol. 2, due out next year, will contain another 800-900 poems written between 1967-1975. Brodsky expects to ultimately release 10-14 volumes. He wants to publish every poem he has ever written, and he's banking that his unsung efforts will eventually be validated.
"I have written over 5,500 poems since 1963," says Brodsky. Although the poet admits that some of his early verse is bad, he maintains that it warrants publication because it allows readers to see how the creative process evolves. "I'm assuming that someone, someday, will think enough of my work that they will be grateful to me and those of us here who have labored on this," he says. "If the future judges it to be significant, then it will have vindicated all of the time I have worked as a relatively anonymous poet."
The Faulkner Fetish
Aside from the sheer weight of his poetry, Brodsky holds another distinction: He owns the local nonprofit publishing company -- Time Being Press -- that distributes his works, as well as those of 17 other poets. The creation of his own publishing house -- a glorified vanity press, to some critics -- came after Brodsky had labored long as a lyrical journeyman.
After his graduation from Yale University in 1963, Brodsky earned back-to-back master's degrees in English and creative writing from Washington University and San Francisco State, respectively. Then, in 1968, when he was within 10 hours of receiving a doctorate, Brodsky left academia for a 17-year hitch as a manager at Biltwell Co. Inc., a then-family-owned trouser-manufacturing plant in Farmington, Mo. The work experience seems to have provided a crash course in class-consciousness for the young, classically schooled member of the bourgeoisie. Few fops frequented Farmington and fewer still the factory floor. For Brodsky, working in the pants factory, even in a managerial position, was akin to putting on brand-new britches.
"It was absolutely contrary to anything I had ever done," says Brodsky. "I wanted to know more about the kind of life that I had never been exposed to. I was assistant manager in a factory that employed 350 operators, all but 50 of whom were women. They sewed men's trousers."
During his stint at Biltwell, Brodsky married, raised a family and wrote poetry in his spare time. He also taught writing at a nearby community college and continued to collect the books of novelist William Faulkner, an obsession he developed at Yale. His bibliomania led him to collaborate on scholarly research with Robert Hamblin, an English professor at Southeast Missouri State University (SEMO). The two ended up co-writing a slew of bibliographic texts based on the Faulkner materials in Brodsky's collection, including a cache of unpublished screenplays.
Over a 25-year period, Brodsky built the most extensive privately held collection of Faulkner's works in the world, borrowing $300,000 from his father to do so. Foraging for Faulkner's fiction became Brodsky's fetishistic forte. For roughly 20 years, he collected and cataloged with unbounded passion. His fervor led him to visit Faulkner's hometown of Oxford, Miss., as many as 15 times a year. As a result, he wrote three books of Southern-influenced verse, A Mississippi Trilogy, and gained the acceptance of legendary leaders of the Southern literary movement, including the late Robert Penn Warren.
Then he stopped collecting. In 1988, Brodsky sold part of his collection to SEMO for $1.8 million. Under the agreement, the poet received $1 million up front and $40,000 annually in exchange for accepting a 20-year title as curator of the collection, according to a spokesman for the school. At the same time, he and his father donated $2 million worth of other Faulkner materials to the university.
Brodsky subsequently quit Biltwell and established Time Being. He has been writing poetry full-time for the last 11 years.
"I have not been back to Oxford since about 1988," says Brodsky. "It's been good for me to go cold turkey. It got to the point where I realized that he (Faulkner) didn't need my help; I needed my help. I'm a poet. I'm a professional writer. I took a lot of inspiration all along from Faulkner's work, but I feel that the mission I have with my writing is infinitely more significant," says Brodsky, who is undaunted by his lack of critical acclaim.
"I'm the guy who put together the great Faulkner collection, so I have the will. I have an indefatigable sense of destiny. I don't mean that pompously or arrogantly. I just truly feel that God mandated me to do this. He willed me to do this, just as he willed Martin Luther King to do the things he did."
Brodsky may not have reached King's mountaintop, but he doesn't need a road map to find the Mississippi Delta, either. The lanes of southbound Interstate 55 are familiar to him, and the benighted South has long acted as Brodsky's muse.
His Southern sojourns gave him a sense of place he had never experienced before. "I realized I was living in Yoknapatawpha County," says Brodsky, referring to the fictional locale that is the setting for much of Faulkner's literature. "I came to understand that I was in Faulkner country in Farmington -- even more that I had grown up in Faulkner country. (St. Louis) is not so different from Mississippi. It's a despicable, closed, segregated society. I grew up in this society, which I feel is very provincial and very prejudicial and racial. I always sensed it. St. Louis does not know that it is Southern. It has no inkling. It is very insular. It is not very open to integration. It is very Southern in that way still. So all these things I came to understand, and they probably were working subliminally on me for many, many years."
On one of his early trips down South, Brodsky wrote a poem about passing through Memphis at night. The time was 1965, and the lines of verse, although sometimes stilted, remain filled with portent. At one point, he describes himself as Nero, the Roman emperor who fiddled as Rome burned. Nero is reported to have also persecuted early Christians and murdered his mother. The emperor, who fancied himself a poet, committed suicide in 68 A.D. Before dying, Nero proclaimed: "What an artist the world is losing in me."
Memphis by Negro night.
I remember it that way, too,
Scuttling along my sightless eyes
Like a naked, soft-thighed chimera.
I stopped my frightened car
Long enough to watch
Lightning spray the town
With revenge. I was Nero.
I started my silent engine
And drove into the flamerainy night.
Brodsky dedicated the poem to Eugene B. Redmond, a young African-American poet from East St. Louis. The two met in graduate school at Washington University. In a recent interview, Redmond, who now teaches at Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, remembers the times he and Brodsky shared in the early 1960s.
"We were the first generation of post-Beat (poets), the first group of young adult writers to come on the scene. So part of what we were doing was kind of a superficial bohemian (lifestyle)," says Redmond.
Riding the crest of a cultural wave that would sweep the nation later in the decade, Redmond, Brodsky and other Washington University writers recited T.S. Eliot and e.e. cummings from memory. They also paid homage to the literary icons of the Beat generation -- Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs -- and emulated their lifestyle. Their campus guru, noted poet Donald Finkel, then headed the Wash. U. writers' program.
It was an era of great ferment, says Redmond, a time when the civil-rights movement vaulted to the forefront of the national agenda and college students, black and white, challenged the status quo. The tumultuous politics of the day evolved into a cultural revolution. The smell of reefer was in the air, and the sounds of jazz poured out of the clubs on Easton Avenue (now Martin Luther King Boulevard), where the Wash. U. literati gathered when they weren't congregating in Gaslight Square or holding poetry readings at the Coach and Four, a bar in the then-new Laclede Town apartment complex in Midtown.
Though the two college friends went their separate ways, Brodsky reestablished contact with Redmond some 20 years later, when Redmond had moved back to the St. Louis area. "The first time I saw him on my return he said, 'I have been there,'" recalls Redmond. "I think he was talking about the gut experience. Lou has done everything possible to have the experience, whatever you want to call it. When we were coming through school, it was very fashionable to beat it up, beat up life, let life envelop you and live it to the fullest."
In a sense, the Beat generation and the Southern literary movement of this century carried the sentiments of the earlier romantic era, a time when the artist was perceived as an introspective, tragic figure. "Writers are by nature self-absorbed," says Redmond. "I think that Lou has a very large dose of it. In all fairness to Lou, he's in the grain; he's part of a larger tradition."
As a former oarsman on the Yale crew team, "he was very proud of his physique," says Redmond, holding up a wrinkled black-and-white photograph of Brodsky, circa 1965. The image projects the quintessence of a young poet, a profile of a contemplative Adonis standing with pen and paper in hand, biceps bulging, head slightly bowed, a glint of sunlight reflecting off the temple of his eyeglasses. It is almost too perfect. The camera lens has either candidly captured Brodsky in deep thought or he is, at this early point in his career, already posing for posterity.
Conversely, Brodsky can also give the most humble of impressions. He would come to campus downcast and confide that his father had scorned his poetic pursuits, says Redmond. In another instance, Redmond remembers dropping by a booksigning at Left Bank Books only a couple of years ago. Brodsky held the fete to promote the release of the first volume of his self-published complete poems. Although the event was announced in advance, only eight friends and family members showed up, Redmond says. After Redmond purchased the hardbound book, he recalls that Brodsky pleaded with him to accept the annotated copy from which he had just finished reading. He inscribed the book thusly: " For Gene Redmond, my mentor; our lives are and will be entwined -- you showed me how to make poetry -- thank you!"
Other St. Louis poets declined to publicly critique Brodsky's poetry or could not be reached for comment. Redmond, though he expresses his own reservations, compares his friend to a craftsman who works with words, chiseling them into their final form. Redmond thinks the content and the volume of Brodsky's work is similar to that of a prose writer. In another life, Brodsky would have been a writer of memoirs, says Redmond. "He is the only modern contemporary poet who works like he does," Redmond adds. "Most of us have to teach."
Brodsky would likely appreciate that analysis, though he is not one to seek it out. "I realized at the outset that if I started (teaching)I would never, ever leave academia," he says. "I felt that would (make it) really hard to be a writer. It's impossible to make a living at what I do, and yet I come to work every day. I'm fortunate enough to be able to support myself without having to have my writing support me.
"I respect the literary community here; I respect the academic community here," he adds. "(But) I am not part of that world. I am a writer who doesn't need to travel in writers' circles. I don't enjoy it; I never did. I am more interested in taking that energy, where I would promote myself, and give it over to another poem or two or three. I would rather add to the legacy that I leave behind. It doesn't do my poetry a damn bit of good to go and schmooze with three or four other people and try and tell them how great I am as a writer.
"What's important is that I get up every morning knowing that I have a job to do.