Brodsky, Joseph (Iosif Aleksandrovich Brodsky) (24 May 1940 - 28 January 1996)
Joseph Brodsky (Iosif Aleksandrovich Brodsky) (24 May 1940 - 28 January 1996)
Alyssa Dinega Gillespie
University of Notre Dame
This entry was expanded by Gillespie from her Brodsky entry in DLB 285: Russian Writers Since 1980. See also the Brodsky entry in DLB Yearbook: 1987.
BOOKS: Stikhotvoreniia i poemy, compiled by Gleb Petrovich Struve and Boris Andreevich Filippov (Washington, D.C. & New York: Inter-Language Literary Associates, 1965)–includes “Bol’shaia elegiia Dzhonu Donnu,” “Evreiskoe kladbishche,” “Glagoly,” “Ia obnial eti plechi...,” “Isaak i Avraam,” “Kholmy,” “Oboz,” “Piligrimy,” “Stansy,” “Vorotish’sia na rodinu...,” and “Vot ia vnov’ posetil. . .”
Ostanovka v pustyne (New York: Izdatel’stvo imeni Chekhova, 1970; revised edition, Ann Arbor, Mich.: Ardis, 1988)–includes “Bol’shaia elegiia Dzhonu Donnu,” “Derev’ia v moem okne...,” “Dlia shkol’nogo vozrasta,” “Einem Alten Architekten in Rom,” “Enei i Didona,” “Glagoly,” “Gorbunov i Gorchakov,” “Ia obnial eti plechi...,” “Isaak i Abraam,” “Kholmy,” “K Likomedu, na Skiros,” “Lomtik medovogo mesiatsa,” “Novye stansy k Avguste,” “Oboz,” “Ot okrainy k tsentru,” “Pis’mo v butylke,” “Sonet,” “Stikhi na smert’ T. S. Eliota,” “Strofy,” “Prorochestvo,” “Ty vyporkhnesh’, malinovka...,” and “Vorotish’ sia rodinu. . .”;
Chast’ rechi: Stikhotvoreniia 1972-76 (Ann Arbor, Mich.: Ardis, 1977)-includes “1972 god,” “Odissei-Tele-maku,” “Sreten’e,” and “Tors”;
Konets prekrasnoi epokhi: Stikhotvoreniia 1964-71 (Ann Arbor, Mich.: Ardis, 1977)-includes “Natiur-mort,” “Post Aetatem Nostram,” “Rech’ o proli-tom moloke,” and “Vremia goda–zima. . .”;
V Anglii (Ann Arbor, Mich.: Ardis, 1977);
A Part of Speech (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1980)-includes “1972,” “Nunc Dimittis,” “Odysseus to Telemachus,” “Six Years Later,” and “Torso”;
Rimskie elegii (New York: Russica, 1982);
Novye stansy k Auguste: Stikhi k M.B., 1962-1982 (Ann Arbor, Mich.: Ardis, 1983);
Mramor (Ann Arbor, Mich.: Ardis, 1984); translated by Alan Myers with Brodsky as Marbles: A Play in Three Acts (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1989);
Less Than One: Selected Essays (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1986)–includes “Flight from Byzantium,” “A Guide to a Renamed City,” “In a Room and a Half,” and “Less Than One” Russian version published as Men’she edinitsy: Lzbrannye esse (Moscow: Nezavisimaia gazeta, 1999);
Uraniia (Ann Arbor, Mich.: Ardis, 1987)-includes “Biust Tiberiia,” “Ia vkhodil vmesto dikogo zveria...,” and “Osennii krik iastreba”
To Urania: Selected Poems 1965-1985 (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1988)– includes “The Bust of Tiberius,” “Gorbunov and Gorchakov,” “The Hawk’s Cry in Autumn,” and “May 24, 1980”
Fondamenta degli Incurabili, translated by Gilberto Forti (Venice: Consorzio Venezia nuova, 1989); English version published as Watermark (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1992);
Primechaniia paporotnika (Bromma, Sweden: Hylaea, 1990);
Ballada o malen’kom buksire (Leningrad: Detskaia literatura, 1991);
Naberezhnaia neistselimykh. Trinadtsat’ essei (Moscow: Slovo, 1992)–includes “Naberezhnaia neistselimykh” [incomplete version]; complete version in Venetsianskie tetradi: Iosif Brodskii i drugie, by Brodsky and others, compiled by Ekaterina Margolis (Moscow: Ob”edinennoe gumanitarnoe izdatel’stvo, 2002);
Sochineniia, 4 volumes, edited by Gennadii F. Komarov (St. Petersburg: Pushkinskii fond / Paris, Moscow & New York: Tret’ia volna, 1992-1995; enlarged edition, 8 volumes, St. Petersburg: Pushkinskii fond, 1998- );
Vspominaia Akhmatovu, by Brodsky and Solomon Volkov (Moscow: Nezavisimaia gazeta, 1992);
Kappadokiia (St. Petersburg: Aleksandra, 1993);
Persian Arrow/Persidskaia strela, with etchings by Edik Steinberg (Verona: Edizione d’Arte Gibralfaro & ECM, 1994);
On Grief and Reason: Essays (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1995)–includes “An Immodest Proposal” ;
V okrestnostiakh Atlantidy: Novye stikhotvoreniia (St. Petersburg: Pushkinskii fond, 1995);
Peizazh s navodneniem, compiled by Aleksandr Sumerkin (Dana Point, Cal.: Ardis, 1996)-includes “Dedal v Sitsilii,” “Fin de Siècle,” “Menia uprekali vo vsem...,” and “Peizazh s navodneniem”
So Forth: Poems (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1996)-includes “Daedalus in Sicily,” “Taps,” “To My Daughter,” “Fin de Siécle,” and “View with a Flood”
Discovery, illustrated by Vladimir Radunsky (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1999);
Collected Poems in English, 1972-1999, edited by Ann Kjellberg (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2000);
Vtoroi vek posle nashei ery: Dramaturgiia Iosifa Brodskogo (St. Petersburg: Zvezda, 2001)–includes Rosenkrants i Gil’denstern mertvy, by Tom Stoppard, translated by Brodsky.
Editions and Collections: Nazidanie: Stikhi 1962-1989, compiled by Vladimir I. Ufliand (Leningrad: Smart, 1990);
Chast’ rechi: Izbrannye stikhi 1962-1989 (Moscow: Khudozhestvennaia literatura, 1990);
Osennii krik iastreba: Stikhotvoreniia 1962-1989 (Leningrad: KTP LO IMA Press, 1990);
Kholmy: Bol’shie stikhotvoreniia i poemy, compiled by Iakov Gordin (St. Petersburg: LP VTPO “Kinotsentr,” 1991);
Stikhotvoreniia, compiled by Gordin (Tallinn: Eesti Raamat, 1991);
Rozhdestvenskie stikhi (Moscow: Nezavisimaia gazeta, 1992; revised, 1996); translated by Melissa Green and others as Nativity Poems (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2001);
Forma uremeni: Stikhotvoreniia, esse, p’esy, 2 volumes, compiled by Ufliand (Minsk: Eridan, 1992);
Peresechennaia mestnost’: Puteshestviia s kommentariiami, edited by Petr L’vovich Vail’ (Moscow: Nezavisimaia gazeta, 1995);
Brodskii o Tsuetaevoi (Moscow: Nezavisimaia gazeta, 1997);
Pis’mo Goratsiiu (Moscow: Nash dom, 1998);
Gorbunov i Gorchakov (St. Petersburg: Pushkinskii fond, 1999);
Ostanovka v pustyne (St. Petersburg: Pushkinskii fond, 2000);
Chast’ rechi (St. Petersburg: Pushkinskii fond, 2000);
Konets prekrasnoi epokhi (St. Petersburg: Pushkinskii fond, 2000);
Novye stansy k Avguste (St. Petersburg: Pushkinskii fond, 2000);
Uraniia (St. Petersburg: Pushkinskii fond, 2000);
Peizazh s navodneniem (St. Petersburg: Pushkinskii fond, 2000);
Novaia Odisseia: Pamiati Iosifa Brodskogo (Moscow: Staroe literaturnoe obozrenie, 2001);
Peremena imperii: Stikhotvoreniia 1960-1996 (Moscow: Nezavisimaia gazeta, 2001).
Editions in English: Elegy to John Donne and Other Poems, translated by Nicholas William Bethell (London: Longmans, 1967)–includes “Farewell...,” “A Jewish Cemetery by Leningrad,” “You’ve finally come home...,” “Pilgrims,” “I can visit, once more...,” “I kissed those shoulders...,” “Hills,” and “Elegy to John Donne”;
The Living Mirror: Five Young Poets from Leningrad, with contributions by Brodsky, edited by Suzanne Massie, translated by Massie, Max Hayward, and George Kline (Garden City, N.Y: Doubleday, 1972);
Selected Poems, translated by Kline (Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin, 1973; New York: Harper & Row, 1973)– includes “Aeneas and Dido,” “After Our Era,” “Einem Alten Architekten in Rom,” “Elegy to John Donne,” “A Letter in a Bottle,” “New Stanzas to Augusta,” “Nunc Dimittis,” “Odysseus to Telemachus,” “A Prophecy,” “A Slice of Honeymoon,” “Stanzas,” “Still Life,” “To Lycomedes on Scyros,” “The trees in my window, in my wooden-framed window...,” “You’re coming home again. What does that mean?” “You’ll flutter, robin redbreast, from those three...,” “Verses on the Death of T. S. Eliot,” “Wagon Train,” and “When I embraced these shoulders, I beheld”;
Poems and Translations (Keele: University of Keele, 1977);
Verses on the Winter Campaign 1980, translated by Alan Myers (London: Anvil Poetry Press, 1981).
PLAY PRODUCTIONS: Mramor, New York, 1986; St. Petersburg, White Theater, 1996;
Demokratiia! [Act I], London, Gate Theatre, 16 October 1990; Hamburg, Deutsches Schauspielhaus, 28 October 1990.
Joseph Brodsky, read by Brodsky and Mark Strand, New York, Academy of American Poets, 1980;
Joseph Brodsky Reading His Poems, read by Brodsky and Anthony Hecht, Washington, D.C., Gertrude Clarke Whittall Poetry and Literature Fund, 1984;
Winter, read by Brodsky, Watershed Media, 1987;
Joseph Brodsky Reads His Poetry, New York, Caedmon, 1988;
Joseph Brodsky Reading His Poetry, Washington, D.C., Gertrude Clarke Whittall Poetry and Literature Fund, 1992;
Rannie stikhotvoreniia, read by Brodsky, Moscow, Sintez, 1995;
A Maddening Space, read by Brodsky, New York, Mystic Fire, 1996.
OTHER: Vladislav Felitsianovich Khodasevich, Izbrannaia proza, 2 volumes, edited by Brodsky (New York: Serebriannyi vek, 1972);
Modern Russian Poets on Poetry, edited by Brodsky and Carl Proffer, introduction by Brodsky (Ann Arbor, Mich.: Ardis, 1976);
Streaked with Light and Shadow: Portraits of Former Soviet fews in Utah, with an essay by Brodsky, text and interviews by Leslie G. Kelen, photographs by Kent M. Miles and Stacie Ann Smith (Salt Lake City: Oral History Institute, 2000).
TRANSLATIONS: Bog sokhraniaet use, edited by Viktor Kulle (Moscow: MIF, 1992);
V ozhidanii varvarov: Mirovaia poeziia v perevodakh Iosifa Brodskogo, compiled by Aleksei Purin (St. Petersburg: Zvezda, 2001).
SELECTED PERIODICAL PUBLICATIONS UNCOLLECTED: “Says poet Brodsky: ’A writer is a lonely traveler and no one is his helper,’” New York Times Magazine (1 October 1972): 11, 78-79, 82-85;
“Beyond Consolation,” New York Review of Books (7 February 1974): 13-16;
“The Meaning of Meaning,” New Republic (20 January 1986): 32-35;
“History of the Twentieth Century: A Roadshow,” Partisan Review, 53 (1986): 327-343;
“Demokratiia!” Kontinent, 62 (1990): 14-42; Act I translated by Alan Myers as “Democracy!” Granta, 30 (Winter 1990): 199-233; Act II translated by Brodsky as “Democracy!” Partisan Review (Spring 1993): 184-194, 260-288; revised edition of Act II, Performing Arts Journal, 18 (September 1996): 92-123;
“Poeziia kak forma soprotivleniia real’nosti,” Russkaia mysl’, 3829 (25 May 1990); translated by Alexander Sumerkin and Jamey Gambrell as “Poetry as a Form of Resistance to Reality,” PMLA, 107 (March 1992): 220-225.
Joseph Brodsky, the 1987 winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, came of age in the Soviet Union during the “Thaw” period (late 1950s to early 1960s), and he has been widely recognized as the most gifted Russian poet of his generation. He is the direct successor to an illustrious quartet of modernist Russian poets who reached maturity during the pre-Soviet era and later suffered severely under Soviet rule: Marina Ivanovna Tsvetaeva, Osip Emil’evich Mandel’shtam, Anna Andreevna Akhmatova, and Boris Leonidovich Pasternak. The works and lives of these poets, among others, strongly influenced Brodsky’s poetics and conditioned his fidelity to the Russian bardic tradition–of which he was, perhaps, the last true practitioner. Throughout his years living in emigration in the United States (since 1972), Brodsky measured his own poetic merit against the reflections of fellow Soviet émigré poets who also distanced themselves from the overbearing Soviet state machine. At the same time, he drew upon the Anglo-American poetic tradition to propel Russian verse well beyond the frontier of the hackneyed into new realms of form and meaning.
Brodsky’s literary legacy includes multiple volumes of poetry, most written originally in Russian but some written in English, Brodsky’s adopted tongue; Brodsky’s own translations of his poems, sometimes undertaken jointly with professional Anglophone translators and poets; two plays that exist in divergent Russian and English variants; two hefty volumes of collected essays written in English; a prose reminiscence of Venice; several poems for children; and scores of book reviews, introductions, tributes to fellow poets, articles, and formal addresses published in a variety of books and periodicals. Many interviews with Brodsky have also been published in both English and Russian, although in some cases these pieces have been edited heavily, making their reliability uncertain. In the English-speaking world, Brodsky’s reputation is primarily as an essayist and a quixotic, modern-day oracle; in the context of Russian letters, he is revered most of all for his poetry.
Brodsky was born Iosif Aleksandrovich Brodsky on 24 May 1940 in Leningrad, just one year before Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union and Leningrad came under siege, an event that inflicted widespread starvation and disease. The young Brodsky, together with his mother, survived the Siege of Leningrad intact; his father, meanwhile, was serving in the Soviet navy on the Finnish front. Apart from the fact that his mother taught him to read at the age of four, little is known about Brodskys early childhood. He was the only child of Mariia Moiseevna Vol’pert and Aleksandr Ivanovich Brodsky. Mariia Moiseevna, the daughter of a Singer sewing-machine salesman, spent her childhood years in Latvia; Aleksandr Ivanovich, the son of a St. Petersburg print-shop owner, earned degrees in geography from the University of Leningrad and in journalism from the School of Red Journalists. Both were Jews, a circumstance that played no small role in their own–and, later, their son’s–fates in the context of the official anti-Semitic hype that exploded in the Soviet Union in the postwar years.
In 1950, in response to a Politburo ruling that Jews should not hold high military rank, Aleksandr Ivanovich was dismissed from the navy. He eventually found a job as a freelance photojournalist, but the family’s finances remained tight, and both of Brodskys parents began to experience problems with their health. During the campaign against “rootless cosmopolites” of the early 1950s that led to the 1953 “Doctors’ Plot” (a fabricated conspiracy in which nine doctors, most of them Jewish, were accused of plotting to murder top Soviet officials), Mariia Moiseevna and Aleksandr Ivanovich made preparations for the mass deportations of Jews to the Russian Far East that Joseph Stalin was rumored to be planning. However, Stalin’s death in 1953 obviated this move.
Brodsky spent his childhood and adolescent years in a small communal apartment located in an elaborate, six-story building on the corner of Pestel’ (Pantelei-monovskaia) and Liteinyi Streets, an area that boasted a rich literary history. As Brodsky grew older, he barricaded off a small section of the family’s forty-square-meter room with thick curtains and heavy chests and shelves heaped to the ceiling with suitcases. This cavernous hideout eventually become his private lair, which he stocked with forbidden books–including the novels of Charles Dickens, James Joyce, John Dos Passos, and Ernest Hemingway and the poetry of Robert Frost, Boris Abramovich Slutsky, John Donne, Konstanty Galczyriski, Tsvetaeva, and Mandel’shtam. In this space the young Brodsky listened to his beloved phonograph records–an eclectic mix of Dixieland jazz, Henry Purcell, and Joseph Haydn–and experienced his first romantic encounters; here, too, he kept his first typewriter and pounded out his first poems.
Brodsky was a wholly self-educated man. As a child, he attended several different public schools. Enamored of his father’s navy uniform, he applied at age fourteen for admission to a submarine academy. Although he easily passed the admission examinations, he nonetheless was rejected because he was Jewish. A year later, Brodsky stood up one day during class at Middle School No. 196 on Mokhovaia Street and walked out the door, never to return. He later recalled this spontaneous moment as his first free act–an instinctive protest against the conformity and half-lies that the Soviet educational system inculcated in the youth of the nation. He rationalized his decision by the need to alleviate his famiiys dire financial situation, and he soon went to work as a milling-machine operator at the arsenal factory, which produced not military hardware but agricultural machinery and air compressors. This job was Brodsky’s first contact with the true proletariat, and he relished the fresh range of linguistic expression to which he was exposed. A year later, however, nurturing a fleeting dream of becoming a neurosurgeon, he quit his factory job and went to work at the hospital morgue located next door to the arsenal. He did not stay long at this gruesome post. From 1957 onward he enlisted as a physical laborer in a series of geological expeditions that allowed him to travel all over the territory of the Soviet Union, from the White Sea in the north to the Tien Shan Mountains of Central Asia, and from Iakutsk in northeastern Siberia to Kazakhstan in the south. Between 1956 and 1962 he changed jobs no fewer than thirteen times.
While he was in Iakutsk in 1957, Brodsky stumbled upon a volume of verse by the early-nineteenth-century philosophical poet Evgenii Abramovich Baratynsky. The intellectual acuity of Baratynsky’s poetry greatly attracted Brodsky, and he later claimed that he realized at this moment that poetry was his calling–the only thing he understood in life. Brodsky’s own earliest poems date from 1957 and 1958. These years were a tumultuous period in Soviet history. The Hungarian uprising of 1956, crushed by the Soviet Army, had shocked the youth of Brodskys generation into adulthood. Meanwhile, the Congress of Soviet Writers had been reconvened after a hiatus of twenty years, and Akhmatova was reinstated as a member; the unmasking of Joseph Stalin’s cult of personality was in full swing; literary societies sprang up throughout Leningrad; and poetry, disseminated in samizdat (self-published) copies, displaced other forms of spiritual expression such as religion or philosophy. The unofficial literature of the late 1950s was devoted to bearing witness to evils of the past.
By the end of the decade, however, some of the younger authors took a turn away from social responsibility and toward aestheticism. For Brodsky, the work of the older poet Slutsky served as a kind of bridge between the two tendencies, moving as it did from bureaucratese and concrete historicism toward pure existentialism. Evgenii Borisovich Rein, a poet of Brodskys own generation, was also influential; Brodsky and Rein, together with the young poets Anatolii Gen-rikhovich Naiman and Dmitrii Vasil’evich Bobyshev, first met at Leningrad poetry readings in 1959 and soon became close friends and associates. Brodskys own public appearances at such evenings began in 1958, and in March 1959 his declamation of his poem “Evreiskoe kladbishche” (1965; translated as “A Jewish Cemetery by Leningrad,” 1967) at a poetry competition held at the Gor’ky House of Books in Leningrad was a scandalous success, thanks to its taboo subject matter and daring new poetic idiom.
Brodskys earliest works are characterized by metrical experimentation, musicality, and the presence of historical, mythological, and religious imagery. The poems are prone to overstatement, and at times their meanings do not quite match the force of the formal contortions to which the poet subjects his verse. This poetry, for the most part, is apolitical. In fact, the combination of the poet’s studied social nonconformism with the location of his poems “on the border between song and...sacral hymns” has prompted the critic Viktor Sergeevich Kulle, in “Iosif Brodskii: Novaia Odisseia” (Joseph Brodsky: A New Odyssey, published in the 1998 edition of Brodskys Sochineniia [Works]), to dub Brodskys juvenilia his “Romantic” period. Common themes in the earliest poems include the cityscapes of Leningrad, the poet’s alienation from surrounding Soviet society and the bombastic idiom it fosters, and an ironic recognition of the insistent materialism of the world in which the poet finds himself–a theme that is prominent in “Evreiskoe kladbishche.” In another poem of 1958, “Piligrimy” (1965; translated as “Pilgrims,” 1967), Brodsky charts a path out of this world and away from the false comforts it offers, including religious faith: “And this means, there is no point / In having faith in oneself or in God. / And this means that all that remains / Are Illusion and the Road.”
The authorities at the time found Brodskys apolitical poetry to be much more pernicious than works of overtly political dissent by other young writers such as the poet Evgenii Aleksandrovich Evtushenko. As David Mac-Fadyen shows in his study Joseph Brodsky and the Soviet Muse (2000), Brodsky subverts Soviet sloganeering from within, thereby transcending the narrow political jargon that encapsulates Soviet reality, to speak instead in the expansive language of existential quest. At the same time, Brodsky signals, through biting irony and linguistic play, that he does not lose sight of the confining facts of his life. He goes outside the rules of the political game being played in the unofficial literature of the time as well as in the sanctioned, official literature; he dispenses with the rules entirely and simply talks about life, the soul, and longing. This psychological liberation from the mental grip of the system could not fail for long to attract the attention of the Komitet gosudarstvennoi bezopasnosti (KGB, State Security Committee).
Brodsky’s first arrest came soon after the appearance of Aleksandr Ginzburg’s samizdat publication Sintaksis (Syntax), a typewritten poetry journal put out in Moscow in the spring of 1960, which included both “Evreiskoe kladbishche” and “Piligrimy.” Other poems by Brodsky had also been circulating in handwritten copies, and some were even being set to music. Brodsky was picked up by the KGB and taken for interrogation to the famous Kresty (Crosses) prison in Leningrad. He was kept in solitary confinement under the most austere conditions and was interrogated for twelve-hour stretches. No formal charges were filed, however, and he was soon released. A year or two later, a second arrest followed when Brodsky was implicated in the so-called Umansky affair, in which he was accused of planning to hijack a plane to Kabul, Afghanistan, and thereby escape the Soviet Union. Once again, he was released when no clear evidence was found against him.
The next several years were full of momentous events in Brodskys life. In August 1961 Rein took Brodsky to meet Akhmatova at her dacha (summer cottage) in Komarovo. Together with Naiman and Bobyshev, the young poets began frequenting Akhmatova’s home; their relationship to her was one of spiritual, more than literary, discipleship, while she herself dubbed the four the “magic chorus” and welcomed their company. Brodsky’s poetic sensibilities were quite distant from Akhmatova’s; indeed, he felt a direct poetic debt not to Akhmatova but to Tsvetaeva, whose fierce individualism and unflinching quest to go beyond all frontiers were much closer to Brodsky’s own metaphysical drive than was Akhmatova’s dignified restraint. Yet, Akhmatova was a powerful moral influence on the young Brodsky. Their friendship and mutual admiration–in 1963, Akhmatova autographed a copy of her latest book “To Iosif Brodsky, whose verses seem magical to me”–was immensely meaningful to Brodsky, as it seemed to sanction his position as the heir to the great poetic tradition of the Silver Age. At the same time Brodsky absorbed from Akhmatova a reverence for the poet as an interpreter of Christian culture (his first reading of an underground copy of the Old and New Testaments in 1963 affected him profoundly); he also learned the power of concrete detail and precise psychological motivations from her poetry.
A different kind of meeting occurred in February 1962, when the poet’s friends introduced him to Marina Pavlovna Basmanova, a Leningrad artist and illustrator of children’s books who was two years his senior. In accord with the bohemian mores of the period, the romance between Brodsky and Basmanova developed almost overnight. There was a strong physical attraction between the couple; yet, Basmanova was unwilling to commit to marriage (Brodsky’s precarious political status, along with the fact that all he had to his name was his little corner of his parents’ communal apartment, may have had something to do with her reluctance), while Brodsky insistently demanded her full and undying dedication to him. The result of this emotional mismatch was a long-lived, painful love-hate relationship punctuated by alternating fights, separations, and passionate reunions.
The poems that Brodsky wrote beginning in the early 1960s show him moving away from the sometimes clumsy experimentation and concrete settings of his juvenilia into a mature poetics, in which a metaphysical bent is already apparent. In the 1960 poem “Glagoly” (1965, Verbs), for instance, verbs become things with their own independent existence that seem to take the place of humans and, in so doing, satirize the automatization of Soviet life:
Verbs, which live in cellars,
speak–in cellars, are born–in cellars
beneath several stories
of general optimism.
Every morning they go to work,
mix chemicals and haul stones,
but, in erecting a city, they erect not a city,
but a monument to their own loneliness.
These verbs, as a stand-in for the poet, eventually are sacrificed to societal regimentation and “ascend Golgotha.” The rhythmic driving-in of nails becomes the suffering, liberating rhythm of poetry, which will never desist in any of the three tenses of the verb–past, present, or future–and which ushers in the freedom of poetic imagination at the end of the poem: “The land of hyperboles lies beneath them, / as the heaven of metaphors soars above us!” No matter how brutally the state persecutes verbs (that is, poets and poetry), Brodsky seems to be saying, their subversive power will only increase with time.
In other poems of this period Brodsky abandons his earlier Romantic stance of protest against the insufficiencies of life and moves toward a cool alienation from human society and companionship. Not only metaphysical imaginings but also, strangely, his relationships to inanimate things and places begin to play a central role in his developing poetics. An example of this tendency can be found in the poem “la obnial eti plechi ...” (1965; translated as “I kissed those shoulders...,” 1967), in which the poet, in bidding farewell to his lover, does not see or think of her at all (beyond the fragmented shoulders he embraces) but meditates instead on “what turned out to be behind her back”: a table, a wall, a bright lamp, assorted shabby furniture, and a circling moth–all of which convey, tacitly, the poet’s emotional detachment from the scene in which he himself participates. In “Vorotish’sia na rodinu. . .” (1965; translated as “You’ve finally come home...,” 1967) the poet, arriving home after a long absence, assesses the extent of his own aloneness–which is absolute: “How good it is that there is no one to blame, / how good it is that you are not tied to anyone, / how good it is that no one in the world / is obliged to love you until death.” This proud declaration that “there is no one to blame” for the vicissitudes of his fate matured into an insistent eschewal of victimhood, a key ingredient of Brodsky’s poetic self-definition.
In his poem “Ot okrainy k tsentru” (From the Suburbs toward the Center; published as “Vot ia vnov’ posetil. . .” in 1965 in Stikhotvoreniia i poemy; translated as “I can visit, once more...,” 1967), Brodsky renders his alienation from the homeland in the form of a farewell jaunt through the suburbs of Leningrad in the company of his own “bednaia iunost’” (poor youth), which replaces any real human company to function as a kind of substitute muse. As in “Ia obnial eti plechi...,” the poet’s attention is captured by the dilapidated objects that compose his physical surroundings–the bridges, industrial complexes, tramcars, cranes, silent storefronts, and black smoke that characterize the outskirts of contemporary Leningrad. These objects, rather than an emotional relationship to any other human being, propel him into a contemplation of soul, death, hell, heaven, and the uncertainty of life eternal. The statement of alienation from life that ends this poem is one of Brodsky’s most potent: “Thank God, I’m an alien. / I don’t blame anyone here. / There’s nothing to learn. / I walk, hurry, overtake. / How easy it is for me now / since I have not parted with anyone. / Thank God that I am left on the earth without a fatherland.” From then on, all the poet’s efforts were directed toward chasing and “overtaking” his own potential, without regard for the proscriptions of the Soviet literary establishment.
In 1962 Brodsky discovered the work of the English metaphysical poets, primarily Donne, whose poetry–full of wit, coolly passionate, philosophically detached, highly intellectual, exquisitely crafted with intricate conceits and geometric figures–galvanized the young man. Both in its themes and in its foreignness to the dominant Russian poetic tradition, Donne’s work corresponded perfectly to the feelings of alienation that Brodsky had already discovered in himself. At the same time Brodsky saw an equivalence between the English cultural vantage–an islander’s perspective on the European continent–and his own Leningrad perch on the edge of the Soviet Empire. He located his feelings of cultural estrangement in the urban geography of Leningrad that had formed him as a child: the cruel winters, fantastic architectural styles, and endless, gray expanses of water–the element he always associated with the idea of freedom. These surroundings prompted him to believe more in the truth of the poetic word than in the inescapability of the daily grind, the necessity of political servitude, or the rectitude of conventional morality. Years later, he ended his essay “A Guide to a Renamed City” (written in 1979, published in 1986) with a tribute to the city of his birth: “Any dream will be inferior to this reality. Where a man doesn’t cast a shadow, like water.”
In 1962 and 1963, under the influence of Donne as well as of Tsvetaeva, whose powerful poemy (long narrative poems) he had recently discovered, Brodsky composed his own first poemy. This genre, distanced from the intimacy of the short lyric form, held the potential for the creation of a kind of “lyrico-philosophical” epic that remained attractive to Brodsky throughout the remainder of his creative life, becoming the hallmark of his poetic legacy. The characteristics of Brodsky’s works in this genre are rhythmic and stanzaic inventiveness, extended complex metaphors, the mingling of wildly different linguistic registers, paradoxical thought patterns, a tight weaving together of intricate compositional and metaphysical strands, and an acidic sense of humor. Brodsky’s earliest poemy all participated in the preservative or “neoclassical” mission of his verse with respect to the Russian poetic culture and language of previous ages; included among these works are “Kholmy” (1965; translated as “Hills,” 1967), “Bol’shaia elegiia Dzhonu Donnu” (1965; translated as “Elegy to John Donne,” 1967), and “Isaak i Avraam” (1965, Isaac and Abraham)–inspired, respectively, by Tsvetaeva, Donne, and the Old Testament.
On 4 May 1961 a decree announcing a struggle against so-called tuneiadstvo (social parasitism) was passed in the Soviet Union. Just two and a half years later, on 29 November 1963, a lengthy lampoon against Brodsky appeared in the newspaper Vechernii Leningrad (Evening Leningrad) under the heading “Okololiteraturnyi truten’” (A Semi-Literary Drone), signed by A. Ionin, M. Medvedev, and Iakov Lerner, a retired KGB agent. Lerner also convinced Aleksandr Andreevich Prokof’ev, the secretary of the Leningrad Writers’ Union, to have a unanimous resolution drafted that stated that Brodsky was “incapable of contributing anything to literature” and that his works were “anti-Soviet and pornographic” and to recommend that Brodsky be expelled from Leningrad. Lerner’s lampoon accused the poet of harboring plans to “betray the homeland” and dubbed Brodsky a “pigmy, self-assuredly clambering onto Parnassus.” The article concluded with a call to the authorities to protect Leningrad and Leningraders from Brodsky’s threat: “It’s clear that we must cease coddling such semi-literary parasites...Not only Brodsky, but also all those who surround him, are walking along the same dangerous path...May semi-literary idlers like Joseph Brodsky receive the sternest rebuff. Let us teach them not to muddy the water!” During 1963 Brodsky had composed more than two thousand lines of poetry; he had also been translating the works of Cuban, Yugoslav, and Polish poets.
Lerner’s lampoon portended trouble for Brodsky. In December 1963, at the urging of his friends, the poet fled Leningrad for Moscow. He voluntarily checked himself into the Kashchenko psychiatric hospital in Moscow, hoping to escape the authorities’ notice there. Accounts of what followed are somewhat confused. Brodsky apparently soon learned that Basmanova had greeted the New Year in the company of Bobyshev at a dacha belonging to mutual friends in Zelenogorsk (outside Leningrad); Basmanova supposedly betrayed Brodsky with Bobyshev and then set the curtains of the house on fire, coolly commenting how beautiful the flames were. Brodsky, tormented by jealousy and anger, checked out of the psychiatric hospital on 5 January and returned to Leningrad in haste to sort matters out with Basmanova. During January and the first part of February he stayed constantly on the move, sleeping at various friends’ dachas on the outskirts of the city. He seems to have spent some time with friends in the town of Tarusa, a writers’ colony near Moscow, as well. In his 1967 poem “K Likomedu, na Skiros” (1970, To Lycomedes on Scyros), he reminisces obliquely about this chain of events when he identifies himself with Theseus, who escapes from the Minotaur (a stand-in for the KGB) and his hostile labyrinth (Leningrad) only to discover that Ariadne has taken up with Bacchus.
On the evening of 13 February 1964 Brodsky was unexpectedly arrested for the third time as he walked down a Leningrad street. Five days later he was brought to a closed trial on a charge of tuneiadstvo. The presiding judge ruled that Brodsky be sent for mandatory forensic psychiatric testing to determine whether he was suffering from any disorder that precluded a sentence of hard physical labor. On 19 February, Brodsky was sent for three weeks to the Priazhka psychiatric hospital. His poema “Gorbunov i Gorchakov” (Gorbunov and Gorchakov, written between 1965 and 1968, published in 1970), written in the form of an extended philosophical dialogue between two hospital inmates– who discuss their dreams, their meals, the view outside their window, and their musings about the soul and immortality–chronicles his experiences there. Brodsky was the only inmate in the hospital not allowed to have visits from his family. He claimed to find the ward environment maddening and to prefer solitary confinement in prison–his favorite formula for which was, as he wrote in his essay “Less Than One” (1986), “a lack of space counterbalanced by a surplus of time”–to this psychiatric torture. During his incarceration in the Priazhka hospital he was routinely injected with various substances and subjected to other “treatments” such as the “wrap,” which consisted of being wrapped tightly in sheets and submerged in a tub of cold water and then left to dry, still confined in the wet linens. Ultimately, Brodsky was declared psychologically healthy and fit for work and was released.
Brodsky’s second, open trial was held on 13 March 1964. He was defended by respected members of the Leningrad Writers’ Union, including journalist and literary critic Frida Abramovna Vigdorova, editor Natal’ia Grudinina, and Herzen Institute professors Efim Grigor’evich Etkind and Vladimir Grigorevich Admoni, all of whom testified to Brodsky’s immense talent as both a poet and a translator of poetry. Akhmatova also solicited the support of three Lenin Prize laureates in Brodsky’s defense: composer Dmitrii Dmitrievich Shostakovich and writers Samuil Iakov-levich Marshak and Kornei Ivanovich Chukovsky addressed appeals for Brodsky’s release to the Writers’ Union, the Leningrad Party Committee, and Nikita Sergeevich Khrushchev himself. All these attempts proved ineffectual in the face of testimony by other witnesses, such as one worker who claimed that Brodsky’s poetry was having a bad influence on his son by inciting him not to work. Throughout the trial Brodsky impressed his friends by his calm, unruffled mien; he claimed later that this ordeal was less important to him at the time than the recent catastrophe in his relationship with Basmanova, which had already sapped all his emotional energy.
Vigdorova made a stenographic record of a portion of the trial proceedings until she was forbidden by the judge to continue. She circulated these notes in samizdat, and they soon found their way abroad, where they were published in English translation in The New Leader and Encounter in August and September 1964, and in Russian in the émigré almanac Vozdushnye puti (Airy Paths) in 1965. This publication was the first time the internal workings of the Soviet legal system had been revealed to the outside world, and the transcript created an international sensation. Radio Free Europe made much of the story, and the British Broadcasting Corporation even produced a dramatization of the trial on radio. In the West, Brodsky’s confused responses to Judge Savel’eva’s relentless questions about his lack of professional qualifications to be a writer (“I didn’t think–I didn’t think this was a matter of education ... I think that it is ... from God”) came to symbolize the clash between the evil Soviet bureaucracy and human truth and goodness, between unbridled state power and individual rights.
As a result of the publication of the court proceedings, Brodsky, who previously had been known only to a narrow circle of Leningrad writers and poets, became an international cause célèbre. Brodsky himself interpreted his trial as his necessary initiation into the grand tradition of Russian poets at odds with the state. Although in later years he usually refrained from discussing these painful events, he did maintain a sense of humor about them and once commented on the reasons for his persecution: “I combined in myself the most attractive features, in that I wrote poems and was a Jew” (quoted in Efim Grígor’evich Etkind’s 1988 biographical notes on Brodsky). He also noted with macabre irony that, in contrast to the punishments meted out to other dissenting literary figures in the decade that followed, by Soviet standards his own treatment was “something absolutely homeopathic” (quoted in Valentina Polukhina, Joseph Brodsky: A Poet for Our Time , from a 2 October 1986 interview by Ian Hamilton for BBC 2).
Brodsky was sentenced to five years of hard labor; the court explained that “Brodsky systematically fails to fulfill the obligation of a Soviet man with respect to material values and personal well-being as is evident from his frequent changes of jobs.” He was again confined in the Kresty prison, and on 22 March he was shipped out on a prison train with other convicts (who, unlike Brodsky, had committed actual criminal acts) to the Konosha district in the region of Arkhangel’sk, in the far north of Russia; he settled in the village of Norinskaia, which consisted of just fourteen peasant families. The village was twenty miles from the nearest railroad station, surrounded by swampy northern forests. At first he was put up by a dairy farmer, Anisiia Pestereva; later he rented a tiny room in the hut of an old peasant couple, Konstantin and Afanasiia Pesterev. He paid for the room, furnished only with a table and sofa, with the small salary he earned for his work, which was seasonal and consisted variously of chopping wood, carting manure, shoveling grain stores, and laboring in the fields of the local state farm. His landlady later remembered him fondly and claimed that the villagers often took pity on him and assigned him comparatively easier tasks, such as pasturing the cows. On 14 August 1965 the village newspaper Prizyv (The Summons) published Brodsky’s poem “Traktory na rassvete” (Tractors at Dawn, which appears in full in MacFadyen’s Joseph Brodsky and the Soviet Muse), and on 4 September 1965 it published his poem “Oboz” (Wagon Train), for which he was paid two rubles and some change.
His grim surroundings and the hardships of daily life in Norinskaia notwithstanding, Brodsky remembered this period happily: “That was one of the best periods in my life. There have been no worse, but I don’t think there have been better” (quoted in Solomon Volkov’s Conversations with Joseph Brodsky ). Vigdorova sent him her typewriter, and other friends sent him books, letters, and tins of instant coffee. Because the farmwork in the village was seasonal, Brodsky had long stretches of free time; because for the most part he spent his time in isolation, there were few distractions from his intellectual pursuits. During this period he perfected his knowledge of English, continued his translating work, and discovered to his great excitement the writings of T. S. Eliot and W. H. Auden. His own poetry was nourished by this reading and for the first time departed entirely from the Romantic idiom of his juvenilia and the pathetic idiom of official Soviet discourse. He achieved new spiritual and metaphysical heights in his writing that were, however, conditioned by a wry Romantic irony that remained characteristic of Brodsky’s poetics and even of his conversational style for the remainder of his life. In his Norinskaia poems Brodsky makes use of the compositional possibilities of the baroque–the juxtaposition of the grotesque and the serious, the ephemeral and the eternal, the coarse and the eloquent–while at the same time distancing himself from pure lyricism and adopting, instead, a profoundly intellectual worldview. His language becomes saturated with subtextual references, sometimes preservative and sometimes parodic in function.
Exemplary of all these developments in Brodsky’s poetics is his poignant elegy “Stikhi na smert’ T. S. Eliota” (1970, translated as “Verses on the Death of T. S. Eliot,” 1973), written upon Eliot’s death on 4 January 1965. In this poem Eliot’s magi (from his poem “The Journey of the Magi,” 1927) are replaced by the androgynous figures of two mythic maidens, England and America, the two nations where Eliot made his home. Time is an overwhelming presence, and in fact time itself–not death or God–claims the poet’s life. As Eliot departs the temporal world, “latching his door with a chain of years,” Poetry, though orphaned by his death, still “breeds within the glass / of lonely days, each echoing each.” Poetry, as Brodsky often wrote, is time reconfigured: “in the rhyme / of years the voice of poetry stands plain.” Through the strength of his poetry Eliot has inscribed his being on the physical world. Brodsky’s own poetic signature is now developed to the point at which he, too, etches himself into the consciousness of his physical surroundings–he knows now his own poetic strength. As Brodsky wrote in a letter to I. N. Tomashevskaia on 19 January 1965 (quoted by A. N. Krivomazov in his on-line biography of Brodsky): “I have accelerated too far now, and I will never stop until death itself. Everything somehow shimmers in the background, but that’s not the main thing. Inside me is some sort of unheard-of infinity and indifference, and I will gather more and more speed all the time.”
Many of Brodsky’s best works were written during his exile in Norinskaia, including more than seventy lyric poems and several poemy (first published in book form in Ostanovka v pustyne [1970, A Halt in the Desert,]), including “Pis’mo v butylke” (1965, Letter in a Bottle), “Einem Alten Architekten in Rom” (1964, To an Old Architect in Rome), and “Novye stansy k Avguste” (1964, New Stanzas to Augusta). This last work is dedicated to Basmanova (“M.B.”), who later visited him for a period of several months during his exile. He gladly welcomed other visitors as well–Rein and Naiman came, bringing an encouraging letter from Akhmatova on the occasion of Brodsky’s twenty-fifth birthday–but the period he spent with Basmanova was the highlight of his exile, the happiest time in his long relationship with her. In “Novye stansy k Avguste” the absent Basmanova, like Augusta, the sister of George Gordon, Lord Byron, plays muse to Brodsky’s exiled poet. Brod sky dedicated many other poems to Basmanova during his time in Norinskaia, including “Ty vyporkhnesh’, malinovka. . .” (1964; translated as “You’ll flutter, robin redbreast, from these three...,” 1973), “Dlia shkol’nogo vozrasta” (1964, For School Age, translated in David M. Bethea’s Joseph Brodsky and the Creation of Exile ), “Lomtik medovogo mesiatsa” (A Slice of Honeymoon, 1963), “Derev’ia v moem okne. . .” (The trees in my window, in my wooden-framed window. . ., 1964), and “Prorochestvo” (A Prophecy, 1965), all of which were first published in book form in Ostanovka v pustyne. Brodsky later collected his love poems to Basmanova in the volume Novye stansy k Avguste (New Stanzas to Augusta, 1983).
The furor that Brodsky’s trial had raised abroad did not dissipate but rather escalated after his exile to Norinskaia. A collection of his works, titled Stikhotvore-niia i poemy (Lyric and Narrative Poems), compiled by Gleb Petrovich Struve and Boris Andreevich Filippov and financed by the Central Intelligence Agency, was published in New York in 1965. During the next few years, translations into English, German, French, Hebrew, Polish, and Czech followed. By contrast, only a handful of Brodsky’s poems had been published by this time in Soviet periodicals–the first of these, “Pro-shchai. . .” (translated as “Farewell...,” 1967), in 1957. The authorities eventually bowed to international pressure and commuted Brodsky’s sentence to one year and five months, and he was released in September 1965. Now world renowned, he was allowed to return to his native Leningrad and to earn a living as a translator; he translated Donne and Andrew Marvell into Russian and focused especially on the works of the Polish poets Cyprian Norwid, Zbigniew Herbert, Czeslaw Miłosz, and Gałczyński, from whom he learned to approach a serious subject indirectly, with a degree of jest, without losing sight of its deeper implications. He traveled freely, often visiting Lithuania and wintering in writers’ colonies in the Crimea. He spent time in Moscow as well, where his friends Naiman and Rein had moved after the breakdown of their friendship with Bobyshev and Brodsky’s subsequent exile. When Akhmatova died on 5 March 1966, Brodsky was a pallbearer at her funeral.
For two or three years after Brodsky’s return to Leningrad, his relationship with Basmanova continued fitfully, and in 1968 she gave birth to his son, Andrei, whom, despite Brodsky’s resistance, she registered under the maternal surname Basmanov. As before, she had no intention of marrying Brodsky, who was barely managing to make ends meet with the small income that his translations brought in, and who still lived in an alcove in his parents’ share of the communal apartment on Liteinyi Street. By the time of Andrei’s birth, Brod sky’s relationship with Basmanova was decidedly over, although he continued wistfully addressing love poems to her during the next two decades of his life. Several passages in his 1967 poema “Rech’ o prolitom moloke” (1977, A Speech about Spilled Milk) refer to the disintegration of his romantic hopes, as when he complains: “Knowing my status, my fiancée / for the fifth year hasn’t budged to get married; / and where she is now, I have no idea: / the devil himself couldn’t pry the truth out of her.” This work is a self-deprecatory rant against Brodsky’s disappointments in life–and, in particular, against the depraved political ideology that contaminates the society in which he lives. He voices his determination to continue his rebellion against the system and to fight for “democracy in the full sense of the word,” claiming that “evil exists to be fought with, / and not to be hung like a yoke on one’s shoulders.”
In several poems written in the late 1960s and first published in book form in Ostanovka v pustyne, Brodsky sadly, or bitterly, bids good-bye to his affair with Basmanova. In “Sonet” (A Sonnet; translated as “Post-scriptum” in Selected Poems, 1973), he begins, “What a pity that what your existence has come to mean for me, my existence did not come to mean for you.” In “Strofy” (1968; translated as “Stanzas,” 1973) he muses, “But my world will not end if / in future we share / only those jagged edges / where we’ve broken apart.” In the wake of his breakup with Basmanova, Brodsky had several short-lived relationships with various women, among them Soviets and foreign Slavicists who came to meet him while traveling in the Soviet Union, but none of these connections ultimately endured.
After his release from northern exile in 1965, Brodsky’s political troubles were far from over. Khrushchev had been forced from power in late 1964, and Leonid Il’ich Brezhnev took over, becoming the new general secretary of the Communist Party in 1966. The decade of the Thaw was coming to a close, and there began a wave of arrests and deportations of important writers and scholars–including, in 1974, Etkind, who had defended Brodsky at his 1964 trial, and the writer Vladimir Rafailovich Maramzin, who was in the process of compiling a samizdat collection of Brodsky’s poetry. The availability today of much of Brodsky’s early work results from Maramzin’s efforts at collecting and organizing the poet’s writings, given Brodsky’s own carelessness with his archive, particularly in his youth. The literary critic Mikhail Kheifets, who had written an introduction to Maramzin’s volume titled “Iosif Brodskii i nashe pokolenie” (Joseph Brodsky and Our Generation), was sentenced to four years in a labor camp and two years in exile.
Brodsky himself was one of the first casualties of the new cultural repression. Although immediately after his return to Leningrad he was offered the opportunity of publishing a selection of his poems in the journal Iunost’ (Youth), the publication was canceled when Brodsky refused to acquiesce to Evtushenko’s choice of his works, saying the selection made him emerge “looking like a shorn sheep” (cited in Volkov’s Conversations with Joseph Brodsky). Several of Brodsky’s poems were, however, published in Soviet periodicals and almanacs in 1966 and 1967. In addition, in 1966 he prepared a collection titled “Zimniaia pochta” (Winter Mail) for printing by the Leningrad branch of the publishing house Sovetskii pisatel’ (Soviet Writer), but these plans apparently fell through when Brodsky was advised that the book would be published only if he agreed to become an informant for the KGB. In 1969 Robert Lowell invited Brodsky to take part in an international poetry festival in London; the same year, Brodsky was also asked to appear at the Festival of Two Worlds in Spo-leto. He was refused a visa to attend either occasion; the bizarre response of the Soviet authorities to the latter invitation was that “There is no such poet. True, there was a Brodsky sent to prison a few years ago.” Permission for Brodsky to attend a poetry festival in Czechoslovakia was also denied.
Events came to a head on the morning of 10 May 1972. Brodsky was urgently summoned to the Office of Visas and Registrations (OVIR), where he was asked whether he had received an invitation to immigrate to Israel. Brodsky replied that he had received two such invitations, although he had no idea who had sent them, and that he had not used them because, in the first place, he had not expected to be allowed to go and, in the second place, he had no interest in leaving home permanently. The official responded by setting before Brodsky a visa application accompanied by an invitation from a certain “Evrei Iakov” (Jacob the Jew), whom Brodsky was told to identify as his grand-nephew; he was also assured that if he did not fill out the forms on the spot, he would be in for a “very hot time.” Weary of his struggles and recognizing the ines-capability of the situation, Brodsky complied. The following Monday he was ordered to turn in his passport, and he was given two weeks to leave the country. Brodsky told Volkov that he suspected that Evtushenko had been instrumental in urging this turn of events. Whatever the case, a bold open letter that Brodsky wrote to Brezhnev himself, asserting that “even if my nation does not need my body, my soul will come in handy,” expressing his certainty that he would return some day to his native land “in the flesh or on paper,” and urging Brezhnev to allow him at least to publish in the Soviet Union, had no effect. Brodsky at last was beyond the reach of the strong grasp of the state.
The theme of Empire–exemplified by Rome–is a common one in Brodsky’s writings, beginning in the late 1960s. Earlier, the idea of Empire had naively signified for Brodsky the conflict between poet and society; in his mature poems, however, the disintegration of the Roman Empire became his way of describing the particular atmosphere of stagnation that was inaugurated under Brezhnev. For example, in Brodsky’s poem “Vremia goda–zima. . .” (1977, The time of year is winter... ; translated in Bethea’s Joseph Brodsky and the Creation of Exile), written between 1967 and 1970, the poet dwells on the edge of the empire, at the end of an era, and speaks through a state of stifling half-slumber about his feeling of entrapment. Caught like a fish on a hook, the poet attempts in vain to escape by exercising the powers of his magical language, which is a priori older than any state, and contents himself by observing stoically that “If we can’t get the better of the evil power, then at least we can get the better of ourselves.”
On 4 June 1972 Brodsky arrived in Vienna– ostensibly en route to Israel–where he was met by his friend Carl Proffer, founder of the American publishing house Ardis. Proffer soon led Brodsky to a meeting with Auden at that poet’s summer residence, a farmhouse in the Austrian countryside, where Brodsky spent the next three weeks. In June and July, Brodsky and Auden appeared together at poetry readings in London and Oxford. Soon afterward, Brodsky accepted Proffer’s invitation to the post of poet-in-residence with professorial status at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Brodsky’s way in the West had been paved by the appearance in New York in 1970 of his first authorized collection, Ostanovka v pustyne. This book encompassed a selection of his best lyrics written up to that point, along with several important poemy, including “Gorbunov i Gorchakov,” and translations into Russian of four of Donne’s poems. Anglophone readers were also able to become acquainted with his poetry through his first English-language collections Elegy to John Donne and Other Poems (1967) and Selected Poems (1973). The latter volume consisted of translations by George Kline that were overseen by Brodsky himself, and the book included a glowing preface written by Auden.
The history of Brodsky’s life in emigration is far less eventful than that of his early years in the Soviet Union. Always a private man, he became more so as he grew older and settled into his hybrid identity as an American professor and man of letters and a Russian emigre poet. Brodsky remained at the University of Michigan for the next nine years. In 1981 he accepted a permanent position as Andrew Mellon Professor of Literature at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts. Over the years he also appeared as a guest lecturer and visiting professor at many other universities in both the United States and Britain, including Amherst College, Columbia University, New York University, Queens College, Smith College, and Cambridge University. During his early years in the United States, Brodsky confided in friends his fear of losing the pulse of Russian poetry and becoming alienated from the expressive possibilities of his native language. These fears proved, however, to be in vain; with time, the Russian language became the vessel for Brodsky’s identity, the only defining reality in his life, and indeed the exact substance of sanctity and human meaning. “The holiest thing we have,” Brodsky said in a 1983 interview with Natal’ia Gorbanevskaia (quoted in Valentina Polukhina’s 2000 compilation), “is, perhaps, not our icons, not even our history–it is our language.”
In Brodsky’s cycle “Chast’ rechi” (A Part of Speech), published in Chast’rechi: Stikhotvoreniia 1972-76 (1977, A Part of Speech: Poems 1972-76), his language is jumbled and fragmented but does not lose its potency. The neologisms, grammatical impossibilities, and pure nonsense of the opening poem, for example, result in a surprisingly eloquent statement of loneliness and alienation:
From nowhere with love, the umpteenth of Martober,
dear respected mister sweetie, but it doesn’t even matter
who, since the features of the face, speaking
frankly, I can no longer remember, neither yours, nor
anyone’s either true friend I greet you from one
of the five continents, which is propped up by cowboys;
I loved you more than the angels or god himself,
and therefore I’m farther from you now, than from them
As the title of this cycle indicates, the poet himself is pared down, along with his utterances, to the elementary unit of meaning–the part of speech–and just as the splitting of the atom releases enormous stores of hidden energy, so too this fragmentation of linguistic matter gives rise to a corresponding intensification of meaning: “Of the entire person left to you is only a part / of speech. A part of speech in general. A part of speech.”
Brodsky came to feel that (as he told Giovanni Buttafava in a 1987 interview, collected in Polukhina’s 2000 compilation) “perhaps exile is the natural condition of a poet’s existence, in contrast to the novelist, who must exist within the structures of the society he describes.” Exile became the source of Brodsky’s mature metaphysics in poems such as the 1975 “Osen-nii krik iastreba” (1987, The Hawk’s Cry in Autumn), prompting him to formulate in his works a law of subtraction by which the process of living consists of the gradual shedding of every extraneous emotion, connection, and possession until the essential core of being is revealed through poetic truths, the primary instrument of which is rhyme. Bethea has traced this development in his Joseph Brodsky and the Creation of Exile. Perhaps the best illustration of the process is found in”1972 god” (1972), published in 1977, a wry self-portrait in verse written shortly after Brodsky’s emigration, where unorthodox rhymes such as “trusosti / trudnosti / trupnosti” (cowardice / difficulty / corpseness) and “doverii / materii / poteri i” (trust / material / loss and) convey the inevitable, gradual decay of physical existence and of the poet’s own body in particular. Brodsky’s sense of humor, in this poem and throughout his poetry, was a saving power. His lifelong aversion to the stance of victimhood resulted, in his later years, in a trenchant command of language and its expressive possibilities. His stoicism is voiced most eloquently in his 1980 poem “la vkhodil vmesto dikogo zveria. . .” (1987, I entered in place of a wild beast... ; translated as “May 24, 1980,” 1988), which ends with these well-known lines: “What should I say about life? / That it turned out to be long. / I feel solidarity with grief alone. / But as long as they haven’t stuffed my mouth with clay, / only gratefulness will gush from it.”
The strength of Brodsky’s poetic voice and vision is demonstrated in the hundreds of poems published in his major collections of the American years: Chast’ rechi; Konets prekrasnoi epokhi (1977, End of the Belle Epoque); Novye stansy k Avguste; Uraniia (1987, Urania); Primechaniia paporotnika (1990, Notes of a Fern); and Peizazh s navodne-niem (1996, View with a flood). Brodsky’s refusal to relinquish either his command of the Russian language or his rightful position in the Russian poetic pantheon was not, however, the only factor that guaranteed his poetic survival in emigration. His adoption of the English language as his second mother tongue and of the United States as his second homeland undoubtedly played an important role in ensuring that he did not fade into nonexistence as the Soviet authorities had hoped. Instead, Brodsky remained an imposing literary presence. He gratefully received his United States citizenship in Detroit on 11 October 1977 (some sources incorrectly give the date as 1980); his posthumous children’s book Discovery (1999) pays tribute to his love for his adoptive country. Brodsky’s knowledge of the English language and love of English and American poetry prior to his emigration facilitated this turn of events. His love affair with English only deepened after he took up residency in the United States, and he often stressed his feeling of obligation toward the English language, as he observed in an essay for ”The New York Times Magazine (1 October 1972): “The measure of a writer’s patriotism is how he writes in the language of the people among whom he lives.” Despite the privacy of Brodsky’s habits, his outsider’s gaze upon his host culture, and his often critical view of American society, he remained always passionately engaged in dialogue with his adoptive country, and isolationism of the type practiced by another involuntary Russian exile, Aleksandr Isaevich Solzhenitsyn, was unimaginable for him.
Brodsky’s first poem in English was “Elegy,” dedicated to his mentor Auden. In 1972 Brodsky finally met the American poet Lowell, with whom he felt more comfortable than with Auden; in 1977 he wrote “Elegy: For Robert Lowell” in English and included it with the translations of his Russian lyrics in his 1980 collection A Part of Speech. This English collection was followed in 1988 by To Urania and, in 1996, by the posthumous collection So Forth. With each progressive collection in English, there is a visible acceleration of Brodsky’s authorial control over the English versions of his poetry, demonstrating his increasing feeling of ease in the English language and his desire to exist as a full poetic presence in the Anglophone literary space. In So Forth, translations are not even marked as such, so that distinguishing between poems that exist in Russian-language versions and poems that do not is impossible at first glance. On many occasions Brodsky’s authorized versions of works previously published in Russian depart significantly from the original versions, as he alters the semantic content of his lines to preserve a rhyme or metrical pattern or attempts to harness the different idiomatic potential of the English language, with varying degrees of success. Indeed, critical opinion on Brodsky’s English-language poetry is strongly divided. Some commentators discern the same linguistic and philosophical brilliance in his English poems that marks his Russian works and find the oddities of his English appealing, revealing, even poetic. Other scholars contend that Brodsky never managed to develop a true understanding of the unique qualities of English verse or even a good grasp of English grammar, and that his English poems and translations suffer badly from his attempts to graft his extremely Russian sensibilities regarding rhyme, meter, and diction onto an unaccommodating medium; the unfortunate result, they claim, is often humor or vulgarity where, clearly, only a keen irony is intended.
Critical opinion on Brodsky’s English-language prose, however, is essentially unanimous; in this genre, freed of the structural requirements of verse, Brodskys expressive genius shines. His first collection of essays in English, Less Than One, was published in 1986, followed by On Grief and Reason in 1995; some of these essays first appeared as introductions to poetry collections. In addition, he published several articles and editorials in Anglophone periodicals over the years, including The New York Times Magazine, TLS: The Times Literary Supplement, The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, Newsweek, Vogue, and Mademoiselle. Through these appearances in the mainstream press, he attained a powerful voice in the pressing intellectual debates of his time. The essays included in Less Than One and On Grief and Reason serve as a continuation of Brodsky’s poetry and a kind of supplemental poetic autobiography, characterized by the same trenchant intellect and the same linguistic and metaphoric density that mark his poems.
Less Than One mostly looks backward–to Brodsky’s parents and childhood, as well as to his cultural inheritance in his native city of Leningrad and in the Russian poetic tradition championed by his predecessors Akhmatova, Tsvetaeva, and Mandel’shtam. Brodsky dedicates the two essays that frame the collection, “Less Than One” and “In a Room and a Half,” to reminiscences of his mother and father and of his early childhood in Soviet Leningrad. The young Brodsky as he depicts himself in his opening piece is disaffected and insecure, with an impaired sense of self–like the adult poet he later became, he feels he is “less than one.” The title of the closing essay similarly expresses diminishment, inadequacy, and constraint, this time of the tiny physical space in which Brodsky and his parents once lived. These two essays are much more than straightforward memoirs of times past. Rather, they juxtapose Brodsky’s memories of the Soviet past with his émigre present, sometimes evoking a jarring sense of incongruence and unreality (“The reality I face bears no relation and no correspondence to the room and a half and its two inhabitants, across the ocean and now nonexistent.... The only points in common are my own frame and a typewriter. Of a different make and with a different typeface”), while at other times creating a haunting illusion of echoes and uncanny correspondences, as when two crows perched on the poet’s porch in Massachusetts remind him of his parents (“One is shorter than the other, the way my mother was up to my father’s shoulder”).
These essays are not so much about particular memories as about the nature of memory in general, the role that language plays in encoding and expressing memories, the relationship or lack thereof between material and intellectual existence, and the development of Brodskys poetic consciousness through time. Brodsky challenges the Marxian dictum that “existence conditions consciousness,” touting instead his discovery at a precociously young age of the “art of estrangement.” This technique proved to be his salvation from the pervasive slavish mentality–adopted even by his parents–that was mandated by the totalitarian society in which he lived. His freedom from this mentality came in various forms: his commission of rebellious acts such as dropping out of school; his ability to filter his perceptions of the material world, for example, by ignoring the ubiquitous statues of Vladimir Lenin; and his development of an ethical sense that is based not on Soviet dogma, but on an instinctive perception of aesthetic beauty. Thus, the beautiful city of Leningrad, whose “left bank looked like the imprint of a giant mollusk called civilization. Which ceased to exist,” serves as a receptacle of truth and, moreover, as the physical embodiment of Brodsky’s concept of memory as it is delineated in these essays–a fossilized trace of time past. As he writes: “Memory, I think, is a substitute for the tail that we lost for good in the happy process of evolution.... There is something clearly atavistic in the very process of recollection, if only because such a process never is linear.”
The autobiographical essays “Less Than One” and “In a Room and a Half” are anything but linear; they skip rapidly from topic to topic, sketching surprising correspondences with metaphysical accuracy, deadpan humor, and maximally condensed linguistic means. As a result, many lines of Brodsky’s prose in these essays read like aphorisms (for example, “Prison is a lack of alternatives” “The army is a peasant’s idea of order” “But then inhumanity is always easier to structure than anything else”). In Brodsky’s other essays in Less Than One, he maintains this style as he ruminates on various topics, including the state of contemporary Russian prose, the nature of political tyranny, the legacy of poets such as Eugenio Montale and Constantine Cavafy, and the pernicious encroachment, in his view, of Eastern despotism on Russian cultural forms (including Christian Orthodoxy). Brodsky broaches the last topic in his essay “Flight from Byzantium.” In the essays that make up On Grief and Reason, Brodsky mostly turns aside from his Russian background to address the works of American and European poets such as Frost, Thomas Hardy, and Rainer Maria Rilke, as well as his perceptions of the contemporary American society in which he lives.
Brodsky’s prolific writings brought him many honors, and in the years following his emigration his literary success was considerable. In 1977 he received the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship in poetry; in 1978 he was awarded an honorary degree of doctor of letters by Yale University; in 1979 an Italian translation of his works received both the Feltrinelli Prize for Poetry and the Mondello Literary Prize; on 23 May 1979 he was elected to the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters (in 1987 he resigned his membership in protest against the induction of Evtushenko as a foreign member of the Institute); in 1981 he was granted a “genius” award by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation; in 1986 he received the National Book Critics Circle Award for criticism for Less Than One; in 1987 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature; in 1991 he was granted an honorary degree by Oxford University and received France’s Order of the Legion of Honor; and also in 1991 he was chosen by the Library of Congress to serve as the poet laureate of the United States, which he did until 1992. Brodsky was frequently invited to give readings of his poetry, and he became famous for his powerful, sing-song declamatory style and his sardonic, witty, penetrating monologues in response to his audience’s questions. He also cultivated friendships with other leading contemporary poets, including Lowell, Milosz, Richard Wilbur, Mark Strand, Derek Walcott, Seamus Heaney, and Tomas Venclova, as well as with Western and Russian intellectuals such as Susan Sontag, Lev Vladimirovich Losev, and Aleksandr Sumerkin. Brodsky often traveled to England, and he made a habit of visiting Venice–the watery city that reminded him of his native Leningrad–almost every year during his winter break from teaching. These Venetian odysseys are memorialized in his book-length meditative essay Watermark (1992), published first in Italian translation as Fondamenta degli lncurabili (Fundamentals of the Incurable) in 1989, and translated into Russian as “Naberezhnaia neistselimykh” (Shores of the Incurable).
Brodsky was grateful for his relative good fortune; he once said, “I’m the happiest combination you can think of. I’m a Russian poet, an English essayist, and an American citizen!” (quoted in Cissie Dore Hill’s “Remembering Joseph Brodsky,” 2000). However, despite his professional successes in emigration, his life during these years was largely a solitary one, and his vocation as a university professor never became a true avocation. In addition to the keen feeling of cultural and linguistic alienation that was the norm of his new existence and shaped his writing so distinctively, he had another, more particular sorrow to bear: his parents, whom he had not seen since 1972, were repeatedly denied permission by the Soviet authorities to visit their son even for a short time, despite their ceaseless attempts over the years. Brodsky paid tribute to them in his essay “In a Room and a Half,” hoping that by writing about them in the English language he would somehow manage to free them from their unwitting mental servitude to the Soviet regime, which had swallowed them alive: “I want English verbs of motion to describe their movements. This won’t resurrect them, but English grammar may at least prove to be a better escape route from the chimneys of the state crematorium than the Russian.” Brodsky’s mother, ill with cancer, died in 1983, while his father passed away from a heart attack the following year.
Brodsky’s own health suffered over the years. He had inherited his father’s heart condition, and the emotional strain of his political persecution in the Soviet Union and the physical strain of his eighteen months of hard labor in the far north had worsened matters. Moreover, heedless of doctors’ orders, Brodsky all his life was an inveterate hard drinker and chain-smoker. He suffered his first heart attack on 13 December 1976, and during the last two decades of his life he underwent three separate heart-bypass operations.
Still, Brodsky’s last years were eventful, busy, and largely peaceful. In South Hadley, Massachusetts, where he lived each spring, he owned a house built in the eighteenth century, the rustic decor and rough maple floors of which reminded him of his parents’ room in the communal apartment of his youth. Brodsky was famous for his poetry courses at Mount Holyoke College, in which he required his students to memorize hundreds of lines of poetry during the course of the semester. He spent his autumns and winters in the bohemian environment of Greenwich Village in New York City, where he lived in an apartment on Morton Street with his cat. In New York, Brodsky had a wide circle of acquaintances within the Soviet émigré community, in particular the dancer Mikhail Nikolaevich Baryshnikov and the writer, translator, and dance aficionado Gennadii Smakov, a close friend of Brodsky’s youth from Leningrad.
While he continued to write poetry and essays in both English and Russian, in 1984 Brodsky completed a drama, which he had begun in the Soviet Union in the 1960s, titled Mramor (Marbles). This play premiered on the New York stage in 1986, starring Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory, and was subsequently performed in various locations in Europe and North America. The play, like “Gorbunov i Gorchakov,” was inspired by Brodsky’s nightmarish experiences in Soviet psychiatric hospitals, and it continues the dialogue that shapes the earlier poema; at the same time the play develops the picture of a post-Christian empire that Brodsky first put forth in his 1970 poema “Post Aetatem Nostram” (1977, After Our Era). In Mramor, Brodsky heightens both the terror and the humor of his poetic treatment of the subject, going beyond absurdism to portray a hilarious, horrible dystopia two hundred years in the future. A resurrected Roman Empire has established statistical norms for imprisonment, according to which three percent of the population, irrespective of any crimes committed, is shut up for life in a mile-high steel tower in the heart of the new Rome. The two characters of the play, Publius and Tullius, are unlikely cell mates in the prison tower, doomed to each other’s company. Escape is unthinkable; when Tullius succeeds in an ingenious plan to exit briefly into the outside world, he nevertheless returns voluntarily to confinement, opting for the oblivion of sleeping pills over the liberation of real existence.
Brodsky’s 1987 Nobel Prize address was an eloquent testament to his own refusal to submit to such oblivion; he declared the complete independence of the poet from any social or political norm, claimed that the only dictator to whom the poet must submit is language itself, and celebrated the continuity of culture according to aesthetic intuition–the source, according to Brodsky, of morality, rather than the other way around: “For a man with taste, particularly with literary taste, is less susceptible to the refrains and the rhythmical incantations peculiar to any version of political demagogy. The point is not so much that virtue does not constitute a guarantee for producing a masterpiece as that evil, especially political evil, is always a bad stylist.” Despite the themes of Brodsky’s address, the selection committee of the Swedish Academy denied that there was any political message for the Soviet government in their choice of the Russian émigré poet (who was, at age forty-seven, the second-youngest writer ever to be awarded the Nobel Prize). Instead, their press release cited Brodsky for the “luminous intensity of his writing,” its “great breadth in time and space... and... the intellectual and sensitive side of this rich and intensely vital work.” Initial reaction to Brodsky’s Nobel Prize in his native Russia, nevertheless, was one of consternation and coverup; Gennadii Gerasimov, a Soviet Foreign Ministry spokesman, remarked at a press conference on the strange tastes of the Nobel Prize committee, and the prize was not announced publicly in the Soviet Union until news of it had leaked through from foreign shortwave radio broadcasts several weeks later. Still, even Gerasimov acknowledged that the prize would draw welcome attention to Russian poetry of the twentieth century; and reaction to Brodsky’s prize among Western critics and intellectuals was uniformly ecstatic. His own initial response to the announcement of the honor was characteristically one of mixed pride and humor at his own expense: “A big step for me, a small one for mankind,” he joked, adding, “It’s Russian literature that got it.”
After Brodsky became a Nobel laureate, his fame soared, and he was often distracted from his writing by the inevitable parade of journalists, letters from aspiring young poets, and other public obligations. His commitment to his compatriots did not wane, either; in 1979 he had been instrumental in the defection to the United States of the Bol’shoi Theater ballet star Aleksandr Godunov, and in later years he was active in assisting many Russian émigrés to the United States with letters of recommendation and well-placed telephone calls. He generously used portions of his Nobel Prize money to assist friends and prominent Russian émigrés in their times of need. In addition, he spent a good part of the money–against friends’ advice–on expensive renovations on the apartment he rented in Greenwich Village; he also contributed a portion of the money toward propping up the Russian Samovar restaurant in Manhattan, which had struggled since its establishment in 1986 through a fire, flood, and other maintenance disasters.
Brodsky concerned himself with the state of American literary culture as well. In his October 1991 address to the Library of Congress as poet laureate he made what he termed, parodying Jonathan Swift, “An Immodest Proposal” (1995) that called for the dissemination of poetry in public places such as hotels and supermarkets in order to counteract what he saw as the degenerative effects of American popular culture. Ludicrous as the proposal might have sounded, it piqued the interest of Andrew Carroll, a young Columbia University graduate, and in 1993 he and Brodsky founded the American Poetry and Literacy Project, a nonprofit organization that, in the words of Brodsky’s address, was devoted to making poetry a part of American culture “as ubiquitous as gas stations, if not as cars themselves,” since poetry “is the only insurance available against the vulgarity of the human heart. Therefore, it should be available to everyone in this country and at a low cost.” Carroll continued this project after Brodsky’s death, and hundreds of thousands of free books of poetry were given away in hotel rooms and grocery stores, at truck stops and post offices.
Beginning in the early 1990s, Brodsky at last ceased addressing poems to the elusive “M.B.” He was an intensely private person, and the few published accounts of events in his personal life are often of doubtful accuracy. What is clear, though, is that in his last years the poet’s life changed dramatically. After an epistolary romance with a translator named Maria Sozzani and several joint sojourns with her in Venice, the couple were married in Stockholm on 1 September 1990. Maria Sozzani Brodsky was thirty years Brodsky’s junior, the daughter of an Italian father and Russian mother. Some of Brodsky’s friends observed that he was changed, softened, and seemed happy as never before. The couple’s decision to leave his high-profile residence in Greenwich Village for the comparative tranquility of Brooklyn Heights also contributed significantly to his feeling of contentment. In June 1993 Sozzani Brodsky gave birth to the couple’s only child, their daughter, Anna Alexandra Maria.
Brodsky’s poems of the 1990s occasionally hint at the poet’s emotional transformation when, at rare intervals, his tone of stoic forbearance and the landscape of psychic desolation give way to intonations of wonder, meekness, and tenderness. An example of this development is the 1994 poem “To My Daughter” (1996), written in English, in which Brodsky wistfully and a trifle ironically attempts to foresee himself reincarnated after his death–which, he rightly senses, is impending–as an item of “furniture in the corner.” He thus tries to imagine away the impossibility of maintaining contact with the daughter whom he will never see grown. Ultimately, the metaphor of the stoic poet transformed into a chair is realized at the end of the poem in Brodsky’s resorting to “somewhat wooden lines in our common language” he intuits, sadly, that his feeble attempt to leave a poetic “message in a bottle” for his child is sure to fail. This intuition may have been prompted by Brodsky’s disappointment after a long-awaited reunion with his son.
In 1972 Brodsky had addressed his tender poem “Odissei–Telemaku” (1977; translated as “Odysseus to Telemachus,” 1973) to his then four-year-old son, Andrei Basmanov, as the poet faced expulsion from the Soviet Union. In this poem, a battle-weary Brodsky-Odysseus expresses his quiet grief at the insurmountable distances in space, time, and mind that are carrying him ever further away from his son: “I don’t know where I am, / what lies ahead....Grow big, my Telemachus, grow. Only the gods know whether we will see each other again.” Yet, the reunion between father and son in the mid 1990s was a failure, as they discovered how little they had in common beyond their extreme physical similarity to each other.
With the advent of perestroika, Brodsky’s reputation in his homeland began to change, perhaps also assisted by his winning of the Nobel Prize. For the first time since his exile, in 1987 and 1988 Brodsky’s poems were published in the journals Novyi mir (New World) and Neva; the first Soviet editions of his collected works appeared in 1990, followed by many more such publications in Russia over the next several years. In March 1995 Anatolii Aleksandrovich Sobchak, the mayor of St. Petersburg, invited Brodsky to visit his native city the following summer. Brodsky politely declined, saying he had neither the emotional nor the physical resources available to weather such a public journey, although he planned a private one at some future date.
For the most part, the poems of Brodsky’s final decade are dark, emotionally blank, intellectually acute, acridly humorous, and frankly self-deprecatory. He foresaw his own death clearly and linked it with the demise of his century, while taking stock of the achievements and failures of both. Such is the case, for example, in his 1989 poem “Fin de Siécle” (1996, Turn of the Century), which begins with the prediction that “The century soon will end, but I’ll end sooner. / This is, I fear, not a matter of intuition. / Rather–the influence of nonbeing // on being: of the hunter, so to speak, on his prey, / whether it be the heart’s muscle or a brick.” In his 1993 poem “Dedal v Sitsilii” (1996; translated as “Daedalus in Sicily,” 1996), Brodsky’s portrait of the ancient inventor in old age is also a trenchant self-portrait: “All his life he was building something, inventing something. / All his life from these structures, from these inventions / he had to flee.” Brodsky looks forward to his death in poem after poem in a matter-of-fact way, without a trace of sentimentality and often with a quiet, wry humor. So resigned to death is Brodsky in these poems that there is a sense that he has come to the end of his road and is ready–almost impatient–to die. He is tired of life and secure in the knowledge that he has imprinted himself as indelibly as possible on human letters. As in his 1993 poem “Peizazh s navodneniem,” the flood of time rises to obliterate him, and he “wants to say something, sputtering with excitement, / but out of the multitude of words only one remains: was.”
Brodsky died of massive heart failure on the night of 28 January 1996 at the age of fifty-five. Shortly afterward, his longtime friend Rein flew in from Moscow to speak at a memorial service in the Morse Auditorium of Boston University, where Brodsky had given his last public reading on 9 April 1995; friends and family remembered Brodsky at a service held at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City on 8 March 1996. Following a temporary interment at the cathedral, Brodskys body was moved to its final resting place in the Cimitero di San Michele in Venice, where he had spent many of his happiest days.
Since his death, Brodskys life and career have been commemorated many times, and two instances in particular stand out. The first occurred on what would have been his fifty-sixth birthday, 24 May 1996. A massive granite slab, inscribed “In this house from 1955 until 1972 lived the poet Iosif Aleksandrovich Brodsky,” was unveiled outside the poet’s childhood residence at 24 Liteinyi Street in St. Petersburg. Plans are under way for the establishment of a Brodsky literary museum to be housed in the same building. The other commemorative act was the creation, by the poet’s widow, Sozzani Brodsky, of the Joseph Brodsky Memorial Fellowship Fund, which enables Russian writers, artists, and scholars to live and work in Italy. The idea for the fellowship had come from Brodsky himself. Shortly before he died, he had appealed to the mayor of Rome for the establishment of a Russian academy in that city. As Brodsky wrote to the mayor, “Italy was a revelation to the Russians; now it can become the source of their renaissance.” The fund selected its first recipients, three Russian poets and scholars, in the spring of 2000 and awarded each a three-month fellowship at the American Academy or the French Academy in Rome.
Although the significance and worth of Joseph Brodsky’s creative opus continues to be debated to this day, the fact that he challenged many preconceived political, aesthetic, and philosophical sensibilities of his time–in both his poetry and his prose works, in both English and Russian–is indisputable; indeed, precisely for this reason his writings still raise some hackles. Aware of his poetic calling at an early age, he firmly upheld the ideal of free poetic expression throughout his life, seemingly impervious to the potential damage of social pressure, political persecution, and cultural isolation. In his distinctive position as a citizen of two worlds, a master of two literary languages, and an inheritor of two poetic traditions, Brodsky devoted his talent to the creation of a hybrid poetry in which multiple literary tendencies were grafted together: baroque and avant-garde, ancient and metaphysical, English free verse and Russian metered and rhymed verse. The result was the literary rehabilitation of both languages. He freed Russian from the trite phrases of Soviet propaganda and the sentimentality of Russian émigré culture, injecting the language with intellectual heft, jolting rhythms, and disquieting–sometimes even crude–thematic content that was previously unthinkable. At the same time, he attempted to release contemporary American belles lettres from the trend he perceived toward amorphousness and irrelevance, and, by reintroducing the English language to the forgotten discipline of aesthetic form, to reconnect Anglophone poetry with its roots in Western high culture. Whether Brodsky will be judged by posterity to have been entirely successful in these endeavors still remains to be seen. What can be said with certainty, however, is that, thanks to his mastery of the art of detachment, Brodsky modeled an eloquent literary protest to both state-sponsored tyranny and the stifling banality of conformism that will not soon be forgotten.
Sven Birkerts, “The Art of Poetry XXVII: Joseph Brodsky,” Paris Review, 83 (Spring 1982): 83-126;
Marianna Volkova and Solomon Volkov, Iosif Brodskii v N’iu-Iorke: Fotoportrety i besedy s poetom (New York: Slovo, 1990);
Volkov, Conversations with Joseph Brodsky: A Poet’s Journey through the Twentieth Century, translated by Marian Schwartz (New York & London: Free Press, 1998); Russian version published as Dialogi s Iosifom Brodskim (Moscow: Nezavisimaia gazeta, 1998);
Valentina Polukhina, ed., Bol’shaia kniga inter’viu (Moscow: Zakharov, 1998; revised and enlarged, 2000);
“Form in Poetry: Joseph Brodsky and Derek Walcott in a Conversation with Bengt Jangfeldt,” Kenyon Review, 23 (Spring 2001): 185-202;
Peter Vail, “A Conversation with Joseph Brodsky,” in Nativity Poems (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2001), pp. 103-112;
Cynthia L. Haven, Joseph Brodsky: Conversations (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2003).
A. la. Lapidus and K. M. Azadovsky, Iosif Brodskii: Uka-zatel’ literatury na russkom iazyke za 1962-1995 gg. (St. Petersburg: Rossiiskaia natsional’naia biblioteka, 1997; enlarged, 1999);
Valentina Polukhina and Thomas Bigelow, “Selected Bibliography of Brodsky’s Essays, Introductions, Reviews and Letters (in English and Russian Only),” Russian, Croatian and Serbian, Czech and Slovak, Polish Literature, 47, nos. 3-4 (2000): 409-416;
Viktor Sergeevich Kulle, “Bibliografiia Iosifa Brodskogo” <http://www.liter.net/=/Kulle/brodsky-biliograf.htm>
Inez Ramsey, “Joseph Brodsky: Bibliography” <http://falcon.jmu.edu/~ramseyil/brodskybib.htm.>
Efim Grigor’evich Etkind, Protsess Iosifa Brodskogo (London: Overseas Publications Interchange, 1988);
Iakov Arkad’evich Gordin, comp., Iosif Brodskii: Tvorchestvo, lichnost’, sud’ba (Itogi trekh konferentsii) (St. Petersburg: Zvezda, 1998);
A. N. Krivomazov, “Biografiia Iosifa Brodskogo” <http://br00.narod.ru>
Lev Losev and Petr Vail’, comps., Iosif Brodskii: Trudy i dni (Moscow: Nezavisimaia gazeta, 1998);
Liudmila Shtern, Brodskii: Osia, Iosif, Joseph (Moscow: Nezavisimaia gazeta, 2001); expanded and translated by Shtern as Brodsky: A Personal Memoir (Fort Worth, Tex.: Baskerville, 2004);
Vadim Semenov, Iosif Brodskii v severnoi vssylke: Poetika avto-ifizma (Tartu: Tartu University Press, 2004).
David M. Bethea, Joseph Brodsky and the Creation of Exile (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994);
Chast’ rechi: Al’manakh literatury i iskusstva, special Brodsky issue, no. 1 (1980);
Piotr Fast,”(Pseudo)-Autobiography in Brodsky’s Lyrical Poetry,” Auto-Biography Studies, 11 (Fall 1996): 125-139;
Iakov Arkad’evich Gordin, Pereklichka vo mrake: Iosif Brodskii i ego sobesedniki (St. Petersburg: Pushkinskii fond, 2000);
Gordin, comp., and Irina Anatol’evna Murav’eva, ed., Mir Iosifa Brodskogo: Putevoditel’ (St. Petersburg: Zvezda, 2003);
Cissie Dore Hill, “Remembering Joseph Brodsky,” Hoover Digest, 4 (2000);
Evgenii Kelebai, Poet v dome rebenka: Prolegomeny k filosofii tvorchestva Iosifa Brodskogo (Moscow: Universitet, 2000);
Elina Kolesnikova, ”Politicheskii tekst” Iosifa Brodskogo: Materialy k isskdovaniiu (Moscow: Maks, 2003);
Maija Könönen, “Four Ways of Writing the City”: St. Petersburg-Leningrad as a Metaphor in the Poetry of Joseph Brodsky (Helsinki: Helsinki University Press, 2003);
D. L. Lakerbai, Rannii Brodskii: Poetika i sud’ba (Ivanovo: Ivanovskii gosudarstvennyi universitet, 2000);
R. C. Lamont, “Joseph Brodsky: A Poet’s Classroom,” Massachusetts Review, 15 (1974): 553-577;
Lev Losev, ed., Poetika Brodskogo: Sbornik statei (Tenafly, N.J.: Ermitazh, 1986);
Losev and Valentina Polukhina, eds., Brodsky’s Poetics and Aesthetics (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1990);
Losev and Polukhina, eds., Joseph Brodsky: The Art of a Poem (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998);
Losev and Polukhina, eds., Kak rabotaet stikhotvorenie Brodskogo: Iz issledovanii slavistov na Zapade (Moscow: Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie, 2002);
David MacFadyen, Joseph Brodsky and the Baroque (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1998);
MacFadyen, Joseph Brodsky and the Soviet Muse (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2000);
Michael Murphy, Poetry in Exile: A Study of the Poetry of W H. Auden, Joseph Brodsky and George Szirtes (London: Greenwich Exchange, 2004);
Valentina Polukhina, Brodsky through the Eyes of His Contemporaries (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992); republished in Russian as Brodskii glazami sovremen-nikov (St. Petersburg: Zvezda, 1997);
Polukhina, “Brodsky’s Self-Portrait,” in Russian Literature Since 1917: New Directions, edited by S. Grahem (London: Macmillan, 1992), pp. 122-135;
Polukhina, Joseph Brodsky: A Poet for Our Time (Cambridge & New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989);
Polukhina, “Poeticheskii avtoportret Brodskogo,” Russian, Croatian and Serbian, Czech and Slovak, Polish Literature,31 (1992): 375-392;
Polukhina, “The Prose of Joseph Brodsky: A Continuation of Poetry by Other Means,” Russian, Croatian and Serbian, Czech and Slovak, Polish Literature, 41 (1997): 223-240;
Polukhina, Igor’ Fomenko, and A. G. Stepanov, eds., Poetika Iosifa Brodskogo: Sbornik nauchnykh trudov (Tver: Tverskoi gosudarstvennyi universitet, 2003);
Andrew Reynolds, “Returning the Ticket: Joseph Brodsky’s August’ and the End of the Petersburg Text?” Slavic Review, 64, no. 2 (Summer 2005): 307-332;
David Rigsbee, Styles of Ruin: Joseph Brodsky and the Postmodernist Elegy, Contributions to the Study of World Literature, no. 93 (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1999);
Russian, Croatian and Serbian, Czech and Slovak, Polish Literature, special Brodsky issues, 37, nos. 2-3 (1995); 47, nos. 3-4 (2000);
Bozena Shallcross, Through the Poet’s Eye: The Travels of Zagajewski, Herbert, and Brodsky (Evanston, ILL.: Northwestern University Press, 2002);
Natal’ia Strizhevskaia, Pis’mena, perspektivy: O poezii Iosfa Brodskogo (Moscow: Graal’, 1997);
Tomas Venclova, Stat’i o Brodskom (Moscow: Baltrus, Novoe izdatel’stvo, 2005).
Joseph Brodsky’s papers, representing all of his work up to the time he went into exile (June 1972), are located in the Russian National Library (RNB) in St. Petersburg. His papers from the émigré period are held in New York City by his widow, Maria Sozzani Brodsky, and the Brodsky Estate.