Brodsky, Joseph (Losif or Josip Alexandrovich)

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Brodsky, Joseph (Losif or Josip Alexandrovich)

(b. 24 May 1940 in Leningrad, Soviet Union [now Russia]; d. 28 January 1996 in New York City), Russian poet who immigrated to the United States in 1972, won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1987, and became the fifth U.S. poet laureate in 1991.

Brodsky’s father, Alexander I. Brodsky, an officer in the Russian navy until his rank was stripped by the government because he was Jewish, was a sometime commercial photographer and storyteller. His mother, Maria M. Volpert, often supported the family as a linguist and interpreter. The middle-class family lived in a communal apartment, and Joseph attended schools in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), where he suffered from the anti-Semitism of his teachers and began developing a philosophy of dissent. At the age of fifteen, he quit school and took a variety of jobs: farm laborer, metal worker, stoker in a boiler house, milling machine operator in a factory, photographer, sailor, assistant to a coroner and to a geologist on expeditions across the Soviet Union and Central Asia (1956–1962), and translator. During this period, he began an intensive program of self-education, reading literary classics and studying English and Polish in order to translate into Russian the works of poets John Donne and Czesław Miłosz.

In 1955, Brodsky began to write poetry, which became known through mimeographed “samizdat” (self-published) sheets for friends, publication in the underground journal Sintaksis, and his recitations on street corners. His immediate circle of friends in Leningrad included Evgeny Rein, Anatoly Naiman, Lev Loseff, Vladimir Uflyand, and Yakov Gordin. His work impressed the poet Anna Akhmatova, one of Russia’s leading literary figures, and other prominent Soviet cultural personalities.

Brodsky’s powerful, individualistic writing troubled the Communist and literary establishments and led to official harassment. He suffered various arrests between 1959 and 1964. In 1963 he was attacked by a Leningrad newspaper as a “vagrant” and “semiliterary parasite,” writing gibberish and devoted to translating and writing poetry instead of being a socially useful citizen with a steady job. He was placed in Kashchenko Psychiatric Hospital in Moscow from December 1963 to January 1964. In February 1964, he was arrested, tried, found guilty, and sentenced to five years at a labor camp in Norinskaya, a small village in the far north of Arkhangelsk province near the Arctic Circle, where he chopped wood, hauled manure, and crushed rocks. His case became a cause cèlèbre when one supporter and member of the Leningrad writers’ union, Frieda Vigdorova, made available to the outside world her stenographic record of the trial. His poems and translations were also circulated outside the Soviet Union. The resulting protest against his incarceration by leading writers inside and outside of Russia forced his release after eighteen months. After his return to Leningrad, however, the harassment by the secret police resumed. In 1965 his son, Andrei, was born to Leningrad artist Martina Basmanova. Dmitry Bobyshev, a rival Leningrad poet and friend, also had an affair with Martina, and they lived in a ménage à trois.

Despite the translation of many of his works into English, German, and French and publication abroad, Brodsky was not permitted to attend international writers’ conferences. In 1971 he received and declined two invitations to Israel, but in May 1972 the Ministry of the Interior questioned his refusal. Ten days later, authorities searched his apartment, confiscated his poems, and forced his involuntary exile to Vienna, Austria. There he met the American poet W. H. Auden, who arranged for him to serve as poet-in-residence at the University of Michigan for a year. After teaching at Queens College in New York from 1973 to 1974, he returned to the University of Michigan from 1974 to 1980. He became an American citizen in 1977. He moved to the Greenwich Village neighborhood of New York City in 1980 and taught poetry and literature as an adjunct professor at Columbia University and New York University. In 1981 he accepted a chair at Mount Holyoke College, where he taught Russian and comparative literature and served as the Andrew Mellon Professor of Literature for fifteen years until his death.

Brodsky was described shortly after his immigration as tall and well built, with reddish hair and sharp, gray-green eyes. Although he was a chain smoker, he was also a vigorous and volatile man whose deep, rumbling voice recited his powerful lyrics in Russian in a liturgical chant with the force of an organ bellows. His immense industriousness, self-confidence, ready irony, insouciance, and cunning eased his transition in America, but he remained viscerally and expressively Russian. He was active in Russian émigré affairs and had ties to prominent Russian and Eastern European figures in exile, such as Mikhail Baryshnikov, Czeslaw Milosz, and Tomas Venclova, as well as Western intellectuals such as Robert Lowell, Derek Walcott, Richard Wilbur, and Susan Sontag. He traveled widely but never back to his homeland, even after the collapse of the Soviet government in 1991. He was never allowed to visit his parents in the twelve years before they died (they had repeatedly been denied exit permits by the Soviet government), nor did he ever see his son or Andrei’s mother again.

Brodsky composed his poems in Russian and translated many of them into English himself. Some translations by others have been considered less successful in language and form. His poetry was influenced by his mentor and friend Anna Akhmatova; the English poet John Donne, for whom he wrote an elegy; and W. H. Auden, who wrote a foreword for Brodsky’s Selected Poems, Joseph Brodsky (1977) prior to his death in 1973. Brodsky’s other personal literary antecedents included Virgil, Aleksandr Pushkin, Marina Tsvetaeva, Osip Mandelstam, Eugenio Montale, Constantine Cavafy, T. S. Eliot, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Lev Shestov, and Isaiah Berlin.

In the 1960s Brodsky’s preoccupation with time, death, faith, and the power of language struck a chord with his readers in Russia. Over time his focus was not on political matters but on the contrast between the bleakness of life and the brilliance of language. His recurrent themes were the traditional and timeless concerns of lyric poets: man and nature, love and death, the ineluctability of anguish, the fragility of human achievements and attachments, the preciousness of the privileged moment, the “unrepeatable.” He saw the role of poetry, or accelerated thinking, as exploring the capacity of language to travel farther, faster; and he considered rhyme essential to this process. In the original Russian, the technical virtuosity of his brilliant rhyming is rich and inventive and works in tandem with often complex meters and a great deal of enjambment. His metaphors, a key device, are bold, often multilayered, and ingeniously constructed. The considerable length of some poems (“Great Elegy to John Donne” runs 308 lines) is a trademark.

Brodsky, who considered the elegy “the most fully developed genre in poetry,” became one of the most famous elegists of his time. His physical exile and resulting estrangement added spatial disjunctiveness to the elegy’s traditional temporal disjunctiveness. To him, any “on the death of …” poem contains an element of self-portrait, although he insisted that readers focus on poetry and language rather than the poet.

His work, including plays, essays, and criticism as well as poetry, has been published in anthologies in twelve languages and in magazines and journals such as the New Yorker, New York Review of Books, Russian Review, Nouvelle Revue Française, and the New Leader. Brodsky received a poetry nomination from the National Book Critics Circle in 1980 and the MacArthur Fellowship in 1981, both for APart of Speech (1977). In 1986 the National Book Critics Circle honored him with the award for nonfiction prose for Less than One: Selected Essays (1986). He was also well known for To Urania: Selected Poems 1965–1985 (1988). In 1987 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature after the Swedish Academy read his work in English and cited its “great breadth in time and space.” In 1991 he was named poet laureate of the United States. He was awarded an honorary D. Litt. degree from Yale University in 1978, an honorary doctorate of literature from Oxford University, the Mondello Prize (Italy) in 1979, and a Guggenheim fellowship in 1987. Brodsky also created drawings, particularly portraits of other poets, one of which appeared on the cover of the poet’s book of poetry.

In 1990 Brodsky married Maria Sozzani, of Italian and Russian descent, with whom he had a daughter, Anna. On 28 January 1996 he succumbed to a sudden heart attack at their apartment in Brooklyn Heights, New York. He had been in frail health for two decades, having had open-heart surgery in 1979 and two bypass operations. His wife and daughter were with him when he died. Brodsky is buried on San Michele Cemetery Island in the Venetian lagoon. In a unique memorial service at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City on 8 March 1996, Brodsky was eulogized in his own words, in the words of other poets, and with music. His essays on Robert Frost were published in Homage to Frost after his death.

Joseph Brodsky’s unique achievements and contributions to world literature, particularly poetry and the elegy, are heightened by his personal struggles and his relative youth in gaining significant recognition. For a Russian immigrant in exile to have become a major writer in the English as well as Russian language and recipient of major literary honors in so few years is an unusual accomplishment. He was an extraordinarily gifted writer who combined the roles of poet and educator in his creative years in the United States. His work continues to be recognized and read today worldwide.

Brodsky’s works include Verses and Poems (1965), Elegy to John Donne and Other Poems (1967), A Stop in the Desert (1970), Poems by Joseph Brodsky (1972), and the essay “Watermark” (1992). See also David M. Bethea, Joseph Brodsky and the Creation of Exile (1994); Mikhail Lemkhin, Joseph Brodsky, Leningrad: Fragments (1998); Lev Loseff and Valentina Polukhins, Joseph Brodsky: Portrait of a Poet (1998); Solomon Volkov, Conversations with Joseph Brodsky: A Poet’s Journey Through the Twentieth Century (1998); and David Rigsbee, Styles of Ruin: Joseph Brodsky and the Postmodernist Elegy (1999). An obituary is in the New York Times (29 Jan. 1996).

Phyllis Bader-Borel

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Brodsky, Joseph (Losif or Josip Alexandrovich)

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