BORN: 1940, Leningrad, Soviet Union
DIED: 1996, Brooklyn, New York
A Part of Speech (1980)
On Grief and Reason (1995)
So Forth (1996)
Collected Poems in English (2001)
Iosif Alexandrovich Brodsky was reviled and persecuted in his native Soviet Union, but the Western literary establishment lauded him as one of that country's finest poets. Brodsky aroused the ire of Soviet authorities as soon as he began publishing his ironic, witty, and independent verse—both under his own name, and under the slightly altered name of Joseph Brodsky. After spending five years in Arkhangelsk, an Arctic labor camp, and two different stays at mental institutions, Brodsky became the focus of a public outcry from American and European intellectuals over his treatment. In 1987 Brodsky received the Nobel Prize for Literature and in 1991 he was named poet laureate of the United States.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Exile in His Own Country Iosif Alexandrovich Brodsky was born on May 24, 1940, in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), Russia. As an infant, Brodsky lived through one of the most devastating episodes of World War II: the siege of Leningrad, during which Nazi German troops cut off all supplies to the city for over a year, resulting in the mass starvation of Russian citizens and over one and a half million deaths. In many ways, Brodsky lived as an exile before leaving his homeland. His father lost a position of rank in the Russian navy because he was Jewish; this left the family in poverty. Brodsky quit school and embarked on a self-directed education, reading literary classics and working a variety of unusual jobs. He learned English and Polish so that he would be able
Brodsky's poems were circulated by friends on type-written sheets and published in the underground journal Sintaksis. By 1963, he had become sufficiently well-known to serve as a target for a Leningrad newspaper, which denounced his work as pornographic and anti-Soviet. The following year, Brodsky was officially charged by a Soviet court as a “social parasite.” In the Soviet Union, which supported the rights of workers as its most important ideal, all citizens were expected to contribute meaningfully and substantially to society. Many Soviets viewed artistic pursuits as a waste of resources unless the art was meant to glorify the citizens of the Soviet Union; government officials frequently used this rationale to persecute or imprison writers and artists who were critical of Soviet policies and actions.
Solomon Volkov, writing in his book Conversations with Joseph Brodsky: A Poet's Journey through the Twentieth Century, explained that Brodsky's “Kafkaesque trial occupies a central position in the Brodsky myth.” Little did Leningrad officials suspect when they instigated this routine case that the individual they considered a Jewish “pygmy in corduroy trousers, scribbling poems that alternated gibberish with whining, pessimism, and pornography,” would
turn their Soviet court proceedings into an absurd drama at the intersection of genius and idiocy. When the female Soviet judge asked Brodsky, “Who made you a poet?” Brodsky thoughtfully replied, “And who made me a member of the human race?” and added hesitatingly, “I think it was God.” Brodsky's friend, Lev Loseff, observed that in an instant Brodsky's answer took the proceedings to a different level. This notorious dialogue became one of the most frequently quoted court exchanges in the history of twentieth-century culture. The poet was sentenced to five years in a labor camp above the Arctic Circle.
Thanks to outside pressure from the literary community, after eighteen months Brodsky was released. Still, the poet was continually harassed. By 1972, when the visa office strongly “suggested” that he leave the country, Brodsky had been imprisoned three times and was twice committed to mental institutions. That year the poet was put on a plane for Vienna, an unwilling emigrant who left behind his parents and a son. Fortunately, Brodsky's exile was softened by the friendship of poet W. H. Auden and others. The position of poet-in-residence at the University of Michigan introduced Brodsky to American academic life, and Brodsky was soon publishing works in Russian and English.
Poet Laureate in America Brodsky became an American citizen in 1980, an indication that he had come to terms with permanent exile from his homeland. His new country also accepted Brodsky in an unprecedented manner. In 1991 he became the first foreign-born person to be named poet laureate of the United States—the highest honor the country offers a poet. Brodsky used the position to promote the mass distribution of poetry, suggesting that books of poems be placed in hotel rooms and sold in drug stores. In 1993, he and Andrew Carroll founded the American Poetry & Literacy Project, an organization whose goal is to introduce poetry into everyday American life. Since its creation, the group has given away over one million books of poetry to schools, hospitals, subway and train stations, hospitals, jury waiting rooms, supermarkets, truck stops, day-care centers, airports, zoos, and other public places.
Works in Literary Context
Though one might expect Brodsky's poetry to be political in nature, this is not the case. His themes tend more toward the common themes of traditional poetry—love, nature, mankind, life, and death. 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, and in his bearing while under prosecution as a “parasite”—is indisputable.
Poemy 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.
In 1962 and 1963, under the influence of Donne as well as of Marina 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.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Brodsky's famous contemporaries include:
Tobias Wolff (1945–): American fiction writer whose memoirs and novels overlap with Brodsky's in tone, theme, and content.
Valentina Tereshkova (1937–): A Soviet cosmonaut, Tereshkova was the first woman to fly in space.
Sirhan Sirhan (1944–): Palestinian who was convicted of assassinating American politician Robert F. Kennedy.
Chinua Achebe (1930–): Nigerian novelist who wrote Things Fall Apart, the most widely read African novel ever written, and received the Man Booker International Prize in 2007.
Nelson Mandela (1918–): Before his imprisonment as a terrorist and a Communist, Mandela actively opposed apartheid practices in South Africa. After spending twenty-seven years behind bars, Mandela was released then elected president of South Africa in 1994.
Time and Memory In the poems Brodsky wrote during his exile in the village of Norinskaia, he makes use of the compositional possibilities of the baroque—the juxta-position 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.
Exemplary of all these developments in Brodsky's poetics is his poignant elegy “Verses on the Death of T. S. Eliot,” written after Eliot's death on January 4, 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. 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. The living will remember him intimately through his poems “as the body holds in mind / the lost caress of lips and arms.” Poetic language is the vessel of memory; 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.
Influences Brodsky's 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 Auden's 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.
Works in Critical Context
Outside of the government of the Soviet Union, Brodsky's early “Romantic” work is virtually universally praised for its fervor, if not for its execution. As Brodsky continued to grow as a poet, he became increasingly more adept at matching tone and style to subject. His achievements were recognized when he received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1987 and the position of poet laureate of the United States of America.
The Height of Brodsky's Success: The American Years 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: End of the Belle Epoque (1977); Urania (1987); Notes of a Fern (1990); and View with a Flood (1996). 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 Soviet authorities had hoped. Instead, Brodsky remained an imposing literary presence. Indeed, critical acclaim of his work was virtually universal during this period of Brodsky's life. However, when Brodsky began to work in English, critical opinion was divided.
Collected Poems in English Collected Poems in English, published posthumously, is a definitive collection of Brodsky's translated work and his original work in English. It is “dramatic and ironic, melancholy and blissful,” reported Donna Seaman in Booklist. She claimed that this volume “will stand as one of the twentieth century's tours de force.” Collected Poems in English is “a highly accomplished, deft, and entertaining book, with a talent for exploitation of the richness of language and with a deep core of sorrow,” in the estimation of Judy Clarence in Library Journal. It captures Brodsky's trademark sense of “stepping aside and peering in bewilderment” at life, according to Sven Birkerts in the New York Review of Books. Birkerts concluded: “Brodsky charged at the world with full intensity and wrestled his perceptions into lines that fairly vibrate with what they are asked to hold. There is no voice, no vision, remotely like it.”
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Brodsky is not the first artist to have his work scrutinized by the government and, in fact, to have legal charges brought against him for the work. Artists often find it necessary to challenge conventional wisdom regarding politics, religion, sexuality, and an array of other controversial topics. Here are some of the works that provoked a strong negative response:
The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890), a novel by Oscar Wilde. When this book was released, it came under scrutiny for its homosexual themes. Wilde's character was called into question, and he eventually was convicted of “indecency” and served two years behind bars.
The Necessity of Atheism (1810), an essay by Percy Bysshe Shelley. Shelley published this text while still a student at Oxford. He was immediately expelled from the university.
The Master and Margarita (1973), a novel by Mikhail Bulgakov. Bulgakov wrote his fantastical critique of Stalinist society in the 1930s, but due to government censorship, it could not be published until long after the author's death.
Ulysses (1922), a novel by James Joyce. When this book was published in 1922, it was immediately banned in both the United States and the United Kingdom for “obscenity.” It is now considered one of the greatest literary achievements of the twentieth century.
Responses to Literature
- Today, there are a number of Tibetan authors imprisoned by the Chinese government. Using the Internet and the library, research one or two of these writers. In a short essay, compare their trials with Brodsky's. How dangerous do you think these writers are to their respective countries?
- As poet laureate, Brodsky tried to make poetry common throughout the country. Why do you think Brodsky thought it was necessary to promote poetry? Do you think poetry is less popular now than it used to be?
- Read Brodsky's Nativity Poems. In this collection of poems, Brodsky explores the meaning of the Christmas season, both on a personal and a social level. How accurate is his assessment of the importance and meaning of Christmas? In what ways is his interpretation accurate? In what ways is it lacking?
- For more background on life in Russia during Stalin's regime, read The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin's Russia (2007), by Orlando Figes. The book uses firsthand accounts to show just how tightly the government of the Soviet Union controlled families and individuals.
Bethea, David. Joseph Brodsky and the Creation of Exile. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1994.
Losev, Lev, and Valentina Polukhina, eds. Joseph Brodsky: The Art of a Poem. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1998.
Polukhina, Valentina. Joseph Brodsky: A Poet for Our Time. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989.
Rigsbee, David. Styles of Ruin: Joseph Brodsky and the Postmodernist Elegy. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1999.
Volkov, Solomon. Conversations with Joseph Brodsky: A Poet's Journey through the Twentieth Century. New York: Free Press, 1998.
Birkerts, Sven. Review of Collected Poems in English by Joseph Brodsky. New York Review of Books (September 17, 2000).
Clarence, Judy. Review of Collected Poems in English by Joseph Brodsky. Library Journal (August 2000).
Glover, Michael. Reviews of On Grief and Reason and So Forth by Joseph Brodsky. New Statesman (December 20, 1996).
Seaman, Donna. Review of Collected Poems in English by Joseph Brodsky. Booklist (August 2000).
Simon, John. Reviews of So Forth and On Grief and Reason by Joseph Brodsky. New Leader (September 9, 1996).
Nobel Prize winner and fifth U.S. poet laureate, Russian-born Joseph Brodsky (born Iosif Alexandrovich Brodsky; 1940-1996) was imprisoned for his poetry in the former Soviet Union but was greatly honored in the West.
Joseph (Iosif Alexandrovich) Brodsky was born on May 24, 1940, in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), where he attended school until about 1956. His father was an officer in the old Soviet Navy. The family fell into poverty when the government stripped the older Brodsky, a Jew, of his rank.
When he left school, Joseph began an intensive program of self education, reading widely and studying English and Polish. He worked in photography and as an aid to a coroner and a geologist. He translated into Russian the work of John Donne, the 17th-century English poet, and Czeslaw Milosz, a modern Polish poet. He also wrote his own poetry, which impressed Anna Akhmatova, one of the country's leading literary figures.
His powerful, highly individualistic writing troubled the Communist political and literary establishments, and he was arrested in 1964 for being a "vagrant" and "parasite" devoted to translating and writing poetry instead of to useful work. "It looked like what I've seen of a Nuremberg trial," Brodsky reported years later of his hearing, "in terms of the number of police in the room. It was absolutely studded with police and state security people." The court sentenced him to five years on a prison farm.
One member of the Leningrad Writers' Union, Frieda Vigdorova, dissenting from her colleagues and the court, outraged by the trial and sentence, made available to the outside world her stenographic record of the event. Brodsky's poems and translations were also circulated outside the boundaries of what was then the Soviet Union. The resulting protest against his incarceration by leading writers inside and outside the country forced his release after a year and a half. In 1972 the authorities suggested he emigrate to Israel.
After stopping in Vienna, he went on to the United States, where he took up a series of academic posts at the University of Michigan, Columbia University, and Mount Holyoke College. He became an American citizen in 1977. The Soviet Government did not allow him to visit his parents before they died.
Yale University awarded him a Doctor of Letters degree in 1978. In 1979 Italy bestowed him the Mondello Prize. He was named a MacArthur fellow in 1981. The National Book Critics Circle first nominated him for a poetry prize in 1980 for his book A Part of Speech, and then awarded him its prize for nonfiction prose in 1984 for a selection of his essays, Less Than One. In 1987 he received both a Guggenheim fellowship and the Nobel Prize for Literature. The Library of Congress appointed him poet laureate in 1991.
A London Times Literary Supplement review of his poetry emphasized its "religious, intimate, depressed, sometimes confused, sometimes martyr-conscious, sometimes elitist" nature. Olga Carlisle, in her book Poets on Street Corners (1968), wrote, "Not long ago while in Moscow I heard Brodsky's voice on tape, reading his 'The Great Elegy for John Donne.' The voice was extremely youthful and frenzied with anguish. The poet was reciting the elegy's detailed catalogue of household objects in a breathless, rhetorical manner, in the tradition of the poets of the Revolutionary generation…. There was a touch of Surrealism to this work—a new, Soviet kind of Surrealism— in the intrusion of everyday detail into the poem."
Stephen Spender, the prominent English poet and critic, writing in the New Statesman and Nation, characterized Brodsky's poetry as having "the air of being ground out between his teeth." He went on: "[Brodsky] deals in unpleasing, hostile truths and is a realist of the least comforting and comfortable kind. Everything nice that you would like him to think, he does not think. But he is utterly truthful, deeply religious, fearless and pure. Loving, as well as hating."
In an extended interview with David Montenegro, published in full in Partisan Review in 1987, Brodsky reveals his easy grasp of classical and colloquial English as well as his rich understanding of the technical nature of poetry both in its roots and its delicate complexity. Following are excerpts of questions and answers.
(Montenegro) What problems and pleasures do you find in writing prose that you don't find in writing poetry? (Brodsky) In prose you have a more leisurely pace, but in principle prose is simply spilling some beans, which poetry sort of contains in a tight pod…. In prose there is nothing that prevents you from going sideways, from digressing.
(Montenegro) What new problems does the modern poet face … ? (Brodsky) To think that you can say something qualitatively new after people like Tsvetaeva, Akhmatova, Auden, Pasternak, Mandelstam, Frost, Eliot, and others after Eliot—and let's not leave out Thomas Hardy—reveals either a very enterprising fellow or a very ignorant one. And I would bill myself as the latter.
(Montenegro) What is the power of language through poetry? (Brodsky) I think if we have a notion of Rome and of the human sensibility of the time it's based on—Horace, for instance, the way he sees the world, or Ovid or Propertius. And we don't have any other record, frankly…. I don't really know what the function of poetry is. It's simply the way, so to speak, the light or dark refracts for you. That is, you open the mouth. You open the mouth to scream, you open the mouth to pray, you open the mouth to talk. Or you open the mouth to confess.
(Montenegro) Some poets now don't use rhyme and meter, they say, because they feel such form is no longer relevant…. (Brodsky) They're entitled to their views, but I think it's pure garbage. Art basically is an operation within a certain contract, and you have to abide by all the clauses of the contract…. Meter and rhyme are basically mnemonic devices.
(Montenegro) Do you feel your work's been well translated into English? (Brodsky) Sometimes it has; sometimes it hasn't. On the whole, I think I have less to complain about than any of my fellow Russians, dead or alive, or poets in other languages. My luck, my fortune, is that I've been able to sort of watch over the translations. And at times I would do them myself.
(Montenegro) You knew Auden and Akhmatova, and they seem to have been very important to you. Could you say something about … how they struck you or how they affected you? (Brodsky) I can tell you how. They turned out to be people whom I found that I could love. Or, that is, if I have a capacity for loving, those two allowed me to exercise it, presumably to the fullest…. Auden, in my mind, in my heart, occupies far greater room than anything or anybody else on the earth. As simple as that. Dead or alive or whatever…. Both of them I think gave me, whatever was given me, almost the cue or the key for the voice, for the tonality, for the posture toward reality.
In his Nobel acceptance speech, published in Poets & Writers, Brodsky made the following comments on the relation between poetry and politics: "Language and, presumably, literature are things that are more ancient and inevitable, more durable than any form of social organization. The revulsion, irony, or indifference often expressed by literature toward the state is essentially the reaction of the permanent—better yet, the infinite, against the temporary, against the infinite…. Every new esthetic experience … can in itself turn out to be, if not a guarantee, then a form of defense, against enslavement." He declared that the power of literature helps us "understand Dostoyevsky's remark that beauty will save the world, or Matthew Arnold's belief that we shall be saved by poetry."
Brodsky was a master in creating tension between seemingly arbitrarily summoned images and tight subtle rhyming. A good example appears in the last stanza of his poem "Porta San Pancrazio," which appeared in the New Yorker of March 14, 1994. (The poem, which he wrote in Russian, was translated by himself.)
Life without us is, darling, thinkable. It exists as honeybees, horsemen, bars, habitues, columns, vistas and clouds over this battlefield whose every standing statue triumphs, with its physique, over a chance to touch you.
"The Jewish Cemetery," translated by the prominent American poet W. S. Merwin, appears in Olga Carlisle's book Poets on Street Corners. It expresses succinctly his ethnic roots and transcendent humanity.
The Jewish Cemetery near Leningrad a lame fence of rotten planks and lying behind it side by side lawyers, businessmen, musicians, revolutionaries. They sang for themselves, got rich for themselves, died for others. But always paid their taxes first; heeded the constabulary, and in this inescapably material world studied the Talmud, remained idealists. Maybe they saw something more, maybe they believed blindly. In any case they taught their children tolerance. But obstinacy. They sowed no wheat. Never sowed wheat, simply lay down in the earth like grain and fell asleep forever. Earth was heaped over them, candles were lit for them, and on their day of the dead raw voices of famished old men, the cold at their throats, shrieked at them, "Eternal peace!" Which they have found in the disintegration of matter, remembering nothing forgetting nothing behind the lame fence of rotten planks four kilometers past the streetcar terminal.
Joseph Brodsky succumbed to a sudden heart attack on January 28, 1996. In a unique memorial service Brodsky was eulogized exclusively in his own words, in the words of other poets, and with music. Brodsky's essays on Robert Frost were published in Homage to Frost, after his death.
Brodsky's work and comment on it have been published throughout the world. His books in English include Elegy to John Donne and Other Poems (1967; selected, introduced, and translated by Nicholas Bethell); Selected Poems (1973; translated by George L. Kline); and Verses on the Winter Campaign 1980 (1981; translated by Alan Meyers). His Nobel acceptance speech appeared in Poets & writers for March/April 1988. The Partisan Review interview is reprinted in Montenegro's book Points of Departure: International Writers on Writing and Politics (1991). Carlisle's Poets on Street Corners: Portraits of Fifteen Russian Poets (1968) has a short summary of Brodsky's career and the texts of several of his poems in Russian with the English translation on facing pages. See also Jacob Weisberg, "Rhymed Ambition" in The Washington Post Magazine (January 19, 1992).
Brodsky, Joseph; Heaney, Seamus; Walcott, Derek, Homage to Frost, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1996.
Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service, March 12, 1996; October 16, 1996. □
BRODSKY, JOSEPH (Yosif Brodski ; 1940–1996), Soviet Russian poet and translator. Although he was widely regarded as one of the most promising Soviet poets, none of Brodsky's original verse had been allowed to appear in the U.S.S.R. as late as 1970. He was known there only as a translator from several languages, including English, Spanish, and Polish, and as the author of poems printed in the illegal, mimeographed literary journal Sintaksis (1958–60). In February 1964, Brodsky was tried as a "social parasite" (tuneyadets) who changed jobs too frequently, and was sentenced to forced labor in the far north. His trial had pronounced antisemitic overtones. Jewish witnesses for the defense, such as the scholars Y.G. Etkind and V.G. *Admoni, were ridiculed for their "strange-sounding" names; and the intercession of such distinguished older writers as Kornei Chukovksi, Samuel *Marshak, and Anna Akhmatova also failed to help Brodsky. He was later arrested and released several times. Brodsky's verse is traditional, though with occasional traces of symbolist and surrealist influence. Isaak i Avraam, one of his long narrative poems, is based on biblical motifs, while Yevreyskoye kladbishche okolo Leningrada ("The Jewish Cemetery near Leningrad") is one of the most remarkable poems on a Jewish theme ever written by a Soviet author.
A new collection of Brodsky's poetry, Ostanovka v pustyne ("Halt in the Wilderness"), which appeared in Russian in New York (1970), confirmed his reputation as the most talented Russian poet of the 1960s and a daring innovator in Russian syntax. In 1972, Brodsky was forced to leave Russia and immigrated to the United States, where he became the University of Michigan's poet-in-residence. Brodsky received the Nobel Prize for literature in 1987, and in May 1991 was named the fifth U.S. poet laureate. His collected poems appeared in English in 2000. His essays were collected in Less than One (1986) and On Grief and Reason (1995).
G. Stukov, in: Y. Brodski, Stikhotvoreniya i poemy (1965), 5–15; J. Brodski, Elegy to John Donne and Other Poems (tr. by N. Bethell, 1967), contains in the introduction part of the transcript of Brodsky's trial; the entire transcript appeared in The New Leader, Aug. 31, 1964; S. Volkov, Conversations with Joseph Brodsky (1997).