Joseph Brodsky

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,
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.

Further Reading on Joseph Brodsky

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).

Additional Biography Sources

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.