World Literature

Joseph Brodsky

 

BORN: 1940, Leningrad, Soviet Union

DIED: 1996, Brooklyn, New York

NATIONALITY: Russian

GENRE: Poetry

MAJOR WORKS:

A Part of Speech (1980)

On Grief and Reason (1995)

So Forth (1996)

Collected Poems in English (2001)

 

 

Joseph Brodsky. Brodsky, Joseph, 1991, photograph. AP Images.

 

Overview

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 to translate the poems of John Donne and Czeslaw Milosz. His own early poetry won the admiration of one of his country’s leading literary figures, poet Anna Akhmatova.

Brodsky’s poems were circulated by friends on typewritten 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.

 

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.

 

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.

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 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.

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.

 

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.

 

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.’’

 

Responses to Literature

1. 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?

2. 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?

3. 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?

4. 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.

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Books

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.

Periodicals

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).