Brodsky, Joseph

Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010

Brodsky, Joseph

Brodsky, Joseph (1940-1996) Russian- Jewish poet and essayist

A disciple of anti-Stalinist Russian poet ANNA AKHMATOVA, Joseph Brodsky wove images of his nation's disgrace into existential lyrics and essays about nature, love, change, and moral convictions. Born into a Jewish family on May 24, 1940, he was a toddler at the time of the 900-day German siege of Leningrad (1941-43), his hometown. In boyhood, he absorbed the atheism espoused in Soviet schools. He applied to a submariner academy, which rejected him for his ethnicity, and developed into a drifter and street fighter. Eschewing a professional career, he operated milling equipment at an arms factory and, over 13 short-term jobs, found work at a prison mortuary, hospital, boiler room, and crystallography lab. In his free time, he read FYODOR DOSTOYEVSKY'S Notes from the Underground (1864) and the verse of Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz, and he dabbled in translations of British, Serbo- Croatian, and Spanish poetry. In 1961, he moved next door to Akhmatova's cottage to begin a daily education in writing and analyzing verse. By age 24, he was on the run from official denunciation and censorship.

The official censure of Brodsky epitomized the heavy-handed authoritarianism of the Soviet regime. In 1964, Brodsky became the first poet stigmatized by the Nikita Khrushchev administration. The Soviet KGB whisked the poet away from a city street and impounded his library and manuscripts. An accusation of “social parasitism” stemmed from writings that influenced citizens to think for themselves and to control their own culture. In So Forth (1996), in which he tells of his trial before a female judge on February 14, 1964, he forgave witnesses the “petty, twenty-odd-year-old secrets of purblind [nearly blind] hearts obsessed with a silly quest for power” (Brodsky 1998, 8). Authorities incarcerated him, first at the Kashchenko insane asylum in Moscow and later at Kresty Prison in Leningrad. In “New Stanzas to Augusta” (1982) and “Autumn in Norenskaia” (1965), he claimed that starved, bored inmates felt buried alive. For 18 months, he was imprisoned at Archangelsk on an inlet of the White Sea, and made to chop wood, load grain and stone, and muck out horse stalls. In 1965, as Leonid Brezhnev’s regime was beginning, pressure from the poets Akhmatova and YEVGENY YEVTUSHENKO as well as other literary figures resulted in Brodsky’s release. He was expelled from the Soviet Union in 1972. His work remained officially suppressed in Russia but circulated in samizdat (underground) publications that assembled his 2,000-page canon poem by poem, in defiance of official CENSORSHIP.

Depicting a Life Struggle

To Brodsky, language threw a lifeline, enabling him to objectify experience by estranging himself from the moment. During his imprisonment, two volumes of his works reached the Western world. Of their reception, he declared, “If there’s any deity to me, it’s language” (Brodsky and Haven 2003, cover). At age 32, he went into exile minus his wife and four-year-old son Andrei and parted forever from his parents. Rejecting resettlement in Israel, he emigrated via Vienna and London to Ann Arbor, Michigan, from where he defied the Soviet attempt to belittle and discredit him. Under the sponsorship of his traveling companion, poet W. H. Auden, Brodsky prospered. He lectured at the University of Michigan and other universities, gained American citizenship in 1977, and submitted his hypnotic, colloquial verse to the New York Review of Books, Partisan Review, and Times Literary Supplement. Years later, he wrote “Infinitive” (1996), a retrospective poem on the events of his life. He concluded that Americans view him as an anomaly, “an island within an island” (Brodsky 1998, 3). Yet as he lived effectively isolated in America, his Russian editors incurred arrest, gulags, and banishment.

Using imaginative rhythm and literary conceits, Brodsky’s poetry scorned imperialism. Two poems, “On the Death of Zhukov” (1974) and “Lullaby of Cape Cod” (1975), picture the malaise and darkness that follow war and regimentation. Publication of Less Than One (1986), a collection of essays, revealed unbearable conditions under the Soviet regime, particularly in the autobiographical vignette “In a Room and a Half,” which echoes the spiritual ennui of the Swedish author August Strindberg’s The Red Room (1879). Writing of cramped, dehumanizing living conditions, Brodsky charged, “There is something tribal about this dimly lit cave, something primordial—evolutionary” (Brodsky 1998, 455). The anthology preceded his receipt of the Nobel Prize for literature in 1987 and selection as the U.S. poet laureate in 1991 for the clarity and intensity of his verse.

In English and Russian, Brodsky’s skill at historical nostalgia relied on detail and atmosphere. He shaped history into a warning to the West that dictators like Lenin and Stalin begin as the people’s gods. In “Elegy” (1985) and “I Sit by the Window” (1971), he describes a battleground, memories of traitors and of commanders extolled in cast iron monuments, and the mediocrity of the Soviet Union’s tattered Iron Curtain. In “May 24, 1980,” regret over his expulsion from Russia summons visions of the motherland in the time of the Huns and the czars. In 1995, the publication of On Grief and Reason disclosed Brodsky’s emotional tie with the American poet Robert Frost. Beneath the pastoral grace of Frost’s poems, the Russian successor unearthed an inner suffering that intellect alone could not mask. Brodsky died on January 28, 1996, in New York City and was buried in the Isola di San Michele cemetery in Venice, Italy.


Brodsky, Joseph. Joseph Brodsky: Selected Poems. Translated by George I. Kline. New York: Harper & Row, 1974. Joseph Brodsky: Conversations. Edited by Cynthia

L. Haven. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2003.

----- . Less Than One. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1986.

----- . So Forth. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998.

Lincoln, Bruce. Sunlight at Midnight: St. Petersburg and the

Rise of Modern Russia. New York: Basic Books, 2002.