Biography (Critical Survey of Poetry: World Poets)
Joseph Aleksandrovich Brodsky was born in Leningrad on May 24, 1940. Brodsky’s mother worked as a translator, an occupation her son was to take up as well; his father worked as a news photographer. During the German blockade of the city, Brodsky spent some time with his grandparents. He has recalled a somewhat later time of fear during the government-orchestrated anti-Semitic hysteria of 1953, when it seemed that his family might be “resettled” far from Leningrad. During these last years of Stalinism, Brodsky was an unenthusiastic student; he left school in 1955 to pursue independent studies in various languages and literatures. In 1956, he began learning Polish, a language that gave him access to Western literature not available in Russian; he recalled that he first read the works of Franz Kafka and William Faulkner in Polish translation, and he encountered the poetry of Czesaw Miosz, whom he called “one of the greatest poets of our time, perhaps the greatest.”
The year 1956, when Brodsky was only sixteen, was crucial in establishing his sense of himself and of Russia. When Brodsky referred to himself as a member of the “generation of 1956,” he had in mind the shock of recognition forced by the invasion of Hungary, a recognition of his status as a poet in a totalitarian state. If Brodsky saw Stalinism less as a political era than as a “state of mind,” then the events of 1956, three years after the death of Stalin, proved the ugly endurance of a repressive regime that soon began to harass Brodsky personally.
Brodsky made several trips away from Leningrad on geological expeditions, traveling throughout the Soviet Union to the Amur River near China, Central Asia, the Caspian Sea region in the south, and the White Sea area in the north, where he was to spend nearly two years in exile a few years later. These travels exposed Brodsky to a variety of landscapes and may in part account for the powerful, if unattractive, natural descriptions in his mature verse. His travels permitted him a great deal of freedom, but his vaguely unorthodox movements and affiliations eventually drew the attention of KGB officials. Brodsky was first arrested in 1959 and twice confined to mental hospitals. These visits provided the setting for his most ambitious long poem, a dialogue between “Gorbunov i Gorchakov” (“Gorbunov and Gorchakov”). Brodsky had begun writing poems as early as 1958, though he later dated his first serious work from about 1963 (the year of his...
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Biography (Cyclopedia of World Authors, Fourth Revised Edition)
Born in Leningrad in 1940, Joseph Aleksandrovich Brodsky (BRAHD-skee) experienced the horrors of life at a very early age, for he was one of the few survivors of the nine-hundred-day siege of Leningrad (1941-1944). Throughout his childhood, he endured the hardships not only of postwar Russia but also of being Jewish in an anti-Semitic society. After dropping out of school at the age of fifteen, he worked at a variety of jobs while educating himself in Russian and comparative literature, the history of religion, philosophy, and foreign languages. Polish was among the first languages he learned, and in Polish he first read the works of Franz Kafka and William Faulkner. Brodsky began writing poetry in 1958 and soon found a place for himself in the literary circles of Leningrad. There he became a very close friend of the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova, who declared him to be “the most gifted poet of his generation.”
If he was the most gifted, however, he quickly became one of the most oppressed. Throughout the early 1960’s, the authorities denounced his poetry as pornographic and anti-Soviet. When Soviet officials refused to publish his poems, he began reciting them on street corners in his liturgical style and distributing his own copies of them. In January, 1964, he was arrested on charges of social parasitism and sentenced to five years of hard labor in the Arkhangelsk region. While serving his sentence, he took up a study of English and American poets and was particularly drawn to the works of Robert Frost. Thanks to pressure exerted on the Soviet authorities by intellectuals at home and abroad, Brodsky was released from the labor camp in November, 1965, after serving twenty months of his sentence. He returned to Leningrad and continued writing and translating poetry in his native city until June, 1972, when he was “invited” to leave the Soviet Union. After leaving his homeland, Brodsky went to the United States, where he held academic positions at the University of Michigan, Queens College in New York, Ohio State University, Mount Holyoke College, and Columbia University.
(The entire section is 921 words.)