Study Guide

Joseph Brodsky

Joseph Brodsky Essay - Brodsky, Joseph (Vol. 6)

Brodsky, Joseph (Vol. 6)

Brodsky, Joseph 1940–

A lyric poet and translator now living in the United States, Brodsky was expelled from his native Russia in 1972, despite defense by some of the most important cultural personages in the U.S.S.R., for his "parasitism" and "decadent" poetry. That poetry has been anthologized in at least six languages and is regarded by many as major work. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 41-44.)

What matters, quite as much as the courage of [Brodsky's] resistance to pressure, is the positive nature of his response. As an introspective, deeply religious poet, it would have been easy for him to retire into a hieratic isolation. Instead, he has forced himself to engage closely with the contemporary situation, and to confront a secular reality which previously, perhaps, he had only partially valued. It is in this development, in not retreating onto a narrow base but extending the range and volume of his work, that Brodsky's real achievement lies.

One preoccupation of the early poems is the isolation of consciousness within space and time. (p. 105)

'A Letter in a Bottle' is written from exile in Northern Russia. Yet, as the outward isolation has increased, the diffidence of the mind towards reality has vanished…. While the journey North, and away from love, represents the loss of all the world had to offer, the poem itself becomes a reassertion of value, a discovery of the enormity of the loss.

If the emotive power of the poem is doubly rooted in sentiment, in that, like The Prelude, it evokes with the urgency of recall a world still fresh in anticipation, it does represent a major stride in development, an attempt to apprehend intellectually a unity of experience. Henceforward, the search is for a relationship between inner and outer reality. In poems such as 'A Halt in the Desert' and 'Adieu, Mlle. Veronique', Brodsky assesses the character of his own times. What he sees is not simply a breakdown in relationship, the mind finding no echo in its environment, but a nullity in both…. [The] poet has learned to move adroitly between different levels of style and meaning, until an event of personal significance is deepened and broadened into a statement that reaches to the limits of 'our small time, our epoch'.

What one notices in looking at English poets of Brodsky's age is that achievement tends to fall within one or another of several distinct and very narrow bands…. Because Brodsky's poetry has moved outside such narrow bands, it deserves the closest attention. It is one of the most important bodies of work to become available in English in recent years. (pp. 105-06)

Roger Garfitt, in London Magazine (© London Magazine 1974), June/July, 1974.

It has been evident for some time that Joseph Brodsky is by far the most significant Russian poet of his generation. At the launching of his now rapidly fading career, Evgeny Evtushenko had freshness, panache and a measure of civic courage. Yet even at his peak, he was at best a second-rate poet and a facile if occasionally effective rhetorician. Andrey Voznesensky's engaging verve and exuberant involvement with his medium earned him plaudits in the West which in retrospect may seem somewhat excessive: seen at close range, Voznesensky's "modernism" appears derivative and a trifle gimmicky.

Brodsky is quite a different matter. He has had his lapses and false starts. Some of his lines are strained or murky, but his best work has originality, incisiveness, depth and formal mastery which mark a major poet. (p. 617)

Brodsky's recurrent themes are lyric poets' traditional, indeed timeless concerns—man and nature, love and death, the ineluctability of anguish, the fragility of human achievements and attachments, the preciousness of the privileged moment, the "unrepeatable." The tenor of this poetry is not so much apolitical as antipolitical, which in a bleakly politicized society was bound to be construed as an act of defiance. Brodsky's besetting sin was not "dissent" in the proper sense of the word, but a total, and on the whole quietly undemonstrative, estrangement from the Soviet ethos. (pp. 617-18)

Interestingly enough, the theme of ostracism as the poet's essential condition—a motif wider and more pervasive than that of the short-term rigors of the Arkhangelsk exile—is sounded in a poem written prior to Brodsky's exile…. Is this a prefiguration of the speaker's impending plight or is it rather an evocation of a predicament of which Brodsky's actual travail in 1964–5 was merely, in the phrase of one of his favorite poets, an appropriately grim "objective correlative"?

Actually, in Brodsky's view, the real issue is still larger. The situation of the independent-minded poet in the Soviet Union appears here as an extreme variant of the creative individual's status in any society; presumably the social rewards of poetic vision range from harassment to indifference. "A writer," Brodsky wrote in a revealing statement, "is a lonely traveler, and no one is his helper" (New York Times Magazine, October 1, 1972).

Born into a culture which had reduced the millennial élan of radical Russian intelligentsia to a bleakly authoritarian dogma, Brodsky has an instinctive loathing of utopian thinking and scant enthusiasm for the more moderate modes of political meliorism. (In his New Statesmen review of Selected Poems Stephen Spender said with a fine touch of liberal self-irony: "Everything you would like him to think he does not think.") "Today's humanity's choice," he maintained in the already quoted New York Times article, "lies not between Good and Evil but between Bad and Worse." Hence the high premium placed here on "personal fortitude," on being able to face unblinkingly the essential untractability of human experience, the finality of loss and separation:

                Our farewell's the more final
                since we both are aware
                that we'll not meet in Heaven
                or be neighbors in Hell.

Clearly, what is proposed here is stoicism rather than secularism. Brodsky's hankering after a religious sense of the world is quite apparent. Yet religion toward which he reaches is not a source of comfort, of easy solace, but a mode of transcendence. Nor is Brodsky's vaunted "metaphysical" thrust a matter of downgrading, let alone escaping, the merely physical. He shares with many post-Symbolist poets the delight in the concrete and the immediate, in what J. C. Ransom has called "the world's body." Wary as he is of man as a social animal, he places more trust in "things" ("Things are more pleasant"), in the sensory detail affectionately repossessed and recreated by the artist. (pp. 619-20)

Brodsky's mode of concreteness is more akin to Wallace Stevens's than to William Carlos Williams's. Brodsky shares with the former an active concern with the complex relationship between language and reality, between words and things, and more broadly, a pronounced intellectual, though never merely cerebral, bent. (p. 620)

Some three years ago Joseph Brodsky, in his own words, "accepted the invitation" to leave Russia, offered, we will recall, in a rather peremptory fashion. Shortly after his arrival in the United States, he voiced some concern over enforced separation from his native linguistic environment only to conclude on a more optimistic note: "I hope that I will take the Russian language wherever I go." I fully understand his concern, and I am glad to be able to share his ultimate confidence. No bureaucratic fiat can break Brodsky's compact with the Russian poetic idiom or impair his increasing mastery over it. Moreover, the richness and versatility of his gifts, the liveliness and vigor of his intelligence, and his increasingly intimate bond with the Anglo-American literary tradition, augur well for his survival in exile, indeed for his further creative growth. (p. 621)

Victor Erlich, "A Letter In a Bottle," in Partisan Review (copyright © 1974 by Partisan Review, Inc.), Vol. XLI, No. 4, 1974, pp. 617-21.

Despite [his] background, Brodsky's poems are not really revolutionary; they are in the main non-political, though such a fine Byzantine sequence as "Post Aetatem Nostram" shows, to put it mildly, lack of love and respect for established power. He has also been attracted by Western poetry, particularly British and American, by Greek classicism, and by Christianity. Along with all this goes a good standard Russian "anguish unaccountable" which does not even need a detested authority to help it to ferment in the Russian soul. It is hard for me to tell just how absolute a master Brodsky is. There is a vagueness at times. There are lines [in Selected Poems] which are aimed at epigrammatic point which simply go flying past my head, like "If you're not recalled by stone,/puffball drift will make you known." What does that mean? I never met a drifting puffball, and have no idea of what they can do. But there is no mistaking the nobility of the "Elegy for John Donne," nor the satiric virtuosity of "Two Hours in an Empty Tank."… (p. 474)

Richmond Lattimore, in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1974 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXVII, No. 3, Autumn, 1974.

A poet's home is his language, wherever he happens to live. Joseph Brodsky belongs to that distinguished line of modern Russian poets—Boris Pasternak, Anna Akhmatova, Osip Mandelstam—who, dishonored by their country, have brought honor to their native tongue. Even in such heroic company, Brodsky is phenomenal: his style seems steeped in the whole European literary tradition, having as much in common with John Donne and T. S. Eliot as with Russian poets past or present. A notable instance of his virtuosity is the "Verses on the Death of T. S. Eliot," a Russian poem successfully modelled on W. H. Auden's elegy "In Memory of W. B. Yeats." Almost as remarkable as the poem are the circumstances of its composition: written in 1956, when Brodsky (only 25 at the time) was serving a term of forced labor at a work camp in Archangel, in remote Northern Russia, it was, according to the translator's note, "completed … within twenty-four hours of receiving the news" of Eliot's death. A poet capable of such concentration and detachment from his surroundings could not be effectively imprisoned anywhere….

In Russia or out, Brodsky's interests have been almost entirely literary, not political. "The only thing that counts in poetry," he has said, "is what happens between the reader, alone, and the poet. Nothing else is important." Such purity of motive would be rare in any country, at any time, but particularly in modern Russia; fortunately for him, Brodsky seems capable of maintaining his artistic integrity in the face of all inducements to abandon poetry for politics.

And the poems are impressive, surely among the most brilliant being written today in any language. [Selected Poems] provides a convenient introduction to the great variety of Brodsky's work, ranging from metaphysical love poems to bilingual satires. (p. 571)

William Pratt, in Books Abroad (copyright 1975 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 49, No. 3, Summer, 1975.

In Selected Poems, the translations and their footnotes seem full of rectitude but lacking poetic rigor. Translating is difficult, I know, and thankless…. I think these translations are soupy. Because they seem okay, they make Brodsky seem as interesting and as dated as, but less imaginative and resourceful than, Phelps Putnam. In fact, they screen the Russian original from us, neither taking us toward it nor supplying a reliable substitute. (p. 43)

How can any of us know who is Joseph Brodsky?

I would offer judgment, but I cannot assume that you read Russian. Therefore, you have nothing but my word for it, and that, we all know, in literary matters is never enough. If we sat down and read Selected Poems as we would read, say, William Heyen's Noise in the Trees (both poets are the same age) or Robert Siegel's The Beasts and the Elders (Siegel is a year older, if that matters), what would we learn? What if we compare Joseph Brodsky's work to that of Ivan Elagin? I mention the names of these good poets only to try to stop the nonsense of parking Brodsky in the academically certified pantheon of Russian poets…. (p. 44)

Brodsky is an extremely sensitive, alert, skilled, independent, and suggestive poet from whose work I discover something each time I come to it. He is not a trained bear, and I see no need to exhibit him as one or, parasitically, to feed his celebrity. I think that those who read his Russian poems will find in them a dignity, a grandeur, and a sadness deeply reflective of Russian culture and of our own world. (p. 44)

F. D. Reeve, "Additions and Losses," in Poetry (© 1975 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), October, 1975, pp. 42-4.