Brodsky, Joseph (Vol. 13)
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 figures in the U.S.S.R., for his "parasitism" and "decadent" poetry. He is generally regarded as the most important living Russian poet. (See also CLC, Vols. 4, 6, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 41-44.)
[Mr. Brodsky's] poetry is religious, intimate, depressed, sometimes confused, sometimes martyr-conscious, sometimes élitist in its views, but it does not constitute an attack on Soviet society or ideology unless withdrawal and isolation are deliberately construed as attack: of course they can be, and evidently were….
Because of the distractions of the political background, it is not too easy to come to a clear judgment of Mr. Brodsky's poetry. In addition, the irrelevant novelty value of a young Soviet poet expressing himself in terms of God and the devil, angels and cherubim, paradise and hell has to be adjusted to an objective interpretation of how far this area of reference has been convincingly applied. At the moment, Mr. Brodsky's work appears genuine but limited. It may be that his sense of isolation has hindered his development, and while there is nothing inherently wrong in going back to the time of Blok or Mandelshtam or the early Akhmatova for influences, one feels that Mr. Brodsky could well have learnt more from contemporary poetic modes….
Mr. Brodsky is good at evoking certain scenes and atmospheres: an autumn garden, a Christmas in Moscow, a suburban hill-slope with its strange mixture of natural wildness and human detritus, and above all the sleeping snowy London of John Donne in the title-poem ["Elegy for John Donne"]. This last poem, a long meditation on the soul in which the uneasily sleeping Donne becomes a meeting-place of struggling spiritual forces, moves with real power and interesting shifts of perspective. The other long poem translated [in Elegy for John Donne], "The Hills", tries to combine a wedding-party and a murder with an "I to the hills will lift mine eyes" theme, but the material is less well integrated, and this poem is not entirely successful. Some short poems, like "To the New Tenant", show a sensibility not unlike Mr. Philip Larkin's; others, such as "A Christmas Romance", have that almost paradoxical sort of vivid sensuous detail, at once rich and laconic, which is purely Russian.
Altogether this is a volume which is of considerable interest, and it will surprise many who have rigid ideas about the nature of Soviet poetry.
"Work-Shy Element," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London), 1967; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), July 20, 1967, p. 637.
In the poetry written in Russia since Stalin's death, Vinokurov's transparent simplicity and Voznesensky's near incantations define one set of extremes. When Vinokurov fails, his poetry loses a dimension, becoming flat, and too often Voznesensky produces fireworks that dazzle but leave no lasting impression. Only Joseph Brodsky, it would seem, has a reach great enough to span both extremes and a grip strong enough to hold onto both at once, as he does in his "Elegy for John Donne."
This collection consists of seventy-two poems written between 1961 and 1969. Four of Brodsky's translations of Donne are included, as well as a poem on the death of T. S. Eliot, written in imitation of Auden's poem on the death of Yeats. Brodsky's fascination with English poetry makes him especially interesting to us and probably somewhat unique among young Soviet poets. Brodsky can be slangy and toughly sentimental when he draws portraits of his school chums and is at home both with the poema and the lyric (One, "Verses in April," begins "Again this winter / I did not lose my mind."). Though his versatility and dexterity are extraordinary, what is most remarkable in Brodsky is a quality of consciousness which can only be termed religious. It can also be found in the works of Solzhenitsyn and Sinyavsky but, being so individual a matter, should not give rise to undue speculation on a resurgence of spirituality in Russia. (p. 202)...
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R. D. Sylvester
Joseph Brodsky, perhaps the most interesting of contemporary Russian poets, is a moralist and an ironist concerned with the false values men live by in an age which has thrown away the past, and with it the past's spiritual heritage. His work shows a persistent need for contact with poets outside the Russian tradition: Norwid, Eliot, Auden, Cavafy, Horace, and, above all, John Donne, are names that come to mind in a reading of his Ostanovka v pustyne (Halt in the Wilderness). He is, indeed, the first Russian poet I know of who has brought the English Metaphysicals into his poetic workshop, to learn from them and to grow under the influence of his kinship with them. At the same time his poetry has deep roots in the Russian tradition too…. Unlike the older generation, who were nurtured at a time when a great poetic culture was flourishing in Russia, Brodsky, who was born in 1940, grew up at a time when Russian poetry was in a state of chronic decline; as a result, he had to find his way largely on his own. His development has been exceptionally interesting. He began as a dropout from high school, and some of his earliest poems belong to Soviet underground literature of the late 1950s. He has retained the outsider's point of view, but he has given it much wider implications as he has grown. His work constitutes an outsider's critique, but it is a critique of the human condition rather than of political or social organization. Its polemical thrust...
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[Brodsky] is no doubt the most important name in contemporary Russian poetry, both at home and in emigration. It is no new reputation, but stems from the 1960s, when the intensity and severity of his lyrics, read mainly in manuscript, awakened memories of dormant muses, of Annensky, Mandelstam, Tsvetaeva. His poems to John Donne and T. S. Eliot were striking, especially coming from a young Russian poet. (p. 129)
Konec prekrasnoj èpoxi (The End of a Fine Epoch) comprises poems written in the period 1964–71 and, for its time span and diversity of style and theme, is probably the best collection for making first acquaintance with Brodsky. The early poems seem inferior to those collected in Ostanovka, but Brodsky's own voice is more intimate, his view of the world more openly exposed. By placing a fine and characteristic lyric from 1971 first in the collection, it would seem that he wishes to make his own introduction. In clean and solid lines the poet-persona observes a second Christmas in Yalta: of the visible world, only the sea transports his doubts of gods and memories of love to another inaccessible but tangible shore. Trapped between existence and hope, the poet makes his way to that shore only through his own lines.
"Nature-morte," a tribute to Cesare Pavese in short, shining lines, and "Ljubov" (Love), one of his most melodic and forthright love lyrics, form an impressive end to the collection....
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Since 1972 Iosif Brodsky, the most talented Russian poet of his generation, has been living in the United States. When some forty years ago Auden (whom Brodsky knew and admired) made a similar choice, the implications for him were scarcely so grave as for a Russian poet today…. [Auden's] ears were not constantly assailed by a foreign language; he could not know the dread of being estranged from the native hearth, and of gradually losing touch with what Mandelstam once called "the formidable and boundless element of the Russian language", and with the creative processes at work in popular speech.
Mandelstam is particularly relevant here, because of all Brodsky's predecessors in that generation—and he has learnt much at various times from Tsvetaeva, Khlebnikov and Mayakovsky—none stands closer to him…. For Brodsky as for Mandelstam there can be no question of the poet's authority. He explains in one of the new poems here, "Conversation with a Celestial Being" (1970):
… if my soul had a profile
you would see
that it too
is merely a mould from my
that it possessed nothing more,
that together with this it is...
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