Less Than One Essay - Critical Context

Joseph Brodsky

Critical Context

Within the context of Russian poetry, Joseph Brodsky is not an isolated phenomenon. His generation is rich in good poets: Aleksandr Kushner, Lev Loseff, Vladimir Ufliand, Evgeni Rein, Mikhail Eremin. Western readers should keep in mind that he, although the leading poet of his generation, is not the only one, and that he writes not only within a historical context but within a contemporary one as well. With his trial and exile, however, Brodsky has not changed his context so much as expanded it.

In that emigration has forced him to consider both his native culture and his adopted one from an outsider’s point of view, Brodsky is not so different from any other emigre. What sets him apart from many of his fellows is his perspective. Emigre intellectuals often tend to view themselves in terms of “us” and “them”; the problem stems from trying to decide to which group they belong. Solzhenitsyn, for example, clearly considers “us” to be the real, Orthodox, spiritual Russia, while his “thems” have multiplied to include both Western liberals and Soviet totalitarians. The so-called liberal democratic wing of emigration seems just as preoccupied with East-West differences. In either case, the focus of their concerns is the same, and considerations of language and poetics quickly turn into arguments over the superiority of this or that verbal—and spiritual—culture.

Brodsky does not so much sidestep these arguments as overstep them. He neither apologizes for his native literature nor glorifies it but subjects it to the same criteria as any other civilized nation’s. His poetry of exile draws on Mandelstam and Pushkin and on Ovid and Dante as well. What results is not a homogenized blend or a bland “international” style but a particular voice drawing on a multitude of voices.