Joseph Brodsky

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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 elegy to John Donne).

Arrested again and tried in 1964, Brodsky was sentenced in March to five years exile and hard labor; the charge was “parasitism.” In effect, Brodsky was put on trial for identifying himself as a poet without “proof” in the form of a university degree or membership in the Writers’ Union. The notes from his trial, smuggled out of Leningrad and excerpted often in articles about Brodsky, make for perverse evidence for his belief that the spiritual activity of writing poetry cannot be tolerated by a state that defines writing as a political act. Many Soviet cultural figures of international renown, including Dmitri Shostakovich and Kornei Chukovskii, testified on Brodsky’s behalf and agitated for his early release, often at great professional and personal risk. As a result, Brodsky served only twenty months of his term, doing agricultural work in a small “village”—actually just a few huts in the wilderness—near Arkhangel’sk. He continued reading and writing; his first acquaintance with the works of Auden came in 1965, in translation. (He had known Robert Frost’s poems as early as 1962 and was astonished by...

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Frost’s “hidden, controlled terror.”)

Auden’s influence is apparent in Brodsky’s poem written on the occasion of T. S. Eliot’s death in 1965; the lament looks ahead to the mature verse that Brodsky was writing on his return to Leningrad that year. It was at this time that his friends succeeded in shortening the length of his prison term. Anna Akhmatova, whom Brodsky had first met in 1960, was chief among this group of friends. Though he did not recall initially feeling an affinity with Akhmatova, Brodsky and she became close friends. His work owes more to the style and preoccupations of Mandelstam than to Akhmatova, but Brodsky found in Akhmatova a living link to Russia’s great poetic tradition, a poet who had known Mandelstam well, a poet who incarnated Russia’s great upheavals in her life and in her verse.

Brodsky matured a great deal as a poet between 1965 and 1972. He gave readings to small groups of students and even managed to have four of his poems published in 1966 and 1967 in official publications of Soviet cultural organs. A first volume of his poems had appeared without his authorization in the United States in 1965; a revised version, which included new poems, came out in 1970. Brodsky supported himself in Leningrad as a translator during these years, producing Russian versions of writers ranging from Andrew Marvell and Donne to Tom Stoppard. Brodsky did nothing, however, to become more acceptable to the Soviet regime during these seven years in Leningrad. In 1972, he was exiled from the Soviet Union; he was not even told where the airplane he was boarding would take him—to Siberian exile, or to freedom in the West. The plane landed in Vienna, where Brodsky was met by an American Slavicist, Carl Proffer, with an invitation to teach in Ann Arbor, Michigan. In Vienna, Brodsky sought out Auden, who arranged for him to participate in the Poetry International in London and generally smoothed his way for his introduction to the West.

Settling in the United States, Brodsky slowly began a life of teaching, writing, giving readings, and meeting fellow poets. He taught at the University of Michigan, Queens College, the Five Colleges (Amherst, Hampshire, Mount Holyoke, Smith, and the University of Massachusetts), New York University, and Columbia University. In 1981, he became the Five College Distinguished Professor of Literature, with tenure at Mount Holyoke College; he also spent time teaching at Columbia. Brodsky became a U.S. citizen in 1977. He won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1987. He died in Brooklyn, New York, on January 28, 1996.


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