Set apart by his genius and his Russianness, Joseph Brodsky is a powerful and distinctive presence among contemporary American writers. To the extent that “set apart” implies lack of recognition, conjuring up images of a lonely figure working in isolation, the description does not fit Brodsky, who has been showered with literary awards and honors. A frequent panelist at national and international symposia, he counts many prominent writers among his friends. His poems and essays appear regularly in the leading English-language periodicals. Nevertheless, by what matters most to him—his conception of poetry and the poet’s role, and especially the poet’s relation to language—Brodsky is set apart.
Joseph Brodsky and the Creation of Exile is one of the first full-length studies in English of this major writer. (The first was Valentina Polukhina’s Joseph Brodsky: A Poet for Our Time, published in 1989.) David Bethea is the author of two previous books: Khodasevich: His Life and Art (1983; see Magill’s Literary Annual, 1984) and The Shape of Apocalypse in Modern Russian Fiction(1989; see Magill’s Literary Annual, 1990).
Bethea describes Brodsky as “an American poet laureate whose primary audience is in another language and culture and, in some cases, not even of this world.” An audience “not even of this world”? Bethea reminds readers that Brodsky “has never sought solidarity with any group or ‘interpretive community’ other than his own private ‘dead poets’ society.’ Homer, Virgil, Ovid, Martial, Catullus, Horace, Dante, Donne, Mandelstam, Akhmatova, Tsvetaeva, Auden, Frost, Lowell—these are his jury of peers, his writing must meet their standards.” This begins to suggest the way in which Brodsky is set apart both by circumstance and by vocation, and leads into Bethea’s statement of his themes: “The present book is about Joseph Brodsky, the metaphysical implications of exile, and the poetry that is written when the first and second enter into dialogue.”
In his first chapter, billed as “A Polemical Introduction,” Bethea outlines his approach and lays the groundwork for what follows. Before offering a biographical sketch of his subject, he issues a caveat. Brodsky himself would strenuously resist “any outside attempt to place a causal conjunction (‘because,’ ‘as a result of’) between the facts of his life and, as he puts it in an English phrase that owes its birth to the Russian (izgiby stilia), his ‘twists of language.’ ” Yet while rejecting a reductive causal connection between life and work, Bethea observes that it is impossible to grasp Brodsky’s sense of himself as a Russian poet “in the vatic mode” without taking into account the “facts of his life” and the shaping of his “biographical legend.”
Brodsky was born in Leningrad in 1940, the only child in a nonobservant Jewish family. His father, a photojournalist, became a naval officer in World War II; his mother worked as a clerk for a local council. Both suffered from the anti-Semitic campaigns that followed the war in the Soviet Union. Brodsky has memorably described the family’s life in a communal apartment in his collection of essays Less Than One (1986).
At the age of fifteen, Brodsky left school. He traveled all over the Soviet Union, holding a variety of short-term jobs, including stints with geological expeditions. First arrested in 1959, he was tried for “social parasitism” in 1964 and sentenced to five years of hard labor. (Prior to the trial, he was sent to a psychiatric hospital, where, like many others who ran afoul of the Soviet state, he was tortured in the guise of “treatment.”) After serving about a year and a half of his sentence in a remote village in the far north—during which, self-taught, he read a good deal of poetry in English—Brodsky was released early. In 1972, however, he was expelled from the Soviet Union.
In 1961 or 1962 Brodsky had first met the poet Anna Akhmatova and her lifelong friend Nadezhda Mandelstam, widow of the poet Osip Mandelstam (who died in a Soviet labor camp in 1938) and herself a writer of...
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