Joseph Brodsky

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In describing his poetry, Joseph Brodsky had said that his “main interest is the nature of time,” a theme that also recurs with obsessive frequency in his essays. Beginning even before his exile to Arkhangel’sk in 1964 and persisting in his later works, there is a preoccupation with endings, with concluding moments that illuminate with sudden new depth the meaning of all that has come before. Brodsky, whose stance as a poet is that of a watcher and listener rather than that of a participant and speaker, records his sense of a period of time in a manner that is more transcendental than teleological. In a 1962 poem, “Ogon’, ty slyshish’ . . .” (“The Fire Is Dying Down”), Brodsky observes how the room and objects around him absorb the shifts in time marked by the changing fire. A sense of lateness advances on the poet “from the corners”; he finds himself “suddenly at the center.” Time has paused so palpably that the “clock hands have completely disappeared.” The fire dies by the end of this twenty-line poem, but its brightness does not abandon the attentive watcher, who remains behind in the room’s darkness. Just as it is important that the clock hands are not only invisible but also silent, silence being the analogue of time’s halt, so it is crucial in the last line that the fire glows not in the poet’s eyes but in the room itself. The encroaching darkness of the dying fire becomes an external event that marks the inner fact of the poet’s eyes growing cold, “motionless.”


In another short lyric of 1962, a poem of fourteen lines with only a few near-rhymes and simply titled “Sonet” (“Sonnet”), Brodsky explores a moment defined by a different kind of ending. Speaking to a loved woman, the poet envisions a new eruption of Vesuvius that will someday cover their dusty city with ash. He hopes that when the eruption begins, he will be able to set off for her house, so that future excavators will find them still embraced. The poem stops time in that final embrace, preserved by a layer of ash. The embrace and the ash are equally sustaining for the poet, who notes the passing clouds, a frequent emblem for the passing of time in Brodsky’s poems. It is typical of Brodsky’s poems that the very moment that destroys a city and all life in it also contains the possibility of preservation against decay.

The poem mirrors this contrast between the threat of change and the saving power of volcanic ash in its formal arrangement. As in many early Brodsky poems, the unit of division in the poem is the line. Without enjambments and virtually without rhyme (there is some sound interlocking in the first four lines), the poem’s ordering principle is the sequence of its thoughts, expressed at the even pace of one clause per line. The exception is line 12, “then I would like for them to find me,” a single thought in two clauses (in Russian), the crucial turning point of the poem. The meter of the poem is iambic, mostly feminine pentameter, five-footed iambs being the commonest line length in Brodsky’s repertoire in the 1960’s, and the most successful. The sonnet feels experimental, though, because there are two lines of two and four metric feet, respectively, and virtually no rhyme, as if it were testing the boundaries of its own timing. Like Brodsky’s many unrhymed sonnets, the poem shows how time can be controlled, slowed or hurried, within the conventions of meter and rhyme; the final picture of an...

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unending embrace literally suspends time, so that the poem challenges, visually as well as verbally, the unspoken condition of all Brodsky’s work, the effect of time on humans.

The tender lyrics of early, as well as later, Brodsky, are balanced by verses of ironic distance and glittering wit. In some poems, such as the famous “Pamiatnik” (“Monument”), the serious if slightly mocking tones of the first lines (“Let’s build a monument/ at the end of a long city street”) turns toward a sarcastic finale—in this case prepared for by the poem’s accumulation of petty details from Leningrad life: “Let’s build a monument to lies.” That final sentence indicts monument building as yet another hypocritical activity in a society whose public life proves inevitably false. In a longer poem, “Dva chasa v rezervuare” (“Two Hours in a Reservoir”), Brodsky mixes German and Yiddish phrases into a running monologue. The speaker pronounces his thoughts as they furiously charge past him in whatever language comes to his lips: “Enter and exeunt devils, thoughts./ Enter and exeunt guests, years.” Narrative fragments about Faust and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Dr. Faustus and Thomas Mann, interrupt speculations about God and poetry and the fact that humans are hurtling toward their deaths. The poem extends Brodsky’s preoccupation with time, quoting Faust’s famous desire to seize and hold one beautiful moment, a line Brodsky might be expected to appreciate—indeed, one he uses more than once. The poem’s pace, though, is breakneck, the puns (particularly between languages) rampant, and the humor of the piece as pungent as it is inventive. Brodsky’s search for ways to understand the passing of time, often defined by its endpoints, emerges in poems as varied as the witty “Odnoi poetesse” (“To a Certain Poetess”), where a relationship has outlived love, or the delicate “Aeneas i Dido” (“Aeneas and Dido”), in which the moment of parting is captured poignantly by details—passing clouds, the hem of a tunic, a fish chasing after a ship at sail.

“Aeneas and Dido”

“Aeneas and Dido” deals with the end of a myth, and the poem concludes with a memorable picture. Dido watches Aeneas looking through a window, both of them realizing that the new gusts of wind will make it possible for Aeneas to set sail and leave Dido behind. Windows appear frequently in Brodsky’s poems, often framing a landscape seen from within a room. Indeed, space becomes almost the conceptual framework through which time is explored in Brodsky’s poems: His remark that literature shows what time does to a person was made in a talk titled “Language as Otherland,” and the titles of his poems often locate lyrics spatially as well as temporally. Examples of this can be found in each stage of his career, including “Zimnim vecherom v Ialte” (“A Winter Evening in Yalta”), “Dekabr’ vo Florentsii” (“December in Florence”), and “Osen’ v Norenskoi” (“Autumn in Norenskaia”).


Brodsky’s settings are occasionally interiors; small rooms become intimate settings for discovering the world outside and, always, oneself. In “Sumev otgorodit’sia . . .” (“Now that I’ve walled myself off from the world”), glimpses of puddles and fir trees merge with the domestic drama of a poet studying his face in a mirror. Brodsky has moments of self-description, framed by mirrors and windows, reminiscent of the later works of Akhmatova, though Brodsky always seems in search of some truth deeper than the self-image a piece of glass presents him. Self and other, interiors and landscapes interpenetrate one another in Brodsky’s poems; as furiously as he seeks boundaries, walling himself off spatially, or describing endpoints in time, spaces and periods of time run into one another, and the confusions press the poet all the more in his attempt at self-definition.

Brodsky’s landscapes are inseparable from the homesickness that pervades his verse. There is no place called “home” that is exempt. While he was in internal exile in Arkhangl’sk, Brodsky compared himself to Ovid; in the West, he has described scenes as diverse as Cape Cod and Cuernavaca, hills and lagoons and sluggish rivers, stopovers in St. Mark’s Piazza or along Roman roads. Brodsky loves Venice, a city that glows through his poems like Leningrad, but there is not any landscape, any visual image of indoor or outdoor space with which the poet is not somehow at odds.

New places provide fresh scenes for seeing, new ways to show what one must see. If the goal of his poetry is, as Brodsky said in 1972, “to show man the true scale of what is happening,” then landscape and cityscape finally offer a figurative vocabulary for philosophical apperceptions. The “scale” for Brodsky is never political but always personal, a fact that made him politically suspect in the Soviet Union.


Brodsky’s philosophical preoccupations (the nature of “reality,” and what it means for time to pass) and figures of expression (mythological plots, interior and exterior landscapes) are constants in his poetry, of which he continued to find new variations. There is, however, a more distinct sense of development in the prosodic features of Brodsky’s poems, and these changes provide the clearest indications of his battle with Russian poetic tradition. Certain Brodskian themes resemble those of poets whom he is known to admire: the parting and exile of Mandelstam, the meditations on death of Evgeni Baratynskii, the monuments of Alexander Pushkin if not of Gavrila Derzhavin, the epistolary acts of self-definition of Dmitry Kantemir. In the case of Brodsky’s verse forms, however, there are only a few poems with rather self-conscious and specific models, the most notable being his poem on the death of Eliot, written in the form and spirit of Auden’s “In Memory of W. B. Yeats.”

Poetic forms

Brodsky’s early poems strive to carve their own prosodic molds, using simple, assertive sentences, and a structuring free-verse line the firm closure of which allows few enjambments. The rhymes are experimental, often only hints at sound repetitions. In the early 1960’s, Brodsky experimented with the placement of the line in such poems as “Ryby zimoi” (“Fish in Winter”) and “Stikhi pod èpigrafom” (“Verses with an Epigraph”). Poems such as these make the most startling break with Russian prosodic tradition, spread over a page in complex patterns of indentation like those of E. E. Cummings (whom Brodsky admired in his youth). More deeply radical, though, and more difficult to sustain, are poems with very long verse lines, such as “Proplyvaiut oblaka” (“Clouds Swim By”). Here Brodsky repeats and interweaves similar phrases to break up long lines, while subtly binding them more tightly one to another. In later poems, Brodsky has used refrains to the same effect: The word “stifling” recurs as a one-word sentence in “Kolybel’naia Treskovogo Mysa” (“Lullaby of Cape Cod”). The long line led Brodsky to explore ternary meters (several poems use anapest pentameter); in some cases, various kinds of ternary meters appear fleetingly with rhymes or near-rhymes structuring the poem. The impression in “Clouds Swim By” is one of fluidity that is being formidably if flexibly shaped, perhaps the most appropriate form for a poem that describes the changing shapes of clouds overhead.

Longer verse lines came into Brodsky’s work with complex sentences, as well as enjambments more abrupt than those previously found in Russian poetry. Regular meters are usually used, though they are the less common meters of iambic pentameter (not the common meter in Russian as it is in English; Russian depends far more on iambic tetrameter) and anapest pentameter. There are striking ventures in stanzaic form, the most remarkable in “Gorbunov and Gorchakov.” In this long poem, Brodsky limits himself to an ababababab sequence in each ten-line stanza; the poem contains fourteen sections of ten such stanzas and is actually a conversation, sustaining the rhythms and dictions of colloquial speech within its very demanding form.

With these additional formal complexities, Brodsky entered a grammatical universe adequate to the expression of his metaphysical questions. As has been noted by Richard Sylvester, Brodsky’s complex sentences convey an ever-changing nexus of logical relationships, where words such as “because,” “despite,” “when,” “where,” and “if” become the all-important links in sentences dependent on several semantic fields. In such later poems as the cycle “Chast’ rechi” (“A Part of Speech”), subject matter, diction, even stylistic level may change in such quick succession as to seem arbitrary: One poem in the cycle begins “A list of some observations.” However, Brodsky’s poetry is anything but inscrutable; his complex forms provide myriad vehicles perfectly suited for exploring themes of fragmentation, decay, solitary observation, and intense recollection.

A Part of Speech

In Brodsky’s well-received A Part of Speech, images and underlying questions extend the issues raised in his earlier poems. The desire to focus on particular points in time finds him often retreating into memory. This orientation toward the past was felt keenly in poems from the 1960’s; one of Brodsky’s best-known poems is “Ostanovka v pustyne” (“A Halt in the Wilderness”), where the razing of an Orthodox church is witnessed as a gesture of senseless modernization. Time as a category has tragic dimensions for Brodsky, as he himself has said. Near the end of “A Halt in the Wilderness,” he speaks acerbically of “the relay race of human history.” That poem looks ahead to ask what sacrifices the new era might demand, but there is no redeeming belief in progress for Brodsky. In his essays, Brodsky dwelt on the evils of the twentieth century; he offers his readers little consolation and certainly no respite from personal responsibility in the dogmas of ideology or religion. In “Lullaby of Cape Cod,” Brodsky defines his sense of human knowledge and its limitations in lines that resonate beyond his experience of emigration: “Having sampled two/ oceans as well as continents, I feel that I know/ what the globe itself must feel: there’s nowhere to go.”

Akhmatova found that in Brodsky’s first poems the speaking voice was extremely solitary. The sense of bearing a unique vision is undiminished in Brodsky’s later poems, ranging from the varieties of quantification in “Lullaby of Cape Cod” to the equation that acts as a fluctuating refrain in “Èkloga IV-ia (Zimniaia)” (“Winter Eclogue: IV”): “Time equals cold.” The more nearly oxymoronic Brodsky’s declarations, the more finely he has sharpened his sense of the metaphysical conceit into an instrument for measuring a vision that is always just evading the poet’s means of expression.

There is no expectation of finding the “right” metaphor, as frequent images of echoless space imply. “A glance,” wrote Brodsky in “A Part of Speech,” “is accustomed to no glance back.” Brodsky’s poems are less a relief from solitude than a journey forth, a journey deeper and farther into the “otherland” of language. To say that the journey is “merely long” is to say nothing, and to say everything. Brodsky writes in “Lullaby of Cape Cod”:

Far longer is the sea.At times, like a wrinkled forehead, it displaysa rolling wave. And longer still than theseis the strand of matching beads of countless days;and nights.

To observe that the break between “days” and “nights” is radical in terms of syntax and prosody is to describe Brodsky’s poetics; to add that the break is unbearably long, that it expresses a discontinuity central to his metaphysical premises, is to initiate an examination of Brodsky’s underlying themes at the level on which he deserves to be understood.

To Urania

Two collections of Brodsky’s poetry contain translations of his Russian poems, by him and by others, as well as poems written in English. For this reason, there is a noticeable incongruence of themes and styles. To Urania contains poems from his earlier collections A Part of Speech and Uraniia. They express the poet’s nostalgia for his homeland and are elegies for parents and friends, mixed with his musings about historical events and European cities, in which intellectually he felt at home as much as in his homeland. Moreover, fourteen cantos in his peculiar bardic style are actually a dialogue between two patients in a Soviet psychiatric ward. Brodsky indulges in his familiar attempts to fathom the mysteries of memory of the things past and to reconcile the limits of time and space, as he did throughout his poetic career. References to political matters, especially their seamy side, are also vintage Brodsky. Elements of a realistic and a spiritual, almost metaphysical approach to poetry are masterfully proportioned, as in many of his collections. Subdued sorrow of an exile unable or unwilling to forget the old and fully accept the new breaks through the veneer of bombastic intonations. Finally, his difficulties in mastering fully the idiom of a foreign language are manifested in sporadic rough renditions of English idioms.

So Forth

So Forth offers poems written during the last decade of Brodsky’s life. As in To Urania, they are both translations and poems written originally in English. Considered by some critics as a collection of perhaps his best poetry (while others point out his awkwardness in juggling the two languages), So Forth displays Brodsky’s ability to conform his remarkable erudition and never fully satisfied curiosity to his unique style. Even though, as in To Urania, he tries his best to be a poet-citizen of the world, the deep sorrow that he was forced out of his homeland is beautifully expressed in the poem “In Memory of My Father: Australia,” in which the poet sees in a dream his father sailing as a ghost to Australia, that is, being free to travel. Not all poems are somber and heavy. Some are surprisingly light, as is the poem “A Song”—dancing, as it were, like a child in play. However, most of Brodsky’s later poems are elegiac, somber, ironic, always reminding his readers of sorrow and death.


Brodsky, Joseph (Vol. 100)