Joseph Brodsky 1940–1996
(Full name Joseph Alexandrovich Brodsky; also transliterated as Iosif, Josif, Yosif, or Josip; also Alexander or Aleksandrovich; also Brodski, Brodskii, or Brodskij)
Russian-born American poet, essayist, and translator.
The following entry provides an overview of Brodsky's career through 1996. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 4, 6, 13, 36, and 50.
Often called the best Russian poet of his generation, Brodsky was born and raised in the former Soviet Union and became an American citizen in 1977. He was known for poetry in which he used complex rhythm and meter and extensive word play to address such themes as exile, loss, and death. He also frequently incorporated classical Western mythology and philosophy as well as Judeo-Christiantheology into his works. Brodsky is best known for his poetry collections originally written in Russian, Chast' rechi (1977; A Part of Speech) and Uraniia (1984; To Urania), and his essay collections written in English, Less Than One (1986) and On Grief and Reason (1995). In 1987, Brodsky was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. The Swedish Academy, the bestowing body of the award, cited Brodsky's "all-embracing authorship imbued with clarity of thought and poetic intensity" and described his writing as "rich and intensely vital." Brodsky was also appointed poet laureate of the United States in 1991. During his one-year tenure, he extolled American poetry, calling it "this country's greatest patrimony," and worked to have it published much more widely.
Biographical InformationBrodsky was born in Leningrad to Jewish parents. Disenchanted with formal education, he left school at the age of fifteen to study independently. He taught himself English and Polish, purportedly so he could translate the works of English poet John Donne and Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz. As he developed a reputation among other Russian writers as a young poet with exceptional promise, he garnered the disfavor of Soviet authorities who arrested him in 1964 on charges of "social parasitism" under a controversial law meant to punish citizens who refused gainful employment. Although Brodsky argued that his activities as a poet and translator constituted legitimate work, the judge at the trial reacted scornfully to his defense. "Who has recognized you as a poet? Who has given you a place among the poets?" she demanded of Brodsky, to which he retorted, "No one. And who included me among the ranks of the human race?" Brodsky was sentenced to five years of hard labor on a state farm near the Arctic Circle. Due in part to a petition signed by numerous prominent persons in the Soviet Union, Europe, and North America, including the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova, Brodsky was released after serving less than two years of his sentence. However, he was still regarded as an undesirable element in Soviet society, and in 1972 officials forced him to leave the country despite his protests. Befriended by American poet W. H. Auden, Brodsky settled in the United States, where he worked as an instructor of literature and creative writing at several universities, including the University of Michigan, Queens College, and Mount Holyoke College. Brodsky had open-heart surgery in 1979 and later had two heart bypass operations. He died of a heart attack in New York City on January 28, 1996 and was buried in Venice, Italy.
Brodsky's early works are mostly brief, simple lyrics written in free verse, while those written in the late 1960s and beyond exhibit his command of longer, increasingly complex poetic forms. His early poems are also considered more personal than his later works, which treat more universal subject matter. A Part of Speech contains thirty-six poems, many of which originally appeared in Russian in such volumes as Ostanovka v pustyne (1970) and Konets prekrasnoi epokhi (1977). Although many of the poems address Brodsky's life in his homeland and chronicle his feelings of loss and loneliness after leaving Russia, other works in the collection incorporate American themes and describe American landscapes. Less Than One, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1986, contains eighteen essays and focuses on twentieth century poetry in Russian and English. In addition to works on such writers as Russian Fyodor Dostoevsky and West Indian poet Derek Walcott, Less Than One contains two memoirs of Brodsky's childhood in Leningrad. Brodsky's second essay collection, On Grief and Reason, is comprised of twenty-one essays, all but one of which was written after 1986. This collection contains analyses of individual poems by English writer Thomas Hardy, American poet Robert Frost, and German writer Ranier Maria Rilke as well as essays about Roman ruler Marcus Aurelius and Roman poet Horace. Brodsky also published a book-length essay, Watermark, in 1992. Focusing on his experiences in Venice, Italy, where Brodsky spent many of his winters, this work has been described as a metaphorical, witty, and unconventional treatment of the Italian city. At the time of his death, Brodsky was in the process of completing the poetry collection So Forth, which was published later in 1996.
During his life, Brodsky earned recognition from both critics and his peers as an extraordinarily gifted writer. He was lauded for imbuing classical themes with contemporary significance and for writing in both English and Russian. A few commentators have disputed the opinion that he is among the most influential Russian poets of the second half of the twentieth century, suggesting that sympathy for the oppression Brodsky suffered in the former Soviet Union led some to overrate his talents. Some critics have also faulted his poetry for what they consider its sexism, didacticism, and lack of clarity and emotional intimacy. Nevertheless, Brodsky was widely praised for his commitment to poetry, his vast knowledge of Western poetic traditions, and his mastery of numerous verse forms. Regarding Brodsky's influence on contemporary literature, Seamus Heaney observed that he was "regarded as the figure of the representative poet, sounding prophetic even though he might demur at the notion of the prophetic role, and impressing the academics by the depth of his knowledge of the poetic tradition from classical times up through the Renaissance and in modern European languages, including English." Heaney has also commented on Brodsky's belief that poetry has the power to transform individual consciousness and transcend political and social constraints: "[Brodsky had] total conviction about the trustworthiness of poetry as a force for good—not so much 'for the good of society' as for the health of the individual mind and soul." Brodsky himself emphasized his views on the role of the poet in his Nobel lecture: "The poet … is language's means for existence. I who write these lines will cease to be; so will you who read them. But the language in which they are written and in which you read them will remain, not merely because language is a more lasting thing than man, but because it is more capable of mutation."