Joseph Brodsky Brodsky, Joseph (Vol. 100) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 Information

Brodsky 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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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."

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Stikhotvoreniia i poemy (poetry) 1965
Collines et autres poemes (poetry) 1966
Ausgewahlte Gedichte (poetry) 1966
Elegy to John Donne and Other Poems (poetry) 1967
Velka elegie (poetry) 1968
Ostanovka v pustyne (poetry) 1970
Poems by Joseph Brodsky (poetry) 1972
Selected Poems, Joseph Brodsky (poetry) 1973
Modern Russian Poets on Poetry: Blok, Mandeistam, Pasternak, Mayakovsky, Gumilev, Tsvetaeva [editor with Carl Proffer] (nonfiction) 1976
Chast' rechi: Stikhotvoreniia, 1972–1976 [A Part of Speech] (poetry) 1977
Konets prekrasnoi epokhi: Stikhotvoreniia, 1964–1971 (poetry) 1977
V Anglii (poetry) 1977
Verses on the Winter Campaign 1980 (poetry) 1981
Rimskie elegii (poetry) 1982
Novye stansy k Avguste: Stikhi k M. B., 1962–1982 (poetry) 1983
Mramor [Marbles: A Play in Three Acts] (drama) 1984
Uraniia: Novaia kniga stikhov [To Urania: Selected Poems, 1965–1985] (poetry) 1984
Less Than One: Selected Essays (essays) 1986
Watermark (essay) 1992
On Grief and Reason (essays) 1995
So Forth (poetry) 1996

Karen De Witt (essay date 10 December 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Poet Laureate on Mission to Supermarket's Masses," in The New York Times, December 10, 1991, p. B15.

[In the following essay, De Witt discusses Brodsky's appointment to U.S. poet laureate, focusing in particular on Brodsky's belief that poetry should be published much more widely.]

Small and balding, wisps of light hair straggling across his scalp, Joseph Brodsky hunkered down on a balcony step outside the poetry office in the attic of the Library of Congress. Absent-mindedly he gazed through his cigarette's smoke and the balcony's balustrade at the Capitol where a group of gay activists were protesting.

"Look," he recently commanded a...

(The entire section is 1438 words.)

Authony Thwaite (review date 10 May 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Picture Postcards from Venice," in Book World—The Washington Post, Vol. XXII, No. 19, May 10, 1992, p. 7.

[In the following review of Watermark, Thwaite discusses Brodsky's descriptions of Venice.]

Over the years, Venice hasn't lacked its literary memorialists and scene-setters, some of them almost as familiar as Canaletto's paintings. From Ruskin to Mary McCarthy, from Byron to Ian McEwan, from both Brownings to Thomas Mann and beyond, the city has been described, analyzed, apostrophized, employed as backdrop, symbol, analogue and template. It has probably inspired more postcard-from poems than any other city in the world. Indeed, Mary McCarthy...

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David Streitfield (essay date 31 May 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Poet Laureate Lambastes Library," in Book World—The Washington Post, Vol. XXII, No. 22, May 31, 1992, p. 15.

[In the essay below, Streitfield discusses Brodsky's term as U.S. poet laureate, focusing in particular on the poet's disgruntlement with the lack of support for the position.]

Joseph Brodsky's term as poet laureate, which officially concluded with a reading of his work to an overflow crowd of several hundred at the Library of Congress May 14, was stormier and more colorful than those of his four predecessors put together, and not coincidentally probably did more to boost the profile of this obscure post.

It wasn't raised nearly...

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Tony Whedon (essay date Winter 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "A Ramble on Joseph Brodsky," in Salmagundi, No. 97, Winter, 1993, pp. 152-68.

[In the essay below, Whedon contrasts Brodsky's poetry and essays, finding his verse obscure and emotionally distant in comparison to his essays, in which he finds "a sensitivity and introspection, a humaneness."]

I stop at a little diner outside the college where I teach and watch Joseph Brodsky lunch on a sausage sandwich and a beer. The Russian poet is convivial, and grows suddenly animated when we chat about C. P. Cavafy, the subject of Brodsky's essay, "The Pendulum's Swing." He complains of the poor English and French translations of the Greek poet. Brodsky is at work on a...

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Malcolm Bowie (review date 30 April 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "In the Mobile Labyrinth," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4700, April 30, 1993, pp. 12-13.

[In the following excerpt from a comparative review of Brodsky's Watermark, Tony Tanner's Venice Desired, and Christopher Prendergast's Paris and the Nineteenth Century, Bowie praises Brodsky's unconventional depiction of Venice.]

[Joseph Brodsky's Watermark] …, which is not only an autobiographical essay but at moments a novella and a collection of epigrams, is cast as an irreverent riposte to the Venetian outpourings of the writers studied by Tony Tanner [in his Venice Desired]. How sumptuous and over-ripe Brodsky's spare...

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David Patterson (essay date Summer 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "From Exile to Affirmation: The Poetry of Joseph Brodsky," in Studies in Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 17, No. 2, Summer, 1993, pp. 365-83.

[In the following essay, Patterson examines the theme of exile in Brodsky's works, stating that "Brodsky regards his exile not as a political condition but as an existential condition, one that is characteristic of his condition as a human being."]

Joseph Brodsky is a poet whose concern with language is a concern for the sacred. In an interview with Nataliya Gorbanevskaya he says, "If I were to begin to create some form of theology, I think it would be a theology of language. In this sense, the word is really something...

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Jacob Weisberg (review date Spring 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Brodsky's Venice," in Partisan Review, Vol. LXI, No. 2, Spring, 1994, pp. 325-27.

[In the positive review of Watermark below, Weisburg discusses Brodsky's metaphorical treatment of Venice.]

Since the publication of his 1986 collection Less Than One, Joseph Brodsky has continued to develop his mastery of an idiosyncratic form that defies literary genre. Brodsky's prose pieces superficially resemble familiar or critical essays, but they lack the clarity and analytic pointedness one expects from those forms. Willfully opaque and meandering, they often leave more music and texture than the sense of an argument understood. Their structures invisible,...

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Robert D. McFadden (obituary date 29 January 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Joseph Brodsky, Exiled Poet Who Won Nobel, Dies at 55," in The New York Times, January 29, 1996, pp. A1, B5.

[In the obituary below, McFadden provides an overview of Brodsky's life and career.]

Joseph Brodsky, the persecuted Russian poet who settled in the United States in the early 1970's, won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1987 and became his adopted country's poet laureate, died yesterday at his apartment in Brooklyn Heights. He was 55.

The cause was believed to be a heart attack, said Roger Straus, Mr. Brodsky's friend and publisher. Mr. Brodsky had open-heart surgery in 1979 and later had two bypass operations, and had been in frail...

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Martin Well (obituary date 29 January 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Nobel-Winning Poet Joseph Brodsky, 55, Dies," in Washington Post, January 29, 1996, p. B4.

[Below, Well discusses Brodsky's life, particularly his experiences in the former Soviet Union.]

Joseph Brodsky, 55, a poet exiled from the Soviet Union who went on to win the Nobel Prize for literature and become poet laureate of the United States, died Jan. 28 at his home in New York City.

Mr. Brodsky's longtime publisher, Roger Straus Jr., said the world-renowned poet, who had suffered for years from severe heart problems, had died of a heart attack at his apartment in Brooklyn Heights.

As much as any of his contemporaries, Mr....

(The entire section is 1060 words.)

J. M. Coetzee (review date 1 February 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Speaking for Language," in The New York Review of Books, Vol. XLIII, No. 2, February 1, 1996, pp. 28-31.

[Coeizee is a South African writer. In the mixed review of the essay collection On Grief and Reason below, he examines Brodsky's views on poetry and discusses the poet's relationship to Russian literature.]

In 1986 Joseph Brodsky published Less than One, a book of essays. Some of the essays were translated from the Russian; others he wrote directly in English, showing that his command of the language was growing to be near-native.

In two cases, writing in English had a symbolic importance to Brodsky: in a heartfelt homage to...

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Tatyana Tolstaya (essay date 29 February 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "On Joseph Brodsky (1940–1996)," in The New York Review of Books, Vol. XLIII, No. 4, February 29, 1996, pp. 7, 53.

[Tolstaya is a Russian writer. In the following tribule, she discusses Brodsky's impact on Russian writers and literature, stating "Russian literature … has lost the greatest poet of the second half of the twentieth century."]

When the last things are taken out of a house, a strange, resonant echo settles in, your voice bounces off the walls and returns to you. There's the din of loneliness, a draft of emptiness, a loss of orientation and a nauseating sense of freedom: everything's allowed and nothing matters, there's no response other than the...

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Jessica Greenbaum (review date 12 February 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Name-Dropping the Ancients," in Nation, New York, Vol. 262, No. 6, February 12, 1996, pp. 32-4.

[In the following review of On Grief and Reason, Greenbaum faults what she considers Brodsky's obscurity, sexism, and didacticism in the volume.]

It starts innocently enough. Perusing a book of poems or essays by Joseph Brodsky you think, "A Nobel Prize winner. He must be something." Soon on, the author mentions his friendship with Anna Akhmatova. "He must be really something," you correct yourself. Throughout the next pages Brodsky confirms this, letting on—through a lyricized avalanche of name-dropping—that he is intimate with every literary...

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Michael Harris (review date 19 February 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "When Society Chooses to Ignore Poetry," in Los Angeles Times, February 19, 1996, p. E3.

[In the following positive review of On Grief and Reason, Harris discusses Brodsky's views on poetry.]

An enigma strikes anyone who has read Russian literature and pondered Russia's history: How could the same country give birth to so many people of outstanding humanity—and, at the same time, as if to a wholly different species, so many murderous goons?

In these 21 essays [in On Grief and Reason], Joseph Brodsky, the Nobel Prize-winning poet who was expelled from the Soviet Union in 1972 and lived in the United States until his death on...

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Seamus Heaney (essay date 3 March 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Singer of Tales: On Joseph Brodsky," in The New York Times Book Review, March 3, 1996, p. 31.

[Heaney is an Irish poet who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1995. In the tribute below, he fondly remembers Brodsky's passion for language and poetry.]

Those who knew Joseph Brodsky were well aware that his heart disease was serious and that it would probably be the death of him, but because he always existed in his friends' minds not just as a person but as some kind of principle of indestructibility, it was difficult for them to admit that he was in danger. The intensity and boldness of his genius plus the sheer exhilaration of being in his company...

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Hugh Kenner (review date 14 April 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Between Two Worlds," in The New York Times Book Review, April 14, 1996, p. 14.

[In the positive review of On Grief and Reason below, Kenner praises the title essay of the collection, stating that it is "probably the best piece ever written on the poetry of Robert Frost."]

The vital information: Joseph Brodsky was born in 1940 and came to the United States in 1972 as an involuntary exile from the Soviet Union. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1987 and was Poet Laureate of the United States in 1991 and 1992. He died early this year. The essays and lectures collected in On Grief and Reason are mostly post-Nobel. A writer, then, who...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Billington, James H. "The Poet Who Proved the Power of Words." Washington Post (January 30, 1996): D1.

Tribute by the librarian of Congress who appointed Brodsky poet laureate of the United States.

Phillips, William. "Intellectuals and Writers since the Thirties." Partisan Review LIX, No. 4 (Fall 1992): 531-58.

Transcript of a panel led by Phillips with writers Saul Bellow, Ralph Ellison, Czeslaw Milosz, and Brodsky. The writers discuss such subjects as the role of writers and intellectuals, history, Eastern European literature, and the influence of religion on...

(The entire section is 125 words.)