Brodsky, Joseph 1940–
A lyric poet and translator now living in the United States, Brodsky was expelled from his native Russia in 1972, despite defense by some of the most important cultural figures in the U.S.S.R., for his "parasitism" and "decadent" poetry. He is generally regarded as the most important living Russian poet. (See also CLC, Vols. 4, 6, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 41-44.)
[Mr. Brodsky's] poetry is religious, intimate, depressed, sometimes confused, sometimes martyr-conscious, sometimes élitist in its views, but it does not constitute an attack on Soviet society or ideology unless withdrawal and isolation are deliberately construed as attack: of course they can be, and evidently were….
Because of the distractions of the political background, it is not too easy to come to a clear judgment of Mr. Brodsky's poetry. In addition, the irrelevant novelty value of a young Soviet poet expressing himself in terms of God and the devil, angels and cherubim, paradise and hell has to be adjusted to an objective interpretation of how far this area of reference has been convincingly applied. At the moment, Mr. Brodsky's work appears genuine but limited. It may be that his sense of isolation has hindered his development, and while there is nothing inherently wrong in going back to the time of Blok or Mandelshtam or the early Akhmatova for influences, one feels that Mr. Brodsky could well have learnt more from contemporary poetic modes….
Mr. Brodsky is good at evoking certain scenes and atmospheres: an autumn garden, a Christmas in Moscow, a suburban hill-slope with its strange mixture of natural wildness and human detritus, and above all the sleeping snowy London of John Donne in the title-poem ["Elegy for John Donne"]. This last poem, a long meditation on the soul in which the uneasily sleeping Donne becomes a meeting-place of struggling spiritual forces, moves with real power and interesting shifts of perspective. The other long poem translated [in Elegy for John Donne], "The Hills", tries to combine a wedding-party and a murder with an "I to the hills will lift mine eyes" theme, but the material is less well integrated, and this poem is not entirely successful. Some short poems, like "To the New Tenant", show a sensibility not unlike Mr. Philip Larkin's; others, such as "A Christmas Romance", have that almost paradoxical sort of vivid sensuous detail, at once rich and laconic, which is purely Russian.
Altogether this is a volume which is of considerable interest, and it will surprise many who have rigid ideas about the nature of Soviet poetry.
"Work-Shy Element," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London), 1967; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), July 20, 1967, p. 637.